GDP tell us less and less

Friday, June 26th, 2009

GDP tell us less and less about broader efforts to improve human well-being, Tyler Cowen notes, as we spend more and more time on the Web:

Buying $2 worth of bananas boosts GDP; having $20 worth of fun on the Web does not.

$100 Laptop Becomes a $5 PC

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

The failure of the one-laptop-per-child (OLPC) initiative has been given a sugar coating — $100 Laptop Becomes a $5 PC:

The open-source education software developed for the “$100 laptop” can now be loaded onto a $5 USB stick to run aging PCs and Macs with a new interface and custom educational software.

“What we are doing is taking a bunch of old machines that barely run Windows 2000, and turning them into something interesting and useful for essentially zero cost,” says Walter Bender, former president of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project. “It becomes a whole new computer running off the USB key; we can breathe new life into millions of decrepit old machines.”

Bender left OLPC last year to found Sugar Labs, which promotes the open-source user interface, dubbed Sugar, and educational software originally developed at OLPC. Bender has dubbed the new effort Sugar on a Stick. The software can be downloaded for free from the Sugar Labs website as part of the new initiative, which will be announced at a conference in Berlin today.

This summer, Sugar Labs will also deploy the software at the Gardner Pilot Academy, an elementary school in Boston, under a $20,000 grant from the Gould Charitable Foundation. Sugar Labs also plans to release an improved version of the software at the end of 2009.

The Sugar interface was custom-designed for children. The new Sugar on a Stick download features 40 software programs, including core applications called Read, Write, Paint, and Etoys. Many other applications are available for download, most of which emphasize creative collaboration among children. The USB software can boot up an aging computer and save data from any of the programs.

Chariot Skates

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

Chariot Skates seem like an obvious idea — once you’ve seen them in action:

Iran’s Geography and Its Politics

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

Robert D. Kaplan examines Iran’s geography and its politics:

Whereas Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are puzzle pieces carved out of featureless desert, with no venerable traditions of statehood, the roots of a great Persian power occupying the Iranian plateau date to the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanid empires. With nearly 70 million people occupying the tableland between the oil-rich Caspian Sea and the oil-rich Persian Gulf, Iran is the Muslim world’s universal joint.

Iranian power, both soft and hard, is felt from the Mediterranean to the Indus. Indeed, Iran’s influence in southern Lebanon and Gaza is part of a historical tradition of empire and Shiite rule. By puncturing the legitimacy of the clerical authority, the demonstrations in Tehran and other cities have the capacity to herald a new era in Middle Eastern and Central Asian politics.

Iran’s governing institutions, however illiberal their current intent, are structurally sounder than most in the Arab world. When the shah was toppled, anarchy did not ensue: Within weeks, a Shiite bureaucratic apparatus filled the void. That sophisticated network reflected not just religion but also Iranian high culture.

The Iran of the ayatollahs was never a one-dimensional tyranny such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; it is a complex system with an elected parliament and chief executive. Likewise, Iran’s democracy movement is strikingly Western in its organizational discipline and its urbane use of technology. In terms of development, Iran is much closer to Turkey than to Syria or Iraq. While the latter two live with the possibility of implosion, Iran has an internal coherence that allows it to bear down hard on its neighbors. In the future, a democratic Iran could be, in a benevolent sense, as influential in Baghdad as the murder squads of a theocratic Iran have been in a malignant sense.

Parenting, Peer Groups and Keeping Kosher

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

Judith Harris’s The Nurture Assumption infamously argues that parenting has little influence on how kids turn out. Parents’ real influence is largely genetic; kids are socialized by their friends.

The key exception comes when the parents play a larger role in the kids’ peer group. David Friedman runs with this idea in Parenting, Peer Groups and Keeping Kosher:

My friend and ex-colleague Larry Iannacone long ago raised the question of how, in a society like the U.S. with open entry to the religion industry, a religion can survive that imposes costly requirements on its adherents, requirements that do not produce any matching benefit. Why isn’t such a religion always outcompeted by a new version that keeps everything else but dumps the costly restrictions — Judaism without koshruth rules, LDS with beer and coffee? His answer was that such restrictions do produce a “benefit” — they make it more difficult for adherents to interact outside of the religious community, and thus give them an incentive to spend time and effort producing community public goods, doing things that make being part of that community attractive.

