Archive for December, 2012

Swift Unveils the Gallery

Monday, December 31st, 2012

Not a bad bunch of pictures, if I do say so myself.

Post-Xmas Linkorama

Sunday, December 30th, 2012
  • Godspeed.
  • Heh heh. It turns out that some of those tests that say newborns have pot in their systems may be bullshit. Don’t you just love the War on Drugs?
  • You know, I actually think this guy gets it right. The whole “we’re miserable during the holidays” things always did cross me as a load of dingo’s kidneys. We see the stress of family and travel; ignore the absent stress of work.
  • As much as I respect the idea of building an ideal language, the idea is going precisely nowhere as Zamenhoff found out. Language is not about utilitarian efficiency. It’s about culture, history, nuance and tradition.
  • One thing I wondered while taking Sporcle’s blurred faces quiz is if the results would show a racial component: i.e., would white people be more likely to recognize the blurred features of other white people. This wouldn’t be about racism but about the way our brains process facial features.
  • Disbelief By Any Other Name

    Saturday, December 29th, 2012

    I have frequently heard this argument from atheists:

    Ricky Gervais argues that “there shouldn’t be a word for atheism: it shouldn’t exist, it’s ridiculous. If people didn’t keep making up supernatural deities, I wouldn’t have to deny they exist.”

    While I understand that point of view, it crosses me as, frankly, condescending. What Gervais is trying to do is define atheism as the default human condition with theism as the anomaly. Really, when you dig into it, it’s another attempt to define atheism as normal and rational while theism is seen as some kind of mental defect. It’s relate to the idea, frequently sideswiped by Dawkins, that people are born atheists and don’t become religious until someone imposes religion upon them.

    But that “mental defect”, depending on whom you listen to, affects 90-98% of the population. Theism and supernatural beliefs have been around, as far as we can tell, since homo sapiens began to wonder where the world came from. And we don’t have to buy into some ridiculous behaviorist psychology nonsense to explain it. In my opinion, religion fits just as naturally with the way we evolved to think as the scientific method does. Human beings are born asking questions. And if we don’t have adequate information, we will invent it (you should hear my daughter’s theories about where babies come from). In science, that’s called a hypothesis. In religion, it’s called faith. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the instinct that drives scientific enquiry comes from the same fount that produces religion: a desperate aching need to explain the world around us.

    However much someone may wish it otherwise, atheism is not the default human condition; theism is. However much someone may wish it otherwise, atheists are not anywhere close to even a significant minority among the human population. And, seen in that light, “why should I call myself anything” comes across as trying to pretend that human beings are something other than what the are: semi-rational animals who don’t like an unanswered or unanswerable question.

    Robot Cars and the Law

    Friday, December 28th, 2012

    As I often say about innovation, the technical problems are nothing compared to the pinhead legal problems. Verge has a good article up sorting through some of the legal and treaty issues (yes, treaty issues) involved in automated robotic cars. It’s definitely worth your time.

    However…

    The article seems unduly pessimistic to me. These are things that can be worked out — we have entire armies of lawyers in this country who stand to make millions getting everything sorted into legal precedent. And if these things prove to be safe — and I think they will — the economic pressure to work out the legal issues will be fierce.

    The one thing that bothered me about the article was this:

    The Geneva Convention on Road Traffic (1949) requires that drivers “shall at all times be able to control their vehicles,” and provisions against reckless driving usually require “the conscious and intentional operation of a motor vehicle.” Some of that is simple semantics, but other concerns are harder to dismiss. After a crash, drivers are legally obligated to stop and help the injured — a difficult task if there’s no one in the car.

    As a result, most experts predict drivers will be legally required to have a person in the car at all times, ready to take over if the automatic system fails. If they’re right, the self-parking car may never be legal.

    Did you see the subtext? The subtext is that if I’m in a crash with an automated car, there is no one around to render assistance to me.

    Well, maybe. Bleeding out while unconscious or seriously injured would be a risk (although it’s not like pedestrians and bystanders are going to disappear). But being in a collision with a robot would have some advantages over being in one with a human:

  • One of the lessons taught in driver’s education is how to avoid accidents or, if unavoidable, minimize the damage (e.g., rear-ending someone instead of swerving into traffic or pedestrians). Robots can be made to optimize this much better than human beings.
  • A robot can not be knocked unconscious and can call for help. Even if its CPU were destroyed, it can be on a network that will recognize the dropout and call for assistance to the last known location.
  • An automated car will maintain an extremely detailed and objective record of the accident, making fault easy to determine.
  • An automated car will not get out and try to help injured passengers, true. But this isn’t always a good thing. It’s not unheard for helpful bystanders to drag people with spinal injuries into para- or quadriplegia because of an irrational fear that the car will burst into flames.
  • Developing safety and reporting methods for automated cars will massively improve the ability of driven cars to avoid accidents, minimize damage and call for help.
  • Robot cars are coming, one way or another. As powerful as the legal pinheads are, the force of progress is simply too strong.

