Geopolitics Politics Society Technology

100, Privacy, Amazonian, Covid, Poison

98. People don’t realize how much they hate commuting. A nice house farther from work is not worth the fraction of your life you are giving to boredom and fatigue. 

99. There’s some evidence that introverts and extroverts both benefit from being pushed to be more extroverted. Consider this the next time you aren’t sure if you feel like going out. 

100. Bad things happen dramatically (a pandemic). Good things happen gradually (malaria deaths dropping annually) and don’t feel like ‘news’. Endeavour to keep track of the good things to avoid an inaccurate and dismal view of the world.

The black market for data, as it exists online in India, resembles those for wholesale vegetables or smuggled goods. Customers are encouraged to buy in bulk, and the variety of what’s on offer is mind-boggling: There are databases about parents, cable customers, pregnant women, pizza eaters, mutual funds investors, and almost any niche group one can imagine. A typical database consists of a spreadsheet with row after row of names and key details: Sheila Gupta, 35, lives in Kolkata, runs a travel agency, and owns a BMW; Irfaan Khan, 52, lives in Greater Noida, and has a son who just applied to engineering college. The databases are usually updated every three months (the older one is, the less it is worth), and if you buy several at the same time, you’ll get a discount. Business is always brisk, and transactions are conducted quickly. No one will ask you for your name, let alone inquire why you want the phone numbers of five million people who have applied for bank loans.

We have a product called Snowmobile. It’s a gas-guzzling truck. There are no public pictures of the inside, but it’s pretty cool. It’s like a modular datacenter on wheels. And customers rightly expect that if they load a truck with all their data, they want security for that truck. So there’s an armed guard in it at all times. 

It’s a pretty easy sell. If a customer looks at that option, they say, yeah, of course I want the giant truck and the guy with a gun to move my data, not some crappy system that I develop on my own.

A year into the pandemic, STAT is outlining a portrait of SARS-CoV-2 based on what scientists learned as the virus raced around the world, crippling some economies, societies, and health systems in its wake.

How the virus cracks open cells and wards off the body’s first-line attack. How it can spread before people start feeling sick. How it’s changed since the dawn of the pandemic, and what, if anything, that means. How the omnivorousness of the disease it causes, called Covid-19, reaches not just the lungs but into the heart, brain, gut, and beyond.

How this virus has caused the damage it has, unlike other respiratory viruses that also prey on our impulses to get together — to pack into crowds, to laugh, to sing — and use them as stepping stones in their mission to infect cells and make copies of themselves.

While Kudryavtsev makes it clear that he was not part of the operation that administered the poison, he positively answers “Maxim’’s question where the highest concentration of residue of the toxin might be expected to be found on Navalny’s clothes. Kudryatvsev promptly answers that this must be the inside of Navalny’s underpants, and in particular the seams in the crotch area. On a follow-up question by “Maxim” if those would be “the grey boxers”, Kudryavtsev specifies that as far as he remembers they were blue. In fact, the “grey underpants” was a decoy question, as Alexey Navalny told us he was hospitalized in blue undepants, and that these were part of the clothes that were left behind at the Omsk hospital.

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In 2020, the study of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was undoubtedly the most urgent priority. But there were also some major breakthroughs in other areas.

Using high resolution cameras with macro-lenses, the drying out process that takes hours, days or even weeks is shot in time-lapse.

Does our efforts to make ourselves more productive making us feel even busier and even more stressed? – A conversation with Oliver Burkeman – author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

Psychologist Angela Duckworth, discuss basic questions about human behaviour and well-being

Geopolitics History Politics Technology

Russia, Chess, Photography, Reset, Tech-war

In the long term, agriculture presents perhaps the most significant illustration of how a warming world might erode America’s position. Right now the U.S. agricultural industry serves as a significant, if low-key, instrument of leverage in America’s own foreign affairs. The U.S. provides roughly a third of soy traded globally, nearly 40% of corn and 13% of wheat. By recent count, American staple crops are shipped to 174 countries, and democratic influence and power comes with them, all by design. And yet climate data analyzed for this project suggest that the U.S. farming industry is in danger. Crop yields from Texas north to Nebraska could fall by up to 90% by as soon as 2040 as the ideal growing region slips toward the Dakotas and the Canadian border. And unlike in Russia or Canada, that border hinders the U.S.’s ability to shift north along with the optimal conditions.

Shogi is the version of chess that is native to Japan, and it is wildly different from western chess – both western chess and shogi have evolved continuously from the original chaturanga as the game spread out from India. The core difference between shogi and the familiar western chess is that once a piece has been captured, the capturing player may later place the piece back on the board as his own piece. But if that was the only difference, it would make for a very crazy game, since the pieces in western chess are so powerful while the king is so weak, that the game would be filled with precarious situations that would require the players to always have their guard up for an unexpected piece drop, and checkmate is never more than a few moves away unless both players are paying close attention.

