Can You Buy a Silicon Valley? Maybe.

Saturday, February 28th, 2009

Can you buy a Silicon Valley? Maybe, says Paul Graham:

A lot of cities look at Silicon Valley and ask “How could we make something like that happen here?” The organic way to do it is to establish a first-rate university in a place where rich people want to live. That’s how Silicon Valley happened. But could you shortcut the process by funding startups?
People sometimes think they could improve the startup scene in their town by starting something like Y Combinator there, but in fact it will have near zero effect. I know because Y Combinator itself had near zero effect on Boston when we were based there half the year. The people we funded came from all over the country (indeed, the world) and afterward they went wherever they could get more funding — which generally meant Silicon Valley.

The seed funding business is not a regional business, because at that stage startups are mobile. They’re just a couple founders with laptops.

If you want to encourage startups in a particular city, you have to fund startups that won’t leave. There are two ways to do that: have rules preventing them from leaving, or fund them at the point in their life when they naturally take root. The first approach is a mistake, because it becomes a filter for selecting bad startups. If your terms force startups to do things they don’t want to, only the desperate ones will take your money.

Good startups will move to another city as a condition of funding. What they won’t do is agree not to move the next time they need funding. So the only way to get them to stay is to give them enough that they never need to leave.
Suppose to be on the safe side it would cost a million dollars per startup. If you could get startups to stick to your town for a million apiece, then for a billion dollars you could bring in a 1000 startups. That probably wouldn’t push you past Silicon Valley itself, but it might get you second place.

For the price of a football stadium, any town that was decent to live in could make itself one of the biggest startup hubs in the world.

What’s more, it wouldn’t take very long. You could probably do it in five years. During the term of one mayor. And it would get easier over time, because the more startups you had in town, the less it would take to get new ones to move there. By the time you had a thousand startups in town, the VCs wouldn’t be trying so hard to get them to move to Silicon Valley; instead they’d be opening local offices. Then you’d really be in good shape. You’d have started a self-sustaining chain reaction like the one that drives the Valley.

The Economics of Religion

Saturday, February 28th, 2009

I’ve been enjoying Russ Roberts’ EconTalk podcast immensely. Economics is not purely, or even primarily, about money, and his talk with Larry Iannaccone about the economics of religion aptly demonstrates this.

As Roberts points out, Adam Smith laid the foundation for an economics of religion more than two hundred years ago:

In an important, but largely ignored chapter of The Wealth of Nations, Smith argued that self-interest motivates clergy just as it does secular producers, that market forces constrain churches just as they do secular firms; and that the benefits of competition, the burdens of monopoly, and the hazards of government regulation affect religion like any other sector of the economy. Consider, for example, the following passage:
The teachers of [religion]…, in the same manner as other teachers, may either depend altogether for their subsistence upon the voluntary contributions of their hearers; or they may derive it from some other fund to which the law of their country many entitle them…. Their exertion, their zeal and industry, are likely to be much greater in the former situation than the latter. In this respect the teachers of new religions have always had a considerable advantage in attacking those ancient and established systems of which the clergy, reposing themselves upon their benefices, had neglected to keep up the fervour of the faith and devotion in the great body of the people…. (An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations par. V.1.190, Cannan edition. Also, Glasgow edition, Liberty Fund, 1981 vol. 2 p. 789].)

Beating Up Children

Saturday, February 28th, 2009

Rory Miller tells an amusing tale about beating up children:

We have a brand-new jail completely empty. The voters passed the levy to build it, but the people who run the county decided not to even allow a vote for the money to run it. Great big empty clean jail that doesn’t smell like criminals.

