29 June 2007

Most fun I had reading today:

We live in a very special time in the evolution of the universe: the time at which we can observationally verify that we live in a very special time in the evolution of the universe.

Context: A soon-to-be published paper, The Return of a Static Universe and the End of Cosmology (via Ars Technica). The basic idea here is that as the universe continues to expand, and things get further apart, and light dopplers beyond our detection abilities, the only things we'll be able to see will be our local neighborhood of galaxies, still bound together by 'gravitational' forces. For related reasons, the wavelength-shifted cosmic background radiation will have diminished, and will be indistinguishable from interstellar noise. Thus, the perceivable universe at this point (100 billion years from now) will look a lot like what we could see before we learned to measure Hubble expansion and learned about the Big Bang in the first place. So, if a new universe-pondering species were to come of age in this era, they'd never find out that their galaxy cluster wasn't the entire universe.

As a non-physicist, I think this is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it's curious to think that if anyone was around 100 billion years ago, the universe probably made much more sense to them, since the evidence was that much less attenuated. Second, it seems to violate the rule that information is always preserved in physical interactions -- since the information is still there, in the form of propagating waves of light, it seems like it ought to be possible to detect it somehow, even if our current detection techniques aren't up to the challenge. But to reiterate, not a physicist, so feel free to correct this perception.

28 June 2007

Colorado on the nano map

This is a nifty interactive map from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies indicating emerging nanotech hotspots; Denver is listed as one of 12 Nano Metros with over 15 institutions working in this sector (companies, research centers, research universities). Currently the Colorado map is heavy on materials and electronics, with only one medical nanotech company listed, but would imagine we'll see that change in the next several years or so.

27 June 2007

Economics vs. applied ethics

Going on my ever-longer reading list: Diane Coyle's The Soulful Science: What Economists Really Do and Why It Matters. (Reviewed this month in Nature.) I confess to wondering about this a lot lately after reading a few trendy new economics books -- in particular, Steven Landsburg's More Sex is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics. It's nice that economists want to extend their paradigm beyond the traditional goods-and-services arena, but the same language that sounds reasonable and useful to me in that arena sounds downright clueless when trying to explain how people make (or ought to make) other, more private decisions (when and with whom to have sex, e.g., borrowing from Landsburg's titular example).

Perhaps this book will turn me around -- I don't want to dislike economics, or the way economists talk about decision-making in ethically-charged situations. What I want is for economics-style thinking to provide some useful information about making decisions on the individual level, where all ethics happens. Maybe this is beyond what economists can legitimately tackle -- we'll see.

26 June 2007

Whole Foods: Slicing up the natural foods market

Via Cafe Hayek, Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman comes out with the same argument Whole Foods CEO John Mackey makes:

Organic food consumers would not be the suffering captives of this new company. Every grocery store has a raft of organic offerings, and chains from Wal-Mart to Trader Joe's are fighting to get their share of sales. If the bigger Whole Foods tries price-gouging, customers can easily find other sources for what they want - from farmers markets to online suppliers.

The key government error is defining the market as a narrow sector isolated from other sectors that provide reasonable substitutes.

Yup. For virtually any company, one can define its market so narrowly that any merger would sharply inhibit competition (FTC's position here), or so broadly that no merger could meaningfully decrease competition (Mackey's position). As a libertarian, I tend to default to the latter position except in cases of genuine -- often government-induced -- monopoly (and its equally mischievous but oft-overlooked cousin, monopsony). I realize there are somewhat persuasive arguments for FTC intervention in markets that, for one reason or another, closely approximate these two conditions, but the booming natural foods industry just doesn't seem like a good candidate.

Council of Europe on creationism and human rights

Excerpts from the Council of Europe's draft resolution "The Dangers of Creationism in Education":

The Parliamentary Assembly is worried about the possible ill-effects of the spread of creationist theories within our education systems and about the consequences for our democracies. If we are not careful, creationism could become a threat to human rights, which are a key concern of the Council of Europe. [...]

There is a real risk of a serious confusion being introduced into our children’s minds between what has to do with convictions, beliefs and ideals and what has to do with science, and of the advent of an “all things are equal” attitude, which may seem appealing and tolerant but is actually disastrous. [...]

The war on the theory of evolution and on its proponents most often originates in forms of religious extremism which are closely allied to extreme right-wing political movements. The creationist movements possess real political power. The fact of the matter, and this has been exposed on several occasions, is that the advocates of strict creationism are out to replace democracy by theocracy.

The Council has no binding authority, but considerable influence around the subject of human rights (hence the presentation of creationism as a potential threat to basic human rights via the mechanism of 'replacing democracy with theocracy.') The resolution goes on to urge educators to teach creationism as an alternative religious theory if necessary, but never alongside evolution as scientific theory. The whole thing was, naturally, sent back to committee for further retooling to make the language a bit less hysterical. (Incidentally, the resolution claims that post-Darwin creationism is more or less an American phenomenon -- can this be true? I suppose so, since the older European religions have pretty much tolerated evolution as something that can fit inside God's creation of the universe, whereas fundamentalist religions popular in America haven't. But what about Islam, which has its fair share of fundamentalist sects? More to come on this, after I do a little research.)

