Oliver Sacks on Earworms, Stevie Wonder and the View From Mescaline Mountain

Wednesday, September 26th, 2007

Wired talks to Oliver Sacks on Earworms, Stevie Wonder and the View From Mescaline Mountain:

The therapeutic power of music hit me dramatically in 1966, when I started working with the Awakenings patients at Beth Abraham in the Bronx. I saw post-encephalitics who seemed frozen, transfixed, unable to take a step. But with music to give them a flow, they could sing, dance, and be active again. For Parkinsonian patients, the ability to perform actions in sequence is impaired. They need temporal structure and organization, and the rhythm of music can be crucial. For people with Alzheimer’s, music incites recall, bringing the past back like nothing else.

Sacks has a new book out, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.

Cargo Drones

Wednesday, September 26th, 2007

A few years ago I was discussing the future of unmanned vehicles with a few colleagues, and we decided it would be a long, long time before UAVs found use in civilian passenger air travel — even if they were, by that point, much safer than airplanes with a human pilot on board. Before that, they’d likely find use in cargo transport — and before that, in military cargo transport.

It looks like the Cargo Drones are here:

The Universal Aerial Delivery Dispenser is an underwing bomb-like pod that can carry as much as will fit in its nearly five foot-long, eight inch-diameter canister. Weighing in at a bantam 40 pounds unloaded, the “U-ADD” as it’s called, can carry a load of ammo, first aid equipment or other cargo to a pre-selected GPS coordinate. After the UAV drops the canister, a parachute deploys to ease its landing.

Textron’s Richard Sterchele said the U-ADD has been tested already on the RQ-5 Hunter, MQ-9 Reaper and works on the RQ-1 Predator, which can carry about 140 pounds under each wing. He said though the Army hasn’t formally bought the system, the spec ops community has expressed an interest in the system’s ability to deliver covert materiel to remote locations with great stealth.

Tyler Cowen at Google

Wednesday, September 26th, 2007

I’m a big fan of Marginal Revolution and of Tyler Cowen, so naturally I had to watch this video of Tyler Cowen at Google:

Tyler was ostensibly there to discuss his new book, Discover Your Inner Economist, but, inspired by the recently announced Google-funded prize for landing an unmanned vehicle on the moon, he decided to discuss prizes versus grants.

Later in his talk he discusses how best to give to charity — from an economist’s point of view, of course.

Is the Warren Jeffs Case Religious Prosecution?

Wednesday, September 26th, 2007

David Friedman asks, Is the Warren Jeffs Case Religious Prosecution?

I haven’t followed the case very closely, but it seems a distinctly strange one. Jeffs is charged with being an accessory to rape. The person who, on the prosecution’s theory, committed the rape isn’t being charged with anything. Jeffs’ crime, so far as I can tell, is using his authority as a religious leader to persuade a girl into a marriage that she now says she didn’t want. That might be a good reason not to accept his religion, but treating it as a felony strikes me as a considerable stretch.

What happens if we we apply the same legal theory to a more respectable religion, say the mainline LDS? Mormons are expected to pay a substantial part of their income as tithes. One can easily imagine an ex-Mormon who grew up in a small town where everyone was a member of the church testifying that he paid his tithes because of religious and social pressure, even though he never wanted to. If true, does that make the local bishop an accessory to robbery or extortion?

Suppose Jeffs is convicted. Isn’t the clear implication that preaching certain religious doctrines, such as the authority of fathers over daughters and husbands over wives, is now illegal, at least if people believe the preaching and act on it?

Am I missing something?

The age of consent in Utah is 14.

Secret Origins of the Bat-Man

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

Researching the Secret Origins of Mr. A led me to research the Secret Origins of the Bat-Man. I knew that Batman was inspired by Zorro and The Shadow, but I didn’t realize that the first Batman story, “The Case Of The Chemical Syndicate,” was “borrowed” from a Shadow novel, “Partners of Peril” — which has been recently republished:

I also knew that Batman was created by Bob Kane, but I didn’t realize he had a partner, Bill Finger, who did most of the work, but who was too shy and reticent to demand credit. In fact, Bill Finger lived paycheck-to-paycheck and died young — which brings us to this doctored Shadow piece:

And that brings us full circle, back to Mr. A, who is really a Randian version of The Shadow — ruthless and prone to judgmental monologues.


Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

The CarterCopter, which recently received some coverage on Modern Marvels, may be the next big thing in aviation.

As Henry Farkas and Claudius Klimt point out, large passenger jets need huge, expensive airports, because they need runways two miles long, or longer, and for many airplane trips, time spent on the ground is literally longer than time spent in the air.

The idea behind the Carter Copter is to build a hybrid aircraft with the takeoff and landing characteristics of an autogyro, but the flight characteristics of a fixed-wing airplane.

