Sunday, May 31, 2009

Back in the Day, We Used To

(via Vinh)

Coming to the City

Back in April, New York ran a set of vignettes on people's first move to New York, which are partially about the City, and the particular magic of any given decade there, but also largely about the surprise that somehow, one can move to a city with little or nothing and somehow thrive.

I moved to New York with three friends from summer camp. Two of us were going to NYU, and the other two were in that self-loathing, debaucherous postcollege year of self-destruction. We crammed into what probably should have been a two-bedroom on Bleecker and Macdougal and sectioned things off into a four-bedroom by putting up a lot of curtains.


The mice kind of became a part of the house. We weren’t feeding them or anything, but we definitely got less skittish around them. It’s interesting how much you can adapt to when you don’t have the means to fix it. We did get the sticky traps once. But when one got stuck, we were all too scared to get it and throw it out or kill it. Literally, we were four college-age dudes curled up on the couch listening to it scream for three days. We took turns going back and peeking at it and yelling, “Oh God, it’s there! It’s dying! It’s dying! What do we do?” But you can’t get it off; if you pull it, you rips the limbs off. The humane thing to do would have been to smash it with a hammer, but no one had the stomach to do that, so it was pretty awful.
That's the exact definition of this period: the process of growing up to the point where you can fix a leaky faucet or deal with a mouse without particularly getting wrapped up in it. The particulars of life in a strange city become the background of life in general. You go from being a tourist to knowing where the all night supermarket is.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

21st Century Gothic

Peter Tupper unlocks Joss Whedon's Dollhouse, postulating that it's really an update of 19th century Gothic forms:

Gothic houses are all about secrets, and the Dollhouse is crawling with them. Much of season one is the progressive revelation of a traumatic event in the series’ past, when one of the dolls went berserk, slaughtered a bunch of people with only a kitchen knife, and escaped. In the aftermath, the Dollhouse ticks along, but no matter how hard the staff tries, it can’t quite resume perfect equilibrium, perfect control. There are always flaws, secrets, hidden agendas, traces of imperfection. It even has the requisite “mad woman in the attic”, Dr. Claire Saunders (Amy Acker), a physically and mentally scarred rejoinder to the Dollhouse’s regime of beauty and order.

Another tenet of the Gothic is irrationalism. Everybody in the Dollhouse has their obsessions and secrets, things they should know better than to do, but do them anyway.

Echo’s bodyguard, Boyd, loves her like a father, but his devotion is tainted with codependency and guilt. Echo’s would-be rescuer, FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett), is an obsessive, paranoid thug, as much her stalker as her saviour. The techie who runs the mind imprinting technology is an Asperger’s case who studiously blocks out moral consideration of his work with layers of rationalization. The ice queen who runs the house can’t help fishing off the company pier.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Guardrails My Ass

Joel Johnson rebuts Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton, who just doesn't get the Internet: "People create content, Mr. Lynton. And that content now lives on the internet. What's in danger isn't content, it's distribution businesses unwilling to work with consumers."

Whilst over here, Scott McLemee thrashes the repugnant Leon Kass, former national Bioethics Panel chair and culture warrior:
Kass invoked the "wisdom of repugnance" a few years before he joined an administration that treated the willingness to torture as a great moral virtue -- meanwhile coddling bigots for whom rage at gay marriage was an appropriate response to “the violation of things we hold rightfully dear.”

Confabulatory Hypermnesia

Neurophilosophy has a report on an article in Cortex1 about a man who confabulates (describes fictitious events to fill in gaps in memory) extensively and continuously as a result of amnesia:

LM confabulated plausible answers to questions about both his personal life and public events, which would normally elicit from most people an answer of "I don't know". When the researchers asked him "Who won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980?" he replied "Fernandel"; when asked what he had for dinner on Tuesday two weeks ago, he answered "Steak with french fries"; and when asked "Do you remember what you did on March 13th, 1985?" he replied "We spent the day at the Senart Forest."

LM thus has a "pure" amnesic syndrome, in that his impairment is not associated with other cognitive deficits which might interfere with memory function. He scored normally on short-term memory tests, and the evaluation revealed mild, diffuse neurodegeneration, rather than damage in a specific part of the brain. False memories are not uncommon in patients with Korsakoff's syndrome - indeed the condition is also referred to as amnesic-confabulatory syndrome. However, the confabulations of such patients are sometimes extraordinary, bizarre and verging on being delusional. LM's confabulations, on the other hand, were always plausible, and therefore quite unlike those reported in other Korsakoff's patients.

...So how might LM's amnesic syndrome arise? The authors explain it within the framework of the memory, consciousness and temporality theory. According to this theory, consciousness always relates to "something", such as an object or event, and does not exist as a unitary dimension, but rather as a distinct set of "modes" for addressing the "thing" of which one is conscious of at any given moment. These modes include knowing consciousness and temporal consciousness, which describe, respectively, knowing the object of consciousness and placing it somewhere on the timeline of past, present and future.

For example, a pen is a pen and a meal is a meal, and each can be lumped together with others into the same category. But at a given moment, one might be conscious of the pen sitting on a table, or of the meal that has just been eaten. Thus, every object or event which enters consciousness has both a multiplicity and a uniqueness. The authors suggest that LM may be unable to distinguish between these two properties. His temporal consciousness is present, but working abnormally. It has become "expanded", so that while he can retrieve information about personal events and habits, the particulars of a specific object of consciousness are applied to all the objects within that category, and they become confused with one another.

1 Dalla Barba, G., & Decaix, C. (2009). "Do you remember what you did on March 13, 1985?" A case study of confabulatory hypermnesia. Cortex 45: 566-574. DOI: 10.1016/j.cortex.2008.03.009.
(via boingboing)

Mirrors + Water

Part of a larger series by Francisco Infante-Arana & Nonna Gorunova. Click to embiggen for full effect.
(via Siege)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Your Guide To Sexting


The AI Argument

Here's a very detailed set of maps detailing the controversy over artificial intelligence since Alan Turing asked the question: "can computers think?" He thought the answer was yes; everyone else wanted to argue about it.