25 June 2007

Colorado biotech is selling, Big Pharma is buying

Colorado biotech blogger (and my work associate) Adam Rubenstein got some press over the weekend in the Denver Post, discussing drug development in Colorado. Aside from his day job, Adam manages the Colorado Life Science Deal Flow and OnBioVC blogs.

Men are from California, women are from New York?

Via Feministing, I discover this map from National Geographic indicating where single men outnumber single women (blue dots) and vice versa (red dots). (Click on the map for a larger version.) Some explanations that have been offered so far:
  1. Sexuality -- Gay couples are counted here as unmarried, and areas that are welcoming to gay culture ought to attract similar numbers of gay men and women. But San Francisco, for example, features a big blue dot, indicating more men than women. Insofar as this has to do with the high concentration of gay men there, where are the gay women who would counterbalance this? Maybe lesbians are less reviled by their original communities, so are less likely to relocate to friendlier towns?
  2. Age -- Cities to which older couples retire should have a (relatively) high concentration of unmarried women, because there are more widows that widowers, because women tend to live longer. This is probably why Miami is a big red dot. But what about Phoenix, the new Miami for active retirement? Perhaps the mortality gender gap is less pronounced because of the emphasis on 'active' retirement there, or perhaps it hasn't been trendy as a retirement spot long enough to see the effects of age in gender distribution.
  3. Career choices -- If men are more willing to relocate for employment than women, and more likely to work in the tech industry, we should expect to see more men in technology growth areas hungry for employees. Denver and the entire West Coast fall into this category. This alone would also account for many of the red dots to the east, but some have hypothesized that many college-educated women are moving east for their careers, and are also likely to postpone marriage.
  4. Immigration -- Areas receiving lots of immigrants should have blue dots, because single men immigrate much more often than single women. This seems to be more or less accurate.
  5. Lifestyle choices -- Are men more likely to move west in search of fun, sun, tech jobs and California girls? Conversely, are women somehow motivated to move away from same?
Off the top of my head, I'm inclined to think that #3 is probably the biggest driver of the general disparity here, with particular cities bucking the trend for various reasons (Miami due to mean population age, for example).

22 June 2007

To protect internet freedom, Google suggests bribery more effective than finger-wagging

The Google Public Policy blog presents a new way to deal with governments imposing significant internet censorship on their populations:

Just as the U.S. government has, in decades past, utilized its trade negotiation powers to advance the interests of other U.S. industries, we would like to see the federal government take to heart the interests of the information industries and treat the elimination of unwarranted censorship as a central objective of our bilateral and multilateral trade agendas in the years to come.

A useful approach, based on the idea that heavy-handed governments will be less offended and more cooperative if this issue is presented as 'trade negotiation' rather than 'human rights.' Google goes out of their way to say that it's not a 'political thing,' it's just about growing the information industry, but for those to care to go a level deeper, it nicely highlights the connection between freely flowing information, freely flowing trade, and increasing well-being.

(FYI, here's a link to the Top Ten Most Censored Countries, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.)

Trent Lott's 'barnyard' policy approach

Via Reason Hit & Run, this bit from Trent Lott unites two of my favorite topics of discussion: immigration fences and goats:

Sen. Minority Whip Trent Lott, R-Miss., was talking to reporters Wednesday about the immigration bill, when he said, "If the answer is 'build a fence' I've got two goats on my place in Mississippi. There ain't no fence big enough, high enough, strong enough, that you can keep those goats in that fence."

"Now people are at least as smart as goats," Lott continued. "Maybe not as agile. Build a fence. We should have a virtual fence. Now one of the ways I keep those goats in the fence is I electrified them. Once they got popped a couple of times they quit trying to jump it."

"I'm not proposing an electrified goat fence," Lott added quickly, "I'm just trying, there's an analogy there."

Given the current hair-trigger climate on immigration issues, it's easy to see why Lott starts worrying towards the end that he might be misunderstood as advocating something even sillier (by a slim margin) than Colorado Rep. and presidential hopeful Tom Tancredo's ideas. But the original news item goes on to report that Lott thinks a fence isn't such a bad idea, using appropriate technology to support it. (There's the analogy he was looking for -- good thing his spokesperson was handy to explain it.)

Dear Ralph: Enough is enough. Love, the voting public.

Ralph Nader is threatening to run for president again. He says it's because the two parties are, again, so much alike as to offer voters no real choice. I think Nader just likes to shake things up, which is not such a bad thing when done in, say, the consumer advocacy arena, but gets tiresome in the political arena, especially if done more than once. From Obsidian Wings yesterday:

Ralph Nader: Please go away. Devote your golden years to some new hobby, like ninepins or philately. If you must involve yourself in politics, find some small municipality whose government is in need of reform, and do the hard work of making things better in small, concrete ways.

I second this. Besides, the Democrat-ish voters who gave Nader 2.7% of the popular vote in 2004, and have been blamed by some for costing Gore the election, probably won't want to dance this time around anyway.

21 June 2007

Congress passes resolution: robots are cool.

From today's Sciam blog post, 'U.S. Congress to give robots a big think':

From Al Gore to Mitt Romney, the ranks of politicians who have been accused of being robots continues to swell--so maybe it was inevitable that, having spent decades with humans who are occasionally confused with machines, Congress would eventually develop an affinity for the real deal.