    Me and the Ninth

    Tuesday, December 25th, 2012

    So, I finally got a new pair of headphones today. That in itself is a story. When I was in grad school, I bought a pair of heavy earphones that were fantastic. Long cord, covered the ears, good balance. I used the hell out of them. One day someone broke into my UT-Austin office through the ceiling and stole my monitor and my headphones. We recovered the monitor; they’d stashed it for later retrieval and I got it back after the police fingerprinted it. But the headphones were never seen again. Why they would want my old, torn-up, earwax-encrusted headphones mystifies me a bit. But, as Robert Heinlein said, thieves will steal anything that isn’t nailed down whether it’s valuable or not.

    When I get new electronics, one of my little quirks is to figure out the perfect media with which to break them in with. When I got my first DVD player, it was Saving Private Ryan. When I got my blu-ray player, it was Lord of the Rings (DVD). So what do you break a new pair of headphones in with?

    If you’re me, you break them in with the Fourth Movement of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. And since it is Christmas, it becomes doubly apropos.

    Other writers have written more eloquently than I can about the 9th Symphony, which is simply the pinacle of musical achievement. Listened to on its own, it’s powerful, beautiful and overwhelming. But when you think about the circumstances: the most joyous uplifting music in history written by a man who was deaf and had an awful personal life … well, let me just say that I couldn’t get through typing that sentence without choking up.

    As amazing as the 9th is on audio, it’s simply stunning in person. I’ve been privileged to see it live, performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. And I don’t think any media — digital, analog or telepathic — can convey just how special it is to watch it performed live. There’s something about seeing the hundred pieces of an orchestra and chorus working together that a recording simply can not convey.

    What’s even more amazing is the response. I’ve been to many classical concerts and classical audiences tend to be a bit reserved. For a great performance, you’ll get a standing ovation. But it’s usually just politely attentive applause. When the last note of the 9th fell, however, I heard a sound I’d never heard from a classical audience before. There was a roar as the audience lept to their feet, clapping cheering and whistling. The ASO got five ovations the night I saw them. It was like we didn’t want that glorious music to end.

    Mathematical Malpractice: Spree Killings Again

    Monday, December 17th, 2012

    This analysis, which claims that the US has more school spree killings than 36 nations combined, is getting a lot of play. It shouldn’t. It is extremely bad mathematical malpractice.

    The basic reason it is mathematical malpractice is the same reason the Mother Jones study was: it is difficult to analyze extremely rare events. When you narrow your investigation to events that happen maybe once a decade and are compiled haphazardly, you are simply going to be dominated by small number statistics and selection bias. You can therefore use those numbers to say, basically, anything you want.

    Let’s break down just how bad the numbers are being twisted here.

    1) The sample ends in 2009. That excludes the recent spate of knife attacks in Chinese schools that have left 21 dead. If you did this analysis a week ago, you would have had to drop China from the right column.

    2) The sample excludes acts of terror or war. But if Islamists shoot up a school because they don’t want girls to read, are those kids any less dead? If a drone strike misses its targets and kills a classroom, are those kids less dead? Why must we exclude the Beslan attack that left 186 kids dead?

    3) The sample excludes single homicides, which amount to 302 deaths in the United States over the time involved and God knows how many in other countries. So you are literally excluding 90% of the problem and focusing just on a tiny subset of killings.

    4) Comparing us to 36 other countries is ridiculous when some of those countries are places like Bosnia-Herzegovina (population 4 million). We have more population, period, then 30 of the countries on that list combined. Also included in that list of countries are England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which are, technically speaking, not countries.

    5) The problem of small number statistics can be best illustrated by playing with the data a bit. If I include the knife attacks and move China into the left column, suddenly China has more violent deaths than 30 other countries. If I move Germany onto the left side, suddenly they have more spree killings than a bunch of other countries. If I define the sample in the 1990′s, suddenly Australia dominates the statistics. You simple can not draw conclusions from samples that are that sensitive to single events.