It occurs to me that what I am seeing in Leo Rosten’s affectionate description of the world he grew up in may be a special version of that relevant to the first half of this post. If you are brought up in an environment which is sufficiently special to make your age peers at school feel like “them” rather than “us” and your parents and siblings and relatives like “us” rather than “them,” that may result in your identifying with the latter group. If their norms are better than those of the surrounding society, at least by their standards, they will see that as a good thing. Keeping their children is a benefit that may more than balance the costs of rules and rituals.

Friedman was raised in the “religion” of 18th-century rationalism, by the way:

Which, of course, might be just as effective a way of making most of the outside world, including my age peers as I was growing up, feel like “them.”


Sarychev Peak Eruption

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

Behold the Sarychev peak eruption, in the Kuril Islands, as photographed from the International Space Station:

A fortuitous orbit of the International Space Station allowed the astronauts this striking view of Sarychev Volcano (Kuril Islands, northeast of Japan) in an early stage of eruption on June 12, 2009. Sarychev Peak is one of the most active volcanoes in the Kuril Island chain, and it is located on the northwestern end of Matua Island. Prior to June 12, the last explosive eruption occurred in 1989, with eruptions in 1986, 1976, 1954, and 1946 also producing lava flows. Ash from the multi-day eruption has been detected 2,407 kilometers east-southeast and 926 kilometers west-northwest of the volcano, and commercial airline flights are being diverted away from the region to minimize the danger of engine failures from ash intake.

This detailed astronaut photograph is exciting to volcanologists because it captures several phenomena that occur during the earliest stages of an explosive volcanic eruption. The main column is one of a series of plumes that rose above Matua Island on June 12. The plume appears to be a combination of brown ash and white steam. The vigorously rising plume gives the steam a bubble-like appearance. The eruption cleared a circle in the cloud deck. The clearing may result from the shockwave from the eruption or from sinking air around the eruption plume: as the plume rises, air flows down around the sides like water flowing off the back of a surfacing dolphin. As air sinks, it tends to warm and expand; clouds in the air evaporate.

In contrast, the smooth white cloud on top may be water condensation that resulted from rapid rising and cooling of the air mass above the ash column. This cloud, which meteorologists call a pileus cloud, is probably a transient feature: the eruption plume is starting to punch through. The structure also indicates that little to no shearing wind was present at the time to disrupt the plume.

(Hat tip à mon père.)

Slain Soldiers Offer Clues To Protect The Living

Thursday, June 25th, 2009

Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air interviews Captain Craig T. Mallak, chief of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System, who describes how virtual autopsies have improved medical equipment design:

One specific example is the recent improvement of chest tubes used buy combat medics. By examining 100 Ct Scans and measuring wounds, doctors found that because soldiers were in better shape than civilians, they needed longer tubes and needles to penetrate the chest wall and reach the collapsed lung.


Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

I remember thinking, when I was first learning the alphabet, that p and b represented similar sounds, and p and b were similar symbols, but t and d also represented similar sounds — similar in the same way as p and b, in fact — and they were not similar symbols. Why wasn’t the t sound represented by a flipped d, like a q?

Similarly, why weren’t k and g flipped versions of one another, more like ? and g? And why weren’t f and v flipped versions of one another, like f and ?, or ? and v?

At least the letters s and z were clearly related, even if they weren’t flipped versions of one another.

I was looking for the logic behind a not-so-logical, evolved system of writing, and it wasn’t there.

The quality I recognized, by the way, was voiceless versus voiced articulation. The sounds p, t, k, and f are voiceless — the larynx does not vibrate — while the sounds b, d, g, and v are voiced — the larynx does vibrate.

It’s actually pretty straightforward to sort the consonants by whether they’re made with both lips (bilabials like p and b), teeth and lip (labiodentals like f and v), teeth (dentals like t and d), or back of the roof of the mouth (velars like k and g).

Once you put the consonants into an organized table like that, you can’t help but think that the symbols should reflect the nature of each sound and how it’s made — which is what Alexander Graham Bell’s father effectively did, with his visible speech alphabet for the deaf:

When I first mentioned the visible speech alphabet, I noted that you could easily imagine it as some obscure elven written language from Tolkien’s Middle Earth. What I didn’t realize at the time was that Tolkien’s tengwar alphabet is also a logically laid out system:

In tengwar, similar sounds have similar symbols. It all would have made so much more sense to my four-year-old self than our own Latin alphabet.

(For geeky fun, you might enjoy this tengwar transcriber, by the way.)