Mike Doyle (D-PA) and Zach Wamp (R-TN) announced yesterday that they'll hold a Congressional Congress on Robotics some time in September.

In the tradition of libertarian humorist Dave Barry, I need to observe here that Zach Wamp and the Wamp-nots would be a pretty good band name. Also, I was going to make a remark about the event's name, but have confirmed that it's actually a Congressional Caucus, which is marginally less ridiculous. Continuing:

"The increase in the number of emerging and potential applications for robotics is astounding," added Congressman Zach Wamp. "Microsoft Corporation chairman Bill Gates has stated his belief that the robotics industry is developing in much the same way that the computer business did 30 years ago."

Now, I can kind of understand why congressmen, not that knowledgeable about technology, might decide to use Bill Gates as their magic 8-ball; there are probably better prognosticators out there, but Gates has done okay. What I cannot understand at all is why the appropriate response to learning about an exciting tech trend is to have a Congressional Caucus about it. The post quotes Congressman Doyle: "[I]t is important that we create a forum by which Congress can familiarize itself with the impact this first great technology of the 21st century is likely to have on the lives of all Americans." Some tech publications are calling this good news, but it sure sounds like preparation for meddling to me. If I worked in the robotics industy, I'd probably be concerned right about now.

BBC gets in on US immigration debate

This series of interactive billboards, deployed around NYC last year during the launch of BBC World in America, won a U.S. Gold prize for outdoor advertising at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival this week. People who saw the billboards could text their vote, with results continuously updated on the board. This was my favorite, but other interesting themes included Liberator/Occupier (photo of U.S. troops in Iraq) and Befriend/Beware (Chinese flag).

20 June 2007

Teflon, defeated at last.

Ars Technica carries an excellent story about researchers working on replicating the stickiness of geckos. Paraphrasing the story, these folks have created carbon nanotubes mimicking the fibers on gecko feet that account for their ability to stick to pretty much any surface. Moving along in their research, they learned that actual gecko-feet fibers are arranged in interesting hierarchical arrays, so they tried to simulate this using the nanotubes. Quoting from Ars:

They experimented with creating various bundles of carbon nanotubes, and compared their adhesive properties with both unbundled nanotubes and live geckos (join me, if you will, in imagining the gecko harness involved...).

See, this is exactly why a certain type of little boy or girl goes into science in the first place -- to get grant money for things that, done as a kid, probably got them in trouble. As an added bonus, the bundled nanotubes do, indeed, stick to Teflon, though with only 50% strength.

19 June 2007

Unsealed FTC docs reveal Whole Foods' business strategy, provoke blog rant from CEO

Via the Boulder County Business Report:

Whole Foods Chief Executive Officer John Mackey told his board of directors the purpose of buying Wild Oats would be to "eliminate forever" the chance that a mainstream grocer like Kroger or Safeway would launch "a competing national natural/organic food chain to rival us," according to a document revealed today by the Federal Trade Commission.

"Eliminating them means eliminating this threat forever, or almost forever," Mackey said.

Whole Foods had requested that parts of the company's testimony related to its motive for the Wild Oats buyout be blacked out of the injunction order, but the FTC had the documents unsealed. Mackey promises he'll explain why he asked for the testimony to be kept secret on his blog -- more on this soon. Meanwhile, his post today covers his views on what the FTC has done wrong, so far, in their investigation of the merger. Overall, his issues fall into three categories:

1. The FTC are big bullies (evidenced by burdensome requests for info, deadline extensions, and insistence on having access to all company documents).
2. The FTC failed to collect any comparative pricing data before voting against the merger.
3. The FTC wishes to consider competition only within the special category of 'premium natural and organic supermarkets,' rather than among supermarkets generally.

I don't have much to say about 1 and 2, but here's Mackey on this last point:

A big part of the FTC's argument is their belief that Wild Oats and Whole Foods exist in a very narrowly defined category that they call "premium natural and organic food supermarkets". We aren't sure exactly what other companies the FTC believes exist in this narrowly defined category, perhaps only Earth Fare, with about 10 stores all existing in the southern United States. The "premium natural and organic food supermarket" category therefore apparently consists of only three companies-Whole Foods Market, Wild Oats, and Earth Fare.-and of course the FTC apparently believes that if Whole Foods Market acquires Wild Oats then there would only be two companies left in this category.

Is there actually a separate category of "premium natural and organic supermarkets"? Let me state quite clearly up front that there absolutely is! However, that category actually consists of only one company-Whole Foods Market. We created the category and to-date we are the only company that actually belongs in it.

Mackey wants to say that even though Whole Foods looks like the big bad national chain compared to niche stores like Wild Oats, they're actually just a little fish in the big pond of supermarkets. Which is supported by the newly unsealed testimony, but doesn't look so good for Whole Foods -- it seems like Americans love to support the 'little guy,' as long as he doesn't show any signs of wanting to become the big guy.