Pictures have always been a meaningful part of the human experience. From the first cave drawings, to sketches and paintings, to modern photography, we’ve mastered the art of recording what we see.

Cameras and the lenses inside them may seem a little mystifying. In this blog post I’d like to explain not only how they work, but also how adjusting a few tunable parameters can produce fairly different results.

Covid-19 appears to have engendered a similar crisis in our world, the main difference being in scale. Whereas the crisis Thucydides describes was confined to Athens, the coronavirus pandemic has destabilized governments from Brazil to Belarus, not just that of a 5th century city-state. The political reckoning has been particularly rapid in the United States, where Donald Trump’s inability or unwillingness to check the spread of the coronavirus was a key factor in his recent election defeat. Now, the lockdowns and social distancing measures look set to plunge the world into the worst economic depression since the 1930s, raising the spectre of further political instability.

Given the wide-ranging social, economic and political impacts of Covid-19, it is natural to assume that the same must have been true of past epidemics and pandemics. But is this the case? Do pandemics really have the historical impacts that are often claimed for them or are these claims simply the product of particular narratives and readings of history?

Today, the U.S. internet giants resemble expansionist empires jostling for power, influence, and market position around the world. Each has its impregnable base of power — e.g., search for Google, social networking for Facebook, online shopping for Amazon — but their spheres of influence are so great that they can’t help but overlap. At times, their drive for growth brings them into conflict in outlying territories, such as streaming, messaging, voice platforms, and cloud services.

That seems to be happening more often, or at least more publicly, of late. And it may be because we’re nearing the end of a digital Pax Americana — an epoch of internet history in which lax regulation and unfettered access to global markets allowed the great U.S. tech powers all to flourish at once.

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How China changed the recycling industry by a two page notification to WTO.

Eddy Goldfarb, who is ninety-eight – The Man Who Invented More Than 800 Iconic Toys.

On December 3rd, 2020, an international three-person team of codebreakers made a breakthrough with the Zodiac Killer’s unsolved 340-character cipher.

An interesting conversation on the mushiness of Dr. House.

A wine merchant – John Baker hears that Stalin’s wine collection, including bottles looted from the Tsars, is up for sale, after being hidden for decades in Georgia.

Geopolitics Science Society Technology

Frogbirds, Asia, IoBodies, Physics, Dads

It is interesting to ask if birds and frogs in physics can be broadly classified. The boundaries can be fluid, but generally speaking, Cartesian thinkers tend to be birds while Baconian doers tend to be frogs. This is partly because thinking about a broad landscape of ideas is easier than getting your hands dirty even on a single, well-crafted scientific experiment. Similarly, physicists who are unifiers tend to be birds, while physicists who are diversifiers tend to be frogs. One of the great and continuing themes in the history of physics is that of unifying different theories and different forces of nature.

Asia’s experiment with larger government comes at an interesting geopolitical moment, too. Regional leaders once looked westward for inspiration on public services reform. But disastrous pandemic responses from the likes of American President Donald Trump and Britain’s Boris Johnson have undermined faith in once-admired Western models, denting along with them the ideas of freedom and limited government that thinkers in the U.K. and U.S. have often espoused.

Earlier attempts to use the human body to communicate have usually shied away from these lower frequencies because the body is typically high loss at low frequencies. In other words, signals at these lower frequencies require more power to guarantee that a signal will make it to its destination. That means a signal from a glucose monitor on the abdomen might not make it to a smartwatch on the wrist before it’s unreadable, without a significant boost in power. These previous efforts were high loss because they focused on sending direct electrical signals, rather than information encoded in potential changes. We’ve found that the parasitic capacitance between a device and the body is key to creating a working channel.

The 21st century is often called the age of biology. Or artificial intelligence. Or any other emerging field. This relegates physics to the previous century — the golden days when the revolutions of relativity and quantum mechanics shook the world, and the discoveries of elementary particles led to a string of Nobel Prizes. Nowadays, people worry about a “desert scenario,” where no new particles will be found for many decades to come, if ever.

As with other vertebrate parents, when human fathers come into contact with their offspring (in our experiment, through a photo) it activates the dopamine hub and the motivational system in the midbrain. The more the midbrain was activated, we found, the more involved the father was in caring for the child. This could mean that fathers who were more rewarded by their child became more involved in caregiving, or it could mean that, as fathers became more involved and formed stronger bonds with their child, they came to find the child more rewarding. Viewing pictures of their child also activated a number of other brain regions not included in animal models of parental brain function. These areas, including the anterior cingulate, the thalamus and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, all play a role in empathy. In humans, and likely many other species, parenting involves not only the motivation to deliver care but also the ability to perceive and understand the needs, feelings and mental states of the offspring.

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Former CIA Chief of Disguise Jonna Mendez talks about some of the tactics, gadgets and disguises CIA operatives used in the field during the Cold War.

 Satisfying lasagna cooking video

What to learn from bumblebee?

