Minimum Inventory, Maximum Diversity

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

Q: What do proteins, snowflakes, and these figures have in common?

A: They’re all instances of minimum inventory, maximum diversity, Chris Carlson notes, using the term coined by Peter Pearce in Structure in Nature is a Strategy for Design:

A minimum inventory/maximum diversity system is a kit of modular parts and rules of assembly that gives you maximal design bang for your design-component buck. It’s a system that achieves a wide variety of effects from a small variety of parts. Nature excels at this game: every one of the many millions of natural proteins is assembled from an inventory of just 20 amino acids. Snowflakes are all just arrangements of the humble water molecule, H2O.

The same idea applies to the forms in the figure above, which are all constructed from semicircles joined at connection points evenly distributed along a vertical line. I stumbled onto this minimum inventory/maximum diversity system while playing with logo designs for a previous blog post, Exploring Logo Designs with Mathematica.

In my previous post, I was exploring parametric variations of logo designs in Mathematica. Although this concert-hall logo is trivially easy to parameterize and get into Mathematica, I nearly didn’t try doing so because I didn’t think that the exploration would lead anywhere interesting. So much for my intuition. Relative to its simplicity, the idea of joining semicircles at fixed points along a line is one of the richest and most expressive component systems that I’ve run across.

Monopoly Killer

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

Andrew Curry of Wired calls The Settlers of Catan a Monopoly killer and the perfect German board game:

In 1991, Klaus Teuber was well on his way to becoming one of the planet’s hottest board game designers. Teuber (pronounced “TOY-burr”), a dental technician living with his wife and three kids in a white row house in Rossdorf, Germany, had created a game a few years earlier called Barbarossa and the Riddlemaster, a sort of ur-Cranium in which players mold figures out of modeling clay while their opponents try to guess what the sculptures represent. The game was a hit, and in 1988 it won the Spiel des Jahres [Game of the Year] prize — German board gaming’s highest honor.

Winning some obscure German award may not sound impressive, but in the board game world the Spiel des Jahres is, in fact, a very, very big deal. Germans, it turns out, are absolutely nuts about board games. More are sold per capita in Germany than anywhere else on earth. The country’s mainstream newspapers review board games alongside movies and books, and the annual Spiel board game convention in Essen draws more than 150,000 fans from all walks of life.

Released in 1995, The Settlers of Catan only recently caught fire in the U.S.

Because of this enthusiasm, board game design has become high art — and big business — in Germany. Any game aficionado will tell you that the best-designed titles in the world come from this country. In fact, the phrase German-style game is now shorthand for a breed of tight, well-designed games that resemble Monopoly the way a Porsche 911 resembles a Chevy Cobalt.

But back in 1991, despite having designed a series of successful German-style titles, Teuber still thought of making board games as a hobby, albeit a lucrative one. “With all the games, we would sell 300,000 the first year and then next to nothing the next,” he says. So Teuber stuck with his day job selling dental bridges and implants, struggling to keep afloat the 60-person business he had inherited from his father. At night he would retreat to his basement workshop and play.

One day Teuber began tinkering with a new theme for a game: an uncharted island. In his original vision, players would slowly discover the island by flipping over tiles, then establish colonies using the indigenous natural resources. The game incorporated elements of other ideas Teuber was working on, but for some reason this one seemed special. “I felt like I was discovering something rather than inventing it,” Teuber says.

Every once in a while, he would bring the new game upstairs to test it out on his family. They would play along, but Teuber could tell that the game wasn’t working. Sometimes, in the middle of a match, he would notice his youngest son, Benny, reading a comic under the table. Other times his wife would suddenly remember a load of laundry that needed immediate attention. After each of these sessions, Teuber would haul the game back downstairs for further refinement. He repeated this process over the course of four years.

Eventually, Teuber whittled his invention down to a standard pair of dice, a handful of colored wooden houses that represented settlements and cities, stacks of cards that stood for resources (brick, wool, wheat, and others), and 19 hexagonal cardboard tiles that were arranged on a table to form the island. He had hit on something with this combination — the enthusiasm on family game night was palpable. During nearly every session, he, his wife, and their children would find themselves in heated competition. The game was done, Teuber decided. He called it Die Siedler von Catan, German for “The Settlers of Catan.”