    6) Combining points 4 and 5, if you look at spree killing rates rather than the deliberate mathematical malpractice of comparing absolute numbers, the situation is very different. In 2009, the Winnenden shooting killed 15. Scaled up to the population of the United States, that would be the equivalent of 60 people dead, more than the worst year the United States has ever had. In 1996, 35 people were kill in Port Arthur, Australia. Scaled up to the US population, that would almost equal 500 dead. It is an event that is seared into the memories of Australians. My point is not that these countries are worse than we are. My point is that these are rare and horrible events and you can manipulate the numbers to prove anything you want.

    7) The biggest thing missing here is a sense of time. Is the rate of school killings going up or down? The answer, of course, is down. Check out chart one at Ezra Klein’s blog that shows that the rate of assault death has fallen by over half since 1970. Check out the NCES page I link above which shows a significant decline in on-campus homicides, from 40/year in the 90′s to 30/year in the 00′s. That decline is a hundred more kids running in the sunshine. The NCES data, based on a complete sample of over 600 incidents, is useful. This …. isn’t.

    I’m not trying to downplay the horror that unfolded on Friday. However, I don’t think any debate can proceed unless we have a good grasp of the problem we are trying to solve. Far too many children are murdered in school in this country — that was as true on Thursday as it is today. But to be useful, the debate needs to be on honest terms. Committing mathematical malpractrice by deceptively comparing the United States to 36 other countries as though there something to be learned from that is not an honest debate and is likely to produce a panicky and ill-considered response.

    The Hobbit Part I

    Saturday, December 15th, 2012

    The Hobbit is not the Phantom Menace.

    I feel like I have to say that leading in, even though I liked the Star Wars prequels. But since that is the gold standard of disappointing sequels, I’ll just use it as a marker. The Hobbit will not disappoint. Casual fans may find it a bit boring in parts. Tolkien enthusiasts, however, will probably love it despite the liberties it takes with the text. Jackson has fleshed out the book with so much detail and backstory, that you can’t help but get swept up in the labor of love this clearly is.

    As I said on Twitter, the movie is good. Sometimes it is very good. But it if were a half an hour shorter, it would be awesome.

    Let me unpack that a bit. The biggest problem the movie has — in fact, I would almost say its only problem — is that it’s too long. If you’ve got me checking my watch during a Middle Earth movie and continually wondering, “OK, is this where they’re going to end it?”, you’ve got a problem with running time.

    It’s hard to pin down exactly where the movie bogs down because there is simply so much new material. New stuff has been larded in everywhere — the battle with the goblins, the chase to Rivendell, the “out of the frying pan” scene. This is not all bad: Jackson has put a much more tangible villain in the piece who works very well. And, as noted above, the backstory fleshes out the movie to be much more epic than the book.

    No, I don’t think the new material is the problem. The problem is that some scenes just drag on. People are complaining about the party at Bilbo’s house, but I didn’t find that to be much of a problem. I kind of liked it actually as it did a good job of introducing and defining the characters (Balin, in particular, does well). But the part of the prologue with Frodo just drags on. Gandalf’s introduction is almost verbatim from the book. The consultation in Rivendell really drags with Blanchett and Weaving intoning each syllable verrryy slowly. And a number of the battle scenes just go on for far too long (a growing problem in modern action films). In the end, the movie doesn’t really feel like it has an arc; it feels like a series of incidents that just … at some point … kinda ends.

    Personally, I would have ditched all the stuff with Radagast (although it does produce one extremely chilling scene). But I actually think that sharper editing could have kept everything in the movie that’s there and still cut half an hour off the running time. The result would be a great two hour movie that would leave the audience breathless.

    And that’s the rub. The reason I’ve spent most of this review complaining about the running time is because Jackson does so much in the film that’s just so right. The prologue about Erebor is excellent. Thorin’s backstory is great. The new villain is excellent and deepens the significance of Thorin’s return to Erebor. The “riddles in the dark scene” is the highlight of the film. Bilbo’s journey from timid Hobbit to hero is done better than Tolkein did. Middle Earth itself is, once again, rendered with such beautiful, loving and fiddling detail. And there are images in the film — the appearance of the necromancer, the “into the fire” scene, the eagles — that just work really really well.

    The actors are all well-chosen and do jobs ranging from good to excellent. And Jackson shows the talent he’s shown before for letting actors act.

    So, yeah, I liked it, despite its running time. I will probably see it again because, as with the second two LOTR films, my anticipation and worry impinged my enjoyment. But it’s definitely worth $8. Especially on a big 2-D 24 fps screen.

    I’ve rated it 8/10, which is provisional. The reason it’s provisional is that a) I’m a fan; b) I rarely rate films higher than 8 on initial viewing; and c) I have to see the other two films (and I really don’t want to wait two years for them). I initially rated the LOTR movies as 9′s but elevated all three to 10′s as they were one long epic rather than three films. So Hobbit I’s legacy will depend on how Hobbit II and Hobbit III go.