Thinking, Thinking

The Air Force is sponsoring research to find the “core algorithms of human thought”, including “mathematical or computational models of human attention, memory, categorization, reasoning, problem solving, learning and motivation, and decision making.” Good luck with that. State of the art on that right now is the entire science of economics, which is notoriously bad at actually modelling human behavior. Probably because big parts of human thought are fundamentally not algorithmic.

"Everyone My Brother Knows.."

Laura Domela's brother went to live in Girdwood, Alaska. Laura went to visit him, and found that he'd made friends with just about everyone up there. She took a bunch of pictures of them, and Lens Culture published them. I wish I knew something about them after looking at their portraits, which is a good definition of a good photograph.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Happy Towel Day

In honor of Douglas Adams, May 25th is Towel Day. Keep your towel with you. It is both handy and impressive.

Quote of the Day

As someone who has taken risks in life I find it a comfort to know that even a coin weighted toward failure will sometimes land on success. Or, as I.B.M. pioneer Thomas Watson said, “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.”

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Polynesian Stick Charts

From goo. These map wave swells around and between specific Polynesian island chains, and are (or were) readable almost exclusively by the navigator that made them. More here.

Quote of the Day: On Chimeras

"But if it so happens ... a work ... under pain of otherwise becoming shameful or false, requires fantasy ... [and that] certain limbs or elements of a figure are altered by borrowing from other species, for example transforming into a dolphin the hinder end of a griffon or a stag ... these alterations will be excellent and the substitution, however unreal it may seem, deserves to be declared a fine invention in the genre of the monstrous.

When a painter introduces into this kind of work of art chimerae and other imaginary beings in order to divert and entertain the senses and also to captivate the eyes of mortals who long to see unclassified and impossible things, he shows himself more respectful of reason than if he produced the usual figures of men or of animals."


Friday, May 22, 2009

"Preventive Detention"

In what alternate universe does Obama think this might be legal? Imprisonment on the basis of potential crimes is the power of a king, not a president. It is unclear who Greenwald sees as supporters of this idea.

Rachel Maddow is on top of this issue, and points us to this 2007 Q&A session with Obama--I guess the shoe is on the other foot.

9. Do you agree or disagree with the statement made by former Attorney General Gonzales in January 2007 that nothing in the Constitution confers an affirmative right to habeas corpus, separate from any statutory habeas rights Congress might grant or take away?

Disagree strongly.

10. Is there any executive power the Bush administration has claimed or exercised that you think is unconstitutional? Anything you think is simply a bad idea?

First and foremost, I agree with the Supreme Court's several decisions rejecting the extreme arguments of the Bush Administration, most importantly in the Hamdi and Hamdan cases. I also reject the view, suggested in memoranda by the Department of Justice, that the President may do whatever he deems necessary to protect national security, and that he may torture people in defiance of congressional enactments. In my view, torture is unconstitutional, and certain enhanced interrogation techniques like “waterboarding” clearly constitute torture. And as noted, I reject the use of signing statements to make extreme and implausible claims of presidential authority.

Some further points:

The detention of American citizens, without access to counsel, fair procedure, or pursuant to judicial authorization, as enemy combatants is unconstitutional.

Warrantless surveillance of American citizens, in defiance of FISA, is unlawful and unconstitutional.

The violation of international treaties that have been ratified by the Senate, specifically the Geneva Conventions, was illegal (as the Supreme Court held) and a bad idea.

The creation of military commissions, without congressional authorization, was unlawful (as the Supreme Court held) and a bad idea.

I believe the Administration’s use of executive authority to over-classify information is a bad idea. We need to restore the balance between the necessarily secret and the necessity of openness in our democracy – which is why I have called for a National Declassification Center.

Moustache Matters

Andy Hertzfeld on signalling in the context of early Apple development:

Burrell was hired into Apple in February 1979 as Apple employee #282, in the lowly position of service technician, one of the lowest paying jobs at the company. Even though he'd been doing genius quality work as a hardware designer on the Macintosh project for a while now (more than nine months), and he was even filling in for Steve Wozniak on the low cost Apple II project, he still wasn't officially promoted to engineer as he requested, which was getting pretty frustrating.

Burrell started thinking about what it would take to get promoted. It obviously wasn't a matter of talent or technical skill, since he was already far more accomplished in that regard than most of the other hardware engineers. It wasn't a matter of working harder, since Burrell already worked harder and was more productive than most of the others. Finally, he noticed something that most of the other engineers had in common that he was lacking: they all had fairly prominent moustaches. And the engineering managers tended to have even bigger moustaches. Tom Whitney, the engineering VP, had the largest moustache of all.

So Burrell immediately started growing his own moustache. It took around a month or so for it to come in fully, but finally he pronounced it complete. And sure enough, that very afternoon, he was called into Tom Whitney's office and told that he was promoted to "member of technical staff" as a full-fledged engineer.

Poem of the Day

I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out
in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom
of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.

-Jack London (attr.)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Cam Gigandet vs. Twilight Fans

Those are some tough 12-year-olds.

Tales from the Meltdown: Obama's Conservatism

Martin Wolf notes the essentially conservative nature of Obama's banking policies, and wonders if the Administration is even asking the correct questions:

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” Thus wrote the Sicilian writer Giuseppe di Lampedusa, in The Leopard. This seems to me the guiding principle of the Obama presidency. To many Americans, he seems a flaming radical. To me, he is a pragmatic conservative, albeit one responding to extraordinary times. In his own way, Mr Obama is following the path trodden by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Nowhere is his conservatism more obvious than in the handling of the economic crisis. What we have seen unfolding, from the president’s choice of Lawrence Summers and Tim Geithner as his principal policy advisers, to last week’s “stress tests”, is classic conservative policymaking. The aim is simply to get the show back on the road. As Mr Obama told The New York Times: “I’m absolutely committed to making sure that our financial system is stable.” Stability is a quintessentially conservative aim. Many radicals on the right and left insist that undercapitalised banks should be recapitalised right now. But Mr Obama sees this as far too risky.

