Category: Science

Debating Space

Should there be more publicly funded space exploration? Noa Ovadia recently argued that money should be spent on more pressing needs than space travel. An expert from IBM smacked that argument down pretty convincingly:

It is very easy to say that there are more important things to spend money on, and I do not dispute this. No one is claiming that this is the only item on our expense list. But that is beside the point. As subsidizing space exploration would clearly benefit society, I maintain that this is something the government should pursue.

Oh, did I mention the expert was Dr. Watson?

Technology in Kubrick’s *2001: A Space Odyssey*

This post serves up some spoilers of detail, though no major spoilers of plot until the penultimate “you must go see it” paragraph.  Upon a re-viewing of this movie, I found the following striking:

1. There is a Skype-like service for phone calls, but it never occurs to anyone that something like sending an email might be possible or even desirable.  A lot of major and even apparently simple technological advances just aren’t that self-evident.  The cameras in the movie also remained quite primitive and clunky, even by pre-smart phone standards.  Maybe people expected a great stagnation in cameras back then.

2. At the time, Kubrick apparently thought it plausible that the audience would buy into common, widespread and indeed commercially viable space travel by 1992.  The film was released in 1968.

3. Pan American flies people into outer space, and apparently used this new market to avoid total bankruptcy.  Their stewardesses still have silly hats and costumes, and they act in a vaguely self-demeaning manner.

4. The film shows some signs of recognizing that Moore’s Law might happen.  Hal for instance is advanced AI, but he is not huge in size.  And the portrait of voice recognition technology is quite realistic.

5. Stars do not twinkle in outer space, however.

6. Hal 9000 would be less creepy with a female voice, and indeed Apple and Amazon figured that out some while ago.  Note to my tech friends: do not program your personal assistant bots with a resentful, quivering, paranoid, passive-aggressive male voice.

7. The movie seems to suggest that chess-playing computers are a major achievement, when in fact this was mastered relatively easily, compared to many other AI problems.  The movie shows this chess game, with Hal as Black.  It is the kind of game you might expect a strong computer to play against a human, namely with a finish based on visually counterintuitive tactics.

8. It is a truly dystopic vision to think that Howard Johnson’s will be serving us food in space.

9. The first time I saw the movie, which I believe was in the mid-1970s, I was more stunned by seeing Americans talking to Russians “as if they were normal people” than by any of the technology.

Here is a good Wikipedia page on technologies in the movie.  Now a few spoilers:

The movie, which I had not seen in many years, I found quite stunning.  It took so many chances, and with so much self-confidence that the originality could be pulled off.  Imagine opening a film with minutes of discordant Gyorgy Ligeti music, played against a dark screen, with no signal that this is even part of the movie.  Then you see a long scene with apes, no dialogue to speak of, and no explanation of how this might fit into a commercially viable product.  Finally the Solow residual is explained!  There is not only no love story, the film arguably has no characters, Hal aside.  Kubrick often expects ballet music to keep you interested, and various movements in space are stretched out to interminable length, yet almost always with striking aesthetic success.  You could generously describe the ending as “underexplained.”  Hardly anything happens in the movie, and yet at the same time it encapsulates the entire history of humanity with extra material on both sides, beginning and end, and a nod in the Hegelian direction.

Go see it on the large screen if you can — I can’t think of any film that is so much worse (or simply different) on TV as this one.  It is one of the better movies ever made, and it dates from a time near Hollywood’s peak.  It is sad that nearly two generations of Americans now do not know this creation as it was intended to be seen, and indeed must be seen.  On 7 p.m. on a Saturday night, the theatre had no more than twenty people in attendance.  When it comes to culture, salience usually matters more than you might think.

Where do our best ideas come from?

A correspondent writes to me:

Isn’t it weird that the best ideas we have just…. pop into your head? I have no idea how to trace them. They just show up.

@Tyler any research into this area?

Dean Keith Simonton springs readily to mind, noting he has a new book coming out this year on genius.  Here are some overview pieces on simultaneous discovery, and of course those tend to stress environmental factors.  Here are some approaches to the multiplicative model of creative achievement.  I am a fan of that one.  What else?

Trampoline question

I gave a talk yesterday, and did not have time to get to this question, from Eric S., which we discussed during the dinner hour:

Who could launch themselves higher on a trampoline? LeBron James or Simone Biles?

