Monday, August 31, 2009

Through the Looking Glass

Nate Silver of visits Fox and Friends. Culture shock ensues.

Japan Changes the Game

For later reading: Charles Hugh Smith on the impact of the change in politics and economics occasioned by the Japanese election. Shifts from central planning to decentralized model and from export-centric economy to consumer-driven economy feature strongly.

(via @RichardMetzger)

Draining the Swamp

Because of the fired prosecutors scandal, we now have to investigate not only those who committed the torture, but the lawyers who abetted it, and the Administration people who directed it, but also the people who failed to prosecute it in the first place. One might think that they tried to make the mess so big that no one could ever get to the bottom of it. Alternatively, they may just not have given a damn in the rush to power. You pick.

The DailyKos has a nice set of quotes on Cheney's latest Gollumesque appearance, including this little gem.
And finally on the Cheney front, Steve Benen has this on the torture worked because it kept American safe canard:

I seem to recall the Bush/Cheney era a little differently. Cheney thinks it was a sterling success when it came to national security and counter-terrorism. Perhaps there's something to this. After all, except for the catastrophic events of 9/11, and the anthrax attacks against Americans, and terrorist attacks against U.S. allies, and the terrorist attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Bush's inability to capture those responsible for 9/11, and waging an unnecessary war that inspired more terrorists, and the success terrorists had in exploiting Bush's international unpopularity, the Bush/Cheney record on counter-terrorism was awesome.

After the previous administration established a record like that, President Obama didn't ask Cheney for tips? The nerve.

Too Bigger To Fail

The commercial banking industry had already gone through extensive consolidation, with a group of four superbanks and 6-10 additional challengers dominating the industry. Now, the remaining three superbanks strongly dominate the market space for deposits, mortgages and other retail products.

This is a serious problem for the stability of the banking system as a whole, and results in substantial pricing power against the retail customer base. The big guys need to be put on a diet, and soon.

Bill Moyers, Part 3

Bill Moyers on Healthcare, part 2

We're all in the same boat.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Awoke to find that something had shattered the glass patio table top into many, many, tiny, tiny pieces. No apparent cause.

Odd dreams this week: forced to return to high school to make up a math class I'd somehow missed. Fighting with possessed minister plaguing my hospitalized mother.

My other website is misbehaving, like a souffle that just won't rise properly.

Wrist Mounted Flamethrower

Incipient Superpower or Future Insurance Claim?

As Jason Kottke put it, "I see a painful sneeze in this guy's future."

The Power of Approximate Thinking

Good review article of the current state of the P vs. NP problem, which, the author says in summary, is "still open". Of interest here are the alternative strategies: approximation and use of heuristics get you an nearly optimal solution. Sometimes, a roughly correct answer is better than a perfect one, if perfection takes too long or requires too much effort.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Gentlemen Broncos

Home schooling and tranny scifi from the director of Napoleon Dynamite. How could this not be made of win?

Hick's Law

Hick's Law relates the speed of a decision to the number of choices an individual faces. A new paper attempts to relate this reaction speed to the entropy of the distribution of the choices, and derives an estimate of 60 bits/sec throughput along the decision path.
Martín uses his method to determine how much information the brain can process during lexical decision tasks. The answer? No more than about 60 bits per second. Of course, this is not the information-processing capacity of the entire brain but one measure of the input/output capacity during a specific task.

Martín goes on to analyze the data from various types of reaction-time experiments, in particular to determine whether information-processing speed is constant during a particular task, as implied by Hick's Law. Martín reckons it isn't.

"This finding suggests an adaptive system where the processing load is dynamically adjusted to the task demands," he says. That makes sense. It seems crazy to assume that the brain carries on processing data at the same rate regardless of the complexity of the task at hand.

But this has an important implication: that the linearity of Hick's Law doesn't always apply. So Hick's Law will need some kind of modification to cope with this nonlinearity.

Just how to rewrite one of the basic laws of behavioral psychology isn't clear yet. But it's sure to involve a very different way of looking at the brain from when it was formulated.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Uphill Waterfall

Photo: Spiraltwist

James Dyson, of vacuum cleaner fame, has also done some garden design. Here, he replicates MC Escher's uphill waterflow. Y'all can get me one for Christmas.

Predicting the Financial Bubble's Pop...Almost

Didier Sornette is an econophysicist who models complex events ranging from earthquakes to financial collapses. In a recent publication at arXiv (pdf), he and his team came within a week of predicting the correct date for the collapse of the Chinese equity markets. The paper is a little shy of details on the methods used, and the date wasn't exactly right, but the Swiss team gets points for daring a very near term prediction that could have been completely off-base.

