Friday, August 28th, 2009

Researchers have developed a drug that makes mice lose weight, reverses their diabetes, and lowers their cholesterol — and they’ve dubbed it fatostatin. Seriously:

Fatostatin is a small molecule, meaning it has the potential to be absorbed in pill form.

It works on so-called sterol regulatory element binding proteins or SREBPs, which are transcription factors that activate genes involved in making cholesterol and fatty acids.

“Fatostatin blocked increases in body weight, blood glucose, and hepatic (liver) fat accumulation in (genetically) obese mice, even under uncontrolled food intake,” the researchers wrote.

Genetic tests showed the drug affected 63 different genes.

The idea of interfering with SREBP is not new. GlaxSmithKline has been working on a new-generation cholesterol drug that uses this pathway.

After four weeks, mice injected with fatostatin weighed 12 percent less and had 70 percent lower blood sugar levels, the researchers wrote.

Now they plan to test rats and rabbits, Wakil said.

Resilient to Criticism

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

The larger the system, the more resilient it is to criticism of any sort, Eric Falkenstein argues:

If the system is successful, in terms of shuttle flights or mortgage default rates, it doesn’t matter what your ‘theory’ is as to why certain risks are too great — these risks will be explained away because in any complex system, the theory as to how one thing affects the entire system is tenuous. There are too many interest groups benefiting from the systems current state, and they will find good reason to dismiss concerns as evidence of envy, selfish interest, ideology or muck-raking sensationalism. The larger the system, the more resilient it is to criticism of any sort.

A good current example of a trend that cannot continue, yet there is no data against it, is government debt. While the official debt-to-GDP ratio is manageable, about 26th or so worldwide. But the off-balance sheet liabilities, thing like Medicaid, Social Security, increase our debt 5 fold (to around $60 trillion, compared to on-balance sheet debt of 10 trillion.). Ever since the passage of the unified budget act during the Nixon administration, the government has had the privilege of spending the Social Security funds by transferring the money into the general fund, from which Congress can spend on whatever pork projects they wish.

Many government entities, city and state, keep increasing their off-balance sheet liabilities at a rate that implies preposterous tax rates or reneging on promises, but no one worries because this has been going on for a while. You would go to jail if you did this in the private sector, yet it is OK because it seems to work.

Stein’s law states that trends that can not continue, won’t, which implies the government will either have to default, reneg on benefits, or pressure the Fed to inflate. Those noting this risk of this strategy have been proven wrong by absence of any failure in this area. When the future budget crisis hits in this area, it will dwarf our current crisis by a factor of 10.

I don’t see how the risk of a complex system can be correctly calibrated without massive failure, because there are just too many incentives to rationalize risks as being under control as long as the system is working, and so it just continues until failure. They are an endogenous risks to our system, so the economy will never achieve a steady state, which given over a hundred years of business cycles, is a pretty safe forecast. The bigger question is, in my mind, is why don’t large systems fail more often. That is, the average annual corporate default rate in the US is around 1.4%, over good and bad times, which is pretty low.

High-Speed Fail

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

Harvard economist Edward Glaeser scrutinized high-speed rail and concluded that the benefits are overwhelmed by the costs. Washington Post writer Robert Samuelson added that high-speed rail works in Europe and Asia because of their higher population densities, but it won’t work in the United States. Cato’s Randal O’Toole goes one step further and says that high-speed rail doesn’t even work in Europe and Asia:

Japan and France have both spent about as much on high-speed rail as they have on their intercity freeway systems, yet the average residents of those countries travel by car 10 to 20 times as much as they travel by high-speed rail. They also fly domestically more than they take high-speed rail. While the highways and airlines pay for themselves out of gas taxes and other user fees, high-speed rail is heavily subsidized and serves only a tiny urban elite.

Go, Steam Racer, Go!

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

World’s fastest kettle breaks oldest land speed record:

This morning, at California’s Edwards Air Force Base, a British steam car put the kettle to the metal and broke the oldest-standing land speed record. Driver Charles Burnett III piloted the car to speeds of 136 mph and 151 mph during two separate runs.

British engineers celebrated a triumph that comes after days of setbacks and 10 years of development. Attempts to break the record last week had faltered when the steam car’s turbine became stuck, although the car had unofficially broken the record during test runs.

The official recorded speed averaged from the two latest runs breaks the previous steam car record of 127 mph set by Fred Marriott in 1906 — as long as it holds up to official FIA scrutiny.