How a pitch-correcting algorithm became the signature sound of modern pop music

Yuval Noah Harari talks just about everything in a Marathon discussion

History Science Society Technology

Ma, Limbs, Nukes, Brain, Risks

Today’s financial system is a product of the Industrial Age, a comprehensive financial system designed to address the needs of industrialization and to fulfill the two-eight theory. What is the two-eight theory? It’s about investing in the 20% to solve 80% of the problem. And the future of the financial system is about the eight-two theory, helping 80% of small businesses and young people to drive the other 20% of people. We must transition from the old way of people looking for money, businesses looking for money, to money looking for people and money looking for good businesses. The only standard to evaluate this system is whether something is universal, inclusive, green, and sustainable. The cutting-edge technologies backing this standard, like big data, cloud computing, and blockchain are already ready today to take on this huge responsibility.

Ramachandran had the genius idea to place a mirror next to the amputee’s intact limb. When the patient sits in the right position and the mirror is set at the proper angle, the reflection of the intact limb looks to the patient just like a copy of the missing limb, and in a location where that missing limb would naturally be. Movements of the intact limb are visually processed by the patient’s brain as copycat movements of the missing limb as well. Thus, if a patient is feeling pain in their phantom right arm, watching a mirrored reflection of their left hand clench and unclench a fist can train their brain to realize that the (missing) right arm is not at all contorted in a manner that should cause pain. For cramping and other muscular pain in the phantom limb, Ramachandran’s procedure is remarkably effective.

This post discussed the three plausible mechanisms of human extinction caused by nuclear weapons. The fact that one of these mechanisms, nuclear winter, wasn’t characterized until the 1980s, is a good reminder of the possibility of unknown unknowns. While nuclear tests provided information about the effects of these weapons, the test environments were significantly different than war environments. Large model uncertainties remain. Given that the greatest existential threat from nuclear war appears to be from climate impacts, it would be great to see more researchers study the climate effects from nuclear war and the resilience capacity of different human groups.

Almost all scientists and ethicists agree that so far, nobody has created consciousness in the lab. But they are asking themselves what to watch out for, and which theories of consciousness might be most relevant. According to an idea called integrated information theory, for example, consciousness is a product of how densely neuronal networks are connected across the brain. The more neurons that interact with one another, the higher the degree of consciousness — a quantity known as phi. If phi is greater than zero, the organism is considered conscious.

Two things happen when you’re caught off guard. One is that you’re vulnerable, with no protection against what you hadn’t considered. The other is that surprise shakes your beliefs in a way that leaves you paranoid and pessimistic. Driving by car surged after 9/11 as people avoided air travel, leading to more excess car deaths than casualties from the actual terrorist attacks. After Pearl Harbor it was a foregone conclusion, doubted by few, that Japan would soon attack California.

An important lesson from history is that the risks we talk about in the news are rarely the most important risks in hindsight. We saw that over the last decade of economists and investors spending their lives discussing the biggest risk to the economy – was it Ben Bernanke’s monetary policy? Barack Obama’s fiscal policy? Donald Trump’s trade wars?

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Fast-forward through a history of human artefacts, from arrowheads to plastic toys

A cyclical, forgetful Universe – Roger Penrose details an astonishing origin hypothesis

A group of Swedish skiers and snowboarders travel by train and boat from Stockholm, through Russia, to Japan

Clifford Woolf, a renowned expert on understanding pain, talks about the biology of pain.

John Mackey, the C.E.O. of Whole Foods, speaks about “conscious leadership” to the behavioral roots of the obesity epidemic.

Economics History Politics Science Society Technology

Cancer, Clusters, Powell, Greyhound, Populist

One critical problem with traditional chemotherapies is that the rapid high doses – which are aimed at eradicating the tumour – can actually end up selecting for cancer cells that are resistant to the drugs. When the cancer grows back (as it often does), the drugs no longer work because all of the cells that remain are ones that grew back from the few resistant cells that survived the high-dose therapy. Ironically, the higher the chemotherapy dose, the stronger the selection pressure favouring drug-resistant cells (because the differential fitness between sensitive and resistant cells is higher with stronger treatment).

Historically, clusters have been pivotal in driving long-term US growth and for creating innovations that improve the lives of billions of people around the globe. As economists William Kerr and Frederic Robert-Nicoud summarize, there has been a continual movement of leading tech clusters over time in the US. In the 1800s, Lowell, Massachusetts was the center for textile mills relying on water power. By the early 1900s, Cleveland, Ohio was instrumental in pushing forward the frontier on electricity and steel. Detroit, Michigan, of course, developed into the powerhouse for automobile manufacturing in the mid-1900s. 

Currently, US tech clusters are the envy of the world. There are only four trillion dollar companies in the world. Two of them are based near San Francisco (Apple and Alphabet), and two near Seattle (Amazon and Microsoft). Of the global top 30 Internet firms, 14 are based in SF alone.

