September 15, 2012

Posted by orrinj at 7:20 PM

WE ARE ALL DESIGNISTS NOW (profanity alert):


Two years ago, Rich Terrile appeared on Through the Wormhole, the Science Channel's show about the mysteries of life and the universe. He was invited onto the program to discuss the theory that the human experience can be boiled down to something like an incredibly advanced, metaphysical version of The Sims.

It's an idea that every college student with a gravity bong and The Matrix on DVD has thought of before, but Rich is a well-regarded scientist, the director of the Center for Evolutionary Computation and Automated Design at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and is currently writing an as-yet-untitled book about the subject, so we're going to go ahead and take him seriously.

The essence of Rich's theory is that a "programmer" from the future designed our reality to simulate the course of what the programmer considers to be ancient history--for whatever reason, maybe because he's bored.

According to Moore's Law, which states that computing power doubles roughly every two years, all of this will be theoretically possible in the future. Sooner or later, we'll get to a place where simulating a few billion people--and making them believe they are sentient beings with the ability to control their own destinies--will be as easy as sending a stranger a picture of your genitals on your phone.

This hypothesis--versions of which have been kicked around for centuries--is becoming the trippy notion of the moment for philosophers, with people like Nick Bostrom, the director of Oxford University's Future of Humanity Institute, seriously considering the premise.

Eat the red pill, dude.
Posted by orrinj at 7:14 PM


Meet 'The Most Interesting Man In The World' (NPR, 9/15/12)

Fernando Lamas, actor and father of Lorenzo Lamas, was his sailing buddy and became his inspiration for the character.

"His voice was so distinctive and special, and I emulated him," Goldsmith says. "He was the best raconteur I've ever known. It was wonderful to be around him and to listen to him, and he made everybody smile."

To become the most interesting man in the world, you just have to audition. Goldsmith says his agent, whom he later married, told him he needed to do an improvisation to get the role. The requirement: He had to end with the line "And that's how I arm-wrestled Fidel Castro." So Goldsmith -- who could be Ernest Hemingway's distant cousin -- went for it.

"It was a cattle call. Most of [the actors] looked like that charming man from the coffee commercial, Juan Valdez," Goldsmith says. "I just went into a stream of consciousness, I became outlandish, and the further out I went, the more they seemed to like it, and I was the lucky guy that got it."

Goldsmith now lives with his wife in Vermont. Perhaps it's not the most interesting place in the world, but when you're the most interesting man in the world, you need a refuge, and Goldsmith says the Green Mountain State is exactly that. But, the cerveza symbol says being hugely recognizable isn't all that bad.

"I was sitting in a little Mexican restaurant with my wife ... and a gentleman came over with his young son in tow and said, 'The other day I asked my son what he wanted to do when he grew up.' " Goldsmith says. "And he said 'I want to be the most interesting man in the world.' He was 7."

On a bus in New York City, an elderly man stopped him and said, "When I come back, sonny, I wanna be you."

Posted by orrinj at 7:11 PM


Neocons Slither Back (MAUREEN DOWD, 9/15/12, NY Times)

Nice Jew/snake association.

Posted by orrinj at 9:16 AM


If Achilles Used Facebook... (PADRAIG MAC CARRON and RALPH KENNA, 9/09/12, NY Times)

WHEN we pick up a mythological text like "The Iliad" or "Beowulf," we like to imagine that the societies they describe existed. Even if the stories are fiction, we believe that they tell us something about ancient Greece or the Anglo-Saxons, and that some of the characters and events were based on reality.

Archaeological evidence suggests that at least some of the societies and events in such stories did exist. But is there other evidence, lurking perhaps within the ancient texts themselves?

To investigate that question, we turned to a decidedly modern tool: social-network analysis. In a study published in Europhysics Letters, we use a mathematical approach to examine the social networks in three narratives: "The Iliad," "Beowulf" and the Irish epic "Tain Bo Cuailnge." If the social networks depicted appeared realistic, we surmised, perhaps they would reflect some degree of historical reality.