Released at the annual Essen fair in 1995, Settlers sold out its initial 5,000 copies so fast that even Teuber doesn’t have a first edition. That year, it won the Spiel des Jahres and every other major prize in German gaming. Critics called it a masterpiece. Fans couldn’t get enough, snapping up 400,000 copies in its first year. “It was a maturation of the form,” says Stewart Woods, a board game scholar at Curtin University of Technology in Perth, Australia. “It wasn’t until Settlers that the whole thing broke wide open.”

Since its introduction, The Settlers of Catan has become a worldwide phenomenon. It has been translated into 30 languages and sold a staggering 15 million copies (even the megahit videogame Halo 3 has sold only a little more than half that). It has spawned an empire of sequels, expansion packs, scenario books, card games, computer games, miniatures, and even a novel — all must-haves for legions of fans. And it has made its 56-year-old inventor a household name in every household that’s crazy about board games, and a lot that aren’t.

Most impressive of all, though, Settlers is actually inducting board-game-averse Americans into the cult of German-style gaming. Last year, Settlers doubled its sales on this side of the Atlantic, moving 200,000 copies in the US and Canada — almost unheard-of performance for a new strategy game with nothing but word-of-mouth marketing. It has become the first German-style title to make the leap from game-geek specialty stores to major retailers like Barnes & Noble and Toys “R” Us.

Settlers is now poised to become the biggest hit in the US since Risk. Along the way, it’s teaching Americans that board games don’t have to be either predictable fluff aimed at kids or competitive, hyperintellectual pastimes for eggheads. Through the complex, artful dance of algorithms and probabilities lurking at its core, Settlers manages to be effortlessly fun, intuitively enjoyable, and still intellectually rewarding, a potent combination that’s changing the American idea of what a board game can be.

Michael Osinski’s Manhattan Project

Monday, March 30th, 2009

Michael Osinski helped build the bomb that blew up Wall Street — software for mortgage securitization:

When I asked Leszek what the busy group did that sat next to us, he told me they created mortgage-backed securities. It was an instrument, he claimed, designed to keep programmers employed. Having started to overcome my aversion to the overpaid life — I had recently bought a suit at Barneys, the old one on Seventh Avenue — I asked him how the bonds worked.

“You put chicken into the grinder” — he laughed with that infectious Wall Street black humor — “and out comes sirloin.”
At Lehman, I began a thirteen-year effort to streamline the process of securitizing home mortgages, as well as other forms of debt. That was 1988, around the time of the savings-and-loan crisis. Remember that one? Lenders had gone nuts with, what else, real estate, and as they went bust, the government was stepping into the breach. Mortgage securitization was the answer. Retail lenders could make the loan, take a fee, then sell the mortgage to an investment bank. The bank, after bundling thousands of the mortgages together, could, through a little software magic, issue bonds based on that bundle of loans. Now, an investor does not want a single person’s mortgage, much the same as you may not want to underwrite your sibling’s purchase of an overpriced McMansion. But when 1,000 similar loans are combined, and the U.S. government, through Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, absorbs the default risk, you now have a nifty little AAA-rated piece of paper paying one or two points above Treasury bills. And if the value of the loans is in excess of the limit set by the government agencies, your savvy friends on Wall Street can create a class of subordinated bonds that will absorb all the defaults in the deal. With friends like these…

While I slaved away at the sausage grinder, CMOs took off — $6 billion were issued in 1983, and by 1988, the annual output had jumped to $94 billion. This was the era described in Liar’s Poker. Wall Street guys felt cool and funny; people who were getting ripped off were dumb and ugly and deserved it. I got a $50,000 bonus check, a 50 percent dollop on top of my salary. Peanuts to the traders, but a bloody fortune to me, for the easiest work I’d ever done. I could afford to rent a nicer place in Greenwich Village, go out to jazz clubs, bike in France. But even then, I was wondering why I was making more than anyone in my family, maybe as much as all my siblings combined. Hey, I had higher SAT scores. I could do all the arithmetic in my head. I was very good at programming a computer. And that computer, with my software, touched billions of dollars of the firm’s money. Every week. That justified it. When you’re close to the money, you get the first cut. Oyster farmers eat lots of oysters, don’t they?