Someone got the really cool idea of letting the Boy Scouts hold an over-nighter there. Even cooler, someone decided to have a group of deputies give brief little classes on what Law Enforcement does… but only the cool stuff: K9, night vision, special weapons…

I was asked to do the DT (defensive tactics) portion. Six twenty-minute classes for 40-50 Boy Scouts.
I arrived at the site and something was wrong. Sounds of shrieking and laughing and running penetrated the concrete block walls of the jail. I met the lieutenant inside. He said, “There was a slight miscommunication. Remember I said Boy Scouts and Eagle Scouts, mostly fourteen to eighteen? It turns out they’re Bobcats, Cub Scouts and Webelos. Ages are mostly six to nine. You OK with that?” Hmmmm.
“At ease!” I yelled, “No shoes on the mats!” They seemed startled, but scrambled to get their shoes off. Half hour to kick off time. If I left them alone, they’d wreck the place.

“All right, gentleman. We’re stuck here for a half hour. You wanna screw around or you want to learn something?”

“Learn something!” they shrieked. Shrieking seemed the basic mode of communication. So I got the entire group of them, as well as a couple of dads and others that drifted in playing at a sparring flow drill. By the end of half an hour they were working on blindfolded infighting. Not bad. One learning moment: A kid asked me if I worked there and I said I did. He asked what I did and I said, “Mostly, I beat people up for a living.”

The kid started running around to all his friends, “This guy has the coolest job! He beats people up all day!” Some of the parents looked disapproving.

There was a brief ceremony before things kicked off where the Sheriff administered the oath of office and swore in the kids as junior deputies. I remember my oath of office pretty well, but I seemed to have forgotten the parts about doing my homework and listening to my parents.

Then the classes. First a talk about how fighting isn’t like on TV and cops have to fight one of two ways, either putting handcuffs on someone without injuring them or fighting for their life. Then, if they were well-behaved (and only one group of the very youngest didn’t seem up to it) the sparring flow drill. Then back to talking: “Okay, gentleman, the next part is all about PAIN. Who wants to learn about pain?’

“Yeahhh!!!!!” While the parents, especially the moms, cringed in the background.

Some pressure points, maybe elbow locks. “I don’t want to hear about anybody using these on their little brothers or sisters or keeping everybody awake all night practicing. To make extra sure, I’m going to show your parents the pressure points I’m not showing you, including the one that will give you a headache for three days.”

“Show us the headache one!”
“I won’t use it, I promise.”
“Can you make people go to sleep like the Vulcan neck pinch?”
“Show us that.”
“No. I don’t even know you.”

The Last Ace

Saturday, February 28th, 2009

Mark Bowden (Black Hawk Down) calls Cesar Rodriguez the last ace, despite the fact that he only had three air-to-air kill when he retired a couple years ago, because it’s the closest anyone’s come to the required five kills in a long, long time — which says more about American air power than it does about the skills of our pilots:

American pilots haven’t shot down many enemy jets in modern times, because few nations have dared rise to the challenge of trying to fight them. The F?15, the backbone of America’s air power for more than a quarter century, may just be the most successful weapon in history. It is certainly the most successful fighter jet. In combat, its kill ratio over more than 30 years is 107 to zero. Zero. In three decades of flying, no F?15 has ever been shot down by an enemy plane — and that includes F?15s flown by air forces other than America’s.

Rival fighters rarely test those odds. Many of Saddam Hussein’s MiGs fled into Iran when the U.S. attacked during the Gulf War. Of those who did fight the F-15, like the unfortunate pilot framed on Rodriguez’s wall, every last one was shot down. The lesson was remembered. When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Saddam didn’t just ground his air force, he buried it.

That dominance is eroding, Bowden argues:

Some foreign-built fighters can now match or best the F?15 in aerial combat, and given the changing nature of the threats our country is facing and the dizzying costs of maintaining our advantage, America is choosing to give up some of the edge we’ve long enjoyed, rather than pay the price to preserve it. The next great fighter, the F?22 Raptor, is every bit as much a marvel today as the F?15 was 25 years ago, and if we produced the F-22 in sufficient numbers we could move the goalposts out of reach again. But we are building fewer than a third of the number needed to replace the older fighters in service.

I find it odd that he discusses the future of air superiority at length with no mention of UAVs.