Social networks have been widely studied in recent years; researchers have looked at the interconnectedness of groups like actors, musicians and co-authors of scientific texts. These networks share similar properties: they are highly connected, small worlds. They are assortative, which means that people tend to associate with people like themselves. And their degree distributions are usually scale-free -- a small number of people tend to have lots of friends.

How do these networks compare to the ones in mythological narratives?

Posted by orrinj at 8:53 AM


Newly declassified memos show US hushed up 1940 Soviet mass murder : It was the Soviets, not the Nazis, who killed 22,000 Poles with shots to the back of the head in or near the Katyn forest. Documents confirm suspicion Roosevelt kept silent so as not to anger Stalin (RANDY HERSCHAFT and VANESSA GERA, September 14, 2012, AP)

Documents released Monday and seen in advance by The Associated Press lend weight to the belief that suppression within the highest levels of the US government helped cover up Soviet guilt in the killing of some 22,000 Polish officers and other prisoners in the Katyn forest and other locations in 1940.

The evidence is among about 1,000 pages of newly declassified documents that the United States National Archives released and is putting online. Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who helped lead a recent push for the release of the documents, called the effort's success Monday a "momentous occasion" in an attempt to "make history whole."

The most dramatic revelation so far is the evidence of the secret codes sent by the two American POWs -- something historians were unaware of and which adds to evidence that the Roosevelt administration knew of the Soviet atrocity relatively early on

Historians who saw the material days before the official release describe it as important and shared some highlights with the AP. The most dramatic revelation so far is the evidence of the secret codes sent by the two American POWs -- something historians were unaware of and which adds to evidence that the Roosevelt administration knew of the Soviet atrocity relatively early on.

The declassified documents also show the United States maintaining that it couldn't conclusively determine guilt until a Russian admission in 1990 -- a statement that looks improbable given the huge body of evidence of Soviet guilt that had already emerged decades earlier. Historians say the new material helps to flesh out the story of what the US knew and when.

The Soviet secret police killed the 22,000 Poles with shots to the back of the head. Their aim was to eliminate a military and intellectual elite that would have put up stiff resistance to Soviet control. The men were among Poland's most accomplished -- officers and reserve officers who in their civilian lives worked as doctors, lawyers, teachers, or as other professionals. Their loss has proven an enduring wound to the Polish nation.
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Posted by orrinj at 8:41 AM


The law that explains the folly of bank regulation (John Kay, 12 September 2012, Financial Times)

At the recent Jackson Hole conference, Andrew Haldane of the Bank of England again reminded the world's financial policy makers of a central truth about the 2008 crisis. The principal measure of bank resilience prescribed for and by regulators around the world - the capital ratios calculated according to principles laid down by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision - had no value whatever in predicting the probability that a bank would fail. But a simple measure of the bank's leverage ratio, which anyone with a calculator could compute, did. [...]

 The likely explanation of his discovery that more complex rules are worse is to be found in Goodhart's law. This proposition was first set out in the 1970s by the economist Charles Goodhart, in the context of the implementation of monetary policy.

Prof Goodhart suggested that any measure adopted as a target loses the information content that appeared to make it relevant. People change their behaviour to meet the target. These responses change the relationship between the target - the measure of money supply, or the value at risk - and the objective that policy makers seek to influence: the availability of credit, or the risk exposure of a bank. The target becomes a bad measure of success in reaching the objective as soon as it is adopted as a target. That is why the risk-weighted measure of Basel, which was a regulatory target, proved to be less reliable than the leverage ratio, which was not. [...]

The additional complexity of risk weighting stimulated regulatory arbitrage - the creation of instruments that transfer assets from one risk category to another while preserving their essential economic characteristics. The categorisation encouraged banks to reverse-engineer products to meet the demands of rating agency models. The resulting complexity diminished the system's resilience.
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Posted by orrinj at 8:35 AM


We're Winning the War on Poverty : New research shows that poverty is falling if you measure it correctly--government programs deserve most of the credit. (Matthew Yglesias, Sept. 14, 2012, Slate)

The official poverty line was created in 1963 by food and nutrition economist Mollie Orshansky and hasn't been updated since.

