How fighting wildfires works

September 23rd, 2018

In case you were wondering how fighting wildfires works, this video explains the process:

You’re almost always better off turning it into a “which one” question

September 22nd, 2018

Steven Johnson (@stevenbjohnson), author of Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most, explains the importance of generating alternatives to any course of action you are considering:

In the early 1980s, a business school professor named Paul Nutt set out to catalog real-world decisions the way a botanist might catalog the various types of vegetation growing in a rain forest. In his initial study, published in 1984, he analyzed 78 decisions made by senior managers at a range of public and private organizations in the United States and Canada: insurance companies, government agencies, hospitals, consulting firms.

The most striking finding in Professor Nutt’s research was this: Only 15 percent of the decisions he studied involved a stage where the decision makers actively sought out a new option beyond the initial choices on the table. In a later study, he found that only 29 percent of organizational decision makers contemplated more than one alternative.

This turns out to be a bad strategy. Over the years, Professor Nutt and other researchers have demonstrated a strong correlation between the number of alternatives deliberated and the ultimate success of the decision itself. In one of his studies, Professor Nutt found that participants who considered only one alternative ultimately judged their decision a failure more than 50 percent of the time, while decisions that involved contemplating at least two alternatives were felt to be successes two-thirds of the time.

The upshot is clear: If you find yourself mapping a “whether or not” question, looking at a simple fork in the road, you’re almost always better off turning it into a “which one” question that gives you more available paths.

He continues with a rather fashionable follow-on notion:

What’s the best way to expand your pool of options? Researchers suggest that if possible, you diversify the group of people who are helping make the decision. About a decade ago, the social psychologist Samuel Sommers conducted a series of mock trials in which a jury debated and evaluated evidence from a sexual assault case. Some of the juries were entirely white, while other juries were more diverse in their racial makeup. By almost every important metric, the racially mixed juries performed better at their task. They considered more potential interpretations of the evidence, remembered information about the case more accurately and engaged in the deliberation process with more rigor and persistence.

Homogeneous groups — whether they are united by ethnic background, gender or some other commonality like politics — tend to come to decisions too quickly. They settle early on a most-likely scenario and don’t question their assumptions, since everyone at the table seems to agree with the broad outline of the interpretation.

A 2008 study led by the management professor Katherine Phillips using a similar investigative structure revealed an additional, seemingly counterintuitive finding: While the more diverse groups were better at reaching the truth, they were also far less confident in the decisions they made. They were both more likely to be right and, at the same time, more open to the idea that they might be wrong.

Where did ranch dressing come from?

September 21st, 2018

Where did ranch dressing come from?

Steve Henson, a plumber from the tiny village of Thayer, Neb., came up with the dressing mix around 1950, during a stint in Anchorage as a construction worker, where he also served as an occasional cook for the crew. In that part of the world, perishable ingredients like fresh herbs, garlic and onions, and dairy products were not easy to come by.

By 1954, he and his wife, Gayle, had moved to California and bought a ramshackle property called Sweetwater Ranch, in the San Marcos Pass above Santa Barbara, Calif. They renamed it Hidden Valley, and opened it as a guest ranch. But according to their son, Nolan Henson, the place became even more popular as a steakhouse, with Steve’s dressing a favorite souvenir.

“It was all dry ingredients the way my dad made it,” said Nolan Henson, now 74, who grew up on the ranch. (Gayle died in 1993, Steve in 2007.)

“People carried it home in mayonnaise jars,” Mr. Henson said. “Seemed like we were always mixing it, and we put it on everything: steaks, vegetables, potatoes.”

Overwhelmed by demand, in the late 1950s the Hensons began packaging the dry ingredients in an envelope that could be presented or mailed to customers, who would add their own buttermilk and mayonnaise at home — much like a boxed cake mix, which was introduced to the mass market by Pillsbury in 1948.

The product was a runaway success. “The dressing pretty much took over the ranch,” said Mr. Henson, who spent hours as a child filling seasoning packets.