I never would have thought, in my most extreme paranoid fantasies, that my software, and the others like it, would have enabled Wall Street to decimate the investments of everyone in my family. Not even the most jaded observer saw that coming. I can’t deny that it allowed a privileged few to exploit the unsuspecting many. But catastrophe, depression, busted banks, forced auctions of entire tracts of houses? The fact that my software, over which I would labor for a decade, facilitated these events is numbing. Is capitalism inherently corrupt? I don’t think the free flow of goods in and of itself is the culprit. No, it’s the complexity masked by thousands of unseen whirring widgets that beguiles people into a sense of power, a feeling of dominion over the future.

Read the whole thing for some crazy stories.

Solid State Disks

Monday, March 30th, 2009

One of Joel Spolsky’s developers was complaining that compiling was getting slow (30 seconds) — leading to the usual sword fights in the hall — and wanted to spend a few weeks parallelizing the process to speed it up.

Joel decided against spending expensive developer time when he could instead buy new hardware. He decided to try solid state disks:

Boot time dropped from 2:11 to 0:34. That’s from a cold boot to launching Firefox and navigating to Launching 6 major applications went from about 20 seconds to about 10 seconds. In general, the fact that app launching is so much faster makes a huge difference and it was totally worth it. This little laptop is now the fastest computer I’ve ever used.

It didn’t improve compile time though.

The long-term interests of shareholders are almost certain to be ignored

Monday, March 30th, 2009

Most participants in the financial crisis are public corporations, Philip Greenspun notes, which means they are chartered and regulated by the government in such a way that the long-term interests of shareholders are almost certain to be ignored:

In the old days on Wall Street, market participants were either individuals or partnerships. The people making the decisions had their long-term wealth at risk. By 2008, however, the big firms had become public corporations. The decisions were made by managers who were, in theory, supposed to act in the best interest of the owners. As discussed in my economic recovery plan, however, shareholders have no voice in how a public company is run. The existing management and Board nominates any future Board members.

Managers of the Wall Street firms that melted down had voted themselves particularly generous compensation structures. If they placed big bets that resulted in huge profits, they would take home billions of dollars for themselves. One risk of any big bet, however, is that it will result in a huge loss. The Wall Street firms had no provision for a clawback. An employee such as Stan O’Neal made $50 million per year while loading up Merrill with mortgage-backed securities and then was able to retire to his mansions and jets after he’d basically bankrupted the firm.

The meltdown occurred roughly 10 years after the completed conversion of America’s big investment banks from partnerships to public corporations. [...] A free market in which participants risked their own money might work quite well, but that’s not what we tried. We had a market in which participants risked other peoples’ money and pocketed much of the upside but suffered no downside risk, all made possible by the government’s regulating away public company shareholder power.

New View Of The Way Young Children Think

Monday, March 30th, 2009

Toddlers don’t plan for the future — no surprise there — but they do seem to recall advice once they realize they need it:

“The good news is what we’re saying to our kids doesn’t go in one ear and out the other, like people might have thought,” said CU-Boulder psychology Professor Yuko Munakata, who conducted the study with CU doctoral student Christopher Chatham and Michael Frank of Brown University. “It also doesn’t go in and then get put into action like it does with adults. But rather it goes in and gets stored away for later.”
During the study, the CU-Boulder researchers used a computer game designed for children, and a technique known as pupillometry — a process that measures the diameter of the pupil of the eye to determine the mental effort of the child — to study the cognitive abilities of 3-and-a-half-year-olds and 8-year-olds.

The computer game involved teaching children simple rules about two cartoon characters — Blue from Blue’s Clues and SpongeBob Squarepants — and their preferences for different objects. In the directions for the game, children were told that Blue likes watermelon, so they were to press the happy face on the computer screen only when they saw Blue followed by a watermelon. When SpongeBob appeared, they were told to press the sad face on the screen.

“The older kids found this sequence easy, because they can anticipate the answer before the object appears,” Chatham said. “But preschoolers fail to anticipate in this way. Instead, they slow down and exert mental effort after being presented with the watermelon, as if they’re thinking back to the character they had seen only after the fact.”