The fixed wings are designed like jet wings, just a quarter of the size of conventional wings and designed for low drag, in order to be efficient at high speeds and high altitudes. These wings, naturally, don’t provide enough lift for takeoffs and landings — unless you plan on taking off and landing at 150 miles per hour.

It’s the rotor, which is powered during takeoff, that provides enough lift for takeoff — with an interesting design twist:

What’s new is that Jay added depleted uranium weights to the outer ends of the rotors to give them enough stored angular momentum so that even when the engine power is switched from the rotors to the pusher prop, the stored angular momentum in the rotors allows vertical takeoff using the helicopter-like collective and acceleration using the combined cyclic/control stick. The control stick acts like a cyclic while the CC is in rotorcraft mode and like a normal airplane control stick once the CC is in fixed wing mode. The transition is transparent to the pilot.

Evidently the weighted rotor rotates slowly in fixed-wing mode, and this dramatically reduces its drag.

The CarterCopter FAQ provides more detailed information.

Quarry Men

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

Never heard of the Quarry Men? Well, here they are at George’s brother Harry’s wedding reception in 1958:

Secret Origins of Mr. A

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

After watching Jonathan Ross ‘In Search of Steve Ditko’, I couldn’t help but research the Secret Origins of Mr. A, the Objectivist hero Ditko created after he left Spider-Man and Dr. Strange behind.

Dial B for Blog has the entire five-page first Mr. A story scanned in and online — and, yes, it’s black and white.

He’s Still Beating The House

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

He’s Still Beating The House:

Ed Thorp’s moment is coming — again. Thorp is an investor, mathematician, and crack blackjack player whose winning system got him expelled from Reno casinos in the 1960s. Now his 1967 work, Beat the Market: A Scientific Stock Market System, has been named one of the most sought-after out-of-print books of the past year by BookFinder.com.

Beat the Market, which sells for up to $750 on Amazon.com, describes his investing system, a precursor of the Black-Scholes formula. Why is the book so hot now? Perhaps it’s rising interest in the relation between gambling and investing. Thorp also gets mentions in recent books, including Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s best-seller on probability, The Black Swan. Another attention-getter: publicity about a cigarette-pack-size computer co-invented by Thorp in the ’60s, to be exhibited next spring at Germany’s Heinz Nixdorf computer museum. “It could predict where a roulette ball would land,” he says.

The Not-So Quixotic Quest

Tuesday, September 25th, 2007

Evidently “the cancer cell’s pursuit of an individual career may not be as quixotic a pursuit as once thought”:

Scientists studying Sticker’s Sarcoma, a cancer of dogs, recently discovered two rather surprising facts about the disease: (1) a transmittable agent causes the cancer, (2) the cells in the tumors caused by Sticker’s are definitely dog cells, (3) the cells in the tumors bear no genetic relation to each individual animal with the disease but (4) all the tumor cells in every case of Sticker’s have the same exact genes.

The only possible conclusion: Stickers Sarcoma is not a true cancer but rather a communicable pathogen that originated from one mutated cell in one dog that somehow managed to escape its original body and infect new hosts!

Bryan Caplan’s Critique of A Farewell to Alms

Monday, September 24th, 2007

In A Farewell to Alms: Overview of My Critique, Bryan Caplan starts by criticizing Gregory Clark’s understanding of Malthusianism:

Even worse, Clark repeatedly misstates the implications of his own model. He delights in counterintuitive claims like “[I]n 1776, when the Malthusian economy still governed human welfare in England, the calls of Adam Smith for restraint in government taxation and unproductive expenditure were largely pointless.” To the contrary, even in a Malthusian model, more production and less waste is unambiguously good for living standards. Population growth eventually returns living standards to their original level, but that may take generations.

I don’t see that contradicting Clark’s Malthusian point at all. He clearly recognizes that population growth only eventually reduces living standards. As he says in How to Save Africa:

Before the Industrial Revolution all societies were caught in the same Malthusian Trap that imprisons Africa today. Living standards stagnated because any improvement caused births to exceed deaths. The resulting population growth, pressing on fixed land resources, inevitably pushed incomes back down to subsistence.

But living conditions did vary across pre-industrial societies. Perversely, rich societies were those where nature or man created high death rates. In such settings living conditions could be good as long as the population did not grow. In the Malthusian era, what is now vice in economic policy — violence, poor public health, war, inequality — was virtue in terms of living standards. And what is now virtue, vice.

(Emphasis added.)

Caplan’s second point is that Clark ignores the power of institutions and policies:

He also ignores massive, long-lasting policy disasters like Communism; comparisons between West and East Germany, and North and South Korea.

A commentor, Jason Malloy, notes that Clark doesn’t ignore those policy disasters; he just takes a much longer view of history:

You may disagree with his conclusions, but he doesn’t ‘ignore’ Communism, which he argues dissolved in an eye-blink of history, consistent with a view that destructive institutions are in an unstable balance with the evolved dispositions of the population.