She is a world class female gymnast, and much lighter (and less strong) than LeBron.  The question is assuming that both parties are motivated to win the competition, and have sufficient time to train to achieve their maximum potential in the contest.

Ultimately I settled on Simone as the better answer, mumbling something about small ants being very powerful for their size, and that magnification and extension of muscle spans ends up producing problematic results.  The power gain from the extra weight might be more than offset by the “drag” loss on the way up.  But I genuinely do not know.  Your view?

Addendum: This is an interesting article on animals and elastic springs.  And Jason Kottke adds comment, amazing photo too.

Is the reversal of the Flynn Effect environmental?

Maybe so, says a new paper by Bernt Bratsberg and Ole Rogeberg:

Using administrative register data with information on family relationships and cognitive ability for three decades of Norwegian male birth cohorts, we show that the increase, turning point, and decline of the Flynn effect can be recovered from within-family variation in intelligence scores. This establishes that the large changes in average cohort intelligence reflect environmental factors and not changing composition of parents, which in turn rules out several prominent hypotheses for retrograde Flynn effects.

In short, IQ relates inversely to sibling order, and the basic effect is not being generated by a changing composition of married pairs over time.

In other words, we have started building a more stupidity-inducing environment.  Or at least the Norwegians have.  But of course the retrograde Flynn Effect is starting to pop up in the data more generally, and not just in Norway.  From The Times of London:

The IQ scores of young people have begun to fall after rising steadily since the Second World War, according to the first authoritative study of the phenomenon.

The decline, which is equivalent to at least seven points per generation, is thought to have started with the cohort born in 1975, who reached adulthood in the early Nineties.

Have a nice day!

For the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.

The Cloud Under the Sea

The Verge: Microsoft has placed a data center in the Scottish sea to determine whether it can save energy by cooling it in the sea. Data centers typically generate a lot of heat, and big providers try to move them to cooler countries to save on energy bills. Microsoft has been experimenting with subsea data centers for around five years, and previously sunk a data center on the Californian coast for five months back in 2015.

Today’s underwater data center will be deployed for five years, and includes 12 racks with 864 servers and 27.6 petabytes of storage. That’s enough storage for around 5 million movies, and the data center is as powerful as thousands of high-end desktop PCs. The data center will be powered by an undersea cable and renewable energy from the Orkney Islands. The cable will also connect the servers back to the internet.

Hat tip: Robin Hanson.

Is carbon capture underrated?

Siphoning carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere could be more than an expensive last-ditch strategy for averting climate catastrophe. A detailed economic analysis published on 7 June suggests that the geoengineering technology is inching closer to commercial viability.

The study, in Joule, was written by researchers at Carbon Engineering in Calgary, Canada, which has been operating a pilot CO2-extraction plant in British Columbia since 2015. That plant — based on a concept called direct air capture — provided the basis for the economic analysis, which includes cost estimates from commercial vendors of all of the major components. Depending on a variety of design options and economic assumptions, the cost of pulling a tonne of CO2 from the atmosphere ranges between US$94 and $232. The last comprehensive analysis of the technology, conducted by the American Physical Society in 2011, estimated that it would cost $600 per tonne.

That is by Jeff Tollefson in Nature, via Brad Plumer.  Of course this is potentially very significant news.

Blame Canada!

Since we are heading into a trade war with Canada it’s time to rally the troops and remind them of the time Canada burned down the White House. And lest you think that is just a matter of history consider how Canada is attacking the United States today using biological weapons.

Smithsonian Insider: In the early 20th century, Canada geese were considered endangered in the U.S. So in the 1950s and 1960s, birds from the Midwest were released in eastern and southern states to boost their numbers. The strategy worked too well. Populations grew exponentially in the 1990s and today millions of wild Canada geese are permanent residents in cities and towns across the U.S., constantly eating and depositing large amounts of feces in the habitat they share with humans.

As public health concerns have grown, a team of biologists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History recently decided to take a close look at the bacteria living in the intestines of these birds. What they found was eye-opening. Scientists discovered the high prevalence of 3 bacterial species that cause serious disease in humans: Clostridium perfringens, Streptococcus suis (harmful to pigs too) and Staphylococcus sp. Inside the birds they found other potentially pathogenic organisms that may contain virulent strains known to cause serious infections in wild and domestic waterfowl, poultry, domestic mammals and farmed fish.

When Canada geese are killed for food by animals such as a dog, fox or cat, or run over by a car on an urban street, these harmful pathogens are released into the environment and can potentially infect humans.