Her method, though arguably appropriate at the time, is incredibly crude by modern standards. Her idea was to calculate the cost of a nutritionally adequate diet for a given-size family. Then she used the early-'60s rule of thumb that food was about one-third the typical family's budget. So calculate the income needed to prevent malnutrition, triple it, and there's your poverty line. 
Needless to say, this has only a hazy relationship with modern living standards. Worse, because at the time there were few government programs designed to help the poor, it refers to income before taxes and cash transfer payments. The formula also neglects to include the value of in-kind public services such as food stamps and Medicaid, and smaller programs like housing vouchers.

The problems with the poverty-line methodology are well known, but they are often thought to impact merely the level of poverty, rather than the change over time. Meyer and Sullivan challenge this assumption. They argue for starters that the standard inflation measure suffers from "outlet bias." It fails, in other words, to adequately account for the rise of cheaper big box stores--exactly the kind of development most likely to benefit the poor. Merely making this inflation adjustment paints a brighter picture of living standards at the low end.

Of course, the same deflation in the cost of essentials--in particular--is why talk of the failing middle class is so asinine.  

Posted by orrinj at 8:13 AM


Obama and Romney Might Not Fight So Much on Foreign Policy If They Disagreed More (ELSPETH REEVE, SEP 14, 2012, Atlantic)

After several days of fierce campaign fighting, blustery press releases and snippy surrogates on cable, the major differences between President Obama and Mitt Romney on foreign policy are ones of personality, not policy -- and even the personality differences are probably overstated.  As President, Obama has largely kept in place the counterterrorism programs put in place by the Bush administration after 9/11. Romney has hired Bush administration alums like Dan Senor and John Bolton for his foreign policy team. While there have been some times in which Republicans have criticized Obama for not being aggressive enough in Libya, and then too agressive, Romney eventually agreed that the world was better off without Muammar Qaddafi. And on the big fight between the campaigns this week, they mostly agree. Romney condemned Obama for sympathizing with the attackers on the American embassies in Cairo and Benghazi because the Cairo embassy posted a condemnation of an anti-Islam film. Obama doesn't disagree with Romney that the statement was dumb. "The statement by Embassy Cairo was not cleared by Washington and does not reflect the views of the United States government," an administration official said. But that said, Romney doesn't completely disagree with the sentiment that both he and the President think shouldn't have been released. He told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos:

I think it's dispiriting sometimes to see some of the awful things people say.  And the idea of using something that some people consider sacred and then parading that out a negative way is simply inappropriate and wrong. And I wish people wouldn't do it. Of course, we have a First Amendment. And under the First Amendment, people are allowed to do what they feel they want to do. They have the right to do that, but it's not right to do things that are of the nature of what was done by, apparently this film.

That's not all that different from what the embassy said:

"Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others."

Posted by orrinj at 8:08 AM


Conflict and 'boom-bust' explain humans' rapid evolution (Paul Rincon, 9/14/12, BBC News)

"However you slice it, evolution within this [human family] has been very rapid indeed," Prof Tatersall, from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York, told the conference.

"I think it's fair to say that our species Homo sapiens and its antecedents have come much farther, much faster than any other mammalian group that has been documented in this very tight time-frame." [...]

Such fast change is not seen among apes, and while Prof Tatersall acknowledges the importance of the move our ancestors made from a tree-dwelling, to a ground-dwelling existence - something which has not affected our primate cousins - he says it is not enough to explain what is observed.

"Clearly the definitive abandonment of dependence on trees... has to count as one of the most radical shifts in adaptive zone ever made by any vertebrate since the very first tetrapod heaved itself out of water and on to terra firma," he said.

"Under natural conditions, it is very hard to see how the initial invasion of a new ecozone by hominids could have so consistently driven rapid change over the long period of time that we're talking about."