This complaint is the one I’d like to focus on though:

In the face of all this evidence, Clark throws up his hands and says that economists don’t know how to create growth. Give me a break. If voters and politicians around the world since 1800 had just done what Adam Smith told them to do in The Wealth of Nations, poverty would already be a thing of the past. Economists have known how to create growth for centuries. The problem is that, all too often, non-economists choose not to listen.

(Again, emphasis mine.)

While I largely agree with him, perhaps we should attempt to solve the larger problem of actually creating growth, rather than the fairly narrow problem of coming up with a “solution” that won’t get implemented.

Drivers test paying by mile instead of gas tax

Monday, September 24th, 2007

Drivers test paying by mile instead of gas tax:

Beginning early next year, drivers in six states will begin testing a new way to pay for roads and transit: Commuters will be charged for the miles they drive rather than paying taxes on gasoline purchased.

Researchers from the University of Iowa Public Policy Center will install computers and satellite equipment in the vehicles of 2,700 volunteers — 450 each from Austin, Baltimore, Boise, San Diego, eastern Iowa and the Research Triangle region of North Carolina.

Over the next two years, the drivers will get sample monthly bills for the number of miles they’ve driven. They can compare what they now pay in gasoline taxes with what they would have paid in per-mile fees.

“We want to assess the public’s attitudes and acceptance toward a system like this,” says Jon Kuhl, principal investigator on the $16.5 million Road User Charge Study and chairman of the University of Iowa Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

The nation is reassessing the way it pays for roads and transit. Since 1956, the Highway Trust Fund, financed by the federal tax on gasoline, has been a primary source of money for highway projects. But the National Governors Association and other groups and planners involved in road building have concluded that this method, supplemented by state gasoline taxes, no longer is adequate.

Americans are driving cars that get better mileage, and more are driving vehicles that use fuels taxed at lower rates than gasoline, such as ethanol, or making their own fuel and not being taxed. That means gas tax revenue isn’t growing nearly as fast as the number of miles driven.

In addition, the costs of road construction materials have skyrocketed because of heavy demand from India and China. Congress and many state legislatures are reluctant to increase gas taxes, especially at a time of high prices at the pump. The federal gas tax of 18.4 cents a gallon has not been increased since 1993; 24 states have not raised their gas taxes since 1997, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.

That has made a mileage fee more attractive to some agencies. The University of Iowa study is funded by the Federal Highway Administration and 15 state departments of transportation.

Oregon this year finished a year-long experiment that tested a “virtual tollway” system that could eventually replace the state gas tax with a road-user fee. Volunteers drove vehicles equipped with state-installed Global Positioning System (GPS) devices and odometers that kept track of the miles they drove. When they gassed up, the drivers paid for their gas as well as 1.2 cents for each mile driven since their last fill-up; they did not pay the 24-cents-a-gallon state gas tax.

Federal, state, and local governments don’t want to increase gas taxes, because they know an increase will be unpopular — so that want to institute a new tax, install GPS units in every car, and track everyone’s movements? Does that seem more politically feasible?

If the government is already mandating fuel-efficiency standards and subsidizing hybrid-electric cars, why would it want to reduce gasoline taxes?

And why would you institute a static 1.2-cents-per-mile tax when the whole point of a “virtual tollway” system is dynamic pricing based on traffic? Driving down a road with no one else on it doesn’t cost anyone anything — except for the pollution that comes from burning gasoline, which won’t be taxed under such a system.

The Triumph of Jane Jacobs

Monday, September 24th, 2007

Francis Morrone looks at The Triumph of Jane Jacobs, not just her works, but the phenomenon surrounding them:

Troll the Internet for interviews with Jacobs (you’ll find several) and you can’t help being struck by the subtle ways she alters her apparent message for her audience. How else to explain why such diverse people and groups have claimed her for their own? Two of her books appear on the National Review’s list of the 100 most important books of the 20th century. Yet she’s hailed by *Tikkun,* a Jewish magazine. James Howard Kunstler, who believes our economy shall soon implode as a result of our being on the downward slope of “peak oil,” reveres Jacobs; so does Virginia Postrel of “Dynamism” fame, who believes in the extraordinary capacities of technology and human ingenuity to make the future ever a better and a brighter place. Rod Dreher, a counter-culturally cultural-conservative Christian writer who wrote the book “Crunchy Cons,” about “Birkenstock-wearing Burkeans,” cites Jacobs as a principal influence, along with the agrarian poet and essayist Wendell Berry, whom Jacobs chastised in her last and perhaps most profound book, “Dark Age Ahead.” When Jacobs’s book “Cities and the Wealth of Nations” came out in 1984, with its blistering critique of transfer payments from rich to poor, the writer Richard Barnett, reviewing the book on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, bizarrely hailed it as a call for full-employment legislation. He so wanted to like the book, to like Mrs. Jacobs, that he heard her say things she did not say. What kind of writer has such an odd impact on her readers? How many books such as “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” come along that so many people think they’ve read but haven’t, have read but misunderstood, or claim they’ve read though they haven’t? How many writers write one big book (in this case, “Death and Life”) that makes a huge splash, then follow it up with several books that brilliantly refine its central points, books that not even the writer’s putatively most faithful followers have ever even heard of, let alone read?