    Texas Linkorama

    Wednesday, December 12th, 2012
  • The idea of building gondolas in Austin strikes me as a really dumb. Gondols are slow and would take up lots of space for the number of passengers they transport. Texans aren’t big on mass transit to begin with (the light rail system is likely to be a flop). And what do you need a gondola for in a city that is really flat? This crosses me as a solution in search of a problem. And if it doesn’t have high ridership, it’s bad for the environment. And expensive.
  • Down with homework!
  • I always suspected that the high I got off parenting was an evolutionary thing. I find these things intriguing and fascinating. Much of what we feel in life: compassion, empathy, love, tenderness is the result of millions of years of evolution making us into creatures that look for the species rather than ourselves.
  • A really good post on the Jefferson slave thing. Also, highly recommended on the subject: Ta-Nehisi Coates. Actually, TNC is just recommended, full stop.
  • One day, parenting authorities will get it through thick skulls like that fun physical activities are good for children even when they involve a low amount of risk.
  • Ah, peak oil. These days, the biggest energy concern is that we won’t run out of fossil fuels and that global warming will be worse than feared.
  • A fascinating story from NPR about how our image of Jesus has changed with social norms.
  • While it strikes me that global helium supplies are a legitimate concern, the idea that our technical needs in 50 years will be the same as they are now crosses me as silly. Think about the chemicals that were important 50 years ago. Are we in the grips of a global lead shortage?
  • Something Like a War

    Sunday, December 9th, 2012

    This website hit its tenth anniversary on December 6. I mistakenly referred to that on Twitter as my anniversary as a blogger. But I actually started blogging here in the fall of 2005. I didn’t start blogging to get famous or to get a big readership (and indeed, neither of those has happened). I mainly started blogging to rid my head of the thoughts that were cluttering it so I could think about more important stuff.

    (This hasn’t worked very well because writing things down just makes me think more. And having readers makes me write more carefully than i would if I were just writing a manifesto in a cabin.)

    Now you might wonder why, if I started blogging in 2005, the archive only goes back to 2007. So I thought I’d detail the Spam Event Horizon.

    The blog was pretty low key in the early days, just as it is now. I had a few friends who read and commented and would occasionally get a link from someone in response to an e-mail. Sullivan linked me once, RTFLC linked me a couple of times when Lee was still the only writer. But there wasn’t much going on to speak of.

    Because I was such a low-level blog, I didn’t know that the blogging software we had — I can’t remember its name right now — was terrible at protecting the blog from spam. I had to manage the problem manually by deleting comments. At first, the spam attacks were a trickle – a few a week. It was such a non-issue, I would occasionally fall behind in cleaning them, which may have precipitated the later events.

    In January of 2007, the blog suddenly started getting hit hard. First a few hits a day, then tens, then hundreds of spam comments. I shut off comments and backtracks. But we still kept getting hit by spammers who had us down as a site that was not protected. You know those documentaries about how bees find a source of food, go back to the nest and do a little dance to tell the other bees where to go? Spambots do the same thing, apparently, because we started getting thousands of hits per day. Then hundreds of thousands. The traffic trend was exponential.

    We weren’t set up for that kind of traffic. My brother, who hosts the site, was seeing all his other websites become unavailable. In the end, the only thing we could do was shut down the website completely.

    We waited a month before bringing things back. This time we went with WordPress, which has, for over five years, done an outstanding job of protecting the site. Even when I get links from more-trafficked blogs and a surge of a couple of thousand legitimate hits, the spam spikes but Askimet catches all of it. The spammers quickly figure out that We Are defended and go on to ruin someone else’s day. To date, some 22000 attacks have been thwarted.

    The one downside of our “shoot the hostage” response was that all my posts before February 2007 are lost. The MySQL database that had all my old posts was so mangled we never had time to unpack it and recover the lost posts. This is why I refer to the events of January 2007 as the “spam event horizon” as no information escaped from it. That saddens me a bit as it includes some good posts, including my transition on the death penalty.

    One of the things people don’t appreciate is that there is a constant war going on underneath the internet. Not a terror cyberwar, which does happen but is a bit overblown. No, this is more like the constant war our bodies wage against infection. Every day, our physical bodies are exposed to bacteria, viruses and fungi that would wreck merry havoc were it not for the constant vigilance of our immune system. And every day, every web site on the planet is attacked by hordes of spammers who could destroy a blog — as they destroyed mine — without the constant vigilance of programs like Askimet.