Using pupillometry to determine the time at which children exerted mental effort, the speed of their responses for each type of sequence and the relative accuracy of those responses, the researchers found that children neither plan for the future nor live completely in the present. Instead, they call up the past as they need it.

“For example, let’s say it’s cold outside and you tell your 3-year-old to go get his jacket out of his bedroom and get ready to go outside. You might expect the child to plan for the future, think ‘OK it’s cold outside so the jacket will keep me warm,’ ” said Chatham. “But what we suggest is that this isn’t what goes on in a 3-year-old’s brain. Rather, they run outside, discover that it is cold, and then retrieve the memory of where their jacket is, and then they go get it.”

Stem cells to grow bigger breasts

Monday, March 30th, 2009

Implants seem like an awfully inelegant way to reshape the body. Soon British doctors may be using a patient’s own stem cells to grow bigger breasts:

Professor Kefah Mokbel, a consultant breast surgeon at the London Breast Institute at the Princess Grace hospital, who is in charge of the project, will treat 10 patients from May. He predicts private patients will be able to pay for the procedure within six months at a cost of about £6,500.
The cells will be isolated from a woman’s spare fat, once it has been extracted from her thighs or stomach, using equipment owned by GE Healthcare, a technology company. The concentrated stem cells will then be mixed with another batch of fat before being injected into the breast. It takes several months for the breast to achieve the desired size and shape.

Until now, when fat was transplanted to the breast without extra stem cells, surgeons had difficulty maintaining a blood supply to the new tissue. Surgeons believe the double concentration of stem cells under this technique promotes the growth of blood vessels to ensure a sufficient blood supply circulates to the transplanted fat.

This all sounds quite cutting-edge, which is why I was surprised to read this:

The same technique has been used in Japan for six years, initially to treat women with breast deformities caused by cancer treatment and, more recently, for cosmetic breast augmentation in healthy women.

Six years?

No toilet, no bride

Sunday, March 29th, 2009

No toilet, no bride, Indian mothers in Haryana are saying to men courting their daughters:

The slogan — often lengthened in Hindi to “If you don’t have a proper lavatory in your house, don’t even think about marrying my daughter” — has been plastered across villages in the region as part of a drive to boost the number of pukka facilities. In a country where more households have TV sets than lavatories, it is one of the most successful efforts to combat the chronic shortage of proper plumbing.

That is probably partly because of the country’s skewed sex ratio, with 8 per cent more men than women, leading to a “bride shortage”. Woman generally have also become more vocal in their resentment at having to relieve themselves outside, giving brides more leverage in premarital bargaining.

In India it is estimated that more than 660 million people still defaecate in the open — a big cause of a host of diseases, from diarrhoea to polio. It is women, activists say, who suffer the most. “Women who must go outside have to do so before sunrise or after nightfall so they can’t be seen,” said Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh, which has built toilets for ten million Indians, and the recipient of this year’s Stockholm Water Prize for developing ecofriendly and cheap lavatories to help to improve public health.

Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, said: “I come from a village and I know that if there is no sugarcane or wheat in the fields women may have to walk very far to find privacy. It’s inconvenient, undignified and, at night, it’s not safe.”

Those behind the “no toilet, no bride” scheme in Haryana are pleased with the results. About 1.4 million lavatories have been built in the state since the campaign began in 2005, many of them with significant government subsidies. “We have more toilets, less shame among women and less disease,” S.K.Monda, the official in charge of the programme, said.

Locals agree that the campaign — which also runs TV adverts, radio jingles and cleanliness rallies — has changed how they think. “Our daughter will be married only to a family that has a toilet at home … [if need be] we will hold out for the construction of a new toilet,” Satwant Kaur, of the village of Khanpur Koliyan, told a local news service.

There are pockets of resistance, however. Some upper-caste communities are not happy having lavatories in their homes because tradition dictates that such an arrangement is unclean.

Mr Monda said: “People do not want to go to the toilet in the home where they cook food. And many old people enjoy the opportunity to go for a walk. It gives them the opportunity to check on their fields.”