Here’s Why Richard Branson Should Be Delta Airlines’ Biggest Fan

Monday, September 24th, 2007

Here’s Why Richard Branson Should Be Delta Airlines’ Biggest Fan:

Last week, Passenger X arrived at the Orlando airport with a first-class e-ticket for New York City. At the airport, the ticket machine spat out a boarding pass for a seat in the back of coach. Why?

The plane, he was told, had been “downsized” from a large jet to a smaller one. There was no first-class section on the smaller plane, so all first-class passengers had been reassigned to coach.

Passenger X asked the Delta agent why the change had been made.

“Mechanical,” he was told.

Passenger X then asked when the change had been made, and wondered why Delta hadn’t phoned or e-mailed to alert passengers to the change — which would have given them time to perhaps fly first-class on a different airline.

The Delta agent responded that she did not know when the change had been made.

Passenger X flies frequently and tries to get work done on planes, so a first-class seat is far more desirable to him than a coach seat. He was disappointed with Delta’s change, but if they’d pulled a faulty jet out of the air — well, plainly, that was a good thing.

Once past security, he asked another Delta representative about the change. This agent, too, did not know when the plane swap had been made, but agreed that Delta should have alerted its first-class passengers. “You paid for the steak but you got the hamburger,” he said. This agent couldn’t have been kinder. He even offered to give Passenger X the customer service number at Delta so that he could arrange for a refund of the difference between the first-class fare and the coach fare.

To which Passenger X said: “Thank you, and no offense, but I’d be surprised — and further disappointed — if you weren’t already doing that on your own.” In other words, should the customer who pays for the steak and gets the hamburger then have to go scrambling himself to recover the price differential?

The Delta agent, still kind, acknowledged that yes, this too was not great Delta policy, but it was the best he could do.

At the gate, a third Delta agent, perhaps even kinder than the first two, looked at Passenger X’s boarding pass and offered to put an empty seat beside him. Very thoughtful! As it turned out, this was a pretty easy task, since the plane was only about 40 percent full, which made Passenger X wonder if the first Delta agent’s story — that the original plane was pulled for “mechanical” reasons — was even true. If the smaller plane was only 40 percent full, then the larger plane was probably only 20 percent full. As such, was it possible that Delta had changed planes because of an economic reason, and not a mechanical one?

Passenger X inquired as to this possibility, and was greeted with blank stares. He did learn, however, that the flight attendants had just flown down on this same plane, from New York to Orlando. At the very least, this meant that the smaller plane had been in service for quite a few hours, certainly enough time for Delta to let its first-class passengers know that their steak was now a hamburger.

In the end, the flight was fine. Two seats in coach are just as good as one seat in first class. But if it had been a jammed-to-the-roof flight, Passenger X would have been one sad puppy.

I can confirm Passenger X’s story because Passenger X is me.

OK, that last line isn’t quite a Twilight Zone ending, but he makes his point:

Stories like this one are very good news, however, if you are in the VLJ (very light jet) business, since that is where business travelers are moving. It could also be good news for Richard Branson, who is on an all-business-class binge at the moment, and is rumored to be thinking about offering all-business-class flights in the U.S., the absence of which I have wondered about before on this blog.

Jonathan Ross ‘In Search of Steve Ditko’

Monday, September 24th, 2007

BBC4′s Jonathan Ross ‘In Search of Steve Ditko’ is up on YouTube — at least for now — and, if you ask me, it really gets going in part 3:

Ditko is best known for co-creating Spiderman with Stan Lee; Ditko was the artist, Lee the writer. Ditko is also known for creating Dr. Strange, the master of the mystic arts, who travels via astral projection through psychedelic tableaux — which led liberal hippy fans to embrace the politically conservative Ditko as a Leary-like guru.

Where things get particularly odd is when Ditko leaves Marvel to create independent comics featuring his own crazy brand of Rand’s Objectivism. The Question is a bit odd, but Mr. A? Wow.

I’ve been meaning to pick up Marvel Visionaries: Steve Ditko for some time now. I suppose I should really pick up the 1088-page Amazing Spider-Man Omnibus, which includes the entire Ditko run. It’s a shame that the Essential Doctor Strange doesn’t come in color.