In March, as panic over the coronavirus caused stock prices to crash and made banks and bondholders skittish about lending, the Fed acted to support the economy by flooding it with extra cash it hoped would help keep normal what could be kept normal. It cut interest rates from 1.5 percent to zero, announced it would purchase $700 billion in Treasury bonds and other assets to push down long-term interest rates, and provided liquidity to keep corporations able to borrow and banks able to lend. The Fed’s actions have saved Wall Street — the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which bottomed out at 18,214 on March 23, regained half its losses by mid-April and returned to near-record levels in early September — and have also done a great deal to reduce the pain on Main Street by keeping consumer credit available and interest rates on mortgages and credit cards low. Through its swift and sensible action, the Fed helped forestall corporate bankruptcies and prevented the job losses of the spring from being even worse. The Fed did not — and could not — fix everything that was wrong in our economy with the tools it has available. But imagine if this year had featured a new financial crisis on top of over 220,000 deaths and tens of millions of job losses, and you can see what we have the Fed to thank for.

Wickman, it turns out, pretty much invented intercity bus travel—which for most Americans equals Greyhound, the company that emerged from that long-ago Hupmobile ride. “Greyhound has become generic for bus travel,” says Robert Gabrick, author of Going The Greyhound Way. “Like Kleenex for tissues.” Indeed, this classic American business icon—which, as it happens, is now owned by a British conglomerate—today has more than 7,300 employees, with estimated yearly sales of $820 million and 2,000 buses serving 3,800 destinations in 48 U.S. states and nine Canadian provinces. “I’m amazed at Greyhound’s brand recognition,” says DePaul University professor Joseph Schwieterman, an authority on intercity bus travel. “It’s an American success story.”

Right-wing populism did not emerge in the United States because of Trump’s deranged charisma. Nor did it begin with the news media’s infatuation with his outrageous statements, or with Russian meddling, or with social media. Rather, right-wing populism resurged as a potent political force at least two decades before Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party—remember Pat Buchanan? And it has analogs all over the world, not just in mature democracies reeling from the loss of manufacturing jobs but in countries that have benefited economically from globalization, including Brazil, Hungary, India, the Philippines, Poland, and Turkey.

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A documentary on the Cold War – particularly Stanislav Petrov, the Soviet lieutenant colonel who saved the world.

A mesmerizing video on Monsoon – a result of 30,000+ miles, hundreds of thousands of time-lapse frames captured and 60+ days chasing

Conversation on Space exploration – The final economic frontier?

An interesting conversation with Fahmi Quadir, known as the assassin of Wall Street on short selling.

Nathan Myhrvold, a computer scientist and physics student of Stephen Hawking speaks about his interests

Environment Geopolitics Science Technology

Inspiration, Seat belts, Space conflicts, PDF, Longevity, Apple

Termites are considered among the greatest architects on Earth. A couple of years ago, a network of termite mounds in Brazil was discovered that is as large as Great Britain. Inside each mound, which is a few meters tall, millions of millimeter-sized termites live. That’s comparable to humans living in buildings a few kilometers high. The mounds are built to harness the environment — places where temperature, humidity and gas concentrations are well controlled.

We have studied the function of termite mounds in both India and Namibia, and most recently have begun to understand the principles of how they are built. Our experiments showed that the mound operates like a lung, breathing once a day in response to external temperature changes. And we have a mathematical model that shows how the mound geometry, environmental conditions and termite behavior are all interrelated.

Seat belts, or safety belts, or restraints, have been around since well before airplanes, or even cars, having been patented in the U.S. for the first time in 1885. They were not found in early cars, and remained at best an option in certain forward-thinking automaker lines, most notably Saab, until the late 1950s. In 1966, the publication of Ralph Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed, which attacked the auto industry for refusing to institute basic safety features in its cars, prompted the first American law to require all vehicles (except buses) to provide safety belts.

For the U.S. more than anyone else, space war could be ruinous. The country relies heavily on its satellites to transmit signals for GPS, credit-card transactions, hospital systems, television stations, weather reports; the list goes on and on. But it depends more than any other country on its military satellites for communication and surveillance. And all satellites—bright and moving in predictable, public orbits—are essentially sitting ducks, nearly impossible to defend; space war is what the military calls “offense-dominant.”

Basically, every year just before tax season, the IRS would mail out tax forms to hundreds of millions of people around the United States. This annual mailing was, during non-Census years, the largest annual mailing that the postal service had to deal with—around 110 million individual mailings annually, according a 1991 New York Times article. And the IRS, dealing with a complicated tax code, had to manage and deal with a wide variety of exceptions and differing forms, for both businesses and individual taxpayers.

This was not only incredibly wasteful—never a good thing when you’re the Internal Revenue Service—but it represented something of a logistical nightmare, because it also hinted at the ways that paper gummed up the works throughout the federal government.