Sometimes You Need a Market Dominant Minority

Friday, February 27th, 2009

Riots against French colonial rule on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe have turned lethal, which has led Al-Fin to comment that sometimes you need a market-dominant minority — like the French in Guadeloupe, or the Chinese in Indonesia and Malaysia — to run the country:

The parts of the world that never developed mathematics, never invented the wheel, never developed advanced written languages, should not be expected to excel in the modern technological world — and they don’t. Rioting against rule by market dominant minorities can feel quite righteous — particularly to the socialist revolutionary “intellectuals” who put the “commoners” up to it (like the self-righteousness of the muslim imam who leads children into short but successful carrers as suicide bombers).

From Russia with Blood, Beauty, and Beasts

Friday, February 27th, 2009

In Slate‘s From Russia with Blood, Beauty, and Beasts, Matthew Polly describes how he got a laugh out of MMA champion Fedor Emelianenko — right after he unexpectedly lost at the World Sambo Championships:

Fedor is also everything sportswriters say they want in their champions. While absolutely dominant, he’s also humble, modest, and polite. He never trash-talks or gets into trouble with the law. He’s a patriot who fights for the honor of his country. And his hobbies are watercolor painting and Dostoyevsky scholarship. America hasn’t had a champion who would even know who Dostoyevsky was, let alone read him, since Gene Tunney. Fedor is a credit to his sport, his country — heck, the human race.

But, of course, that’s not what sportswriters really want in our athletes. We want quote-spewing narcissists who attend nightclubs packing loaded guns and shoot themselves in the leg. Writing nice things about good people doesn’t sell as well as writing mean things about assholes. And from a sales perspective, Fedor is the worst of the nice guys — not only is he bland, he’s almost Terminator blank. He enters the ring, destroys his opponents, and leaves as if he were simply picking the newspaper off the lawn. And in interviews, he is almost, if this is possible, more vacant — a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

However, there are rare moments when Fedor flashes a bemused smirk as though he recognizes the absurdity of his occupation. It is a sign of a hidden vein of humor, which, since I didn’t expect to get much out of our scheduled interview, I decided to mine. My goal was to make Fedor laugh.

OK, on to how he got a laugh out of him:

“I saw Vladimir Putin’s judo video,” I said. “What do you think of his skill level?”

“When he was young, he was on the Russian team,” Fedor replied. “And I admire his talent.”

“How would he do against you?”

“I am an active sportsman, a practicing sportsman. I don’t know whether he is practicing now.”

This was the moment I was setting him up for: “So, would you let him win?”

For a second, I could almost see his brain light up as he pondered the variety of potential answers to this question and their various implications.

“I don’t think it would be like competing, just practicing, just enjoying.”
As he finished his sentence, he looked at me with a hand-in-the-cookie-jar expression. I smiled wide and patted him on the shoulder.

“You are very careful, very careful.”

Without need of translation, he dropped his head and his shoulders started to heave up and down. Unable to hold back his delight in his artful dodge, he finally let go.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh … heh.”

How strong is a chimpanzee, really?

Friday, February 27th, 2009

I’ve been asking, How strong is a chimpanzee, really?, and John Hawks of Slate has done the research to answer that question — rather than repeat the same factoids going around:

After last week’s chimpanzee attack in Connecticut, in which an animal named Travis tore off the face of a middle-aged woman, primate experts interviewed by the media repeated an old statistic: Chimpanzees are five to eight times stronger than people. The literature — or at least 19th-century literature — concurs: Edgar Allan Poe’s fictional orangutan was able to hurl bodies and pull off scalps. Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fictional anthropoid apes were likewise possessed of remarkable strength. Even Jules Verne’s gentle ape, Jupiter, had the muscle to drag a stuck wagon from the mire.