Also interesting material for further reading, Sornette proposes the term "dragon-king" (pdf) for a meaningful outlier that represents a bifurcation or phase change resulting from self-organizational characteristics of open, complex systems, and relates these to the Black Swan concept. Elsewhere, John Robb notes the connection to Ilya Prigogine's Dissipative Structures.

Morning Glory Clouds

An unusual cloud formation seen annually in a remote part of Australia.


1000th post on the current system.
You win a prize.

Superman for Welfare + Healthcare Reform

See, Superman is a great big liberal, too. That's why we pay taxes: it's the American Way.

(via Patrick Nielsen Hayden)

Ted Kennedy


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Quote of the Day

"Because art is life, playing to other rhythms."

-Muriel Barbery
The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Monday, August 24, 2009

Make Up Your Mind

(seen on, via Alex Manias)

The Chicago Way

In which Sean Connery tells a liberal how to get healthcare passed.

"What are you prepared to do?"

The Chicago Way

In which Sean Connery tells a liberal how to get healthcare passed.

"What are you prepared to do?"

Joe Klein's Meltdown

Aimai takes Joe Klein to task at a clambake. It seems as though certain bloggers have rediscovered a piece of journalistic technology called fact checking; this technology has been lost to the journalists for some length of time.

A number of journalists appear to be comfortable with this technique, and with the information one gets when one uses it. They seem to believe it's a technique best suited for dirty hippies with an axe to grind.

Glen Greenwald has more.

(via Brad Delong)

Attentional Deconcentration

In the New Yorker's Free Diving article by Alex Winkinson, a diver named Natalia Molchanova describes a technique called Attentional Deconcentration, in which attention is spread out evenly across the sensory field:

To still the unbidden apprehensions that might interfere with her dive -- what she describes as "the subjective feeling of empty lungs at the deep" -- Molchanova uses a technique that she refers to as "attention deconcentration." ("They get it from the military," Ericson said.) Molchanova told me, "It means distribution of the whole field of attention -- you try to feel everything simultaneously. This condition creates an empty consciousness, so the bad thoughts don't exist."

"Is it difficult to learn?"

"Yes, it's difficult. I teach it in my university. It's a technique from ancient warriors -- it was used by samurai -- but it was developed by a Russian scientist, Oleg Bakhtiyarov, as a psychological-state-management technique for people sho do very monotonous jobs."

I asked if it was like meditation.

"To some degree, except meditation means you're completely free, but if you're in the sea at depth you will have to be focussed, or it will get bad. What you do to start learning is you focus on the edges, not the center of things, as if you were looking at a screen. Basically, all the time I am diving, I have an empty consciousness. I have a kind of melody going through my mind that keeps me going, but otherwise I am completely not in my mind."
(quote transcription via kottke).

Note that this technique is distinct from common one-pointed meditational techniques, such as concentration on mantras or a visual focus like a candle flame, where the proximate goal is to decrease the frequency of distracting phenomena.

There is a greater similarity to the Yoga Nidra techniques. Yoga Nidra attempts to overlay a deep state of relaxation modeled on Stage 4 (abyssal, dreamless, delta wave) sleep on top of an alert consciousness. The method used to accomplish this is remarkably similar to the deconcentration techniques.

In the version I was taught, the first stage is to rapidly switch among three or more sets of auditory stimuli (e.g., soft music playing in the room, noise from within the building and noise from the street outside) without clinging to any one or paying attention to loud sounds over soft, or harmonious sounds over dissonance.

The second stage involves rotating one's somatic attention to different parts of the body: each toe in turn, all the toes together, the top of the foot, sole of the foot, ankle, shin, calf, knee...up to the head and then to the body as a whole. Eventually, one is able to freely expand and contract one's attention throughout the somatosensory field.

Visual field methods typically involve either a sequence of guided meditation techniques, or a simple intent to attend to the entire visual field by "stepping back" from it, as if looking out through a window or looking at a screen, allowing the image to move or change without attaching or following any changes that may occur.

Molchanova's ability to maintain dispersed perceptual attention in the face of high physiological stress is remarkable. In contrast, think of descriptions of police or soldiers experiencing "tunnel vision" at the outset of a firefight; tempering this adrenaline-mediated response enables better performance and greater stamina. The deconcentration technique is easy to practice, but difficult to maintain under stress conditions like a deep dive or a fight.

I'm also reminded of a friend of mine who recommended tight focus on the source of pain as a technique during torture. Most people, he said, will try to focus elsewhere, but what you really want to do is experience the pain as comprehensively as possible, to the point where you simply pass out. Being resistant to pain actually makes you a better subject for torture, and more likely to break than someone who is very sensitive.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Just signed up to take the CFA exam. God help me.

Like an Afterschool Special

This office building always looked like it was transplanted in between the surrounding buildings. No idea what went on in there. The door alone leads you to believe that it's something interesting, but in reality it was probably all about dentistry.

Columbus Gate

Do You Know Who's Telling Your Stories?