We shouldn’t overestimate how much we understand aging, and we shouldn’t underestimate how much progress we can make without full understanding.

On the margin I agree with Open Phil that basic research and engineering for biotech tools are likely to have the biggest impact on longevity, whether this research is called “longevity research” or not. I’d say this is especially true for tools to do large-scale phenotypic assays. The hard(er) part of building the atomic bomb wasn’t the nuclear physics, it was building the bomb, and I suspect longevity is similar.

For example, if a person’s face was to be photographed from behind chicken wire, it was not possible to construct an algorithm that would capture the chicken wire to the side of the face with the same sharpness as the chicken wire in front of it. The wire to the side would be as blurred as the background.

One might say, “Who cares about the chicken wire case? That’s exceedingly rare.” But for the team, sidestepping rare or extreme situations—what engineers call corner cases—would violate Apple’s strict engineering standard of zero “artifacts,” meaning “any undesired or unintended alteration in data introduced in a digital process by an involved technique and/or technology.” Corner cases sparked “many tough discussions” between the camera team and other teams involved, recalls Myra Haggerty, the VP of sensor software and UX prototyping, who oversaw the firmware and algorithm teams. Sebastien Marineau-Mes, the VP to whom the camera software team ultimately reported, decided to defer the release of the feature until the following year to give the team time to better address failure cases—“a hard pill to swallow,” Hubel admits.

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Cosmic inhomogeneities – why is universe perfectly distributed?

Geo-engineering – might not be a distant future as we think.

An ad – but reflects the struggle of small businesses today

History and economics of fabrics and textiles – an intereresting conversation with Virginia Postrel

The science of food a discussion on hangover honey trap

History Science Society Technology

Venus, Nero, Ice, Distribution, Vikings

The idea of detecting life through an otherwise inexplicable anomaly in a planet’s spectrum dates back to the 1960s, when it was given voice by James Lovelock, a British chemist and inventor. It came into its own when astronomers started discovering planets around other stars, or exoplanets. Most of these planets are in inhospitably unearthlike orbits, but some sit within what astronomers call the “habitable zone”—the zone in which, under various conditions, the surface might support liquid water. Astrobiologists like Sara Seager of MIT started putting real effort into working out what anomalous gases might be visible once they got telescopes good enough to analyse the spectra of such planets’ atmospheres.

A few years ago some of the scientists who work with Dr Seager and in her team started to get interested in phosphine. Though it is not clear how microbes make it, or something which decomposes into it, its association with life is pretty clear (among other things, penguin guano seems rich in the stuff). There seem to be no appreciable mechanisms for making it abiotically either in the depths of the Earth or through the “photochemical” reactions driven by sunlight which create other short-lived gases in the atmosphere. And it has some nice distinct spectral lines which should be eventually observable in the infrared light from some sorts of exoplanet.

But what if Nero wasn’t such a monster? What if he didn’t invent the spectator sport of throwing Christians to the lions in the Colosseum? What if he wasn’t the tyrant who murdered upstanding Roman senators and debauched their wives? Indeed, what if the whole lurid rap sheet has been an elaborate set-up, with Nero as history’s patsy? After all, we have no eyewitness testimony from Nero’s reign. Any contemporaneous writings have been lost. The ancient Roman sources we do have date from considerably after Nero’s suicide in A.D. 68. The case against Nero, then, is largely hearsay, amplified and distorted over two millennia in history’s longest game of telephone. Besides, no one really wants to straighten out the record. Who wants another version of Nero? He’s the perfect evil tyrant just the way he is.

The impact theory is in some senses comforting. We have big telescopes, we can see into space now, in theory, if we knew an impact event was coming, we could prevent it. If it takes an impact to cause a catastrophic melting and sea level rise event, then we’re mostly safe from it happening. If the melting was caused by an impact, then it means our current climate models which estimate around a meter of sea level rise by the year 2100, are largely accurate. 

But if these melting spikes were not caused by an impact, then it means something on earth which we currently do not understand triggered them. Something caused the ice sheets to suddenly and rapidly destabilize and release a large quantity of meltwater over a relatively brief period. If such an event were to occur today, the effects would be globally catastrophic. If an event caused a one-meter sea level rise over the course of a few years, it would render many of the world’s coastal cities uninhabitable. 

In 1803, the [Spanish] king, convinced of the benefits of the vaccine, ordered his personal physician Francis Xavier de Balmis, to deliver it to the Spanish dominions in North and South America. To maintain the vaccine in an available state during the voyage, the physician recruited 22 young boys who had never had cowpox or smallpox before, aged three to nine years, from the orphanages of Spain. During the trip across the Atlantic, de Balmis vaccinated the orphans in a living chain. Two children were vaccinated immediately before departure, and when cowpox pustules had appeared on their arms, material from these lesions was used to vaccinate two more children.