Mass Transit and a Soaring Car Culture Clash in China

Saturday, March 28th, 2009

Mass transit and a soaring car culture clash in China, as 15 cities build subway lines and a dozen more plan them:

Subways have been most competitive in cities like New York that have high prices for parking, and tolls for bridges and tunnels, discouraging car use. Few Chinese cities have been willing to follow suit, other than Shanghai, which charges a fee of several thousand dollars for each license plate.

Few cities anywhere seem willing to charge market prices for valuable real estate once it’s paved over as a road or parking lot. Further, Shanghai’s answer of charging thousands for a license plate keeps the marginal cost of driving and parking close to zero; it doesn’t get cars off the road.

The cost and physical limitations of subways have discouraged most cities from building new ones. For instance, only Tokyo has a subway system that carries more people than its buses. The buses are cheaper and able to serve far more streets but move more slowly, pollute more and contribute to traffic congestion.

Proponents of mass transit like to phrase it that way — that buses contribute to congestion — but that’s another way of saying that buses share the existing road with cars. Buses don’t require digging up an entire alternative underground road or rail system. If we wanted to, I’m sure we could, but it wouldn’t justify the cost.

China has reason to worry. It surpassed the United States in total vehicle sales for the first time in January, although the United States remained slightly ahead in car sales. But in February, China overtook the United States in both, in part because the global downturn has hurt auto sales much more in the United States than in China.

I find it odd that China, lauded for its strong centralized authority, can’t manage exactly the kind of problems a strong centralized authority should be able to manage. Why is the government providing all the infrastructure for cars, if it has decided to go with mass transit?

The Quiet Coup

Friday, March 27th, 2009

Simon Johnson, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, was the chief economist at the International Monetary Fund during 2007 and 2008. In The Quiet Coup, he argues that Wall Street long ago “captured” its regulators, leading to a situation not unlike an “emerging” market in crisis:

Typically, these countries are in a desperate economic situation for one simple reason — the powerful elites within them overreached in good times and took too many risks. Emerging-market governments and their private-sector allies commonly form a tight-knit — and, most of the time, genteel — oligarchy, running the country rather like a profit-seeking company in which they are the controlling shareholders. When a country like Indonesia or South Korea or Russia grows, so do the ambitions of its captains of industry. As masters of their mini-universe, these people make some investments that clearly benefit the broader economy, but they also start making bigger and riskier bets. They reckon — correctly, in most cases — that their political connections will allow them to push onto the government any substantial problems that arise.

I largely agree, but I must disagree with one point: the oligarchs don’t run the country like a profit-seeking company in which they are the controlling shareholders; they run it like a profit-seeking company in which they are the management.

Since they are not the residual claimants to the country’s tax revenues after expenses — in fact, there are no such shareholders at all — they have little incentive to grow those tax revenues or to cut expenses. Their goal is not to maximize the country’s profits. But they do have a massive incentive to redirect tax revenues to their friends and families — to create public expenses that provide a private benefit. It’s a principal-agent problem writ large.

A “crisis” that “requires” the government to transfer funds to cronies — pardon, private-sector allies — is just one more acceptable way to extract money from the system. So why try too hard to avoid such a crisis?

Tesla Model S

Friday, March 27th, 2009

The Tesla Model S sedan promises a lot:

The production version of the electric sedan, absent a $350 million loan from the Department of Energy and a manufacturing plant, will be tamer in performance but no less striking in its respective segment when it arrives in late 2011. Hours after embargoed studio photos of the concept car, above, were posted to a Flickr account, Tesla revealed the specifications at the official California launch: a 300-mile range, 45-minute charging, and zero to 60 miles per hour in 5.5 seconds.

At $57,400, the Model S is priced in the range of the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, BMW 5 Series, Jaguar XF, and other premium sedans. But Tesla buyers can now claim a $7,500 federal tax credit for electric and plug-in hybrid cars, which President Obama announced last week in addition to $2.4 billion in federal grants for electric car and battery manufacturers.

Macroeconomics as Religion

Friday, March 27th, 2009

The latest episode of South Park, Margaritaville, points out the uncanny resemblance between macroeconomics and religion.

Kenya wildlife perishes in nets bought with US aid

Friday, March 27th, 2009

Which is more valuable, Kenyan wildlife or Kenyan fishermen?