The results of the stress tests were a big step along the road the administration is taking. They impose enough pain to appear credible, but not enough to be disruptive. The 10 affected banks will easily raise the needed money: a total of $75bn (€55bn, £59bn). Their market valuations duly soared.
Has the government done enough to get the banks back on their feet? It depends on who you ask, and on what you mean by "on their feet".

There are two important numbers in the above analysis: possible losses, and the buoyancy of earnings. Yet there is a final number of no less significance: how much capital does a bank need? The answer is: how long is a piece of string? Since many of these banks are deemed too big to fail, taxpayers are risk-bearers of last resort. The capital requirement depends partly on how well the government wants to be cushioned against possible losses and partly on how well bond-holders want to be insured against the possibility that government might refuse a rescue.

...At the end of 2008, the ratio of total common equity to US banking assets was 3.7 per cent. Without the explicit and implicit insurance provided by government, it would surely have been higher. As the IMF notes, in the mid-1990s, before the leverage boom, the ratio was 6 per cent. In the 19th century, before deposit insurance, it was much higher still.

The conclusions are three: first, the government’s exercise is more conservative on losses than that of the IMF, albeit far less so than Mr Roubini’s; second, most of the capital to be raised will come from the earnings of a banking system able to borrow on the favourable terms arranged by the central bank and then to lend more expensively to its customers; and third, the target capital ratios – Tier 1 risk-weighted capital of 6 per cent of assets and Tier 1 common equity capital of 4 per cent – are not especially onerous.

The purpose of the exercise was indeed conservative: to make it credible, though not certain, that the existing banking system and assets can survive the likely battering. This has been done well enough to satisfy the markets. But these banks will also be unable to expand their balance sheet significantly in the near future.

...The more the crisis unfolds, the more evident it is that incentives in the financial system were (and are) badly distorted. I sympathise with the conservative approach to crises, but not if it leaves in place the plethora of perverse incentives that created them. At the end of this, then, there will be one big test: will the number of institutions thought “too big to fail” be as large as now and, if so, how will they be controlled? If the answers are still not clear, there will need to be yet more change.
(via Brad DeLong)

Dollar Redesign Challenge

Richard Smith is organizing a challenge to redesign the dollar:

Although I like the marbles idea, the front runners so far are Michael Tyznik's series of holograph-embedded bills:

Quote of the Day

"Some letters are a good deal more suggestive than others in expressing nostalgia for nights spent with a close friend. Virgil Macy, who lived in Smithfield, Rhode Island, assured his 'chum' William Blanding in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, that he missed sleeping with him: 'Sometimes,' he wrote, 'I think I have got hold of your doodle when in reality I have hold of the bedpost.' "

-Larry Kramer

Dream Journal

All week, I've been gradually working my way through a season of Brothers & Sisters that never existed. I think I'm playing Kevin in this version. Last night, the whole family went to the Grand Canyon and complained, but ended up enjoying the great views. Subplot about cliffdiving.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

House Porn 10: Golden Gate Lutheran Church

I'd like to live in a decommissioned church. The found nature of the architecture makes it feel like one is camping out in a monument.
Lucky me, for only $10 million I can have the house of my dreams in San Francisco's Mission District.
Formerly the Golden Gate Lutheran Church, this stunning Gothic Revival style building is now one of the most extraordinary and largest single family homes in San Francisco. This one-of-a-kind property features an enormous living area that includes the original sanctuary with soaring, coffered and hand-painted ceilings, arched windows framing Dolores Park as well as most of the original stained glass windows, custom mahogany wood finishes, four fireplaces (2 wood-burning & 2 gas), a new chef's kitchen and a spacious dining room. The Master suite level features a marble Roman tub room, dressing room and incredible 360 degree views from the tower meditation room and deck. The home includes an expansive ground floor level that could be used as exhibition space, recording studio, gym and/or home office. There is also a garage that accommodates 4-6 cars.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Webcomics: The Secret Knots

Juan Santapau's slightly melancholy short-short stories inset with drawings. Recommended by Warren.

Vonnegut's List of Plots

From Paris Review, Issue 69, 1977. Curt Vonnegut talks about how writing can be taught, or not, and the basic plot lines.

Vonnegut: It was stated by Paul Engle—the founder of the Writers' Workshop at Iowa. He told me that, if the workshop ever got a building of its own, these words should be inscribed over the entrance: Don't take it all so seriously.

Interviewer: And how would that be helpful?

Vonnegut: It would remind the students that they were learning to play practical jokes.

Interviewer: Practical jokes?

Vonnegut: Vonnegut: white paper, what is that but a practical joke? All the great story lines are great practical jokes that people fall for over and over again.

Interviewer: Can you give an example?

Vonnegut: The Gothic novel. Dozens of the things are published every year, and they all sell. My friend Borden Deal recently wrote a Gothic novel for the fun of it, and I asked him what the plot was, and he said, A young woman takes a job in an old house and gets the pants scared off her.

Interviewer: Some more examples?

Vonnegut: The others aren't that much fun to describe: somebody gets into trouble, and then gets out again; somebody loses something and gets it back; somebody is wronged and gets revenge; Cinderella; somebody hits the skids and just goes down, down, down; people fall in love with each other, and a lot of other people get in the way; a virtuous person is falsely accused of sin; a sinful person is believed to be virtuous; a person faces a challenge bravely, and succeeds or fails; a person lies, a person steals, a person kills, a person commits fornication.

Interviewer: If you will pardon my saying so, these are very old-fashioned plots.

Vonnegut: I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don't praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it's only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn't get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger. Now there's an admirable practical joke for you. When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone's wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are—

Interviewer: And what they want.

Vonnegut: Yes. And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other. Students like to say that they stage no confrontations because people avoid confrontations in modern life. Modern life is so lonely, they say. This is laziness. It's the writer's job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can't or won't do that, he should withdraw from the trade.

Interviewer: Trade?