In 1923 biologist John Bauman decided that a scalp-pulling orangutan was grotesquely impossible, so he decided to test the strength of actual apes at the Bronx Zoo with a dynamometer. The apes didn’t generally cooperate, but one chimp managed to pull 1,260 pounds. Later, the largest chimpanzee then in captivity, named Boma, pulled 847 pounds one-handed. This was more than the “husky lads” on his South Dakota football team could pull — 200 pounds with one hand, 500 with two.

This is the number that entered the anthropology textbooks and the talking points of primatologists like Jane Goodall and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh.

But the “five times” figure was refuted 20 years after Bauman’s experiments:

In 1943, Glen Finch of the Yale primate laboratory rigged an apparatus to test the arm strength of eight captive chimpanzees. An adult male chimp, he found, pulled about the same weight as an adult man. Once he’d corrected the measurement for their smaller body sizes, chimpanzees did turn out to be stronger than humans — but not by a factor of five or anything close to it.

Repeated tests in the 1960s confirmed this basic picture. A chimpanzee had, pound for pound, as much as twice the strength of a human when it came to pulling weights. The apes beat us in leg strength, too, despite our reliance on our legs for locomotion. A 2006 study found that bonobos can jump one-third higher than top-level human athletes, and bonobo legs generate as much force as humans nearly two times heavier.

Still impressive.

Chimps have proportionally more arm muscle than humans, but their muscles tend to be stronger in general, because chimps have the “strong” form of the ACTN3 gene — like Jamaican sprinters — and thus have more “fast twitch” muscle fibers.

Solving the environment instead of the person

Friday, February 27th, 2009

By now I’m quite used to Taleb (Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan) complaining that real-world phenomena often aren’t normally distributed. I was a bit surprised to find Rory Miller (Meditations on Violence) making the same point, that the bell curve isn’t universal:

According to the research done by Dennis Culhane, it turns out the most common length of time for a person to be homeless is one day. The second most common is two days. These short time, one-time homeless account for eighty percent of the homeless. People are people and they are adaptable. If they find themselves homeless and don’t like it they will overcome and get on with their lives.

There were about 10% who come in periodically for a couple of weeks, usually in winter. The last 10% were the chronic homeless. It was this group that make up the people that most of us think of as homeless, whether you think of them as pitiful and severely disabled or alcoholics and grifters.

This means many things. First and foremost, it means the problem is small enough to solve, not just treat.

Philip Mangano, mentioned in the article, has a solution to the problem of chronic homelessness: it would actually save money to give them a nice apartment and provide for all their needs with a dedicated staff of social workers. It would be cheaper than it is to pick up their bills for Emergency Room visits and jail time.

I had a solution, too, but society isn’t ready to let people die. I firmly believe that when a safety net begins to enable, it must be removed from that individual. If the person still continues to behave in a self-destructive way society should have no guilt when they suffer the consequences. But that’s me — I’m aware that I don’t exactly have a standard outlook on problems.

Side thought (and there were many side thoughts from this article) my instinct, when given a problem, is to solve the people (shut down the threat, train the rookie, counsel the errant) to change them in a crisis or help them change themselves… others, including Mangano, solve the environment.

More side thoughts — criminals also follow this distribution. Violent crime is committed by a relatively small percentage of criminals, and they do far more than we ever get them for. Solve the problem or solve the person?

The article applies this to police misconduct — the vast majority of officers do an excellent professional job, a small percentage are asses. The whole idea of the standard response to negative media attention (more sensitivity training) is based on the bell curve assumption. Mass training always is trying to shift the curve a little bit to the ‘saint’ side. The trouble is that when you have a distribution that runs closer to 30% saint; 25% hero; 20% good guy; 15% civil servant; 7% lazy bastard; and 3% asshole the training insults 75% of your people and the 10% you’re trying to reach either don’t care or won’t act. Again, when the real problem is this small, you can solve it. I prefer firing, but our agency has a tendancy to put the worst officers in positions away from the public, which sometimes involves a promotion. Solving the environment instead of the person.