And don’t forget. All that foul language we have been hearing recently? Blame Canada!

Michael Nielsen, standing on one foot

A highly sophisticated MR reader demanded a dose of Michael Nielsen.  I wrote to Michael, and he was kind enough to oblige.  Everything that follows is from Michael, here goes:

I started with the question “What might amuse Tyler?”, and it became very easy.

Three opinions that may amuse MR readers:

1. Peter Thiel has said: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 (280) characters.” Thiel is wrong: 280 characters are much, much better than flying cars. Twitter is misunderstood as being an online service; it’s merely the online component of a much improved offline experience. Twitter DM’s are a superpower, one of the most valuable ways of connecting people ever invented. More on one way of using Twitter here.

2. Movies are primarily a visual form; movie criticism and the popular conversation about movies are primarily a literary form, and informed by literary sensibilities. This is why good movies such as Transformers are so underrated. People who dismiss such movies are mostly revealing their own ignorance.

3. Many corners of the internet have a culture of judgement or argument. Typical subtexts in online conversation are: is this good or bad? What’s wrong with it? But until and unless healthy conversational norms are formed, argument and judgement are mostly useless status-seeking by participants. Much better is a “Yes, and” culture.

Three books or papers which should be better known:

1. Elinor Ostrom’s book Governing the Commons.  Ostrom dismantles the market / government dichotomy, sketching out ways common pool resources (and, to some extent, public goods) can be provided using non-market, non-government solutions.

2. Alex Tabarrok’s paper introducing dominant assurance contracts. Cryptocurrencies have huge potential as a way of creating entirely new types of market, using ideas like this. This potential is mostly unrealized to date.

3. Bret Victor on Media for Thinking the Unthinkable.

Blog posts don’t really get going until about 5,000 words in. Here are three favourites of mine:

1. Thought as a Technology, on how imaginative designers invent fundamentally new modes of thought.

2. If correlation doesn’t imply causation, then what does?

3. Using Artificial Intelligence to Augment Human Intelligence (with Shan Carter).

Despite the fact I’m well short of 5,000 words, I’ll stop here.

You can follow Michael on Twitter here.

A One Parameter Equation That Can Exactly Fit Any Scatter Plot

In a very surprising paper Steven Piantadosi shows that a simple function of one parameter (θ) can fit any collection of ordered pairs {Xi,Yi} to arbitrary precision. In other words, the same simple function can fit any scatter plot exactly, just by choosing the right θ. The intuition comes from chaos theory. We know from chaos theory that simple functions can produce seemingly random, chaotic behavior and that tiny changes in initial conditions can quickly result in entirely different outcomes (the butterfly effect). What Piantadosi shows is that the space traversed in these functions by changing θ is so thick that you can reverse the procedure to find a function that fits any scatter plot. He gives two examples:

Note that he doesn’t present the actual θ’s used because they run to hundreds or thousands of digits. Moreover, if you are off by just one digit then you will quickly get a very different picture! Nevertheless, precisely because tiny changes in θ have big effects you can fit any scatter to arbitrary precision.

Aside from the wonderment at the result, the paper also tells us that Occam’s Razor is wrong. Overfitting is possible with just one parameter and so models with fewer parameters are not necessarily preferable even if they fit the data as well or better than models with more parameters. His conclusion is exactly right:

The result also emphasizes the importance of constraints on scientific theories that are enforced independently from the measured data set, with a focus on careful a priori consideration of the class of models that should be compared.

The Last of the Moon Walkers

NPR May 26, 2018: Alan Bean, the fourth man to walk on the moon who later chronicled the experience as an artist, died Saturday in Houston after a short illness. He was 86.

In 2012, I wrote the following when there were 8 moon walkers yet living. Today there are 4.

Neil Armstrong, first moon walker, died yesterday.

In total, there have been twelve. Armstrong who was first, Peter Conrad who was 3rd, Alan Shepard who was 5th and James Irwin who was 8th, are gone, leaving just eight. Just eight of 7 billion. Alan Shepard was the oldest, he was born in 1923, the others were all born in the 1930s at a time when Orville Wright still lived. The youngest, Charles Duke, will be 77 this year.

Could we soon have an age where all the moon walkers are gone? Will children then wonder whether it happened at all?

The three faces of overconfidence

I thought this breakdown of overconfidence into overestimation, overplacement and overprecision was useful.