Mexicans vs. the enemy within

Jane Galt succinctly refutes the idea that the current massive influx of non-English-speaking, non-assimilating immigrants is a unique threat to our nation. She describes the eventual assimilation of even the most 'foreign' immigrant populations, leaving only their tastiest cultural contributions behind (hello, bagels and falafel!). She also offers a striking counterexample, an immigrant group who successfully maintain separate, non-English-speaking communities and resist Americanization by removing their children from public school after 8th grade, yet are seen as either inspirational or charmingly quirky by most Americans. (Read her post to find out the identity of this group, if it's not clear.)

On my better days, I like to believe the panic about the Mexican menace (the anxiety over hearing only spanish in some parts of town, the resurgent fears of 'Popism,' the conviction that they're really after American welfare checks) isn't really racist, is just the result of lack of familiarity. On my less charitable days, I echo JG's question: "Can someone explain this in terms that don't devolve into 'But the Mexicans are brown?'"

(Incidentally, on the welfare/immigration issue, I meant to link earlier to this recent Cafe Hayek post. Excellent title: They're So Lazy We Must Use Force to Stop Them from Working.)

UPDATE: Apparently due to some negative comments, Jane Galt feels compelled to explain herself further on this issue. I think the original post was nicely concise, but here she fleshes out the history of immigration and assimilation in the U.S.

15 June 2007

Brazil update: looking good supersedes soccer as national pastime

I was going to post just one of these, but this series of truly offensive Brazilian ads for Fit Light Dairy deserves to be seen in entirety. The tagline for all three ads reads, "Forget it. Men's preference will never change. Fit Light Yogurt." (In order, the ads reference famous photos of Mena Suvari, Sharon Stone, and Marilyn Monroe.) It ought to be obvious what's wrong with these ads, but: first of all, preferences about female body shape most certainly do change, over time and across cultures. Plus, like many American food ads, the seemingly positive word 'fit' is being used as code for 'thin;' I guess the difference is that in most American ads, the connotation is a little more subtle.

I went in search of some information about female body image in Brazil, and found this (on AdiosBarbie.com):

Of the 160 million people in Brazil, almost a quarter million go under the knife each year. Many Brazilian women have breast reductions before their eighteenth birthdays, hoping to achieve the ideal Brazilian body: small breasts and a large
behind. Plastic surgery is not taboo.

Cosmetic surgeon Ivo Pintaguay is considered a national icon because he nips and tucks for next to nothing. Apparently, making Brazilians beautiful is considered a public service. Last year, Pintaguay and his staff performed nearly 1,500 cosmetic operations on the poor, charging only a nominal fee for medicine and materials.

"The only ugly Brazilians left are those who want to be ugly," declared Veja, the country's popular news magazine.

Hmm. Historically, women tend to be very under-represented in Brazilian political office, but I suspect Paris Hilton could be a major political figure here. Campaign slogan: Poor people deserve to be hot, too.

Goatherds seize business opportunity

Thanks to Marginal Revolution for the pointer to the ultimate in cleantech: rentable goats to clear land of vegetation cheaply and without chemicals. The best thing I read today, by far.

This month in Marie Claire: Tom Tancredo on immigration policy, summer skin care regimen.

Obsidian Wings offers an update and, shall we say, critique of US Rep. Tom Tancredo's current position, according to a June Marie Claire Q&A, on immigration: that we probably also better build a fence along the Canadian border. Aside from the general silliness of this idea, OW is particularly interested in how Tom foresees funding these expensive exercises in national paranoia, given his official position on tax reduction. And I have to repeat OW's question: What about the illegal alien underwater frogman problem?

This man, who represents Colorado's 6th district, has become the national spokesperson for bad ideas about immigration reform. How do Coloradans feel about him? In September 2006 a poll indicated that 61% of Coloradans favored a policy giving illegal immigrants pathways to citizenship, which is pretty much consistent with the national figures. Tancredo, of course, favors mass deportation. For more on Colorado's increasing embarrassment over having elected him, check out Tancredo Watch, a blog from the 6th district dedicated to publicizing his ongoing antics.

A final Tancredo quote from the Marie Claire interview (will add a link when June issue is archived), about the fact that former KKK leader David Duke is among his supporters:

I don’t know what David Duke likes about me and I don’t know what to do about it. You know, I am a compassionate person. What I say about immigration has nothing to do with racism. Nada. My press secretary’s name is Carlos Espinosa.

14 June 2007

The usefulness of "Energy Independence"

TigerHawk offers a nice discussion of why politicians who talk about 'energy independence' are being disingenuous. The concept, of course, is popular because it provides a way to get hawkish types who want to quit playing nicely with the middle east on the same side with warm fuzzy enviros. The post offers a couple good arguments against it: focusing on "supporting" the declining American oil industry (subsidizing it) translates to a failure to focus on actual reduction of fossil fuel use, and American fossil fuels production will never be enough to make us 'energy independent' without dramatic changes in our energy habits. The post also wants to know how come, if we're so concerned about having economic ties to politically unstable regions, we don't hear politicians calling for 'diamond independence' or 'cheap electronics independence,' given that those products also come from countries with "dodgy" politics. The answer, I think, is that interruptions to our supply of oil are disruptive on a level way beyond what would happen if we suddenly couldn't import African diamonds or Korean electronics. Diamonds suitable for use in research applications and jewelry are already made in labs; electronics can be acquired from other countries for a tiny increase in cost. Oil flow, though, affects pretty much every aspect of daily life; the threat of cutting us off is a powerful threat.