If the Norse did reach Chichén Itzá, how did they get there? A possible Viking ship appears in a mural in a different building called Las Monjas, or ‘The Nunnery’. (The Spaniards assumed that any building with a large courtyard nearby had to be a nunnery, but the Maya had no nunneries.) Built before 950 CE, the Nunnery contains murals that might have been painted slightly later.

One Nunnery mural shows no captives but depicts a boat with clearly delineated planks, or strakes. The use of planks indicates that the Nunnery boat couldn’t have been a local craft because the Maya, like most of the peoples living in the Americas, made their canoes by burning and hollowing out tree trunks. Only one Amerindian people ever made boats with sewn planks, the Chumash, who lived in modern-day Santa Barbara, California. The sharply outlined strakes in this mural are better evidence of Norse presence at Chichén Itzá than the paintings of the blond-haired captives.

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Impact of loneliness on human brains – a case study on quarantine and isolated living during COVID.

The attention economy – How to keep freedom of attention in the times of digital distraction

This is an Indonesian miner’s story of hard work, courage, and suffering all in the name of family.

PULSE – A new image upsampling algorithm

How to survive in conflict zone economies? Terrifying report on protection money model.

FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss advises how to be more assertive

Geopolitics Science Technology

Jellyfish, Labs, Questions, Surveillance, Rice

In the hope of solving this, some naturalists proposed a new grouping. Dubbed ‘protozoa’ or ‘protoctista’, it would consist of all those ‘indeterminate’ or ‘incomplete’ subjects, that seemed to bear no relation to anything else. But no one could agree whether it should be a class, a phylum, or a kingdom – much less what it should contain. 

This left jellyfish in limbo. There were, of course, some who still believed that they were animals. In 1843, Richard Owen (1804-92) gave an exceptionally detailed description of their anatomy and argued forcefully for their inclusion in Animalia. But he struggled to explain why. He had to admit that, at certain stages in their life cycle, they actually looked more like protozoa – and when pushed, had to fall back on the ‘essentialist’ arguments of old.

No one is quite sure why the lab model failed. It’s obvious that a scenario where Xerox is paying scientists to do research that ultimately mostly benefits other firms, potentially even competitors that help to put it out of business, could never survive. Similarly, the tension between managing scientists with their own pure research goals in such a way that they produce something commercially viable, while still leaving them enough latitude to make important leaps, seems huge. But these problems were always there in the model. What is harder to identify is an exogenous shock or set of shocks that changed the situation that existed from the 1930s until somewhere between the 1960s and the 1980s.

One possibility is antitrust enforcement. From 1949 authorities pursued a case against AT&T’s Bell Labs, which ultimately resulted in the forced divestiture of their non-telecoms arms, separation from their vertically integrated manufacturing, and compulsory no-fee licensing of all 7,820 of its non-telecoms patents (1.3% of the total stock of patents in force in the USA at the time). There is evidence that this move rippled across the US economy, providing a foundation for many of the great innovations of the next fifty years. But this would be true of almost any mass patent invalidation: the monopoly restrictions of patents once they are granted are the cost we pay for the investment in innovation that came before.

People frequently ask us what high-impact research in different disciplines might look like. This might be because they’re already working in a field and want to shift their research in a more impactful direction. Or maybe they’re thinking of pursuing an academic research career and they aren’t sure which discipline is right for them.

Below you will find a list of disciplines and a handful of research questions and project ideas for each one.

They are meant to be illustrative, in order to help people who are working or considering working in these disciplines get a sense of what some attempts to approach them from a longtermist perspective might look like. They also represent projects that we think would be useful to pursue from a longtermist perspective.

In 2018, a columnist for The Guardian asked Google to give him all the data it had collected on him. The company turned over 5.5 gigabytes of information—the equivalent of three million Word documents. When I repeated this experiment in March 2020, Google informed me that I was being “tracked across fifty-one products” and that I should be patient while my data were being assembled. “This process can take a long time (possibly hours or days) to complete,” the company wrote. “You’ll receive an email when your export is done.”

Ten hours later, Google emailed to say that my “archive” was complete. When I unzipped the files, they contained 214.47 gigabytes of data, roughly equal to streaming 214 hours of movies on Netflix. As a book printed in 10-point Arial, it would be 13,893,796 pages long. The archive included all my contacts, photos, search history, purchases, call logs, and correspondence—pretty much everything I had done on the Internet from its origins to the present. Like everyone else, I had agreed to this surveillance by clicking “yes” to unread agreements that promised to “enhance your user experience.” Apart from Google, I am being tracked by a host of other companies. They scrape data from my financial transactions and then sell it back to me as my credit rating or pass it on to Bluffdale, Utah, as part of the NSA’s effort to comprehend information in its totality.