Vonnegut: Trade. Carpenters build houses. Storytellers use a reader's leisure time in such a way that the reader will not feel that his time has been wasted. Mechanics fix automobiles.

The Plant Lady's Garden

I went to buy some plants from "the Plant Lady", who was having her last day of sales; half the city got the same idea, so all the plants were sold by the time we got there. At least her personal gardens were still open, so we took a tour.

DeLong's Switching Model

Brad DeLong expounds a switching model to explain some of the asymmetric negative moves involved in crashes.

I've long thought that the next step in financial models was a move toward adaptive model making. In other words, people look around them to see what works.

Your model for the weather is either a) look out the window, b) today's weather will be like yesterday's or c) whatever the weatherman says. For financial markets, sometimes it's smart to act like everyone's rational and pricing just on market beta, sometimes you need your Fama-French, sometimes you need temporary state variables or non-linear factors, and for several years in the late 90's it made sense to just invest in Internet stocks.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Who Are You Again?

Jason Kottke on compartmentalized memory among talk show hosts, neuroscientists and others.

Prayer Warriors

On the heels on this weekend's revelations about Rumsfeld's efforts to brand Iraq as a holy war, Jeff Sharlet writes a hair-raising article in this month's Harper's that updates us on the ongoing efforts of fundamentalists within the US armed forces to overtake the secular military culture with a particular brand of militarized fundamentalist Christianity. It is creepy beyond belief.

The Harper's article is behind a paywall, but Alina Stefanescu has more:
Sharlet describes a current "civil war" between the "majority of military personnel, professionals who regardless of their faith and lack thereof simply want to get their jobs done" and the "small but powerful movement of Christian soldiers concentrated in the officer corps".

What men such as these have fomented is a quiet coup within the armed forces: not of generals encroaching on civilian rule but of religious authority displacing the military’s once staunchly secular code. Not a conspiracy but a cultural transformation, achieved gradually through promotions and prayer meetings, with personal faith replacing protocol according to the best intentions of commanders who conflate God with country. They see themselves not as subversives but as spiritual warriors—“ambassadors for Christ in uniform,” according to Officers’ Christian Fellowship; “government paid missionaries,” according to Campus Crusade’s Military Ministry.

Sharlet cites the Officers' Christian Fellowship as a key player in the "fundamentalist front" of the officer corps, with 15,000 active members at 80 percent of military bases and a recent annual growth rate of 3 percent.

Founded during World War II, OCF was for most of its history concerned mainly with the spiritual lives of those who sought it out, but since 9/11 it has moved in a more militant direction. According to the group’s current executive director, retired Air Force Lieutenant General Bruce L. Fister, the “global war on terror”—to which Obama has committed 17,000 new troops in Afghanistan—is “a spiritual battle of the highest magnitude.” As jihad has come to connote violence, so spiritual war has moved closer to actual conflict, “continually confronting an implacable, powerful foe who hates us and eagerly seeks to destroy us,” declares “The Source of Combat Readiness,” an OCF Scripture study prepared on the eve of the Iraq War.

Update: Here's a Democracy Today video of Sharlet and Mikey Winestein, who has been dealing with this problem for the past several administrations...

Smudged Bacon

Jerry Saltz reviews Francis Bacon in preparation for a major retrospective at the Met. He asks, "was Bacon really the greatest painter of the 20th century, or just a fascinating mess?" The answer to this question is the same as it is whenever it's asked about anyone: a bit of both.

To understand Bacon’s impact, look no further than the young Brits emulating him. Jake and Dinos Chapman place tortured figures in glass cases; Jenny Saville’s contorted Gargantuas are direct descendants of Bacon’s golems; Tracey Emin works with blood and guts; Sarah Lucas gives us spooks and deformities. Damien Hirst not only makes vitrines straight out of Bacon—he puts meat and carcasses in them. Like Dalí and Munch, Bacon is an artist we love when young. Tantalized by the urgency, angst, weirdness, blood, sex, and bodies, we think, That’s me! That’s how I feel!

You might have reconsidered feeling like Bacon if you’d lived in his skin. His love life is a study in emotional privation and degradation. “We are meat,” he often remarked—understandable, given his adolescence. Bacon, who was given morphine as a child for his asthma (the ailment that contributed to his death in 1992), always knew which way his erotic compass pointed, which is not to say that he approved of its inclination: He called his homosexuality “a defect” and a “limp.” And no wonder. When Bacon was 16, his father—the artist derisively called him “a failed horse-trainer”—caught the boy wearing his mother’s underwear. (“Fishnet stockings were an essential part of the artist’s wardrobe for most of his life,” one biographer notes.) As punishment, the father had him horsewhipped by the stable hands, whom, Bacon later claimed, he then had affairs with. Bacon Sr. asked a family friend to “straighten the boy out” by taking him to Berlin. The man complied—and subsequently bedded the younger Bacon, then abandoned him in the city that W. H. Auden called “a bugger’s daydream”.
Once the question of lifestyle is put aside, the real issue emerges. Was his technique sufficiently unique to bear up under the weight of those inspired by it? The answer is, pretty much, yes. After a while, all of the smudged portraits start to look like one another, and all of the x-rays and meat blur together, Bacon's paintings still look like Bacon did them. You can' replicate them just by smearing things around; just try it. Second, the incorporation and distortion of found material, now common, grows in large part from the early Bacon canvases. Bacon has a lot of artistic children, and there's more stuff to be mined from his work.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


This article in GQ reinforces one of the great truths of our age: Donald Rumsfeld is a gaping asshole. I had begun to feel a little sorry for him, seeing as how he's followed everywhere by gangs of liberals shreiking "war criminal" in canon perpetuum as if they were furies in Fair Trade clothing, but after reading about the Holy War PowerPoints, the bureaucratic sabotage, the inability to work with basically anyone, and the number of people who have died because of it, I think shouting is the least we can do.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Can You Catch High Blood Pressure?

Scientists find evidence that Cytomegalovirus, carried by up to 90% of adults, coupled with a high-fat diet, may result in higher-than-normal blood pressure due to inflammation.