Still, the three-ton, 25-ft “Inspiration” steam car represents a marvel of engineering that wraps new materials around an old concept. Lightweight carbon-fiber composite and aluminum cover a steel space frame chassis, and the car holds 12 boilers containing almost two miles of tubing. Steam gets superheated to 400 degrees C (752 degrees F) before being injected into the turbine at more than twice the speed of sound.

Misconstruing Mussolini

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

Benito Mussolini (supposedly) said that “Fascism should more properly be called corporatism, since it is the merger of state and corporate power” — but if you interpret that using modern language you’re misconstruing Mussolini:

This quote is often misconstrued nowadays by leftists who view profit-making corporations under capitalism (especially multinational corporations) as instruments of the devil. They love the implied image of capitalist fat-cats and fascist dictators conspiring in gilded opulence. Alas for them that this quote actually doesn’t imply anything like that; the terminological ground under it has shifted.

The “corporatism” to which Mussolini was referring had, actually, nothing to do with corporations, joint-stock or otherwise (in the 1920s the word “corporation” did not yet have its modern sense, either in English or Italian). His use of the word had to do with a feature of fascist theory forgotten by almost everybody but specialist historians.

In fascist theory, “corporations” were bodies like unions, craft guilds, professional societies, and grange associations.

What Mussolini was actually enunciating was a sort of organic statism in which the state would bless or admit representatives of various “corporations” into its governing councils — and no, that didn’t mean Fiat or Beretta but (say) the Abruzzo Building Trades Association, or the Society of University Professors.

While corporations in the modern sense were not outright excluded from being legitimized “corporations” in the fascist sense, neither did they have any special status or power in the system. Actually, it was rather the reverse…

It’s worth remembering that the founders of fascism were mainly Leninists like Mussolini with a sprinkling of anarcho-syndicalists (George Sorel being the best known of those). Actual fascism retained the founders’ doctrinal hostility to what modern leftists would call “corporate power”, never renouncing its state-socialist roots and being (in fact) hostile to all centers of power other than the state itself.

The modern idea that German and Italian fascism were conservative or pro-business ideologies is essentially a fantasy constructed by pro-Soviet propagandists during and after World War II.

Searching for Cosmic Poker

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

Richard Garfield, creator of Magic: The Gathering, doesn’t like to review games, because he doesn’t want to hurt designers’ feelings. So he frames his reviews as a search for Cosmic Poker — the lovechild of two of his favorite, but very different games, poker and Cosmic Encounter. His mythical Cosmic Poker would have these five qualities in the proper proportions — some high, some low:

Luck and Uncertainty: These are important to me, I typically want to see games closer to poker than to chess — that is — where there is a lot of skill, but anyone can win. There are fine games with low uncertainty — like chess for example, but in my view luck is underrepresented in games and underappreciated by game reviewers.

Politics: Typically want to see little politics in a game, and mechanics where I choose who to hose rankle me. I am a big fan of team games and two player games for this reason. There are many good games with a lot of politics, like Diplomacy — but I am typically not looking for those experiences these days.

Variety: Poker has immense replayability in a couple of ways. There are many varieties of poker, and within the game players face a constantly changing challenge. Cosmic Encounter brought this variety to a whole new level however, as in each game you played with different cards and players had different roles.

Hidden Information: I love hidden information — game information that one player knows that others don’t. When in a game the doors open wide for the opportunity of bluffing and other mind games. I do not generally include information that is not known because it is meant to be forgotten, like resources or victory points behind a screen.

Downtime: A player should not spend too much time doing nothing. If a player is eliminated the game should be close to finished.

Why Cash Flow Works

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Most bad business models will go on until the cash runs out, Eric Falkenstein notes:

That’s why cash flow is a useful predictor, because money losers keep losing money, and driving the stock down, until it goes to zero. Sort of like GM’s strategy.

This is basically foreshadowed by Warren Buffet (p. 85 Investor’s Anthology), when he wrote these common company foibles:

  1. An institution will resist any change in its current direction;
  2. Just as work expands to fill available time, corporate projects or acquisitions will materialize to soak up available funds;
  3. Any business craving of the leader, however foolish, will be quickly supported by detailed rate-of-return and strategy studies prepared by his troops; and
  4. The behavior of peer companies, whether they are expanding, acquiring, setting executive compensation or whatever, will be mindlessly imitated.

Gated Communities and Nation States

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Michael Strong, CEO of FLOW, has some unusual ideas on gated communities and nation states:

One of the deep inconsistencies in mainstream left-liberal moral thought is that gated communities are bad, because they are exclusive, whereas nation states are good, despite the fact that they are exclusive. If the exclusivity of small-scale gated communities is bad, why should the exclusivity of much larger scale gated communities somehow be good? This moral perversity shows just how deeply the nation state paradigm distorts our moral vision.