The thing to note about rice is that it is both much more productive on a per-acre basis than wheat or barley, but also much more labor intensive; it also relies on different forms of capital to be productive. Whole-grain wheat and brown rice have similar calorie and nutritional value (brown rice is somewhat better in most categories) on a unit-weight basis (so, per pound or ton), but the yield difference is fairly large: rice is typically around (very roughly) 50% more productive per acre than wheat. Moreover, rice plants have a more favorable ratio of seeds-to-plants, meaning that the demand to put away seeds for the next harvest is easier – whereas crop-to-seed ratios on pre-modern wheat range from 3:1 to 10:1, rice can achieve figures as high as 100:1. As a result, not only is the gross yield higher (that is, more tons of seed per field) but a lower percentage of that seed has to be saved for the next planting.

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The history of universe using 13,799 dominoes.

This video from KQED’s science documentary series Deep Look offers carnivorous close-ups of the Cape sundew – a bog-dwelling plant species native to South Africa.

Everyday life in the Secretive North Korean capital

An introduction to some of the finest architects and fiercest warriors of the insect world 

Interesting story on the history of air conditioning.

Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter discusses about the limits of translation.

Economics Ethics Fintech Science Technology

Gold, Viruses, Tuna, Bitcoin, Law, Go

The unique thing about gold is that it doesn’t get used up. The main way we consume the yellow metal is by storing it, say in vaults or by wearing it as jewellery. Compared to how we use an industrial metal like copper, this sort of usage is very safe. Copper parts in machinery, for instance, are dissipated by abrasion and wear. But gold just sits there, untouched.

Nor does gold depreciate. Unlike most materials, it is almost indestructible. Copper corrodes, steel rusts, wood rots, and concrete crumbles. But a gold coin from 200BC is still perfectly lustrous.

Nor does the yellow metal suffer from technological obsolescence. Gold keeps doing the same thing it has done for thousands of years.

And obviously we don’t eat the stuff.

The fact that viruses have only a tenuous claim to being alive, though, hardly reduces their impact on things which are indubitably so. No other biological entities are as ubiquitous, and few as consequential. The number of copies of their genes to be found on Earth is beyond astronomical. There are hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way galaxy and a couple of trillion galaxies in the observable universe. The virions in the surface waters of any smallish sea handily outnumber all the stars in all the skies that science could ever speak of.

Back on Earth, viruses kill more living things than any other type of predator. They shape the balance of species in ecosystems ranging from those of the open ocean to that of the human bowel. They spur evolution, driving natural selection and allowing the swapping of genes.

And for what purpose? Bluefin is neither a staple nor a necessity. It’s a luxury. The person who dines on North Lake’s bluefin may want to connect to the people who caught it and the ocean it came from, but they are also buying a trophy, just as surely as Captain Jack did when he shelled out $3,000 for his charter experience. The word trophy comes from the Greek tropaion, a “monument of an enemy’s defeat.” It is, by definition, a spoil of war. North Lake’s relationship to bluefin tuna has always been adversarial. Fishermen are said to “fight” the fish, and they are celebrated as heroes when they win this unequal battle, armed with technologies that make the finding and killing ever more efficient, despite diminishing financial returns and the dwindling size of the catch. Commercial cod and lobster fishermen have also long seen themselves in competition with bluefin—hungry giants that feed on the same fish they needed to fatten up their catches.

This vision of wild creatures as targets of conquest or competition to be eliminated may have made some sense when human beings felt their everyday lives to be at the mercy of the natural world. But in the Anthropocene, the environment is often at our mercy, even when the ways we alter it ultimately harm our own species. Not only do humans en masse have the means and numbers to fish out entire species, we also have the power to change migration patterns by destroying habitat and warming ocean waters.

Bitcoin has already made significant ground on gold — going from whitepaper to over $200 billion in market capitalization in under a decade. Today, the market capitalization of above ground gold is conservatively $9 trillion. If we are right about using a gold framework to value bitcoin, and bitcoin continues on this path, then the bull case scenario for bitcoin is that it is undervalued by a multiple of 45. Said differently, the price of bitcoin could appreciate 45x from where it is today, which means we could see a price of $500,000 U.S. dollars per bitcoin.

All of this does not factor in the possibility of bitcoin displacing some portion of the $11.7 trillion dollars of fiat foreign exchange reserves held by governments. Foreshadowing this, at least one publicly-traded U.S. corporation has begun holding bitcoin as a treasury reserve asset. If central banks start to diversify their foreign fiat holdings even partially into bitcoin, say 10%, then 45x gets revised upward towards 55x or $600,000 USD per bitcoin, and so forth.

About the only existing law governing space is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. But the treaty focuses almost entirely on what nation-states can and cannot do (e.g., deploy nuclear bombs, seize celestial bodies). It’s virtually silent on what private companies or individuals can do—which suddenly seems like a glaring loophole given the rise of private space companies like SpaceX, which recently transported its first astronauts to the International Space Station. These private vessels are far murkier in a legal sense.

