Wednesday, December 30, 2009
The trick then is to be incredibly serious about the need and incredibly flexible about the means for getting there. In these days of collapsing boundaries and standards, it is essential both to keep your cool and to keep throwing yourself in the mix. This requires a certain intellectual nonchalance. But that nonchalance should never be confused with indifference or cynicism. There's a term I sometimes throw out among friends. I first heard it from the lips of my sometimes Sybil-like wife, the miraculous Shuffy: neo-sincerity. To me, the most important thing about neo-sincerity is the fact that it is earned. It is sincerity gained after first having lost it. The neo-sinceritist is therefore self-aware, lacks the genuine naivety of the first-time sinceritist. In neo-sincerity, you can never really be innocent of anything. But you've been through the washer of absolute irony and have ended up back at the doors of sincerity with the genuine desire to be let inside, warts, wounds, and all.
One of the two essays that have been passed to me repeatedly this year, along with Brian Eno on the Death of the Uncool. Really great writing about really great writing.
Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Monday, December 28, 2009
ME: You know, I have to admit – the Nav’i look totally natural.
FLAPJACKS: There is no uncanny valley.
ME: You only know that concept because of that one episode of 30 Rock.
ME: I’m just sick of critics who learned a new phrase thanks to Tina Fey and want to show off.
FLAPJACKS: Speaking of that episode of 30 Rock, I’m pretty sure I didn’t need to see the blue aliens doing it.
ME: Oh, quit whining. You barely saw anything.
FLAPJACKS: But now it’s in my head.
ME: Okay, the scientists are totally going about this the wrong way with Giovanni Ribisi, Businessman. They should have been all “this entire planet is a gigantic biological computer more advanced than anything we’ve ever imagined. Think about how much that would be worth.”
FLAPJACKS: Wouldn’t work. Giovanni Ribisi, Businessman, is all about the quarterly profit report. I know this because he said “it’s all about the quarterly profit report” at the start of the movie. He is an Exxon-type guy and you are presenting a Google-type business plan. Ne’er shall the two meet, because despite what people might say about Google, Google is never going to hire mercenaries to kill aliens.
ME: They might hire mercenaries to spy on aliens.
FLAPJACKS: Well, that’s Google for you.
The scary thing is, I heard the phrase about a planet scale biological network that can upload the consciousnesses of the dying, and thought, "they should really tell the business guys that that could be really valuable, so don't, um, fuck it up."
Computational Complexity and Information Asymmetry in Financial Products Arora, et al.
via Felix. Interesting passage from his commentary:
...the solution to model risk isn’t more complex models, its less reliance on models altogether. And anybody who applied a simple smell test to the mortgages underlying the CDOs in question — rather than deciding instead to trust various quants both in-house and at the ratings agencies — would have come to the right conclusion without any computing power at all.In other words, strategic thinking beats statistical thinking here too.
Saturday, December 26, 2009
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Some critics charge that the new policies pursued by President Obama and the 111th Congress generated the huge federal budget deficits that the nation now faces. In fact, the tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the economic downturn together explain virtually the entire deficit over the next ten years
As Ezra Klein notes, Congressional Republicans want to use the huge deficits to browbeat the Democrats into...what, exactly? More tax cuts? Bigger deficits? Electoral defeat, yes, but there doesn't seem to be any realistic plan coming out of the minority to budget responsibly. In fact, short term frugality (through near-term spending cuts) will lead to a crippled recovery, and therefore a larger deficit in absolute terms along with a smaller economy for the coming decade.
That's not fiscal conservatism. That's holding your breath to try to get your way.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Recently she has discovered a “partial pathway,” previously undescribed in the blood system, that is involved in the process of repair. “The reason we thought the factor that awakens muscle stem cells might be in the blood,” she explains, “is that organ systems decline globally with age, which implies that any signal has to reach many different locations.” A good place to look for a universal signal such as that, she reasoned, is in the blood.