Human culture was probably the special, consistently present ingredient that drove the continuing fast pace of change in our lineage after we left the forests, said Prof Tatersall, but not in the way that some other researchers have proposed.

Not only are we "special," but we drove our own evolution and it was not "natural."  

Posted by orrinj at 8:03 AM


Tom Wolfe: America's all-seeing eye : He has dazzled, and he has disappointed. Will his new novel put him back on top of the literary pedestal? (JOHN WALSH, 15 SEPTEMBER 2012, Independent)

All his books open with crowd scenes: a riot at a political meeting, a street festival, a university party. He has a fetish for size: the bigger the canvas, the better; the richer the protagonist, the greater the target. Hugeness and its relation to the American soul drives A Man in Full. It concerns Charlie Croker, a property mogul in Atlanta, Georgia, who basks in phenomenal wealth, runs a 29,000-acre quail plantation and lies awake at 3am worrying about his half-billion-dollar debt. The book offers 700 pages of extremes: big acres, big shoulders, big hi-fi speakers, big breasts, big factories, big weights, even big snakes.

"Everything in this book began with my discovery of the plantations," Wolfe told me in 1999. "Before that, I thought the final extreme of conspicuous consumption was owning your own jet. But when I started hanging out with plantation owners, and learning about their extreme wealth, I knew it had to be the core of the book. And I discovered that you don't become a plantation baron by having money. You have to be 'man enough' for the job." Croker is contrasted in the novel by an idealistic blue-collar worker called Conrad who is laid off from Croker's meat plant, falls through the legal system but ends up in jail. A good man - but is he or Charlie the "man in full"?

There's something Dickensian about Wolfe's moral cruxes of the book, and among his first experiments with writing were brief character studies along the lines of Sketches by Boz. He also admires Zola and Balzac, and their multi-volume anatomisings of French society from top to bottom. He does the same. "Wolfe may live in a fancy block-long apartment on the Upper East Side, but he clearly does not stay indoors," remarked New York magazine. "He walks his white suit into the dark corners of American social, sexual, and criminal life and returns with an intuitive, empirical, and arresting grasp of his fellow citizens."

Not everyone has been so impressed. Some of Wolfe's fellow authors wrote off his approach as merely well-researched journalism. John Updike called A Man in Full "entertainment not literature", Norman Mailer reviewed it with condescension. Wolfe retaliated with asperity, calling the two literary titans "washed-up windbags". He defended the novelist's right to deal in the everyday. "It's important for the novelist to bring alive what Hegel called the zeitgeist," he told me. "He thought every era had its own moral tone, that presses down on everyone living at the time."

There, in a nutshell is why modern art is so awful--the intelligentsia believe it's wrong for art to entertain and instruct.

Posted by orrinj at 7:52 AM


A Piece Of Technology That Makes Listening To Jazz Better (PATRICK JARENWATTANANON, 9/14/12, NPR)

Maybe you remember when you first realized that the rabbit hole of jazz was far, far deeper than you'd possibly imagined. That the same tenor saxophone player on Kind of Blue also made Blue Train and Giant Steps and A Love Supreme and Interstellar Space and dozens of other albums and who knows how many guest appearances, and that that was just what people recorded of John Coltrane. And that all those records involved scores of other contributors, who in turn played with scores of other people over scores of years. And that this hopelessly convoluted network reflected just a small slice of jazz history to begin with.

What allowed you to dive in was a guide to the data -- maybe a book, or a radio broadcaster, or someone you knew who knew something. A voice who could translate the wilderness to human terms, and made it appealing to jump into.

The new Spotify app from Blue Note Records, released yesterday, isn't the perfect guide. But as a music discovery tool, it's a huge leap in the right direction, and it's certainly the first digital music technology I've seen which begins to make sense of the dense jumble in which jazz fans happily abandon themselves.

Think of the app as a juiced-up, visually appealing, annotated index to nearly all of the Blue Note Records catalog, which is playable on-demand via Spotify's free (or subscription-based) streaming service. 
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