The Warrior Gene

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

Kevin Beaver at Florida State has found that young men with the “warrior gene” are more likely to join gangs, to be among the more violent members of the gang, and to use weapons:

“While gangs typically have been regarded as a sociological phenomenon, our investigation shows that variants of a specific MAOA gene, known as a ‘low-activity 3-repeat allele,’ play a significant role,” said Beaver, an award-winning researcher who has co-authored more than 50 published papers on the biosocial underpinnings of criminal behavior.

“Previous research has linked low-activity MAOA variants to a wide range of antisocial, even violent, behavior, but our study confirms that these variants can predict gang membership,” he said. “Moreover, we found that variants of this gene could distinguish gang members who were markedly more likely to behave violently and use weapons from members who were less likely to do either.”

The MAOA gene affects levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin that are related to mood and behavior, and those variants that are related to violence are hereditary. Some previous studies have found the “warrior gene” to be more prevalent in cultures that are typified by warfare and aggression.
The new study examined DNA data and lifestyle information drawn from more than 2,500 respondents to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

Previous studies have found the “warrior gene” to be more prevalent in cultures that are typified by warfare and aggression. Such as? The Maori of New Zealand.

Ten Books Lexington Green Wants To Read Again

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

Lexington Green has too little time to read, let alone re-read, but he lists ten books he wants to read again — and I share my thoughts:

    1. Charles Norris Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture: A Study of Thought and Action from Augustus to Augustine – Green’s list starts with an old work new to me.
    2. Eric Rucker Eddison, The Worm Ouroboros – I enjoyed Eddison’s work immensely, but I can’t recommend it, because it is far from accessible. Written in the 1920s, it is a work of fantasy from before the genre existed as such, and it mixes archaic English, a Norse mythological style, bits of Greek and Roman myth, a setting called Mercury, with no meaningful relationship to the planet, and peoples called Demons, Witches, Goblins, etc., that are not in any sense demons, witches, goblins, etc., but ordinary men. It’s hard to explain.
    3. Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – Green mentions how strongly Starship Troopers affected him as a boy, and how well it held up years later. I felt the same way. So, when I heard that Heinlein had written a more-or-less libertarian science-fiction novel, I assumed it would be right up my alley — but, regrettably, Moon is not on my re-read list.
    4. Homer, The Iliad – Everyone has to re-read The Iliad, right?
    5. George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four – I need to read Animal Farm more than I need to re-read Nineteen Eighty-Four.
    6. Quentin Reynolds, They Fought For The Sky: The Dramatic Story of the First War in the Air – Sounds intriguing.
    7. Thomas Sowell, Knowledge And Decisions – I usually enjoy Sowell’s writing, and a number of EconTalk podcasts have reminded me to read his Hayekian classic.
    8. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace – Does anyone have time to read Tolstoy’s classic more than once?
    9. Evelyn Waugh, The Sword of Honour Trilogy – The name Evelyn Waugh always struck me as exceedingly English — like Wooster and Jeeves — and I never paid it much attention until I read about the then-upcoming James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, which borrowed its title from an Ian Fleming story that only used James Bond as part of its framing story, so Fleming could write an Evelyn Waugh-style story and get it published.
    10. H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds – Wells’ early science-fiction stories have held up amazingly well — and much better than Verne’s “harder” science-fiction. It’s hard to stay amazed by a submarine and by waterproof doors lined with India rubber.

Zenpundit calls the list of books you read over and over again your quantum library. He borrowed the idea:

The Quantum-Library is the layer that co-exists as a member of both the Library and the Anti-Library. It is something you may have read, but when read again with a different perspective it exists in another form.

I suspect that many, many folks have Tolkien in their quantum library — and Green does, apparently outside his current top ten:

The Lord of the Rings is a poetic / mythic / epic depiction of the defense of the West (especially England and its medieval inheritance) against tyranny and evil. Where most writers view the West through an Enlightenment frame, and see it as Antiquity then an interregnum followed by Modernity, Tolkien more accurately sees it as Antiquity + Christianity + Teutonic folkways and love of freedom. Modernity he has little use for. It is also a depiction of the working of Providence in History through the instrumentality of individual responses to grace, the primacy of the virtues, especially humility, and the unity of prayer and action (e.g. Sam’s prayer for water and sunlight that turns the course of the war in ways he cannot know) and hence anti-Hegelian, anti-Marxist, anti-determinist, anti-economistic.