Bret Easton Ellis gives a fun little interview to Scott Tobias, discussing the reasons why The Rules of Attraction is the only book of his that completely worked as a movie, why you should never have an author give publicity for a movie based on one of his books, and why Roger Avary's Glitterati should only be shown to private groups, like the Perforated Mexicans film society:

avc: A lot of Rules Of Attraction fans would ask you if Glitterati will ever see the light of day.

bee: For many legal reasons, it will never see the light of day. You can’t really show Glitterati in public, it’s not possible. There are a lot of people who would be very upset. I don’t even know if they got permission from a lot of the people in it, which might be a big problem, why it’s only shown privately.

avc:: Todd Haynes’ Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story can also never be shown for rights reasons, but it’s found its way into underground circles. So maybe there’s hope?

bee: Roger’s obsessed with containment of this. I think it would ruin marriages. [Laughs] I think what they shot is… I think it’ll be a long time before they can show this movie. I think Kip Pardue would be okay with it, maybe. But it’s basically about 90 minutes of him in character actually seducing women throughout Europe. Much of this was shot late at night, and people didn’t care. I just don’t know what you could do with it. You can’t really show this movie in public.


Brad DeLong does a quick run through of the Keynes-Hicks IS-LM model, which has apparently fallen on hard times in academic economics, but makes sense of macroeconomics in a compact way. Most good economic models are like this; the equivalent of a Swiss Army knife, a basic tool useful in many situations:

If you try to read pre-Keynesian monetary theory, or for that matter talk about such matters either with modern laymen or with modern graduate students who haven't seen this... you quickly realize that this seemingly trivial formulation is actually a powerful tool for clarifying thought, precisely because it is a general-equilibrium framework...

John Quiggin

John Quiggin has an impressive list of refuted, obsolete, debunked or highly troubled economic doctrines. All of these are, of course, still in use, because economists are loath to give up anything, even if it's got low marginal utility relative to newer approaches.

If a theory fights with a fact, the theory always wins.

Here's the list so far:
  1. The Efficient Markets Hypothesis, the weak form of which may survive.
  2. The Case for Privatization, in which government tries to drown itself in a bathtub
  3. The Great Moderation. Business cycles are so yesterday
  4. Individual Retirement Accounts. How's that 401k working out for you?
  5. Trickle Down Economics. The rich are looking out for you
  6. Central Bank Independence. When money just won't do it
  7. New Keynesian Macroeconomics. People aren't rational


Friday, May 15, 2009

Bloomsbury's Free eBooks

Bloomsbury plans to release a series of science-related books, including a free online version of each. They've begun with Larry Lessig's Remix. What's interesting is that they've included their rough breakeven numbers in this Guardian interview:

Pinter estimates that Bloomsbury would have to sell around 200 copies of a highly technical monograph, priced at around £50, to make a profit, but a more commercial title with a wider appeal and a lower price point would need to sell around 2,000 copies to be worthwhile. "We believe there are enough people who are willing to purchase a hard copy that we will sell enough physical books to meet our needs, to cover our costs and make a modest profit," she said. "But we won't be able to judge whether [the model is] financially viable for the next two years."

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Levitating Frog

Scientists levitate a frog (plus strawberries, crickets, and eventually you) using a 16 tesla magnet. We used to have a 4 tesla MRI at OSU that could discern individual motor neurons in the spinal cord. Good to see they're still getting bigger. I want one strong enough to rip the iron out of your blood, like Magneto.

A Brief Trip to Amsterdam

Robin Goldstein reviews my favorite European city:

As you navigate the city’s bewildering network of twisting, dead-end streets and gently bending canals, one of the first things that strikes you is how many of the offerings seem meant to be experienced—only meant to be experienced—under the influence of marijuana or mushrooms. There is a store that sells only holograms. There is a café with stalactites and stalagmites. There are restaurants with life-sized dolphins made from plaster, restaurants where you eat in the dark, restaurants where you eat on a La-Z-Boy, and what must be more than a thousand purveyors of Belgian fries with mayonnaise (the first time you try them stoned, you realize that even if the fries are for everybody, they’re most especially for the stoners). It is like an open network of sensory pleasures and communicative understandings built into the rest of the city that suddenly illuminates before your eyes at the moment that you get high.

Out of respect for my colleagues, I don’t want to believe that the travel writers haven’t actually visited the city. So my only explanation is that many of the writers have never actually tried the drugs, and thus don’t understand how deeply the drugs filter through the culture and how incomplete an account of Amsterdam really is that doesn’t talk a lot about them. (It never ceases to amaze me how much more often people who have never tried drugs like to talk about drugs than people who have tried drugs.)

In any case, this lack of information leads to a lot of strange moments of contact between culture and subculture, like the executive in the coffeeshop looking for a cup of coffee, or the lost British couple with the young child wandering into an alley of the red light district and getting directions to Amsterdam’s most famous tourist attraction from a heroin dealer to whom they’re later compelled to give an involuntarily large tip.
It is a marvelously trippy city, even if you wander through without major chemical enhancement. Someone once said that one of the best pleasures to be had under the influence is "the close examination of your own sensory information". Amsterdam bears up well under such close examination. It's full of stimulation for all five senses, and for that kinesthetic sense of being in a particular place in a particular situation--the feeling of being alive in the moment.

It's a curious fact about Amsterdam that when you tell people that you're going there, they assume that you're going for the same reasons they would. The sex fiends assume it's for the prostitutes & sex shows, the druggies for the pot & shrooms, the flower people for the tulips & wooden shoes. It's a city that's also a projective test.

Charles Stross at Login 2009

Charlie talks about the end of Moore's Law, hard bandwidth limits ("once you get into soft X-rays your network card becomes indistinguishable from a death ray"), and codgergamers ("that's you in 20 years").

Slouching Toward Failure

The Obama Administration has been making some disheartening choices lately: making Bush-era arguments about state secrets, planning for the indefinite detention and extra-Constitutional prosecution of War on Terror detainees, backsliding on gay rights promises, hiding torture evidence and generally behaving like they've been brainwashed by Dick Cheney.