The post concludes:

Anthropogenic global warming is a very good reason to cut fossil-fuel consumption, but that means grubby American coal as well as greasy foreign oil. It has nothing to do with “energy independence.”

True. But a lot depends on where the 'energy independence' talk leads to -- if it results in real action to address fossil fuel use and efficiency, I'm willing to go along with it for awhile, if only to get the U.S. acclimated to a new way of thinking about energy.

Creation, evolution, and the origin of the universe: rehashing Aristotle

During the first few days of June, Gallup conducted a telephone poll asking respondents about their views on evolution vs. creationism. USA Today reports the following results: 53% of respondents think that the theory of evolution is either 'definitely true' or 'probably true.' 66% think that creationism is 'definitely' or 'probably' true. Clearly there's some substantial overlap here, which makes sense when you consider the 'scientific creationists,' who believe that evolution may well be true, but that God kind of 'set up' the process to work just the way it did (and still does), and so is still responsible for the creation of living things and especially humans. Although this viewpoint deviates from the technical details contained in the Bible, it's easy to see why it's satisfying to people of a religious inclination who are also enthusiastic about the scientific endeavor.

But there's no need to stop there: a sufficiently creative (hah) creationist can accommodate any amount of scientific data by continuing to move the 'God threshold' further back in time, until finally God becomes merely the guy who flipped the switch on the Big Bang, or whatever story of the origin of the universe you prefer. From that point on, the universe proceeds according to its own design, following physical laws, acting basically the same as a universe untouched by divine intervention, but always propelling itself forward to whatever God had in mind. Some questions about this kind of situation:

Could God intervene if he wanted to, violate his own laws of physics? In other words, what about prayer, etc.? Is this created universe more like an ant farm, which is blocked off from further interaction with the observer, or is it more like a sea monkey aquarium, where the observer can stick his finger in and whirl it around a bit whenever he feels like it? Does the system keep on ticking along, even if God gets bored with watching? For those who think our universe is an oscillating universe, eternally bouncing back and forth between the Big Bang and the Big Crunch, what's God doing, running simulations? Why? What's he trying to find out?

13 June 2007

The morality of illegal immigration

Cafe Hayek produces an elegant example for use when talking to people who have a problem will illegal immigrants because they broke the law to get here:

For me, an illegal immigrant who comes here to work is like a father speeding to the hospital to get his son medical care. When he arrives, the hospital could say:

I'm sorry, I wish we could take care of your kid, but you broke the law on the way over here. You were speeding. So we can't give you medical care. That would reward criminals--people who break the law by speeding.

But what hospital would say that? Everyone speeds on the way to the hospital. Everyone understands that speeding, while always illegal, is only immoral when it endangers. And we pardon speeding under circumstances such as a sick child on the way to the hospital. Why do people want to keep out those who come here to work, legally or illegally? What does the legality have to do with it?

I like these kinds of analogies; I like the amount of emotion they (rightfully) inject into the debate.

Prepare to have your mind blown

Via ScienceDaily, I learn this:

Women who enjoy good childhood relationships with their fathers are more likely to select partners who resemble their dads, research suggests. In contrast, the team of psychologists from Durham University and two Polish institutions revealed that women who have negative or less positive relationships were not attracted to men who looked like their male parents.

I apologize in advance for offending the Journal of Evolution and Human Behaviour, scheduled to publish the study in July, but there's no other way to say this: Duh! One of the authors clarifies: "[T]he quality of a daughter's relationship with her father has an impact on whom she finds attractive." Whoa!

To Mr. Wizard, who showed me how to irritate my parents in more interesting ways.

Via GenomeWeb:

Goodbye, Mr. Wizard

The TV star who turned generations of kids, from baby boomers to their children, onto science died on Tuesday. Don Herbert, better known as Mr. Wizard, died of bone cancer at age 89. His show illustrated how things found around the house could be used in experiments and he encouraged kids to try science out at home.

In my life, Dr. Wizard came second only to George "Mr." Witman, my 9th-grade earth science teacher, in terms of making science more fun and less intimidating. Although I switched out of my chemistry major freshman year, I still think it's about as much fun as you can have wearing a lab coat. (Now I work in technology, which is even more fun in some ways than basic science.) So: thanks, Don. Your show kept whole generations of smart kids off the streets, and gave them somewhere to focus their prodigious mental powers other than on video games.

12 June 2007

More on neural networks (and how to win at 20 questions).

As I was thinking about interesting applications for artificial neural networks, I happened upon 20Q.net, a surprisingly addictive ANN-based 20 Questions Game. I tried out the Classic, Music, and Harry Potter games; I was able to stump the Music game about half the time, but only fooled the others very occasionally. This confirms an intuition about neural nets -- they learn best when their universe is small, when they get lots of human input, or both. The classic game is very general, but also almost 20 years old (works well due to plenty of human feedback); the Harry Potter game is relatively new, played frequently, and only deals with objects within the HP universe (works even better, due to the limited universe and the sheer number of HP enthusiasts out there). The music game is fairly new and very general, and doesn't work well at all. It asks silly questions that aren't appropriate based on earlier answers, and fails to ask really obvious ones. You might expect as much from a computer, of course, except that the other two games were a lot like playing 20 Questions with a real person who happens to be way smarter than you. These two skilled games ask questions that are unexpected, but make sense once you ponder them. And they're eerily good at guessing the answers.