Elephants Can Dance

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

Steve Blank was at the Stanford library, going through the papers of Fred Terman, the professor who encouraged Bill Hewlett and David Packard to start HP, when he came across this letter from Hewlett back to Terman:

At the time, HP was a 17-year old company with $20 million in test equipment sales and 900 employees. It was still a year away from its IPO.

Ten years later — at Dave Packard’s insistence — it introduced its first computer, the HP2116A, as an instrument controller.

Thirty-three years after that, it split into two companies, which have gone their separate ways:

  • Agilent is a $5.8 billion dollar test and measurement company.
  • Hewlett Packard (HP) is a $118 billion PC manufacturer — the largest in the world.

And that’s why Steve Blank says that elephants can dance — under the guidance of either a founder or an outsider with fresh eyes:

Intel was founded in 1968 to make memory chips (bipolar RAM) but 17 years later they got out of the memory business and become the leading microprocessor company.

IBM had a near death experience in 1993, and moved from a product-centric hardware company to selling a complete set of solutions and services.

After failing dismally at making disposable digital cameras in 2003 Pure Digital Technologies reinvented their company in 2007 to make the Flip line of camcorders.

Apple was a personal computer company but 25 years after it started, it began the transformation to the iPod and iPhone.

A few carriage makers in the early part of the 20th century made the transition to become car companies. A great example is William Durant’s Durant-Dort Carriage Company. Durant took over Buick, in 1904 and in 1908 he created General Motors by acquiring Oldsmobile, Pontiac, and Cadillac.

The Benefits of a Classical Education

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

I didn’t realize that famed technologist Tim O’Reilly had a classical education, which he discussed with Forbes:

I’ve been deeply influenced by Aristotle’s idea that virtue is a habit, something you practice and get better at, rather than something that comes naturally. “The control of the appetites by right reason,” is how he defined it. My brother James once brilliantly reframed this as “Virtue is knowing what you really want,” and then building the intellectual and moral muscle to go after it.

Email patterns can predict impending doom

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

Email patterns can predict impending doom:

After US energy giant Enron collapsed in December 2001, federal investigators obtained records of emails sent by around 150 senior staff during the company’s final 18 months. The logs, which record 517,000 emails sent to around 15,000 employees, provide a rare insight into how communication within an organisation changes during stressful times.
Menezes says he expected communication networks to change during moments of crisis. Yet the researchers found that the biggest changes actually happened around a month before. For example, the number of active email cliques, defined as groups in which every member has had direct email contact with every other member, jumped from 100 to almost 800 around a month before the December 2001 collapse. Messages were also increasingly exchanged within these groups and not shared with other employees.

Menezes thinks he and Collingsworth may have identified a characteristic change that occurs as stress builds within a company: employees start talking directly to people they feel comfortable with, and stop sharing information more widely.

Color and Reality

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

If we find two colors on a spectrum line, we can average their wavelengths to find what color they’ll produce when mixed:

Wait, the reality of color is a bit more complicated:

There are “real” colors (we call them pure spectral or monochromatic colors) and “unreal” colors that only exist in the brain.

So what are the rules for creating these “unreal” colors from the very real photons that hit your eye? Well, in the 1920s W. David Wright and John Guild both conducted experiments designed to map how the brain mixed monochomatic light into the millions of colors we experience everyday. They set up a split screen — on one side, they projected a “test” color. On the other side, the subject could mix together three primary colors produced by projectors to match the test color. After a lot of test subjects and a lot of test colors, eventually the CIE 1931 color space was produced.

On the curved border we can see numbers, which correspond to the wavelengths in the spectrum we saw earlier. We can imagine the spectrum bent around the outside of this map — representing “real” colors. The inside represents all the colors our brain produces by mixing — the “imaginary” colors.

So, finally, blue and red make magenta, not green:

But it’s all in your head.

Lockhart’s Lament

Sunday, June 21st, 2009

Lockhart’s Lament is not about music or painting:

A musician wakes from a terrible nightmare. In his dream he finds himself in a society where music education has been made mandatory. “We are helping our students become more competitive in an increasingly sound-filled world.” Educators, school systems, and the state are put in charge of this vital project. Studies are commissioned, committees are formed, and decisions are made — all without the advice or participation of a single working musician or composer.

Since musicians are known to set down their ideas in the form of sheet music, these curious black dots and lines must constitute the “language of music.” It is imperative that students become fluent in this language if they are to attain any degree of musical competence; indeed, it would be ludicrous to expect a child to sing a song or play an instrument without having a thorough grounding in music notation and theory. Playing and listening to music, let alone composing an original piece, are considered very advanced topics and are generally put off until college, and more often graduate school.