With that, ranch began to take over the nation, moving from the West to the Midwest and occupying salad bars through the 1970s; a shelf-stable version arrived on supermarket shelves in 1983. But according to Abby Reisner, the author of the new cookbook “Ranch” (Dovetail Press), ranch madness didn’t go national until 1986, with the introduction of Cool Ranch Doritos, tortilla chips that were infused with a distinctly creamy, oniony bite. Ranch was already popular on its own, but the combination of cream and crunch in one bite — a fusion of dip and chip — turned out to be a masterstroke.

Cool Ranch Doritos opened the door to ranch as a seasoning beyond salad. It began to show up frequently as a dip for French fries (replacing ketchup), for chips (instead of salsa) and for Buffalo chicken wings (pushing aside blue cheese dressing).

[...]

Ranch may be a modern phenomenon, but its flavor profile isn’t new at all. Many classic condiments also combine cream (or creaminess) with alliums (the family that includes garlic, onion, leeks and chives). Middle Eastern toum, Mediterranean aioli, Caesar dressing, French onion dip and the pasta sauce “Alfredo” served at places like Olive Garden all have the same profile: a mild, cooling base set against the heat of strong, pungent alliums.

That coolness is what makes ranch an appealing partner for food that is spicy or charred or deep-fried, and many of America’s favorite foods have those flavors front and center. (In case you don’t believe that ranch flavor represents the pinnacle of American culinary achievement, consider that ranch dressing is already called “American dressing” in many European supermarkets, and that the Doritos flavor we know as “Cool Ranch” goes by “Cool American.”)

Giving Mars a magnetosphere

September 20th, 2018

Brandon Weigel talks about the potential for supplying Mars with an artificial magnetic field:

By placing a satellite equipped with technology to produce a powerful magnetic field at Mars L1 (a far orbit around Mars where gravity from the Sun balances gravity from Mars, so that the satellite always remains between Mars and the Sun), we could encompass Mars in the resulting magnetic sheath.

Martian Magnetosphere

Earth’s magnetic field, originating at it’s core, has a strength of ~6*10^-5 Teslas at the distance of the Earth’s surface. This is the force which deflects compass needles. It is also the strength required to defend our atmosphere against deadly solar wind. However, a space-based magnetic field at Mars does not have to be quite this powerful. First of all, our goal is only to encompass Mars in the magnetosheath of the field; it does not need to extend as far as the Earth’s does. Earth’s magnetosheath extends to ~6 million kilometers. Mars L1 is only about 1 million km from Mars. Of course, we are going to want to allow some leeway for potential solar flare events, but extending the field ~1.5 million km is probably sufficient.

Another thing to take into account is the fact that the intensity of solar wind at Mars’ distance is less than half that at 1 AU. This means that we only need a magnetic field half as powerful as what we would have needed to defend a planet at Earth’s distance from the sun. Taking both of these factors into account, a space-based magnetic field around Mars only needs to have a strength of roughly 11% that of Earth’s. This will create a magnetosheath long enough to extend 500,000 kilometers beyond Mars.

Using the magnetic field magnitude equation, we can now solve for the amperage of the “wire” required to produce such a field. This yields a current of ~200 Mega-amperes. Any electrician knows right now that we are going to need a BIG ASS wire.

[...]

Some things to note are the exceptionally low voltage for the system of about 2 volts, and the dimensions/mass of the copper solenoid which come out to a torus with a total diameter of ~3.5 meters and a mass of ~57 tonnes. This is a big copper doughnut. It would fill the average living room area wall-to-wall and weigh more than 6x the legal mass of a loaded semi truck on the freeway. A magnetic field of ~81 Teslas is generated at the surface of the solenoid; nearly twice the strength of the strongest artificial continuous magnetic field ever produced to date. Another thing to note is the fact that a fission reactor of this size will require over 40 tonnes of uranium every two years to remain in operation. This may be the biggest problem for any future Martian-magnetosphere endeavor, seeing as a launch to Mars from Earth takes about 18 months and the abundance of uranium on Mars itself is unknown.

Not as outlandish as the concepts from the 1970s

September 19th, 2018

Jeff Foust of The Space Review reviews The High Frontier: An Easier Way:

In space, as in other fields, ideas come and go, returning after past failures in the hopes that changes in technology, policy, or economics will allow people to accept a concept they previously rejected. That appears to be the case with space settlements. In the 1970s, “space colonies” were all the rage among space enthusiasts, attracted by the idea proposed by Princeton professor Gerard K. O’Neill that giant habitats, many kilometers in size, would be the best place for humanity to live in space. There were NASA-sponsored studies of space colonies with lavish illustrations of the concepts, and ideas to use such facilities to enable space-based solar power (another idea that comes and goes) and other space industries. But, within a few years the concept faded away, with NASA ending its support and predictions that the Space Shuttle would enable frequent low-cost access to space failing to come true.