I may be one of the few libertarians who half likes the Scandinavian nations, if only they would get over their moral presumption and acknowledge that they are no more morally lofty than are gated communities. If we allowed the Mormons to put up borders around Utah and keep the riff-raff out, they might set up something that looks like Sweden — Mormons are committed to helping other Mormons when they are down on their luck. I see Swedes as a clan of people who want to help other Swedes and keep non-Swedes out as much as possible. That clan happens to own a nation state, the Mormons don’t. If we allowed for entrepreneurial government, through secession, free zones, charter cities, or seasteading, then I could imagine a lot of clans setting up their own nation states/gated communities, and many of them might have very generous “welfare” programs.

The fastest way at present to make the global poor better off is to give them access to a developed nation — allow them to immigrate. An unskilled Mexican can earn ten times as much per day in the U.S. as in Mexico, and although some costs of living are higher, some are actually lower here. There is no transfer program of any kind that can provide as great an improvement in standard of living, as quickly, as immigration can. Until we can create a world of entrepreneurial governments, open borders ought to be moral priority number one for all who are committed to the Rawlsian principle of making “the worst off, best off.”

A progressive who dislikes exclusive gated communities presumably hates the notion of a Mormon religious state — and presumably ignores or denies the idea that Scandinavian social democracy works because of racial and cultural ties.

And if welfare programs do work best in societies with a strong sense of unity and solidarity, and we promote such monocultural states, what happens to all those poor potential-immigrants?

Yesterday’s Tech Revolutions: Galleasses

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Rick Robinson usually looks to the future and imagines what space combat might look like, but sometimes he looks back at yesterday’s tech revolutions — like the galleass, which made medieval navies obsolete:

Medieval naval warfare followed a combined arms doctrine, a mix of slow but sturdy and high-built round ships, similar to large transports and functioning as mobile castles, and faster, low-built rowing ships, galleys and smaller barges, that served roughly as seagoing cavalry. The rowing ships had offensive punch (including putting troops ashore), while the big round ships provided defensive strength and logistic support.
[The English galleass Hart's] mission was to serve as an anti-galley escort. Though slower than the French galleys she was intended to fight she could at least force them back with her heavy bow guns. And if the galleys swarmed in, even though she lacked the high fighting castles of conventional big ships her powerful secondary armament could give them a very hot reception.
Though effective against galleys, [galleasses] were pigs under oar-power — but swans under sail. And their broadside secondary armament, intended for defense against swarming galleys, turned out to be highly effective in offense.

So larger versions abandoned the lower-deck oars, replacing them with more broadside guns, until the secondary armament became the main armament. This variant type got a variant name, galleon, and ended up as the ancestor of the classic broadside-armed sailing man-of-war. (Some smaller models retained oars well into the 18th century — in an unusual Hollywood concession to accuracy the Black Pearl in Pirates of the Caribbean is fitted for sweeps, as was Captain Kidd’s rather similar ship, Adventure Galley.)

A Necessary Book about an Unnecessary War

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Laurence Vance calls Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War Buchanan’s necessary book, because it explains how Hitler never wanted war with Britain:

Hitler wanted absolute power in Germany. Hitler wanted to overturn the Versailles Treaty. Hitler wanted to restore lands to Germany. Hitler wanted to enlarge the German empire to the east. Hitler wanted to cleanse Germany of Jews. Hitler wanted to destroy Bolshevism. Hitler wanted Germany to achieve economic self-sufficiency in Europe. Hitler wanted to go down in history as “the greatest German of them all.” But Hitler never wanted war with Britain.

To Hitler: “Great Britain was Germany’s natural ally and the nation and empire he most admired. He did not covet British colonies. He did not want or seek a fleet to rival the Royal Navy. He did not wish to bring down the British Empire. He was prepared to appease Britain to make her a friend of Germany.”

It also confirms that Hitler was not a threat to the United States:

The German Luftwaffe lost the Battle of Britain to the Royal Air Force; the German Navy was no match for Britain’s Royal Navy (“The Navy — what need have we of that?,” said Hitler in 1936). At the start of the war, Germany had only two battleships. The Bismarck had not been built yet — and it would be sunk on its maiden voyage. There were no troopships, landing barges, or transports for tanks and artillery. If Hitler could not cross the English Channel and conquer Great Britain, how could he possibly have been a threat to America?