As for the primary and secondary schools, their mission is to train students to use this language — to jiggle symbols around according to a fixed set of rules: “Music class is where we take out our staff paper, our teacher puts some notes on the board, and we copy them or transpose them into a different key. We have to make sure to get the clefs and key signatures right, and our teacher is very picky about making sure we fill in our quarter-notes completely. One time we had a chromatic scale problem and I did it right, but the teacher gave me no credit because I had the stems pointing the wrong way.”

In their wisdom, educators soon realize that even very young children can be given this kind of musical instruction. In fact it is considered quite shameful if one’s third-grader hasn’t completely memorized his circle of fifths. “I’ll have to get my son a music tutor. He simply won’t apply himself to his music homework. He says it’s boring. He just sits there staring out the window, humming tunes to himself and making up silly songs.”

In the higher grades the pressure is really on. After all, the students must be prepared for the standardized tests and college admissions exams. Students must take courses in Scales and Modes, Meter, Harmony, and Counterpoint. “It’s a lot for them to learn, but later in college when they finally get to hear all this stuff, they’ll really appreciate all the work they did in high school.” Of course, not many students actually go on to concentrate in music, so only a few will ever get to hear the sounds that the black dots represent. Nevertheless, it is important that every member of society be able to recognize a modulation or a fugal passage, regardless of the fact that they will never hear one. “To tell you the truth, most students just aren’t very good at music. They are bored in class, their skills are terrible, and their homework is barely legible. Most of them couldn’t care less about how important music is in today’s world; they just want to take the minimum number of music courses and be done with it. I guess there are just music people and non-music people. I had this one kid, though, man was she sensational! Her sheets were impeccable — every note in the right place, perfect calligraphy, sharps, flats, just beautiful. She’s going to make one hell of a musician someday.”

Waking up in a cold sweat, the musician realizes, gratefully, that it was all just a crazy dream. “Of course!” he reassures himself, “No society would ever reduce such a beautiful and meaningful art form to something so mindless and trivial; no culture could be so cruel to its children as to deprive them of such a natural, satisfying means of human expression. How absurd!”

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, a painter has just awakened from a similar nightmare…

I was surprised to find myself in a regular school classroom — no easels, no tubes of paint. “Oh we don’t actually apply paint until high school,” I was told by the students. “In seventh grade we mostly study colors and applicators.” They showed me a worksheet. On one side were swatches of color with blank spaces next to them. They were told to write in the names. “I like painting,” one of them remarked, “they tell me what to do and I do it. It’s easy!” After class I spoke with the teacher. “So your students don’t actually do any painting?” I asked. “Well, next year they take Pre-Paint-by-Numbers. That prepares them for the main Paint-by-Numbers sequence in high school. So they’ll get to use what they’ve learned here and apply it to real-life painting situations — dipping the brush into paint, wiping it off, stuff like that. Of course we track our students by ability. The really excellent painters — the ones who know their colors and brushes backwards and forwards — they get to the actual painting a little sooner, and some of them even take the Advanced Placement classes for college credit. But mostly we’re just trying to give these kids a good foundation in what painting is all about, so when they get out there in the real world and paint their kitchen they don’t make a total mess of it.” “Um, these high school classes you mentioned…”

“You mean Paint-by-Numbers? We’re seeing much higher enrollments lately. I think it’s mostly coming from parents wanting to make sure their kid gets into a good college. Nothing looks better than Advanced Paint-by-Numbers on a high school transcript.” “Why do colleges care if you can fill in numbered regions with the corresponding color?” “Oh, well, you know, it shows clear-headed logical thinking. And of course if a student is planning to major in one of the visual sciences, like fashion or interior decorating, then it’s really a good idea to get your painting requirements out of the way in high school.” “I see. And when do students get to paint freely, on a blank canvas?” “You sound like one of my professors! They were always going on about expressing yourself and your feelings and things like that — really way-out-there abstract stuff. I’ve got a degree in Painting myself, but I’ve never really worked much with blank canvasses. I just use the Paint-by-Numbers kits supplied by the school board.”

Paul Lockhart is a mathematician, and this is his lament:

Sadly, our present system of mathematics education is precisely this kind of nightmare. In fact, if I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child’s natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn’t possibly do as good a job as is currently being done — I simply wouldn’t have the imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soul-crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education.