In the last few years, though, there’s been a push to bring back the idea, now often called “free space settlements” (avoiding the negative perception many have of “colonies.”) A new book by two space settlement advocates, Tom Marotta and Al Globus, offers an update of sorts of the original space colony concept O’Neill offered decades ago in his book The High Frontier, arguing that such settlements need not be as large and as expensive as O’Neill once thought.

As its subtitle suggests, the authors of The High Frontier: An Easier Way make the case that several changes in the original assumptions that drove the 1970s-era space colony concepts make such settlements more feasible today. One eschews the plan to place settlements at the Earth-Moon L-5 Lagrange point in favor of an equatorial low Earth orbit (ELEO) over the Equator at an altitude of 500 to 600 kilometers. That orbit gives such a facility radiation protection from the Earth’s magnetic field while also avoiding the South Atlantic Anomaly, a major source of charged particles. Doing so, they conclude, drastically reduces the mass needed for radiation protection: from five to ten tons per square meter of the facility’s surface to as little as 10 kilograms.

A second design change is to speed up the rotation rate of the facility needed to produce Earth-equivalent gravity. Previous studies assumed humans could tolerate rotation rates of no more than 1–2 revolutions per minute (RPM), but research suggests people can tolerate speeds of 4 RPM without any long-term consequences. That reduces the diameter of the facility, and hence its mass and cost.

Those changes, coupled with work to reduce launch costs, makes a settlement more feasible — or, at least, less infeasible. An initial concept mentioned in the book, called Kalpana, would be 112 meters in diameter and 112 meters long, weighing about 16,800 metric tons: enough to be carried by a little more than 100 flights of SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) vehicle, at least according to designs the company disclosed last year. It’s still an expensive proposition, but one not as outlandish as the concepts from the 1970s.

The Communist Manifesto: A Graphic Novel

September 18th, 2018

Gord Doctorow reviews British graphic novelist Martin Rowson’s illustrated adaptation of The Communist Manifesto:

The preface describes how the middle-aged Rowson became smitten by Marx and Engels’ exciting prose when he was only 16. Aside from expressing his great admiration for Marx’s writing, as well as his own critical stance, he furnishes the reader with some historical backdrop to the completion of The Manifesto. Marx had been commissioned to write it by a socialist group in the summer of 1847, but, under pressure, succeeded in producing it at the beginning of 1848. Significantly, that was before the outbreak of revolutionary movements in Europe later on in 1848. Rowson goes on to explain that the initial publication failed to attract the attention of many people. Only after the events of the Paris Commune in 1871 did the pamphlet receive a wide audience and a publication renewal.

The illustrations create an atmospheric accompaniment to the Marx figures whose speaking balloons relay the text of The Manifesto. The graphics pair nicely with the text with dense images that impart the feeling of the clashes of historical forces (classes) or with the dramatic rendering of the first lines of The Manifesto in which a spectre appears, so Hamlet-like in two dark and foreboding images to haunt the reader’s mind. There is plenty of theatricality too: images of Marx interacting from a stage with a hostile audience (Rowson’s added flourishes added to enhance the exposition in a stimulating theatrical way).

The Communist Manifesto A Graphic Novel

As a literary work, the illustrations do justice to the marvelously compressed, yet sweeping, literary quality of Marx’s verbal imagery and present readers. Though I had read The Manifesto years ago, I found the adaptation to be both a refresher and newly insightful.

Quite… uncritical.

More Hobbit than Ranger

September 17th, 2018

Austin Gilkeson first read Tolkien in college, and it convinced him he was bound for great adventure:

I was a privileged college student with my whole life before me, and I imagined myself as Aragorn, ready to leave the comforts of the Last Homely House and strike out into strange-starred lands. But, as I soon discovered, I am more hobbit than Ranger.