So what? Well, this is interesting to me because I've been thinking lately about search engines. The only commercially available search engine I can find using neural net technology is MSN Search, introduced in 2005. It uses a centralized 'supervised learning' approach -- that is, somebody at MSN (probably lots of somebodies) is in charge of telling the engine which search results are the most on-target. Since the 'universe' here is big (the whole internet), it seems like a decentralized input approach would be in order: have users evaluate the search results, which is presumably what Google's doing with its new facial search module (see recent post and comments). As I've mentioned before, this is what Google's good at -- finding ways to make use of the work web users are already doing anyway.

Meanwhile, and probably next for websearch technology, there's semantic websearch: getting a computer to understand what words mean, so that it can find relevant results more creatively. The cheater's solution to this is the Semantic Web approach, tagging everything on the internet to explain what it is and what it's about in a way that makes sense to search algorithms. The real goal, though, is to teach a search algorithm what search terms mean, or at least what they might mean, so that it can find related content that doesn't use the same keywords/tags. Earlier this year Read/WriteWeb asked, 'Is Google a Semantic Search Engine?' and concluded that G. has at least introduced rudimentary semantic analysis in the related searches it suggests at the bottom of the page. This is based on statistical analysis of word context, though, not on true semantic analysis. Enter neural nets, which are the only way (so far) to give a computer the complexity necessary to 'get' language. More on this to come.

11 June 2007

Colorado vs. Finland

Via MR, I see a pointer to this map of U.S. states renamed for countries with similar GDPs. Colorado, with a GDP of $196B, matches Finland (which ranks 35th in the world) and comes in 24th among the states. Other fun factoids:

  • California, with the biggest state GDP ($2.15T) corresponds to France, 8th worldwide.
  • Wyoming comes in last among the states and has the same GDP as Uzbekistan ($11B, 101st worldwide).
  • Brazil, currently my favorite country to be obsessed with for a variety of reasons, ranks 17th worldwide and has a GDP of $621B, which it shares with New York (7th in U.S.).

And some fun Finland-Colorado comparisons:

Finland: 130,558 sq mi (9.4% covered in water)
Colorado: 104,185 sq. mi. (0.36% water-covered)

Finland: pop. 5,238,460 (40 people/square mile)
Colorado: pop. 4,665,177 (41.5 people/square mile)

Finland: 113 murders in 2006
Colorado: 173 murders in 2005

Finland: 22.5 gallons (85 litres) of beer consumed per person, per year
Colorado: 33.4 gallons

Finland: 7.2% unemployment rate (04/2007)
Colorado: 3.5% (04/2007)

Finland: ~1.1 million cows
Colorado: 4.1 million

Finland: 2 official languages (Finnish, Swedish)
Colorado: 1

Finland: granted women's suffrage in 1905 (first major European country)
Colorado: granted in 1893 (fifth state in US, first to grant by popular vote)

The ephemerality of the future

Excellent bit from iMomus last week:

The city is shockingly unstable. Buildings disappear, replaced by new ones. Entire districts come and go, seemingly overnight. [...] Tokyo is a city where yesterday's tomorrow is constantly being replaced by today's.

Good for reading all the way through, if only for his discussion of why Tokyo is the quintessential postmodern city.

09 June 2007

Scientific American: Don't f*ck with the scientific consensus, man.

On Friday a SCIAM blog discussed the latest lawsuit by parents of autistic children, who claim this time that childhood MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccines are to blame. The post notes that the Institute of Medicine has found no evidence for a connection between autism and MMR and other vaccines containing thimerosal (which in turn contains mercury). The parents, of course, think that these study results showing no link are 'preordained by the federal government.' The post author responds:

[I]t's not entirely unreasonable to suspect the government of mischief or playing buddy to the pharmaceutical companies. But, this is a scientific consensus--one from a respected body, to boot.

Well, then. If it's a respected scientific body we're talking about, we'd best just cease all critical thinking immediately and place our faith in their perfect wisdom. Because it's not as though respected scientific consensus on heavily charged issues has ever turned out to be incorrect before, you know? That said, the post does refer to one important fact, which is that while use of thimerosal in childhood vaccines has been virtually eliminated over the past six years, autism has continued to increase.

Nobody knows what causes autism, which is understandably frustrating for parents of autistic kids. Alleged causes range from genes to environmental pollutants to viruses. Interestingly, the Center for the Study of Autism mentions vaccines as a possible cause, but in the context of viral exposure, not thimerosal/mercury. In other words, since exposure to certain viruses actually has been linked to the development of autism, the concern is that the live or dead viruses used in childhood vaccines might be causing it as well. The Center website doesn't mention thimerosal at all, so one might wonder if focusing on that compound (which, as respected scientific consensus tells us, doesn't cause autism) shifts scrutiny away from the real concern. Which would be a big concern, if valid: if autism really is linked to viral childhood vaccines, we'd have to rethink our entire strategy of extensive vaccination of school-age children, which has been very successful in eliminating 19th century diseases like measles and smallpox.

08 June 2007

Forbidden or compulsory -- take your pick.