Real-World Plug-In Hybrids Disappoint On Efficiency

Friday, February 27th, 2009

Real-world plug-in hybrids disappoint on efficiency, with a recent test in Seattle demonstrating that 14 customized plug-in hybrid Toyota Priuses did not do much better than standard Priuses:

Try 51 miles per gallon, city and highway combined. Not counting the cost of the electricity.

It’s what 14 plug-in Priuses averaged after driving a total of 17,636 miles. The pilot project is one of the few in the nation to subject plug-in hybrid cars to regular motor-pool duty, as opposed to being driven by hypermilers or alt-energy enthusiasts.

Google’s own fleet hasn’t done much better:

Their Ford Escape hybrids are averaging 28.6 mpg while their pluggable versions of the Escape hybrd get 37.7 mpg for a 32% improvement. Not earth shattering. Their conventional Prius hybrids get 42.8 mpg while their pluggable Priuses get 54.9 mpg for a 28.3% improvement Again, not exactly the end of the oil era. Google breaks out the numbers by car. The best has done 60.5 mpg. But if you look at single day results you can find cars hitting 107 mpg.

Why these disappointing results? A fleet car could get driven a lot in a day and run down its batteries. To maximize the benefit of a pluggable hybrid one really need to drive almost the battery’s range each day but no more. Someone who happens to commute a distance that is a little less than the range of a hybrid’s battery is the best candidate to get maximal benefit.

Prison Blocks

Friday, February 27th, 2009

Some inner-city blocks or neighborhoods deserve to be called prison blocks:

Nationwide, an estimated two-thirds of the people who leave prison are rearrested within three years. A disproportionate number of them come from a few urban neighborhoods in big cities. Many states spend more than $1 million a year to incarcerate the residents of single blocks or small neighborhoods.

One such “million-dollar neighborhood” is shown above—a half-square-mile portion of Central City, an impoverished district southwest of the French Quarter. In 2007, 55 people from this neighborhood entered prison; the cost of their incarceration will likely reach about $2 million.

So, a few clusters of career criminals are responsible for tremendous damage to society. The author’s proposed solution?

The perpetual migration between prison and a few predictable neighborhoods is not only costly — it also destabilizes community life. Some New Orleans officials and community groups are now using prison-admission maps like these to explore new investments — block by block — in the social infrastructure of these damaged neighborhoods. Plenty of money is already being spent on these neighborhoods, in the form of policing and prison costs; the hope is that by spending more money in them, in a highly targeted fashion, the release-and-return-to-prison cycle can eventually be broken.

The author, Laura Kurgan, is the Director of the Spatial Information Design Lab at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, Columbia University. Not surprising.

Watchmen as Sacred Text

Friday, February 27th, 2009

Comic geeks consider Watchmen a sacred text:

John Hodgman
Author, More Information Than You Require
“The movie can be good as long as it appreciates that it has no reason to exist. And yet I think Watchmen deserves an homage, and I’m hopeful because Zack Snyder is making it.”

Joss Whedon
Creator, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dollhouse
“It’s a comic book about pop culture as viewed through a comic book, so I didn’t see the point of making a movie. But I saw the trailer, and it looked phenomenal.”

Brian K. Vaughan
Creator, Y: The Last Man; Writer, Lost
“I’ll go see it if it doesn’t feel like a betrayal of what Alan Moore wants. But it’s like making a stage play of Citizen Kane. I guess it could be OK, but why? The medium is the message.”

Should We Let California Go Bankrupt?

Friday, February 27th, 2009

Should we let California go bankrupt? They are doing it to themselves, Steve Malanga points out:

As Milton Friedman observed in the mid-1990s, you can’t have porous borders and a welfare state. The incentives are all wrong. California has become a case-study in that notion. A report by economists working for the National Academy of Sciences in the mid-1990s concluded that the average native-born California household paid about $1,100 in additional taxes because of government services used by immigrants whose own taxes don’t come close to covering their cost to society. It would be very interesting to see what the numbers are today.