To be sure, a clause in the Outer Space Treaty does require nations to monitor their own citizens in space, which works fine when astronauts are few. But when hundreds or thousands of people reach orbit, that will become increasingly untenable. And so far, most crimes in remote places like T-3 have involved the citizens of one country alone (e.g., one Russian attacking another).

In the case of Korea, there are about 380 professional players certified by the Korean Baduk Association, and about 50 top players can be considered tournament players. Last year, the top player in Korea earned about $1 million US dollars from tournaments alone, while the 10th player earned about $120,000 US dollars.

The development of superhuman Go AI has impacted the professional Go world in many different ways. Here, I want to highlight three areas, one that affects both types of players, one area for tournament players, and one for teaching players.

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Video on takeoff and flight sequences of insects spanning 8 different taxonomic orders captured at 3,200 fps! – usually ignored when we see in nature.

Sand art in a different dimension

Interesting conversation by Steven Levitt and Steven Pinker on language, cognition and various topics of interests.

Michael Sandel on why meritocracy sounds like a good idea in principle, but not a good idea to practice? – Need to practice the dignity of work.

Environment Geopolitics Politics Science Technology

Pigs, Resilience, Distancing, Vaccines, Agents

Cascading shortfalls in production upended supply chains and left swaths of the country with little meat in the spring and summer. While East Germans queued in long lines for their roasts and sausages, they also complained bitterly that the regime continued to prioritize meat exports abroad, even as their own citizens grew more irate. The same industrial system that arose in the GDR continues to churn in every corner of the globe. It remains capable of producing unprecedented amounts of meat, but also pollution, sickness, and ecological disaster. In the era of climate change, environmental disruptions will only intensify, and as they do, the system of industrial meat will become more and more precarious. Before too long, it will break. It’s a lesson that East Germans learned a generation ago. And it’s one we should heed closely.

Individual organisms often respond to cues of environmental challenge by changing their behaviour or by influencing the traits of their offspring. For example, in my own work on birds, mothers in crowded populations put more testosterone in their eggs and produce aggressive offspring. Because they are good competitors, these offspring can leave overpopulated areas to find new habitat elsewhere. In contrast, mothers breeding in newly colonised habitat with a low density of breeders produce more mild-mannered offspring that are more likely to remain and acquire a territory nearby. By breeding next to their parents, these cooperative offspring are buffered from competition and from the costs of moving to a new area. But producing less aggressive offspring works only when there is lots of extra space for families to divide up. This example shows how mothers can influence offspring traits in a way that prepares their kids to deal with the environmental challenges they are most likely to face.

Like other animals, humans have a long evolutionary history with infectious diseases. Many of our own forms of behavioral immunity, such as feelings of disgust in dirty or crowded environments, are likely the results of this history. But modern humans, unlike other animals, have many advantages when plagues come to our doors. For instance, we can now communicate disease threats globally in an instant. This ability allows us to institute social distancing before disease appears in our local community—a tactic that has saved many lives. We have advanced digital communication platforms, from e-mail to group video chats, that allow us to keep our physical distance while maintaining some social connections. Other animals lose social ties with actual distance. But perhaps the biggest human advantage is the ability to develop sophisticated nonbehavioral tools, such as vaccines, that prevent disease without the need for costly behavioral changes. Vaccination allows us to maintain rich, interactive social lives despite contagious diseases such as polio and measles that would otherwise ravage us.

When you’re planning a large vaccine drive, predictability is vital. The immunization campaign that allowed India to eradicate polio in 2014, for example, worked methodically through the country’s populace of hundreds of millions of children, backed by a bank of knowledge about how the virus behaved, what the vaccine’s properties were, and where new cases could be found. Such factors dictate not only how much vaccine is manufactured but also the production of a host of ancillaries: chemical additives such as adjuvants; hypodermics, glass vials, rubber stoppers, and other parts of an injection kit; and storage equipment such as deep freezers. Without this gear, a vaccine is just a fine formula, a cure in search of its disease.

If a physical product that is widespread in American society could be manipulated by an adversary—imagine an army of home-service robots whose operating systems could be attacked by a foreign power, and turned to hold families hostage inside their houses—it would be immediately addressed as a top-priority national security threat. But social media has long had a free pass for a number of reasons that apply to the information technology industry as a whole. Today, it is protected in distinctive and persistent ways because of its “speech” functions and the constitutional protections that these functions carry.

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Merriam-Webster defines Baryons as any of a group of subatomic particles (such as nucleons) that are subject to the strong force and are composed of three quarks. Half of the ordinary baryonic matter has been tough to find but Fast Radio Bursts made it possible to detect the WHIM.

The most popular high-end coffee species – Arabica – is highly susceptible to Climate change. Video talks about how Columbian economy is impacted by the environmental crisis and could affect global coffee drinkers in the longer term.

Is the pursuit of GDP growth is the best priority for human society? Listen to an interesting conversation between Stephen Dubner and Kate Raworth.

Know more about monastic traditions of Benedictines, Franciscans and Dominicans.