After grad school, I taught English in Japan, which had the advantage of being both a far country and a comfortable one. There were ancient castle ruins in the forest and Frosted Flakes in the grocery store. The stars in the sky were the same as in America, but at night the squid boats from my town would go out to sea and light enormous bulbs to attract their catch. From the shore they looked like floating stars, or a fleet of Vingilots, Silmarils at their bows, sailing through the Door of Night.

In those moments, I did feel a bit like Aragorn on his journeys, but I had also realized I was no true wanderer. It wasn’t the shining squid boats or mist-covered mountains that I loved most — it was the comforting routines of teaching, playing with my students at recess, and chatting over drinks with friends at the local fishermen’s izakaya, a pub as lively and inviting as the hobbits’ beloved Green Dragon.

[...]

When I reread The Lord of the Rings last year, I wasn’t sitting on a folding chair in a haunted antebellum mansion as I had been the first time, but on the couch in my own house in the suburbs of Chicago. At night, after my son Liam had gone to sleep, and the cooking, dishes, laundry, and other chores were done, I’d park my tired body on the couch and read until I fell asleep — the book splayed across my chest, the living room lights still on. I thrilled at wandering again in Middle-earth, but this time I especially loved the quieter moments in seemingly peaceful countries — the cozy cheer of the Shire, the rustic bustle of Bree, the fragrant woods of Ithilien. The once-exciting battles were now the parts that often left me snoring on the couch. It seems I no longer fantasize about escaping a stifling job to go on dangerous quests in far-off lands; instead I fantasize about a comfy armchair by a roaring fire, book and beer at hand.

Now, when my wife Ayako wakes me on the couch after I’ve fallen asleep reading, my teeth ache from grinding and I grumble at myself for how much electricity I’ve wasted leaving the lights on. I go upstairs and try not to think about how few hours I have to sleep before I need to wake up, get my son ready for daycare, and head to work. If I once imagined myself a young Aragorn, now I identify with the elderly Bilbo when he describes feeling “sort of stretched… like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.”

Translating the Red Book led to more than a few surprises

September 16th, 2018

No one who gets a postgraduate degree in Hobbit Studies ever imagines they’ll be sued by the Estate of J.R.R. Tolkien, Austin Gilkeson says:

I certainly didn’t expect to wind up in court against Christopher Tolkien and his lawyers, like Frodo Baggins facing down the Nazgûl on Weathertop. Little did I know I was heading into a legal and scholarly Midgewater when I wrote and published The Lord of the Rings: A New English Translation.

As anyone who’s read the appendices to The Lord of the Rings knows, both it and The Hobbit are Tolkien’s translations from the so-called “Red Book of Westmarch,” an ancient manuscript written in Late Vulgar Adûni. How Tolkien came to possess the Red Book is a mystery, and the Tolkien Estate has never allowed other scholars access to it.

Tolkien’s original translation is justly famous and beloved. He treeherds an unwieldy ancient text into lyrical modern English and captures the vast scope and romance of the epic.

It is also deeply flawed.

Tolkien refers to Quendi people as “elves,” a common term in his time, but considered highly offensive today. And while Tolkien was a great scholar of the Quenya and Sindarin languages, his command of Late Vulgar Adûni was rudimentary at best, and his translation of the Red Book suffers for it.

In the most infamous instance, Tolkien botched The Hobbit’s “Riddles in the Dark” chapter in the first edition. He was so confused by the text’s use of pronomial prefixes in the subjunctive that he has Gollum leading Bilbo to safety in the goblin caves, rather than pursuing him with murderous malice. Tolkien corrected this blunder in later editions, but the damage was done. Similarly, he describes there being nine Nazgûl, when in fact there were only three.

Because Tolkien’s Estate didn’t let anyone else so much as peek at the Red Book, his The Lord of the Rings remained the only available version for half a century. Nobody even attempted a new translation until me.

When I entered the Hobbit Studies program at the University of Chicago in 2003, I wasn’t planning to write my own translation. Like most of my peers, I was content to lead a quiet scholarly life, writing my dissertation on Adûni phonology and having friendly debates over second brunch about whether or not Balrogs have wings (they don’t). The best I really hoped for professionally were a few publication credits and a full-time lecturer job at a small Franciscan college.