I had an interesting discussion recently about unreliable narrators. A friend was watching some television show, in which a character completely sold him on a

Friday, August 21, 2009

Question of the Day

Does anyone outside of the Gang of Six believe in the Gang of Six?

A Note on Macroeconomic Forecasts

While I am prepared to suspend disbelief occasionally and accept intuitive or data-based directional forecasts of the macroeconomy, now is not one of those occasions. The error bars on any estimate are quite large at the moment: the economy could be entering full recovery or about to take another big plunge. The only prediction anyone with any sense can make at the moment is that we don't know what's coming next.

Note the people who do not make such a statement. Consider discounting their future predictions strongly.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Public Option Not Optional

Dan Froomkin gets the point of the public option: it's about accountability.

Sweeping Out the Hump

This post on Lone Gunman got me thinking about Joel Spolsky's use of Taiichi Ohno's Five Whys coupled with the procedure of Fixing Things Two Ways as a resiliency mechanism for non-Black Swan problems. When something (e.g., a server) fails, it has to be repaired, but the underlying causes of the problem (the five levels of the Five Whys) should also be fixed. This strategy differs from the standard metrics-based approach in that it generates a system where costs due to previously known and realized causes go down over time.

Spolsky gives the excellent example of server downtime in comparison to airplane crashes:

Measuring the number of minutes of downtime per year does not predict the number of minutes of downtime you'll have the next year. It reminds me of commercial aviation today: the NTSB has done such a great job of eliminating all the common causes of crashes that nowadays, each commercial crash they investigate seems to be a crazy, one-off, black-swan outlier.
As time goes on, an increasing proportion of problems derive from rare events. The high-frequency events at the hump of the frequency distribution get "swept out", along with any early occurring rare problems from the tails. This frees up attention for the truly bizarre and unforseeable events. Note that this doesn't work well if your Black Swans are catastrophic. If you get hit by a civilization ending asteroid or a spontaneously business-ending event, you have little opportunity (or benefit) to learning from experience, but this kind of problem is thankfully extremely rare in our collective prior history.

Quote of the Day

"The law of averages will clobber you every time." From the Marshall McLuhan Distant Early Warning Card set.

(via linkmachinego)

Barney Frank vs. the Healthers

Barney Frank demonstrates the correct way to deal with the shouting nutballs.

Summer Yummy

...and sum'er even better. Nathalie Jordi makes popsicles for sale at her local farmer's market out of unusual combinations. Blackberries and corn, for example, or blueberry, yogurt and honey, with "a texture akin to a velvet pincushion".

Here's my secret: take any ripe fruit in season, whizz it up, add an element of sweetness, another of mystery (Tarragon? Cardamom? Try not to gild the lily), pour into molds, and freeze. Don't forget the popsicle stick, eh?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Not Fascists?

"Contra Rush Limbaugh, history’s actual fascists were not primarily known for their anti-smoking policies or generous social welfare programs. Fascism celebrated violence, anti-rationalism and hysterical devotion to an authoritarian leader. To date, the Obama administration has fallen rather short in these departments."

The Healthcare Fight

I heart Rachel Maddow. She took the paint off of Armey and Coburn on Meet the Press, and got in the single best quote of the hour:

I think most liberals would probably prefer a single payer system, honestly. But ultimately, if the president decides that he’s going to go with a reform effort that doesn’t include a public option, what he will have done is spent a ton of political capital, riled up an incredibly angry right wing base who’s been told that this is a plot to kill grandma, grandma, and he will have achieved something that doesn’t change health care very much and that doesn’t save us very much money and won’t do very much for the American people. It’s not a very good thing to spend a lot of political capital on.

They should have her on every week. She fights smart, and she fights like it matters.

Now, I know that Obama's thing is that he's Mr. Cool and everything, but I need him to show what he wants. I want an honest to God visceral response out of him, not just a vague "it would be nice to have this or that".

I want him to show that he understands the stakes in the game, for himself and everyone else, and I want him to fight that hard to win. Dare the Republicans to vote against the bill. Say, "vote against it if you don't care about your constituents. If you love the insurance money more than people, vote against it. If you're ready to abdicate your role as a leader, vote against it. If you're ready to see the deficit eat up our future, vote against it. If you hate Medicare, vote against it."

That's how you fight, and that's how you win.

Related: Paul Krugman on the public option as a signal of Obama's commitment to the progressive agenda.

The Krugman/Stross Summit

Last week at Worldcon, economics-loving science fiction purveyor Charles Stross met science-fiction loving economics purveyor Paul Krugman for an open conversation. They talk about things like why today doesn't look like yesterday's version of tomorrow, and why everything gets shipped long distances, rather than being made in a particular place, and why a tax on bandwidth might be the best solution to the copyfight.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Profile of skater, artist and TM practitioner Zarosh Eggleston, by David Lynch TV. Worth it for the skating or just for the punk cello.