In fact, her work has already shown that exposing an old animal to the blood of a young animal restores function to progenitor cells in a variety of tissues, not only in skeletal muscle. She is now collaborating with other Harvard laboratories to study such effects in the pancreas, liver, brain, and heart. “This might be a more broadly applicable mechanism,” she says, “an inroad for discovering pathways that can enhance repair activity.” In some cases, Wagers thinks, induced repair mechanisms that fail with age might overlap with genetic disorders, so that studying these pathways could advance research on cures for certain diseases. At the very least, she suspects that the “kinds of molecules we discover that enhance endogenous repair activity” could someday play an important role in readying tissues for cell therapy, once that field is mature. Adds Melton, “This has gotten us thinking more about not just fixing the human body when it is broken, but about how to harness the natural activity of stem cells for homeostatic repair to keep us healthy. We’re not there yet, but I think that is where we are headed.”
Monday, December 21, 2009
If you look closely, you'll see that the Na'vi have a little muscle running down their necks. We've got them, too—it's called the sternocleidomastoid muscle—and it's a uniquely mammalian feature. Ours make a very distinctive V-shape, and when creature designers want an alien to seem attractive and familiar to its human viewers, they often slap one on. "Even C3PO has it, in the form of little pistons on his neck. Watch Star Trek: The good guys always have them, and the bad guys don't. It's a classic alien designer trick."Actually, I wonder if they aren't actually plants, a la the Delvians of Farscape, another bunch of blue skinned, sexy aliens.
More: Mark Morford on the kinky hotness of the Na'vi.
Somehow the president has managed to turn a base of new and progressive voters he himself energized like no one else could in 2008 into the likely stay-at-home voters of 2010, souring an entire generation of young people to the political process. It isn't hard for them to see that the winners seem to be the same no matter who the voters select (Wall Street, big oil, big Pharma, the insurance industry). In fact, the president's leadership style, combined with the Democratic Congress's penchant for making its sausage in public and producing new and usually more tasteless recipes every day, has had a very high toll far from the left: smack in the center of the political spectrum.
What's costing the president and courting danger for Democrats in 2010 isn't a question of left or right, because the president has accomplished the remarkable feat of both demoralizing the base and completely turning off voters in the center. If this were an ideological issue, that would not be the case. He would be holding either the middle or the left, not losing both.
What's costing the president are three things: a laissez faire style of leadership that appears weak and removed to everyday Americans, a failure to articulate and defend any coherent ideological position on virtually anything, and a widespread perception that he cares more about special interests like bank, credit card, oil and coal, and health and pharmaceutical companies than he does about the people they are shafting.
The problem is not that his record is being distorted. It's that all three have more than a grain of truth. And I say this not as one of those pesky "leftists." I say this as someone who has spent much of the last three years studying what moves voters in the middle, the Undecideds who will hear whichever side speaks to them with moral clarity.
Read the whole article.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
The sight just made my day.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
1. Fun with the sun
In 1991, the journal Science published a paper by researchers Eigil Friis-Christensen and Knud Lassen, then at the Danish Meteorological Institute in Copenhagen. It included graphs that appeared to show a remarkably close correlation between solar activity and terrestrial temperatures – suggesting that other factors, such as carbon dioxide levels, have little influence on global temperatures.
The graphs were seized on by climate change sceptics and have been widely reproduced ever since. But according to Peter Laut of the Technical University of Denmark in Lyngby, the close correlations in the original graphs, and in updated versions published in 1995 and 2000, exist only because of what he describes as a "pattern of strange errors".
Sunday, December 13, 2009
Consciousness could well be a spandrel. That is to say, it may just be that when you have a sufficiently complex information processing system made of the particular kind of physical stuff our brains are composed of, the processes involved will have some kind of subjective character. If conscious mental activity just is brain activity, and not some kind of strange excretion from it, however, then they have precisely the same causal properties, and it’s just a confusion to describe it as “epiphenomenal.”...Or to put it another way: The alternative picture is that evolutionary selection pressure might have produced these very strategic zombies—like vastly more complex insects, say, all stimulus-response with nobody home— but then some mutation won out that added this further feature, consciousness, to the system, because it yielded some additional improvement.
