Archive for February, 2007

Lasers in the jungle

February 24, 2007

This is pretty remarkable. I have no idea how much power is need to make 100KW of diode lasers actually run, or how decent a beam you can get from such an array, or if it would actually work around, say, dust. But that it should be doable at all is something of a tour de force. (OK, and I’m a sucker for lasers.)

Congratulations to Fran Allen for the Turing Award. Better late than never (and she’d already won all the other awards named after anyone who was anyone…)

Wave power setup actually in the process of being installed.

Behavioral economics: taking account of the irrationality of homo economicus to do good things for people.

Small revolutions: the drug-policy people finally imagine that alcohol might be thought of as a drug. This is nice in some ways but pretty sad in others, because in non-official circles the notion that the legal status of a drug by itself has little or no moral/practical valence has been around pretty much forever. (There’s also another interesting omission, namely thinking of tobacco as a drug.)

Yet another erasable paper. Not as stupid as the last time someone tried this in the mid-90s, but I’m starting to wonder if it isn’t a symptom of really bad business-process design. The same thing could probably be better done with some kind of smart paperclip (and why aren’t those everywhere?)

Penrose Mosques. Wow. (I wonder if the theoretical underpinnings were actually as stated, but who knows.)

Noodly construction paper

Customer service done right.

The supposed efficacy of “natural family planning” done perfectly doesn’t impress me as much as it might, for a couple of reasons. First, the “perfect” practice apparently involves abstaining from intercourse for 10-14 days of every 28 (if you use a barrier method your failure rate goes up by 50%, which suggests to me that some of the perfectly practitioners might have been abstaining for rather more than the recommended period). Second, with 900 subjects, you’re talking about only a handful of pregnancies in the “perfect use” group — remember that’s supposedly 0.4% per women per year, so the confidence intervals are going to be several times the size of the reported result. So it’s interesting, but not what I would call “news you can use”.

Speaking of controlled experiments, this is pretty cool: if you put rats genetically predisposed to certain kinds of blood-vessel problems in cages where they exercise more, they don’t have nearly as much of those problems. Says a bunch about how closely you have to replicate some experiments to get good results, and also about how much “genetic predisposition” may actually mean for various disease.


Insecurity Theater: the Cold War versus the GWOT

February 21, 2007

In this LATimes piece, Paul Kennedy makes the very good point that we probably shouldn’t look back fondly on the simple superpower conflict of the Cold War. It might have been facially less complicated than the War on Terror, but it was also really nasty and dangerous, and lots of people died. Lots more might have died if things had gone just a wee bit wrong.

But I think what he misses is the different ways that these two (in many ways equally amorphous) conflicts interact with human psychological quirks about security. The nice thing about the cold war, for many americans, was that except for knowing you might be vaporized at any moment, life tended to proceed pretty much as usual. Once the era of duck-and-cover was over, if you didn’t have a family member in vietnam, or latin america, or working in a defense plant, or any of the other ways that war pervaded the nation, there weren’t really any daily reminders of the danger.

And the very enormity of global thermonuclear war made it mostly impossible to think about — it was going to happen or it wasn’t, and if it did, there was nothing anyone could realistically do to survive it. So the mind simply went TILT and let the matter go. (We’re not good at evaluating risks with very low probabilities and very high costs, after all.) Well, except for a certain existential nihilism and dislike (or worship) of the authority figures who had gotten us into this mess.

The GWOT, in contrast, is much more concrete. You think about it every time you take your shoes off in an airport or reach in your pocket for a folding knife or see someone with a swarthy face. And by being more localized, acts of terrorism are also more imaginable. So it’s not just some hazy apocalypse that haunts us, but specific torn and battered bodies. And local threats are also, in principle, avoidable. So although we (as individuals) really have no idea of what we should be doing to protect ourselves against terrorist attacks, we’re reminded every day that they’re coming, and the notion that there must be some personal defense nags at us.

All that is a long-winded way of saying that, if the threat of terrorism plays into our psychological biases about risk in misleading ways, a carelessly-thought-through comparison between the GWOT and the threat of nuclear annihilation does so in spades.

At least he was polite about it

February 18, 2007

Least Competent Criminals

According to police in Hartselle, Ala., Daniel Brown, 22, wore a ski mask to hide his identity from his grandfather when he staged a home invasion-robbery in January, but when he burst in, he yelled, “I need your money, and I mean it, Pa-Paw.” (Nonetheless, when arrested, Brown denied that he was the man behind the mask.) [Decatur Daily, 1-11-07]

Stories like this remind me how much crime really is committed by people who are unable to make a living at legitimate jobs either.

Getting a bunch of URLs out of the way

February 17, 2007

John Baez Quantum Gravity seminar notes

Susie Bright Haggard backsliding betting pool

NYT on incompetent executions

Squids blind their prey with light

Naps is nice

Under-ice watersheds in the Antarctic

No, really, radiation is bad for you

Fluidic computation for amateurs

Drive-by router DNS hacking

Andy Griffith on warrantless eavesdropping

BBC on “Global Dimming” — They don’t do nearly enough to talk about the obvious location-related effects, but still interesting.

Vehicle surveillance under the guise of road pricing. Includes ref to the remarkably-titled british policepaper, Denying Criminals the Use of the Roads.

ISP data retention bill. Ugh. Also mentions Sanders and Leahy inadequate proposal for making companies pay if they don’t safeguard information.

Stun gun on babies: threat or menace?

Spells for the professor

Taping babies’ mouths (the more things change, the more they stay the same)

Silicon-based bioactive materials

iBridge tech transfer (see last but one)

Excerpt from Duncan Foley’s Adam’s Fallacy

Radio-controlled forklift

Millimeter-scale gas turbine

Scheier’s psychology of security — one thing he doesn’t seem to talk about is biases in thinking about different kinds of costs (e.g. the analogy between security lines and commuting time)

Acme catalog