Then one day, in a back corner of the second sublevel of Regenstein Library, I stumbled across an unmarked file dropped by a twitchy-looking undergrad. After flipping through it for a few minutes, I realized it was an unauthorized manuscript copy of the Red Book of Westmarch.

[...]

Using my knowledge of Adûni, Quenya, and Sindarin, and the unauthorized copy of the Red Book, I undertook my translation. My goal was never to match Tolkien’s masterful prose, but to provide a more literal translation into English and fix Tolkien’s errors. I also wanted to restore the real names of the characters and settings, in place of Tolkien’s whimsical anglicizations. You won’t find Frodo Baggins or Samwise Gamgee of the Shire in my version of The Lord of the Rings. You’ll find Maura Labingi and Banazîr Galbasi of Sûzat.

Translating the Red Book led to more than a few surprises. I discovered that the Tom Bombadil chapters weren’t original to the text at all, but had been inserted by a different author at a later date. They’re written in the Adûni dialect of Bree, not Sûzat, and judging by the sloppy handwriting, whoever wrote them was almost certainly drunk, a child, or both.

Tolkien also excised a lengthy, in-depth description of hobbit sexual customs from the “Concerning Hobbits” prologue (an unfortunate omission, as it is here where we learn how Bullroarer Took earned his nickname). In fact, the famously conservative and Catholic Tolkien left out almost all of the Red Book’s ribald humor and attention to the body. Gone are the dwarves’ dirty songs, gone is Gandalf repeatedly referring to Pippin’s brain as “blunter than an orc’s dick,” gone is the Fellowship’s graphic struggle with dysentery in the Mines of Moria.

(Hat tip to Hans G. Schantz, author of The Hidden Truth, a science-fiction techno-thriller.)

Comic book art in the ukiyo-e style

September 15th, 2018

Dakota Alexander produces comic book art in the ukiyo-e style of traditional Japanese woodblock painting that became popular during the Edo period:

Dakota Alexander Ukiyo-e Comic Book Art

Flown for recreational purposes over water and uncongested areas

September 14th, 2018

The Kitty Hawk Flyer does look like fun:

Flyer is Kitty Hawk’s first personal flying vehicle and the first step to make flying part of everyday life.

Flyer is designed to be easy to fly and flown for recreational purposes over water and uncongested areas. In just a couple of hours, you will experience the freedom and exhilaration of flight.

Flyer maintains an altitude of 3 meters/10 feet for our first riders’ flights.

We have adjusted the flight control system to limit the speed to 20 mph for our first riders’ flights.

Flyer creates thrust through all-electric motors that are significantly quieter than any fossil fuel based equivalent. When Flyer is in the air, depending on your distance, it will sound like a lawnmower (50ft) or a loud conversation (250ft).

In the US, Flyer operates under FAA CFR Part 103 – Ultralight. FAA does not require aircraft registration or pilot certification though flight training is highly encouraged. Ultralights may only be flown over uncongested areas.

More false positives among the hypochondriac set

September 13th, 2018

The new ECG Apple Watch could do more harm than good:

“Do you wind up catching a few undiagnosed cases? Sure. But for the vast majority of people it will have either no impact or possibly a negative impact by causing anxiety or unnecessary treatment,” says cardiologist Theodore Abraham, director of the UCSF Echocardiography Laboratory. The more democratized you make something like ECG, he says, the more you increase the rate of false positives — especially among the hypochondriac set. “In the case of people who are very type-A, obsessed with their health, and fitness compulsive, you could see a lot of them overusing Apple’s tech to self-diagnose and have themselves checked out unnecessarily.”

The cases in which Apple’s new watch could be most helpful are obvious: People with atrial fibrillation, family histories of heart disease, heart palpitations, chest pain, shortness of breath, and so on. Sometimes, Abraham says, patients come in with vague cardiovascular symptoms that they can’t reproduce during their visit. Folks like that, he says, often require more expensive, prescription-based monitoring systems. If a doctor could ask that kind of patient to record their symptoms on a gadget they already own, that could be a win for the healthcare provider and the patient.

As for everyone else, it’s hard to say what benefit Apple Watch’s on-demand ECG could have, and existing evidence suggests it might actually do more harm than good.