Overconfidence has been studied in 3 distinct ways. Overestimation is thinking that you are better than you are. Overplacement is the exaggerated belief that you are better than others. Overprecision is the excessive faith that you know the truth. These 3 forms of overconfidence manifest themselves under different conditions, have different causes, and have widely varying consequences. It is a mistake to treat them as if they were the same or to assume that they have the same psychological origins.

Hat tip: Julia Galef.

Has there been progress in philosophy?

You know this old debate: why are we still reading Plato?  Haven’t they figured out free will yet?  Will they ever?  Don’t the philosophers obsess too much over very old texts?

My opinion is that there is significant and ongoing progress in philosophy, we just don’t always name it as such.  Here is a list of just a few breakthroughs in our philosophic understanding of the world, noting that part of our philosophic maturation is not to care so much anymore as to whether it is called philosophy:

1. Behavioral economics and much of cognitive psychology.

2. A much improved understanding of entropy, information, and information theory.

3. A much better understanding of human neurodiversity and its import..

4. The accumulated wisdom concerning cultural differences and similarities, as taken from anthropological investigations.  You will note that like many recent advances in philosophy, this cannot be found in any one single place.

5. Progress on cosmology and “the theory of everything” and even if you are cynical about the current state of affairs it is far better than say 1850.

6. A deeper understanding of the power and also limits of mathematics.

7. Having digested and then also spit out much of Freudian analysis, but we did learn something along the way.

8. The more philosophical sides of neuroscience, some of which of course are discussed by professional philosophers too.

9. A better understanding of man’s relation to the (non-human) animals.

10. Many ways of thinking about the environment — not all of them correct — have flowered only in relatively recent times.

11. Economics, and what we have learned from economic imperialism, including its failures.

12. Singapore, and in fact most other places/polities in the world.

13. Most literary works are understood much better today than they were in earlier eras.

14. Musical languages are far better developed and better understood.

15. Development of an “internet way of thinking.”

16. Much greater incorporation of the insights of women into philosophy, and many other formerly underrepresented groups too.

So our philosophic understanding of the world is far, far deeper than it was in the time of the so-called classic philosophers, whoever you might take those to be.  If “philosophy” has advanced by collaborating with other disciplines and the sciences, so much the better, and most of the “great philosophers” themselves would have approved of this.  And of course that list of sixteen items could be much, much longer.

*Accounting for Capitalism: The World the Clerk Made*

That is the title of a new and excellent book by Michael Zakim.  Here is one bit:

A single block fronting Wall Street in 1850 was thus home to seventeen separate banking firms, as well as fifty-seven law offices, twenty-one brokerage houses, eleven insurance companies, and an assortment of notaries, agents, importers, commission merchants, and, of course, stationers.  A rental market for office “suites” developed apace “fitted up with gas and every other convenience,” which also included newly invented “acoustic tubes” that allowed managing partners to communicate with porters in the basement and clerks in the salesroom without ever having to leave their desks…

All this office activity spurred a flurry of technological spillovers that included single standing desks and double-counter desks, sitting desks featuring nine or, alternately, fifteen pigeonholes, and drawers that could or could not be locked.  “Office chairs capable of swiveling and tilting became available as well, together with less costly “counting house stools” that lacked any upholstery.  Paperweights, check cutters, pen wipers (the woolen variety being preferable to silk or cotton, which tended to leave fibers on the nib), pencil sharpeners, rulers, copying brushes, dampening bowls, blotting paper (less important for absorbing excess ink than for protecting the page from soiled hands), wastepaper baskets, sealing wax (including small sticks coated with a combustible material ignited by friction and designed to be discarded after a single use), seal presses, paper fasteners, letter clips (for holding checks while entering them into the daybook), writing pads, billhead and envelope cases, business cards, receiving boxes for papers and letters, various trays (for storing pins, wafers, pencils, and pens), and “counting room calendars” spanning twelve- or sixteen-month cycles — all became standard business tools.  So did the expanding inventory of “square inkstands,” “library inkstands,” and “banker inkstands” designed with narrow necks which prevented evaporation and shallow bodies that kept the upper part of the pen from becoming covered in ink, thus avoiding blackened fingers and smudged documents.

There is then a whole other paragraph about the different kinds of paper that developed and their importance for clerical work.  This is perhaps the most thorough book I know on the importance of “small” innovations, and it is also a useful book on the history of accounting.