But California doesn’t just have a spending problem. Increasingly it also has economic and revenue problems. Even as I write this other neighboring states are running ads in local newspapers inviting California businesses to move their headquarters out of the state. That’s advertising money well spent. A poll of business executives conducted last year by Development Counsellors International, which advises companies on where to locate their facilities, tabbed California as the worst state to do business in.

There are a host of reasons why California has become toxic to business, ranging from the highest personal income tax rate in the country (small business owners are especially hard hit by PITs), to an environmental regulatory regime that has made electricity so expensive businesses simply can’t compete in California. That is one reason why even California-based businesses are expanding elsewhere, from Google, which built a server farm in Oregon, to Intel, which opened a $3 billion factory for producing microprocessors outside of Phoenix.

In the race for the exits, residents are accompanying businesses. In just one decade California made a remarkable turnabout, going from a state with one of the highest levels of net in-migration to the state with the second highest level of domestic net out-migration. Typically people either head for the exits because they are seeking more economic opportunity or because they are being driven out by high housing costs. You get a little bit of both in California because the state’s zoning regulatory schemes keep housing production artificially low and housing prices high even in a mediocre economy.

As the economist Randall O’Toole points out in his study of housing restrictions, The Planning Penalty, “Thanks to a variety of land-use restrictions, California suffers from the least affordable housing in the nation.” The planning penalty, O’Toole estimates, adds from $70,000 to $230,000 to the cost of a home in the Central Valley, $300,000 to $400,000 in Southern California, and $400,000 to $850,000 in the San Francisco Bay area because in California, 95 percent of the population lives on just 5 percent of the land. “The problem is supply, not demand,” O’Toole observes. “Austin, Atlanta and Raleigh are growing faster than California cities, yet have maintained affordable housing.”

Duke Scientists Find Rare, Potent Antibody to HIV-1

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

Duke scientists have found a rare, potent antibody to HIV-1 circulating in the blood of a patient — the kind of antibody an HIV vaccine needs to induce:

2F5-like antibodies belong to a class of immune cells called broadly neutralizing antibodies, one of the body’s most powerful responses to infection. Only a small fraction of patients with HIV make these antibodies and they typically appear many months after initial transmission of the virus — at a point when scientists feel it is too late to do much good.

Tomaras, working closely with lead author Xiaoying Shen, led a team of researchers who examined the antibodies present in 300 patients infected with HIV-1. They found only one patient who had developed 2F5-like antibodies, supporting the notion that they are, indeed, very rare.

Researchers discovered that the 2F5-like antibody was potent enough to block multiple strains of HIV in the laboratory, but researchers say they are not entirely clear if it played any part in controlling the virus in the patient who carried it.

The scientists were also struck by another discovery: The 2F5-like antibodies arose concurrently with particular autoantibodies that may be a clue as to why these antibodies developed in this person and not in others.

Mermaid dream comes true thanks to Weta

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

Double-amputee Nadya Vessey’s mermaid dream has come true thanks to Weta, the special-effects shop famous for its work on The Lord of the Rings:

The suit was made mostly of wetsuit fabric and plastic moulds, and was covered in a digitally printed sock. Mermaid-like scales were painted by hand.

Mr Taylor said not only did the tail have to be functional, it was important it looked realistic. “What became apparent was that she actually physically wanted to look like a mermaid.”

$100 Linux wall-wart launches

Thursday, February 26th, 2009

Marvell’s SheevaPlug $100 Linux wall-wart launches:

Marvell Semiconductor is shipping a hardware/software development kit suitable for always-on home automation devices and service gateways. Resembling a “wall-wart” power adapter, the SheevaPlug draws 5 Watts, comes with Linux, and boasts completely open hardware and software designs, Marvell says.

In typical use, the SheevaPlug draws about as much power as a night-light. Yet, with 512MB each of RAM and Flash, and a 1.2GHz CPU, the unobtrusive device approaches the computing power found in the servers of only a decade ago.