There is, however, the matter of life-saving potential to consider, which AHA president Ivor Benjamin mentioned not once but twice in his presentation at yesterday’s Apple Event. If there’s a silver lining to putting electrocardiograms on every Apple Watch wearer’s wrist, it’s that their data (if they choose to share it — Apple emphasized at the event that your data is yours to do with as you please) could help researchers resolve the uncertainty surrounding ECG screening in seemingly healthy people. Apple’s new wearable might not be the handy heart-health tool it’s advertised as, but it could, with your permission, make you a research subject.

The Lazy Goldmaker is Azeroth’s most famous financial guru

September 13th, 2018

The Lazy Goldmaker is the World of Warcraft’s financial guru:

In August, shortly after the release of World of Warcraft’s seventh expansion, Battle For Azeroth, The Lazy Goldmaker posted one of his meticulous spreadsheets to the WoW economy subreddit. It contains a set of expertly appraised auction house margins for all of Azeroth’s many tradeskills—blacksmithed weapons, stat-buffing cooking recipes, excavated gems.

[...]

The Goldmaker himself chooses to remain anonymous, but he does disclose that he is 30 years old and Norwegian. It was during the Burning Crusade, more than a decade ago, that he first became interested in the economic side of Blizzard’s immortal MMO, and he’s been operating The Lazy Goldmaker blog—where he posts columns, analysis, and other musings—since 2016, shortly after the launch of the Legion expansion.

[...]

World of Warcraft lets The Goldmaker experiment—he’ll spend hours tinkering with the untapped capital of, say, the profit yields of the new Inscription recipes—and he’ll report back on his blog detailing each of his successes and failures, much to the glee of his international bulwark of disciples. After all, it’s not like he’s risking anything truly disastrous or life-changing. As the Goldmaker reiterates to me, we’re talking about the currency of elves, dwarves, and orcs in a computer game. He can afford to be a little cavalier with his investments, because “it’s just pixels at the end of the day.”

“I’m always looking for markets that players aren’t focusing on,” he says. “Because there are only so many people in the gold-making scene, so there’s always going to be something that players aren’t looking at.”

[...]

You can read the fundamentals of how The Goldmaker breaks down his economic principles in a beginner’s guide he posted to his website this March. “World of Warcraft is a game about constantly improving your character,” he writes, and as a financial opportunist, it’s your job to provide avenues to either help those characters boost their power levels or beautify their models. So, as an upstart auction house shark, you’ll learn to farm efficient materials in Azeroth, target specific high-value recipes that you can turn around quickly, and buy out supplies when they’re abundant and repost them when they’re scarce.

Google’s leadership was quite dismayed by Trump’s election

September 12th, 2018

Breitbart just shared a video recorded by Google shortly after the 2016 presidential election, where the leadership is obviously dismayed:

  • (00:00:00 – 00:01:12) Google co-founder Sergey Brin states that the weekly meeting is “probably not the most joyous we’ve had” and that “most people here are pretty upset and pretty sad.”
  • (00:00:24) Brin contrasts the disappointment of Trump’s election with his excitement at the legalization of cannabis in California, triggering laughs and applause from the audience of Google employees.
  • (00:01:12) Returning to seriousness, Brin says he is “deeply offen[ded]” by the election of Trump, and that the election “conflicts with many of [Google’s] values.”
  • (00:09:10) Trying to explain the motivations of Trump supporters, Senior VP for Global Affairs, Kent Walker concludes: “fear, not just in the United States, but around the world is fueling concerns, xenophobia, hatred, and a desire for answers that may or may not be there.”
  • (00:09:35) Walker goes on to describe the Trump phenomenon as a sign of “tribalism that’s self-destructive [in] the long-term.”
  • (00:09:55) Striking an optimistic tone, Walker assures Google employees that despite the election, “history is on our side” and that the “moral arc of history bends towards progress.”
  • (00:10:45) Walker approvingly quotes former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s comparison between “the world of the wall” with its “isolation and defensiveness” and the “world of the square, the piazza, the marketplace, where people come together into a community and enrich each other’s lives.”
  • (00:13:10) CFO Ruth Porat appears to break down in tears when discussing the election result.
  • (00:15:20) Porat promises that Google will “use the great strength and resources and reach we have to continue to advance really important values.”
  • (00:16:50) Stating “we all need a hug,” she then instructs the audience of Google employees to hug the person closest to them.
  • (00:20:24) Eileen Noughton, VP of People Operations, promises that Google’s policy team in DC is “all over” the immigration issue and that the company will “keep a close watch on it.”
  • (00:21:26) Noughton jokes about Google employees asking, ‘Can I move to Canada?’ after the election. She goes on to seriously discuss the options available to Google employees who wish to leave the country.
  • (00:23:12) Noughton does acknowledge “diversity of opinion and political persuasion” and notes that she has heard from conservative Google employees who say they “haven’t felt entirely comfortable revealing who [they] are.” and urged “tolerance.” (Several months later, the company would fire James Damore allegedly for disagreeing with progressive narratives.)
  • (00:27:00) Responding to a question about “filter bubbles,” Sundar Pichai promises to work towards “correcting” Google’s role in them
  • (00:27:30) Sergey Brin praises an audience member’s suggestion of increasing matched Google employee donations to progressive groups.
  • (00:34:40) Brin compares Trump voters to “extremists,” arguing for a correlation between the economic background of Trump supporters and the kinds of voters who back extremist movements. Brin says that “voting is not a rational act” and that not all of Trump’s support can be attributed to “income disparity.” He suggests that Trump voters might have been motivated by boredom rather than legitimate concerns.
  • (00:49:10) An employee asks if Google is willing to “invest in grassroots, hyper-local efforts to bring tools and services and understanding of Google products and knowledge” so that people can “make informed decisions that are best for themselves.” Pichai’s response: Google will ensure its “educational products” reach “segments of the population [they] are not [currently] fully reaching.”
  • (00:54:33) An employee asks what Google is going to do about “misinformation” and “fake news” shared by “low-information voters.” Pichai responds by stating that “investments in machine learning and AI” are a “big opportunity” to fix the problem.
  • (00:56:12) Responding to an audience member, Walker says Google must ensure the rise of populism doesn’t turn into “a world war or something catastrophic … and instead is a blip, a hiccup.”
  • (00:58:22) Brin compares Trump voters to supporters of fascism and communism, linking the former movement to “boredom,” which Brin previously linked to Trump voters. “It sort of sneaks up sometimes, really bad things” says Brin.
  • (01:01:15) A Google employee states: “speaking to white men, there’s an opportunity for you right now to understand your privilege” and urges employees to “go through the bias-busting training, read about privilege, read about the real history of oppression in our country.” He urges employees to “discuss the issues you are passionate about during Thanksgiving dinner and don’t back down and laugh it off when you hear the voice of oppression speak through metaphors.” Every executive on stage – the CEO, CFO, two VPs and the two Co-founders – applaud the employee.
  • (01:01:57) An audience member asks if the executives see “anything positive from this election result.” The audience of Google employees, and the executives on stage, burst into laughter. “Boy, that’s a really tough one right now” says Brin.

Mechanical jokes and flat cats

September 12th, 2018

I never read any of Heinlein’s “juveniles” while a juvenile, but I recently listened to the audiobook version of The Rolling Stones, which includes a rant about cars:

Despite their great sizes and tremendous power spaceships are surprisingly simple machines. Every technology goes through three stages: first a crudely simple and quite unsatisfactory gadget; second, an enormously complicated group of gadgets designed to overcome the short-comings of the original and achieving thereby somewhat satisfactory performance through extremely complex compromise; third, a final proper design therefrom.

In transportation the ox cart and the rowboat represent the first stage of technology.

The second stage may well be represented by the automobiles of the middle twentieth century just before the opening of interplanatery travel. These unbelievable museum pieces were fro their time fast, sleek and powerful — but inside their skins were assembled a preposterous collection of mechanical buffoonery. The prime mover for such a juggernaut might have rested in one’s lap; the rest of the mad assembly consisted of afterthoughts intended to correct the uncorrectable, to repair the original basic mistake in design — for automobiles and even the early aeroplanes were “powered” (if on may call it that) by “reciprocating engines.” A reciprocating engine was a collection of miniature heat engines using (in a basically inefficient cycle) a small percentage of an exothermic chemical reaction, a reaction which was started and stopped every split second. Much of the heat was intentionally thrown away into a “water jacket” or “cooling system,” then wasted into the atmosphere through a heat exchanger.