Buchanan dismisses Germany’s supposed plans “to build a massive surface fleet, develop a trans-atlantic bomber, and procure naval bases” as “comic-book history.” The historical truth is that “there are no known German plans to acquire the thousand ships needed to convey and convoy such an army and its artillery, tanks, planes, guns, munitions, equipment, fuel, and food across the Atlantic.” And as Buchanan points out about German bombers: “A trip over the Atlantic and back would require twenty hours of flying to drop a five-ton load on New York.” And if even today the U.S. Air Force doesn’t have a bomber that can fly round trip from the Midwest to Germany without refueling, how could German bombers in the 1940s have possibly bombed the United States and returned to Germany when air-to-air fueling had not yet been invented?

A very special business angel

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

The Economist describes a very special business angel — Friedrich Engels:

Marx’s father was a Jewish lawyer turned Christian; Engels’s a prosperous Protestant cotton-mill owner. Marx studied law, then philosophy; Engels, the black sheep of his family, was sent to work in the family business at 17. While doing his military service in 1841 in Berlin, he was exposed to the ferment of ideas swirling around the Prussian capital.

Next, he went to work for the Manchester branch of the family business, Ermen & Engels. Manchester’s “cottonopolis” in the mid-19th century was a manufacturer’s heaven and a working man’s hell, and it provided an invaluable lesson for Engels: that economic factors were the basic cause of the clash between different classes of society. By 1845, when he was just 24, he had not only learnt how to be a successful capitalist; he had also written a coruscatingly anti-capitalist work, “The Condition of the Working Class in England”, which charted the inhumanity of modern methods of production in minute detail.

Engels left Manchester to work with Marx on the “Communist Manifesto” and the two of them spent the late 1840s criss-crossing Europe to chase the continental revolutions of the time, ending up in England. Marx had started work on “Das Kapital”, but there was a problem. He had by then acquired an aristocratic German wife, a clutch of small children and aspirations for a comfortable bourgeois lifestyle, but no means of support.

Engels (whose name resembles the word for “angel” in German) offered an astoundingly big-hearted solution: he would go back to Manchester to resume life in the detested family cotton business and provide Marx with the money he needed to write his world-changing treatise. For the next 20 years Engels worked grumpily away, handing over half his generous income to an ever more demanding Marx. He also collaborated intensively on the great work, contributing many ideas, practical examples from business and much-needed editorial attention. When at last volume I of “Das Kapital” was finished, he extricated himself from the business and moved to London to be near the Marx family, enjoying life as an Economist-reading rentier and intellectual.

Global Warming Not About Science?

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

Erik Falkenstein remarks that the UK’s Minister for Europe was surprised to learn that some Americans thought climate change was a pretext for a liberal agenda:

I guess the idea never occurred to him because as Al Gore noted, the science is over.

He noted that the upside of Global Warming is there are tons of ‘green collar’ jobs to be had! And he has a point. If we don’t let companies burn fossil fuels like coal or gas, and don’t build any more nuclear plants, all of us will have full time jobs collecting biomass for fuel as they do in Africa, or washing our clothes in the river, or walking to work. The smell of dung can really add a little zest to your smoked ribs.

Living in Minnesota, we could use a couple more degrees. Indeed, cold spells are generally worse for mammalian life than heat spells, but that’s no mind. The reason why some of us think there’s a pretext here is we have heard many similar warnings about the acid rain, Carter’s malaise speech about the 70′s energy crisis, the ozone hole, deforestation, and then when the metrics don’t continue their trend and life goes on, they find a new boogie man. There’s always a greater good, whether it’s not discussing the gulag when coming back from the Soviet Union, exaggerating the risk of heterosexual AIDS, downplaying the corruption by the latest African kleptocrat, or promoting the “4 food groups”, many, if not most ‘big ideas’ are merely pretexts for people wanting to push various selfish agendas.


Why Should Engineers and Scientists Be Worried About Color?

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

Why should engineers and scientists be worried about color? Because presenting complex data with the default rainbow colormap is misleading:

In the view on the left, you see large areas of yellow, with a dark blue region, rimmed with cyan and green moving in from the left, and some dark red regions particularly in the upper right. Based on this distribution of color, you may make some assumptions about the underlying structure in the data.

Now, consider the [second image], which you will recognize as a map of the southeastern United States, with the Florida peninsula clearly illustrated. In this representation, you can easily see the coastline and the surrounding continental shelf in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. The boundary of the continental shelf and areas of deep ocean are shown in purple, which darkens with depth. The Appalachian Mountains are clearly distinguished in lighter colors from the piedmont and coastal plain regions, primarily in green.