Plastic fishing nets — some bought for poor fishermen with American aid money — are tangling up whales and turtles off one of Africa’s most popular beaches.

One recent victim was a huge dappled whaleshark that bled to death after its tail was cut off by fishermen unwilling to slash their nets to save it. In another case, divers risked their lives to free a pregnant, thrashing humpback whale entangled in a net last summer.

Both incidents occurred off Diani beach, which is popular with American and European tourists.

The fishermen have traditionally used hooks and hand lines to haul in their catch, which they then sold to hotels full of tourists. But the use of plastic nets has become increasingly common as growing populations have competed to catch shrinking supplies of fish, marine biologist David Obura said.

I’m not sure about sea turtles, but Kenyans aren’t an endangered species:

Kenya’s population has increased with remarkable rapidity in recent decades. According to UN estimates, the national total rose by 28% from 6,416,000 in 1950 to 8,189,000 in 1960; by 37% to 11,253,000 in 1970; by 46% to 16,466,000 in 1980; by 36% to 22,400,000 in 1987; and by 24% to an estimated 27,885,000 in 1995.

The article barely hints at the crux of the problem:

In addition to the growing groups of poor fishermen crowding onto the reefs, huge European and Asian trawlers much further offshore are overfishing the deeper coastal waters, he said.

“The fishermen have the strong sense that there are other, richer fishermen out there raping and pillaging the seas and so why shouldn’t they?” he said.

The is one of the classic examples of the Tragedy of the Commons, because no one owns the fish. Iceland solved that problem years ago.

Everyday Psychopharmacology

Friday, March 27th, 2009

Dennis Mangan shares some everyday psychopharmacology from Bruce Charlton’s paper:

For neuroticism, Charlton proposes the use of diphenhydramine (Benadryl), chlorpheniramine (various cough suppressants), and St. John’s wort, all available over the counter. It turns out that the SSRI class of antidepressants — Prozac and the like — were developed from antihistamines after it was noticed that the latter had an inhibiting effect on serotonin re-uptake.

For a state typified by “malaise”, Charlton suggests tricyclic antidepressants — these are prescription only — and NSAIDs such as aspirin or acetaminophen. Interestingly, the TCAs have potent analgesic effects, which Charlton suggests are the true cause of their antidepressant action; Charlton’s hypothesis of depression is that it is a condition in which the brain senses the body’s malaise. As for aspirin and the like, these drugs can cause increased intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”), which has recently been shown to be a factor in depression and chronic fatigue; increased translocation of bacterial antigens from the intestine contributing to or causing the inflammation characteristic of these illnesses. So there’s my contribution to this debate: personally I would be wary of NSAIDs for this purpose. Acetaminophen also causes a depletion of glutathione, which in fact is the cause of liver damage in cases of overdose (the antidote used is n-acetylcysteine); glutathione depletion has been shown to be common in patients with chronic fatigue, another reason to be wary of this drug.

For “demotivated depression”, Charlton suggests, absent the more powerful prescription-only energizers like methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamines, the old standbys caffeine and nicotine. In an epidemiological study, two to three cups of coffee daily reduced the risk of suicide by about two-thirds, which would seem to make it a powerful antidepressant. Nicotine, when used in a form that does not involve smoking, is probably about as safe as caffeine. “Nicotine does not cause cancer, heart attacks or emphysema.”

For seasonal affective disorder (SAD), light therapy is the treatment of choice and easily implemented by the patient.

"Investing" in Education

Friday, March 27th, 2009

“Investing” in education is really spending on education; it isn’t an investment in much:

Many people believe that lack of funding is a problem in public education,but historical trends show that American spending on public education is at an all-time high. Between 1994 and 2004, average per-pupil expenditures in American public schools have increased by 23.5 percent (adjusted for inflation). Between 1984 and 2004, real expenditures per pupil increased by 49 percent. These increases follow the historical trend of ever-increasing real per-student expenditures in the nation’s public schools. In fact, the per-pupil expenditures in 1970–1971 ($4,060) were less than half of per-pupil expenditures in 2005–2006 ($9,266) after adjusting for inflation.