This enjoyable TigerHawk post discusses the concept of painting all city rooftops white, to increase their albedo and thereby slow (or reverse?) global warming; he cites some evidence that doing this would raise earth's albedo from 0.29 to 0.30, which could lower global temp by as much as 1ยบ C, which would effectively undo all the global warming since the beginning of the industrial revolution. The post notes that this is exactly the sort of easy, painless thing anyone with a shred of environmental consciousness should be willing to do, but that many US zoning restrictions and community covenants prohibit this. The best part of the post:

The obvious libertarian answer is to pass a federal law that declares that any state or local law or restrictive covenant may not be enforced to prevent the owner of property from painting his roof or driveway to raise its albedo. The obvious Gorean answer is to require that all building owners paint their roofs (and, for that matter, driveways and parking lots) white by 2010, with an extensive government program to specify the type of paint to be used, an inspection regime to be sure that it has happened, and subsidies to be paid for by a new tax on the "rich."

What a charming synopsis of the problem that undermines attempts at coalition-building, even where both sides are in agreement as to the fundamental goals, as enviros and scientifically-minded libertarians often are on this.

07 June 2007

Heeding public opinion, Congress eases stem cell restrictions; Bush puts fingers in ears, chanting "nyah, nyah, can't hear you."

Today the House passed legislation loosening restrictions on using federal research funding for work involving embryonic stem cells (ESCs). Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Ars points us at several current journal articles describing ways to generate ESCs or ESC-like cells without destruction of embryos. A nice irony, though it won't matter much, as most predict the House won't be able to rally enough votes to override Bush's promised veto.

Google's next move

Wired commentator Tony Long notes Google's new Street View, an application launched May 29 that shows you street-level images of major US cities (so far: Denver, Las Vegas, Miami, New York, San Francisco). To accomplish this, Google partnered with ImmersiveMedia, a company that specializes in taking high resolution video while driving along streets; the company then tags the video bits with geographical info. (Till now their main clients have been city planners and the department of defense.)

Long's main complaint is that although privacy on public streets isn't legally protected, Street View is nonetheless a major invasion of the anonymity large city dwellers are used to taking for granted. Google's response to this is a form you can submit to have a particular street view removed; criteria include inappropriate content, invasion of privacy, and personal security concerns. What happens when Google receives a request like this one from an Oakland woman who says Street View clearly shows her cat through her apartment window? Well, it's too early to tell, but odds are they'll be pretty responsive, at least to people like this whose very living spaces are being viewed via Google.

But Long is right to worry about people accidentally being surveilled while leaving an adult store -- or, for that matter, while entering the wrong church, grocery store, or political organization. In the past, city-dwellers who wished to avoid disapproval from their family or community could simply drive across town and do their thing, with relatively little danger of being observed by anyone they knew. Technologies like Street View, though not yet all that useful for casual surveillance, are one of the first steps in dismantling that anonymity. Some more food for thought -- Google has quietly introduced facial searching in its Images search; currently the module just tries to identify which images have faces in them, but it would be foolish to assume Google's not working on true facial recognition, and as I've noted before, if anyone could do this effectively it would be Google. Street-level images combined with facial recognition technology? I don't usually get very exercised about surveillance concerns (I subscribe to the Momus theory of modern privacy) but this creeps me out, just a little.

UPDATE: After generating a huge amount of negative publicity, Google no longer requires photo ID and a sworn statement to get images of individuals removed from Street View, per this Wired blog.

06 June 2007

'Fugees from a third world, environmentally stressed country

(Apologies to Wyclef Jean.)

Jeff Sachs, head of Columbia University's Earth Institute, is all worked up over climate change, particularly the possibility of millions of 'climate change refugees,' those who are motivated to migrate because of environmental stress. Sachs catalogues his guesses about what will happen in India, Africa, and Asia in the next few decades (water stress, mainly) and calls for economists, hydrologists, agronomists, and climatologists to get on with it and figure out a solution. He notes:

Some hard-hit places will be salvaged by better infrastructure that protects against storm surges or economizes on water for agriculture. Others will shift successfully from agriculture to industry and services. Yet some places will be unable to adjust altogether, and populations are likely to suffer and to move.

Interesting description -- sounds like the history of human evolution and migration, dangerously accelerated. But okay: the world is different now. Smaller, fewer natural resources left, more full of people; there's no place left to absorb displaced populations. (Remember the US trying to absorb a million Katrina evacuees?) One could argue, though, that this is merely the speeding up of an inevitable process; we were bound to run out of space and/or stuff eventually.

Some possible outcomes:

1. Space colonization. Well, obviously. Will have to happen sooner or later, but not clear whether it can happen quickly enough to solve the 'climate refugee' problem.

2. Genetically modified crops. Despite the historical hostility of environmentalists to GM crops, they stand a good chance of mitigating the water problem -- crops that require lots of water (corn, rice, cotton, grass for pasturing) can be engineered to need less. This can't hold off Malthus forever, but will almost certainly be part of the solution.

3. Limited population growth. Not a bad idea (until aforementioned space colonization is feasible) but also not too likely, going by recent stories of Chinese women using fertility drugs to circumvent the government's one-birth policy.