What's up with that?

This moral slouching is the surest way to lose the next election. Obama was brought in to do some real visionary work on the presidency, not to triangulate and dither. If we wanted moderation, Hillary Clinton would be in the White House today.

Every time he gives in to expediency, he loses a little luster. It's political junk food, and it's going to be the ruin of this administration.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

After 52

Grant Morrison on Multiversity

The Romantic Impulse

John Crowley in the Believer:

I think the central distinction—this is something I’ve written about—that what you’re really talking about is not fantasies and realistic books. I think really what you’re talking about is romances and books that aren’t romances—“romances” in the definition of Northrop Frye: those entertainments that go back to ancient times. The Odyssey is a romance. Books about quests, and mysteries to be solved, and journeys undertaken to solve mysteries, lovers who are divided and reunited in the end, treasures that are found and lost again—all that kind of material as well as talking animals and ghosts and ancient evils and trips to the underworld to learn wisdom and come back again—all that romance material, it persists in literature to a greater and lesser extent. I mean, it can be found in realistic novels too—disguised and displaced in various ways. But novels and fiction whose traction is somehow based on those kinds of subjects and themes and materials are really what we’re talking about when you’re talking about fantasy.

In a certain sense, my books are not exactly those kinds of books either, even though they frequently depend on those impulses. I think of my books, especially Little, Big and the Ægypt books, as being about that impulse, the romance impulse, more than they are actually romances themselves. So, what is that, “meta-romance”? Can I get away with that? So Dan Brown’s book—what’s the difference between that and Foucault’s Pendulum? Dan Brown’s book depends upon people wanting to indulge the sense of perceiving a mystery or chasing after a mysterious secret that can change the world, something that will remake the whole past if you can only find it, and then being chased by bad guys on the way to finding it. Foucault’s Pendulum is about people like that, people who want to feel those feelings, and get obsessed with those things. In fact it’s a condemnation of people like that, a condemnation of that impulse. So it itself can’t be a romance. It’s a book about the romance impulse. I think mine’s like that too, although it’s not as caustic or critical as Foucault’s Pendulum.

Primordial Soup

Science news reports on a novel recipe for making RNA from basic organic soup:

"The RNA world hypothesis proposed 40 years ago suggested that life on Earth started not with DNA but with RNA. Now a team of scientists bolsters this hypothesis, having assembled RNA in the lab from a mixture that resembles what was likely the primordial soup. 'Until now,' Science News reports, 'scientists couldn't figure out the chemical reactions that created the earliest RNA molecules.' The new work started the RNA assembly chemistry from a different angle than what earlier work had tried."

(via Slashdot)

Old Art

This "pinkie-sized" figurine is 36,000 years old, making it the oldest known piece of figurative art found to date, and half the age of the oldest known human carvings. The figure depicts a female form with exaggerated breasts and a tiny head, and was found in a cave in Germany.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Reviving Polaroid

An update on the "impossible project" to Save Polaroid by a group of enthusiasts and investors.

Previously: An Impossible Project

(via Bruce)

Advanced Yoga Ball Trick

Click to run. For those of you who find the handstand pushups a little too easy.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Legalize It?

House Porn 9

New York Magazine has released its annual design issue, which always showcases surprisingly industrious people in their self-designed habitats. Of the half dozen represented this year, my vote for best pad goes to Maximillian Sinsteden's Drew University dorm room, which he's apparently redecorated three times since the article was written. Any man who paints his room Ralph Lauren Tapestry Green gets a thumbs up from me. He also has a vast collection of ascots, an eye for thrift shop bargains and forthcoming decorating contracts.

Economics of Star Trek

Marginal Revolution comments on the new Star Trek (they liked it), but in a related post on his own blog, Bryan Caplan notices something: the economic growth rate that gets us to something that resembles the Star Trek universe is unusually low--around 1% per year on average for the next 150 years, resulting in an GDP that doubles twice between now and then. (4.4x current GDP) That's nice because at least we're not losing ground, but quite anemic, even if it's happening risk free.

We're in line to do a lot better here in the real world. Current long-run US growth rate is 3% per year. If that were to carry over to the entire globe, we would expect global GDP to double a bit more than nine times between now and 2259, or a GDP that's 84x as high as we're currently experiencing.

What's the problem?

  • Disaster: between now and then, some large, negative event knocked the productivity out of whack for a long period of time. This could have been the Eugenics Wars or "post-Nuclear horror" that's been mentioned in one or another of the series, or it could have been an eco- or bio-disaster. At the time of the new movie, society is in the midst of a boom of renewed energy and optimism following a period of social collapse.

  • Extensive Growth: another option is that the colonization project, as evidenced by the big starship yard in Iowa, has been given all of the resources that would otherwise have been deployed to enhancing the existing standard of living. This push for extensive, rather than intensive growth, was seen in communist countries in the early 20th century, and is also seen in high-growth populations in the developing world. Instead of pushing for heavy R&D, resources go to keeping a rapidly growing population fed, and toward opening up other planets for development. Healthcare and comsumer goods get shortchanged, so lifespan and lifestyle remain somewhere closer to 20th century norms.

Writing in 1930, in a short essay titled "Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren" John Maynard Keynes predicted an end to scarcity (the core economic problem) within 100 years, based on quite modest growth rates. We're not quite there yet, but as 2030 approaches, we can be pretty sure that it's not going to look like JMK thought it would. We aren't going to do away with greed or hard labor; a lot of people are still going to lack necessities. But he wasn't entirely wrong, either. Things are a lot better in 2009 for the average person than they were in 1930. They're not just a little better, they're better in unimaginable ways.

The Singularity

This is the real problem for SF. It's impossible to forecast technology with any precision, because eventually something big and unforeseeable hits, and throws everything into a new configuration. The Star Trek universe has therefore experienced low growth rates because otherwise, we wouldn't be able to see it properly.