Which picture do you think best represents the underlying topography and bathymetry data? Would it surprise you to learn that the two pictures not only show the same data, but are represented by colormaps which are mathematically equivalent? In both cases, each value of the continuous variable, elevation in meters above and below sea level, has been mapped onto a unique value on a continuous pseudo-color scale.

In the [first] picture, elevation at each point has been mapped onto the most commonly-used colormap in visualization, the so-called “rainbow” colormap. In this hue-based colormap, show to the right of the visualization, the lowest value is mapped to blue, the highest value is mapped to red, and the intervening values are mapped continuously onto values interpolated between these two colors in red-green-blue space.

In the [second] picture, elevation has also been mapped onto a pseudo-color map. However, in this case, the colormap has been designed to take into account characteristics of the data and the human visual system. In particular, the colormap has been designed so that equal steps in the data variable will be perceived as equal steps in the representation. Since the data has a threshold value or boundary of interest to the user of the data (i.e., sea level), this characteristic of these interval data is also explicitly incorporated into the colormap.


Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

Modern farmacology goes back to 1946:

In July 1946, the Journal of Biological Chemistry published a research paper out of the University of Wisconsin that detailed the results of feeding three antimicrobials to chickens. The summary included a crucial sentence: “Sulfasuxidine and streptomycin singly or in combination lead to increased growth responses in chicks receiving our basal diet supplemented with adequate amounts of folic acid.” That is, feeding antimicrobials to chickens made them grow faster.

Adding antimicrobials to chicken feed has its downsides:

In his 1945 Nobel Prize address, Alexander Fleming warned that it was easy to produce microbes resistant to his discovery, penicillin: Simply expose them to concentrations of the drug insufficient to kill them. Possibly the first warning that antibiotics could produce drug-resistant pathogens in poultry came as far back as 1951, when two bacteriologists at the University of California, Davis named Mortimer P. Starr and Donald M. Reynolds published a paper that noted in its summary: “The use of streptomycin as a growth-promoting supplement in turkey poults results in the appearance within three days of streptomycin-resistant coliform bacteria.” But little apparent attention was paid to Starr and Reynolds, or to Fleming. During ensuing decades, tens of millions of pounds of tetracycline, penicillin, and other antibiotics were fed to animals on American and European farms. In some cases, the drugs were used to treat sick animals, in amounts that killed the bacteria. But most were fed to cattle, pigs, turkeys, and chickens in exactly the subtherapeutic dosages that Fleming warned would only make bacteria stronger.

Antibiotic-resistance is a true public health issue — unlike the many not-at-all-public health issues under discussion recently.

The Programming Antihero

Tuesday, August 25th, 2009

Noel Llopis describes The Programming Antihero on his team:

I was fresh out of college, still wet behind the ears, and about to enter the beta phase of my first professional game project — a late-90s PC title. It had been an exciting rollercoaster ride, as projects often are. All the content was in and the game was looking good. There was one problem though: We were way over our memory budget.

Since most memory was taken up by models and textures, we worked with the artists to reduce the memory footprint of the game as much as possible. We scaled down images, decimated models, and compressed textures. Sometimes we did this with the support of the artists, and sometimes over their dead bodies.

We cut megabyte after megabyte, and after a few days of frantic activity, we reached a point where we felt there was nothing else we could do. Unless we cut some major content, there was no way we could free up any more memory. Exhausted, we evaluated our current memory usage. We were still 1.5 MB over the memory limit!

At this point one of the most experienced programmers in the team, one who had survived many years of development in the “good old days,” decided to take matters into his own hands. He called me into his office, and we set out upon what I imagined would be another exhausting session of freeing up memory.

Instead, he brought up a source file and pointed to this line:

static char buffer[1024*1024*2];

“See this?” he said. And then deleted it with a single keystroke. Done!

He probably saw the horror in my eyes, so he explained to me that he had put aside those two megabytes of memory early in the development cycle. He knew from experience that it was always impossible to cut content down to memory budgets, and that many projects had come close to failing because of it. So now, as a regular practice, he always put aside a nice block of memory to free up when it’s really needed.

He walked out of the office and announced he had reduced the memory footprint to within budget constraints — he was toasted as the hero of the project.

As horrified as I was back then about such a “barbaric” practice, I have to admit that I’m warming up to it. I haven’t gotten into the frame of mind where I can put it to use yet, but I can see how sometimes, when you’re up against the wall, having a bit of memory tucked away for a rainy day can really make a difference. Funny how time and experience changes everything.