4. More efficient food distribution. By most estimates, North America already has the production capability to feed the whole world; rotting grain in Iowa silos represents an alarming combination of market failure and government failure. There is surely some way to improve this.

5. Efficient clean energy. Another no-brainer -- we already knew that even running all our current alternative energy sources at max capacity, and continuing to burn fossil fuels at the same rate, we're on track to run out of energy by 2050 or so. A point about this, though: if climate change produces catastrophic drought in the middle east, coal and oil prices will likely plummet, making it easier to rationalize continuing reliance on these sources, at least until these economies collapse completely.

In Good Company

More from Ads of the World: This is one of a series of African ads for Hong Kong-based SK Bedding, placing a smiling Bush up there with Robert Mugabe and Kim Jong Il. While the blood-for-oil theme is well-taken, the hatred is really kind of breathtaking.

Gentlemen readers, take note...

Ad for Tikal, a Honduras-based chocolate company. The tag line: You never know what an angry woman is capable of.

See others (including one featuring Margaret Thatcher) here.

05 June 2007

Hypothesis: The Smell of Enlightenment?

Having just returned from a weekend trip to Nebraska, I'm behind on my thinking and therefore my blogging. Most posts to come, but in the meantime I offer you "the world's first spiritual perfume" (via Feministing). According to the press release, Virtue has a frankincense/myrrh base and culminates in an apricot top note (biblical scholars have apparently determined that apricots, not apples, are the 'forbidden fruit' mentioned in Genesis).

All well and good, but on a philosophical note: one of the fragrance's designers notes that “almost every religion and spiritual system worldwide acknowledges that many individuals of high spiritual attainment give off a fragrance attributed to their virtue.” This is interesting. If fear has a smell (as cops and animal trainers both claim), then is it possible that 'enlightenment' does too? Hear me out: fear is a specific physiological and mental state tied to specific neurological and hormonal changes; this is what creates the odor of fear (spent adrenalin, to be exact). Deep meditation has also been tied to specific physical, hormonal and neurochemical changes -- could these changes also generate an odor? I think probably not, but enjoyable to contemplate anyway.

01 June 2007

eHarmony Hits More Wrong Notes

The latest in eHarmony's legal woes -- via Hit and Run, I see that they're being sued again, this time for refusing to set up a woman looking to meet another woman. Her class action suit is apparently the first of this kind against the dating service.

A partial list of other reasons the service has reportedly rejected over a million applicants:

-Too young (the service has a minimum age of 21)
-Married (this applies even to those legally separated and waiting for divorce decrees)
-Married too often (more than 4 times if you're under 60)
-Atheist (although 7% of eHarmony subscribers describe themselves as "neither spiritual nor religious")
-Not tall enough (applies to men)
-Not virtuous enough (depending on answers to questions about honesty, character, self-esteem, etc.)
-Answered questions inconsistently (the application questionnaire has 258 questions)

More on this in the recent Washington Post story. As a libertarian, I'm obligated first to point out that eHarmony is, in fact, a private company with the right to decide who they'll serve. But California law disagrees with me, so let's move on to what they say in their defense: they don't know enough about gay folks to successfully match them up. The service says its research is based on the 'traits and personality patterns of successful heterosexual marriages,' and seems to want to argue that these patterns don't apply to successful homosexual relationships. This seems a little silly to me, but makes me curious about the methods behind the matching. eHarmony is, obviously, tight-lipped about this.

Ultimately, it probably doesn't matter much. For every conservative social force, there exists an equal and opposite movement to embrace the disruptive, and eHarmony's nemesis is Chemistry.com. Their 'Rejected by eHarmony' ads do a great job of directing the lonely to the appropriate place: normalcy-cravers to the left, atheists, gays, and other assorted oddballs to the right.

The carbon debate continues, but not here

Yesterday Marginal Revolution stepped into the current battle over carbon tax vs. carbon trading. It's tempting to get involved in comparisons here, but I tend to agree with one of the MR commenters: Americans have always been bad at doing things that are 'good for us' when they also interfere with our expected standard of living. The EU modeled its brand-new cap-and-trade program on the US program for limiting sulfur dioxide emissions, which worked okay, but mostly because it didn't have an immediate pocketbook impact on consumers (average utilities increase was about 1%). Carbon taxes and carbon trading, regardless of differences in feasibility, transparency, and potential for abuse, would both result in an immediate out-of-pocket expense. It’s challenging to calculate the economic impact of carbon cap-and-trade systems, which have only recently been implemented in other countries. Carbon taxes, on the other hand, have been in place in various European countries since the 1990’s, so some figures about that: The Carbon Tax Center advocates a ‘starter tax’ of $37/ton of CO2, and notes the importance of continuing to raise the tax annually. According to preliminary research on Wiki, a tax of $100 per ton of CO2 would raise US gasoline prices by 20-50%, natural gas prices by 60-150%. Politically, that dog just don't hunt.

At least, usually. Last year Boulder passed by referendum a $7/ton carbon tax; it was the first climate-protective tax ever in the US. By extension, I’m willing to entertain the idea of carbon taxing or trading schemes being implemented in California, Oregon and Washington someday, but doubt that these bastions of environmental consciousness are representative of the American electorate generally. Soon to come: a post about politically realistic ways to solve the carbon problem.