The big question is, why do we think there's a self inside of us? I've been working my way through Jung, who said essentially that there are two things: an I and a self. Self is essentially a way of identifying the set of complexes (mental things or processes) that belong to us, and the I is the complex that sits in the middle of all of that. But, the I is just one of a large number of characters that live inside our head, and the self is a spongy mass that can pick up or discard other bits of the mental landscape as part of the process of individuation.
Another way of looking at the problem of consciousness is via the evolutionary paradigm. We have a consciousness because that's the best way for a complex informational system to accomplish the set of tasks (predation, social interaction, anticipation of future states, interrelation of sensory and volitional data) necessary to support an organism of such complexity. It might also be true that there are informational, as opposed to biological laws at play. We might have a conception of self because its really difficult to process information without having a dynamic internal model referring to onesself, in the same way that its really complicated to describe what's going on in one's day without using a personal pronoun.
In any case, what becomes apparent is that despite a large number of attempts to identify a seat for the soul in a localized part of the brain, we end up with nowhere to point. There are many pieces of the brain where part of the soul might rest, but as we cut finer and finer the parts slip between our fingers. This is an argument for emergent properties in the nervous system. That, or non-materialism.
Free will presents a similar paradox. Julian suggests it may be a required by-product of biological structure. However, it might a by-product of the informational structure of the universe; to the extent that the universe contains phenomena that are indeterminate and unpredictable both in the future and in the past (one cannot either predict the shape of the puddle from the shape of the ice cube, nor reconstruct the ice cube's shape from that of the puddle it made), and because predictable events can result in conscious entities' taking actions that preemtively cause the predictable event not to actually occur, free will must be possible.
Saturday, December 12, 2009
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Now, we need a large company to begin hiring a thousand people or more in support of growth efforts.
Wednesday, December 09, 2009
Privacy protects us from abuses by those in power, even if we're doing nothing wrong at the time of surveillance.
We do nothing wrong when we make love or go to the bathroom. We are not deliberately hiding anything when we seek out private places for reflection or conversation. We keep private journals, sing in the privacy of the shower, and write letters to secret lovers and then burn them. Privacy is a basic human need.
For if we are observed in all matters, we are constantly under threat of correction, judgment, criticism, even plagiarism of our own uniqueness. We become children, fettered under watchful eyes, constantly fearful that -- either now or in the uncertain future -- patterns we leave behind will be brought back to implicate us, by whatever authority has now become focused upon our once-private and innocent acts. We lose our individuality, because everything we do is observable and recordable.
Tuesday, December 08, 2009
Today, Ellis and Rothman introduce a significant new type of block universe. They say the character of the block changes dramatically when quantum mechanics is thrown into the mix. All of a sudden, the past and the future take on entirely different characteristics. The future is dominated by the weird laws of quantum mechanics in which objects can exist in two places at the same time and particles can be so deeply linked that they share the same existence. By contrast, the past is dominated by the unflinching certainty of classical mechanics.
What's interesting is that the transition between these states takes place largely in the present. It's almost as if the past crystallizes out of the future, in the instant we call the present. Ellis and Rothman call this model the "crystallizing block universe" and go on to explore some of its properties.
They point out, for example, that this crystallization process doesn't take place entirely in the present. In quantum mechanics the past can sometimes be delayed, for example in delayed choice experiments. This means the structure of the transition from future to past is more complex than a cursory thought might suggest.
Ellis and Rothman suggest that their model provides a straightforward solution to the problem of the origin of the arrow of time. "The arrow of time arises simply because the future does not yet exist," they say.
Monday, December 07, 2009
Friday, December 04, 2009
Thursday, December 03, 2009
Money quote: "Is this world hell? I've said it before, this is the part of heaven we're able to touch."
“His life is just as interesting as his work,” said Meaney. “In the ’90s, he went through an abduction experience, where he was taken outside of time and shown the nature of the universe. He used The Invisibles to explore the ramifications of that experience, and even lived a crazy rock-star lifestyle that was largely intertwined with that of King Mob, The Invisibles‘ main character.”