It's curious to note that despite the fact that Star Trek may have really long-term low economic growth, it's still one of the most optimistic futures of the last hundred years. It's a functioning society without gross injustice, focused on novelty and adventure. The truth is that if we experience anything like the growth we currently have in the real world, the world of 2259 is going to look better than fiction.
Elsewhere: Kottke reviews the movie, with a discussion of time travel in Trek vs. Lost. The NYT discusses the genesis of Trek as a transplanted Western/cop show, and as a commentary on contemporary culture. Also, Andrew Leonard discusses a piece of economics in Star Trek, Paul Romer's "Endogenous Technological Change", which is referenced in the Vulcan elementary school scene where Spock refers to knowledge as "non-rival" and "non-excludable". More commentary on the Romer paper by David Warsh can be read in Salon, or in his book here.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Star Trek

Pocket review: best Trek film since Wrath of Khan. Brilliant casting, loads of fun. I wish they'd let the movie stretch out a little longer, but that's a nitpick. Great to see Nimoy one more time.

On further reflection, you know what I liked best about this movie? They explicitly state that Kirk is smart. Really smart. He only looks like a meathead in the original series because he's standing next to Spock; in fact, he comes up with a lot of quick, effective solutions to impossible problems. Now, in the movie itself, he's never artificially stupid: he's "the only genius repeat offender in the Midwest", gets the literary references, knows how to program a simulation, and is really good at reading people.

Update: Henry Jenkins gives some conversation starters on Trek

The Future Is Now Vol. LXXIII: Brains!

Scientists found a site for intention located in the parietal cortex, using brain stimulation techniques. They contrast the "desire to move" caused by stimulation of this area with the "unconscious movement" caused by stimulation of frontal premotor areas. (via Warren Ellis)

In other news, other scientists found a gamma secretase related drug that breaks up amyloid clots in Alzheimer's patients. Other preclinical methods include a histone deacetylase manipulator that helps reconfigure DNA to enhance the recovery and disposal mechanisms in Alzheimer's brains.

Dream Journal

Strange, convoluted dream involving a search for a prom date for Chase Crawford, a step aerobics class in shoes two sizes too small, and a hamburger at a Chinese brothel. Awoken by a barking dog and the conviction that someone had broken into my house at 4AM.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Chanel No. 5 Mini-Film

Jean-Pierre Jeunet (of Amelie fame) with Audrey Tautou and Travis Davenport. I love the postcard-derived palette, with the washed out, brownish greens.

Headline of the Day

Certain CEOs Have 30 Days to Convince People They Are Not Morons
-Daily Intel
New York Magazine
How's that workin' out for you, guys?

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Liveblogs from the New Yorker Summit

New Yorker Liveblog page.
Kottke's liveblog.
Twitter pool.

The Opposite of Entrepreneurship

Eric Hippeau: Too Big To Fail = Industrial Policy = Bad Idea

Manhattan Perspectives

This forced perspective map set of Manhattan from up and downtown has been getting a lot of linkage lately. Jack Schulze has an essay on the making-of here, showing key influences and ideas, quotes Hockney and Iron Man, and generally has a good time of it:

The projection works by presenting an image of the place in which the observer is standing. As the city recedes into the (geographic) distance it shifts from a natural, third person representation of the viewer’s immediate surroundings into a near plan view. The city appears folded up, as though a large crease runs through it. But it isn’t a halo or hoop though, and the city doesn’t loop over one’s head. The distance is potentially infinite, and it’s more like a giant ripple showing both the viewers surroundings and also the city in the distance.
Warren Ellis sez, in his response to this essay (and an unrelated speech on Hauntology):
I’m struck suddenly by the idea of future archaeo-teams flooding abandoned cities with pink noise and getting something not unlike Burial’s "Raver" reverberating back from the rotting walls of ancient warehouses.

My New Workout

What? Can't you see me doing these?

For Sale: Tesla's Tower*

Well, OK, the tower itself is gone, but the laboratory building and battery tanks are there for the taking.
Invetor Nicola Tesla built Wardenclyffe, his prototype radio and power transmission tower on Long Island in 1901-3. Agfa, the current owner, has put it up for sale for $1.6M. A group of Tesla enthusiasts want to buy the site and turn it into a museum.

Back in the day, it was a deeply witchy place. Bolts of electricity "seemed to shoot off into the darkness on some mysterious errand"; locals claimed the cliffs were riddled with mysterious underground passages. Tesla got what you might call "a reputation".
Unfortunately, his reputation didn't include business acumen, and the lab ran out of funds. Instead of villagers with torches and hounds, creditors ransacked the place. The lab passed through a series of owners beginning in 1915; the tower was blown up by Civil Defense during World War II. Now, the question is whether the site will be preserved at all, or levelled and redeveloped.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Practical Prosecution 101

New York Magazine takes a refreshingly practical view of potential torture prosecutions. The verdict: doable, but just barely. Disbarment for the lawyers and obstruction of justice for the policy makers who destroyed evidence, rather than outright convictions on war crimes, are the likely outcomes.

The Austrian School

John Quiggan on the Austrian business cycle theory:

To sum up, although the Austrian School was at the forefront of business cycle theory in the 1920s, it hasn’t developed in any positive way since then. The central idea of the credit cycle is an important one, particularly as it applies to the business cycle in the presence of a largely unregulated financial system. But the Austrians balked at the interventionist implications of their own position, and failed to engage seriously with Keynesian ideas.

The result (like orthodox Marxism) is a research program that was active and progressive a century or so ago but has now become an ossified dogma. Like all such dogmatic orthodoxies, it provides believers with the illusion of a complete explanation but cease to respond in a progressive way to empirical violations of its predictions or to theoretical objections. To the extent that anything positive remains, it is likely to be developed by non-Austrians such as the post-Keynesian followers of Hyman Minsky.

...At the time it was put forward, the Mises-Hayek business cycle theory was actually a pretty big theoretical advance. The main competitors were the orthodox defenders of Says Law, who denied that a business cycle was possible (unemployment being attributed to unions or government-imposed minumum wages), and the Marxists who offered a model of catastrophic crisis driven by the declining rate of profit.