What little was left caused blocks of metal to thump foolishly back-and-forth (hence the name “reciprocating”) and thence through a linkage to cause a shaft and flywheel to spin around. The flywheel (believe it if you can) had no gyroscopic function; it was used to store kinetic energy in a futile attempt to cover up the sins of reciprocation. The shaft at long last caused the wheels to turn and thereby propelled this pile of junk over the countryside.

The prime mover was used only to accelerate and to overcome “friction” — a concept then in much wider engineering use. To decelerate, stop, or turn, the heroic human operator used his own muscle power, multiplied precariously through a series of levers.

Despite the name “automobile” these vehicles had no autocontrol circuits; control, such as it was, was exercised second by second for hours on end by a human being peering out through a small pane of dirty silica glass, and judging unassisted and often disastrously his own motion and those of other objects. In almost all cases the operator had no notion of the kinetic energy stored in his missile and could not have written the basic equation. Newton’s Laws of Motion were to him mysteries as profound as the meaning of the universe.

Nevertheless millions of these mechanical jokes swarmed over our home planet, dodging each other by inches or failing to dodge. None of them ever worked right; by their nature they could not work right; and they were constantly getting out of order. Their operators were usually mightily pleased when they worked at all. When they did not, which was every few hundred miles (hundred, not hundred thousand), they hired a member of a social class of arcane specialists to make inadequate and always expensive temporary repairs.

Despite their mad shortcomings, these “automobiles” were the most characteristic form of wealth and the most cherished possessions of their time. Three whole generations were slaves to them.

The book is also the source of the original tribble and its associated troubles:

The similarities to the flat cats and the some specific story events involving them was brought to the attention of the Star Trek staff when Desilu/Paramount’s primary in-house clearance group, Kellam de Forest Research, submitted a report on the script on August of 1967, noting the similarities of “a small, featureless, fluffy, purring animal, friendly and loving, that reproduces rapidly when fed, and nearly engulfs a spaceship”. So worrisome was this matter that the producers contacted Heinlein and asked for a waiver, which Heinlein granted. In his authorized biography Heinlein said he was called by producer Gene Coon about the issue and agreed to waive claim to the “similarity” to his flat cats because he’d just been through one plagiarism lawsuit and did not wish to embroil himself in another. He had misgivings upon seeing the actual script but let it go, an action he later regretted.

The ability to choose something simpler and more likely to endure

September 11th, 2018

Megan McArdle writes to a refrigerator dying young:

It turns out that refrigerators like the My First Fridge — the kind that quietly chug along decade after decade while needing only minor repairs — really are a thing of the past. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average life span of a refrigerator is now just 13 years. And the German environmental agency found that between 2004 and 2013, the proportion of major appliances that had to be replaced in less than five years due to a defect rose from 3.5 percent to 8.3 percent. These days, we do not so much own our appliances as rent them from fate.

How did we become renters in our own homes? Peruse the Web, and you’ll discover a variety of explanations: outsourcing to suppliers who opt for cheapness rather than longevity; fancy computer-controlled features that add fancy problems; faster innovation cycles that leave inadequate time for testing; and government-imposed energy-efficiency standards that require a lot of fiddly engineering to comply with. But essentially, all of them boil down to one word: complexity. The more complicated something is, the more ways it can break.

When you are standing over the corpse of an appliance that died too young, it’s tempting to long for simpler days. But then, simpler isn’t the same as better. Replacement cycles may have shortened, but we can afford to replace our appliances sooner, because prices have fallen so dramatically. In 1979, a basic 17-cubic-foot Kenmore refrigerator cost $469 — or in today’s dollars, $1,735, which would have taken an average worker about 76 hours of labor to earn. It came with an ice maker, automatic defrost and some shelves. The nearest equivalent today has an extra cubic foot of storage, offers humidity-controlled crisper drawers and costs about a third as much to run. At $529, it represents under 20 hours of work at the average wage.

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That’s the irony of modern life in so many ways, multiplying all our choices while taking away the most fundamental one: the ability to choose something simpler and more likely to endure.