Both Marxism and classical economics were characterized by the assumption that money is neutral, a ‘veil’ over real transactions. On the classical theory, if the quantity of money suddenly doubled, with no change in the real productive capacity of the economy, prices and wages would rise rapidly. Once the price level had doubled the previous equilibrium would be restored. Says Law (every offer to supply a good service implies a demand to buy some other good or service) which is obviously true in a barter economy, was assumed to hold also for a money economy, and therefore to ensure that equilibrium involved full employment

The Austrians were the first to offer a good reason for the non-neutrality of money. Expansion of the money supply will lower (short-term) interest rates and therefore make investments more attractive.

There’s an obvious implication about the (sub)optimality of market outcomes here, though more obvious to a generation of economists for whom arguments about rational expectations are second nature than it was 100 years ago. If investors correctly anticipate that a decline in interest rates will be temporary, they won’t evaluate long-term investments on the basis of current rates. So, the Austrian story requires either a failure of rational expectations, or a capital market failure that means that individuals rationally choose to make ‘bad’ investments on the assumption that someone else will bear the cost. And if either of these conditions apply, there’s no reason to think that market outcomes will be optimal in general.

A closely related point is that, unless Say’s Law is violated, the Austrian model implies that consumption should be negatively correlated with investment over the business cycle, whereas in fact the opposite is true. To the extent that booms are driven by mistaken beliefs that investments have become more profitable, they are typically characterized by high, not low, consumption.

The whole thing is worth reading. It provides as concise a comparative analysis of the topic as one could wish for.

(via Brad DeLong)

Dutch Healthcare

The comparative advantages of the Dutch social welfare system:

The Dutch health care system was drastically revamped in 2006, and its new incarnation has come in for a lot of international scrutiny. “The previous system was actually introduced in 1944 by the Germans, while they were paying our country a visit,” said Hans Hoogervorst, the former minister of public health who developed and implemented the new system three years ago. The old system involved a vast patchwork of insurers and depended on heavy government regulation to keep costs down. Hoogervorst — a conservative economist and devout believer in the powers of the free market — wanted to streamline and privatize the system, to offer consumers their choice of insurers and plans but also to ensure that certain conditions were maintained via regulation and oversight. It is illegal in the current system for an insurance company to refuse to accept a client, or to charge more for a client based on age or health. Where in the United States insurance companies try to wriggle out of covering chronically ill patients, in the Dutch system the government oversees a fund from which insurers that take on more high-cost clients can be compensated. It seems to work. A study by the Commonwealth Fund found that 54 percent of chronically ill patients in the United States avoided some form of medical attention in 2008 because of costs, while only 7 percent of chronically ill people in the Netherlands did so for financial reasons.

The Dutch are free-marketers, but they also have a keen sense of fairness. As Hoogervorst noted, “The average Dutch person finds it completely unacceptable that people with more money would get better health care.” The solution to balancing these opposing tendencies was to have one guaranteed base level of coverage in the new health scheme, to which people can add supplemental coverage that they pay extra for. Each insurance company offers its own packages of supplements.

Nobody thinks the Dutch health care system is perfect. Many people complain that the new insurance costs more than the old. “That’s true, but that’s because the old system just didn’t charge enough, so society ended up paying for it in other ways,” said Anais Rubingh, who works as a general practitioner in Amsterdam. The complaint I hear from some expat Americans is that while the Dutch system covers everyone, and does a good job with broken bones and ruptured appendixes, it falls behind American care when it comes to conditions that involve complicated procedures. Hoogervorst acknowledged this — to a point. “There is no doubt the U.S. has the best medical care in the world — for those who can pay the top prices,” he said. “I’m sure the top 5 percent of hospitals there are better than the top 5 percent here. But with that exception, I would say overall quality is the same in the two countries.”

Indeed, my nonscientific analysis — culled from my own experience and that of other expats whom I’ve badgered — translates into a clear endorsement. My friend Colin Campbell, an American writer, has been in the Netherlands for four years with his wife and their two children. “Over the course of four years, four human beings end up going to a lot of different doctors,” he said. “The amazing thing is that virtually every experience has been more pleasant than in the U.S. There you have the bureaucracy, the endless forms, the fear of malpractice suits. Here you just go in and see your doctor. It shows that it doesn’t have to be complicated. I wish every single U.S. congressman could come to Amsterdam and live here for a while and see what happens medically.”

I’ve found that many differences between the American and Dutch systems are more cultural than anything else. The Dutch system has a more old-fashioned, personal feel. Nearly all G.P.’s in the country make house calls to infirm or elderly patients. My G.P., like many others, devotes one hour per day to walk-in visits. But as an American who has been freelance most of his career, I find that the outrageously significant difference between the two systems is the cost. In the United States, for a family of four, I paid about $1,400 a month for a policy that didn’t include dental care and was so filled with co-pays, deductibles and exceptions that I routinely found myself replaying in my mind the Monty Python skit in which the man complains about his insurance claim and the agent says, “In your policy it states quite clearly that no claim you make will be paid.” A similar Dutch policy, by contrast, cost 300 euros a month (about $390), with no co-pays, and included dental coverage; about 90 percent of the cost of my daughter’s braces was covered.
Summary: More equality, but less diversity. More nannies, fewer neurosurgeons. Higher taxes with more specific rebates and services.

Until the Name Maudling is Almost Totally Obscured

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Strange Buildings

Village of Joy collects 150 of the world's weirdest buildings (part II, part III)for your enjoyment. The collection includes buildings I've seen often enough that I no longer think of them as weird (e.g., the Luxor casino), but which fit comfortably in the collection. It also incudes: buildings disguised as something else (strawberries, molecules), buildings with holes in them, blobjects, chimeras and jokes.

Favorites include the Blur Building, which has exudes sprays of water vapor that make it look like it is floating above a lake; the French Museum of Modern Art's blockhead; and the Doll's Theater in Poland.

Doll's Theater

Museum of Modern Art

Blur Building

Currency Building, Vilnius, Lithuania

Kerala House Boat