Friday, August 14, 2009

MBA Ethics Oath

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart

Mon - Thurs 11p / 10c
MBA Ethics Oath
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor

Spinal Tap Performance

The Daily Show mocks a bunch of Harvard & MIT MBA's for refusing to sign an ethics oath that's being passed around.

Frankly, I'm with the Quakers on this one. Either my word is good, and there's no need for an oath, or my word is bad, in which case any oath I sign is worthless. Just ask your questions and then figure out whether you believe my answers. There are no shortcuts to trust.

Always Read the Fine Print

From PEHub:

It was right there in the contract: Some hedge fund managers are suing a man who they gave $4.2 million to build "an integrated global community of trading partners." Apparently the hedgies thought the phrase was biz jargon, but the money actually went to build a swingers ranch.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

LinkedIN Fail

Somebody I never invited as a connection on LinkedIN apparently claimed (rightly) not to know me, and rejected my (unsent) invitation. Unfortunately, this makes three strikes for me over the past few years, so I'm in the suspected spammer's penalty box for a TOS violation.

There doesn't seem to be an expiration date on this "feature", so it's not even 5 for fighting. What a nuisance.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

Or, as MyDD puts it, "why the uninformed scream the loudest":
an example of cognitive bias in which "...people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it". They therefore suffer an illusory superiority, rating their own ability as above average. This leads to a perverse result where people with less competence will rate their ability more highly than people with relatively more competence. It also explains why competence may weaken the projection of confidence because competent individuals falsely assume others are of equivalent understanding. "Thus, the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others."

In other words, people who can't get it think they actually get it better than everone else and people who do get it think everyone else can too. It is the affliction of those whose arguments have been completely destroyed and are left with no evidence, and yet think they won the debate anyway - like the birthers. It is also why the smart ones don't understand the failure to communicate and keep pressing. If this theory sounds overly simplistic or arrogant, it's worth pointing out that it's based on a study by two Cornell professors called "Unskilled and Unaware of it." It certainly explains a lot about the national discourse.

Macoto Murayama

Macoto Murayama's computer-generated flower images.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Quote of the Day

“But the EMH, if you don’t take it too literally and get carried away about axiomatically defining strong, weak and other kinds of efficiency as though you were dealing with axiomatic quantum field theory, does recognize one true thing: that it’s #$&^ing difficult or well-nigh impossible to systematically predict what’s going to happen. You may think you know you’re in a bubble, but you still can’t tell whether things are going up or down the next day. The EMH was a kind of jiu-jitsu response on the part of economists to turn weakness into strength. 'I can’t figure out how things work, so I’ll make that a principle.' ”

Body Mod

Paul "PJ" James, a Melbourne physical trainer and underwear model, intentionally gained 88 pounds in 6 months and is now trying to lose all of the weight he'd gained in the next 6 for a documentary and "to better understand his clients".

$2 Bets in Vegas

Elizabeth Warren, chair of the Congressional Oversight Committee for the bailout, continues to impress me with her clear thinking and communication skills. She'd be a great pick if and when we need a new Treasury Secretary.

The Sausage King of Chicago

Edward McNally, John Hughes' childhood friend and partial inspiration for Ferris Bueller, recalls the impact his friend's films have had:

Some trial lawyers attempt to channel "The Art of War." Or lessons from the life of Genghis Khan. But the Tao of Ferris has its own wisdom. Hughes had Ferris talk directly to the camera. To us. He says, deal with your fear. Believe in yourself. Make sick days count. And: Do you realize that if we played by the rules, right now we'd be in gym?

In my service as a federal prosecutor and as a defense attorney, one key lesson from Ferris is his repeated message to his despondent buddy Cameron. Your current situation doesn't have to be your fate. There's always another way.

(via kottke)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Dream Journal

I'm in a darkened apartment, and a pair of people are kneeling on the blue-gray 70's shag carpeting. They're showing me a gigantic corpse flower, encrusted with barnacles, that they've raised in their home for some reason. The blossom is nearly six feet tall and smells of rotting flesh. The air feels humid, and somewhere mariachi music is playing on a red plastic and yellow plaid speaker-cloth hifi sitting in the corner. The record sticks on infinite repeat. Someone brings a glass of water.

Friday, August 07, 2009

I'm having a bit of a data cleanse while I'm off to Lollapalooza this weekend. Will be back to posting Tuesday.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009


Jonah Lehrer, who wrote How We Decide, has an interesting article in the Boston Globe about Angela Duckworth's research on a quality called grit. My grandmothers would have called it gumption, or the combination of ambition and resolve needed to get things done. As a counterweight to the quality of insight, grit has a lot to recommend it, as it is neither about grinding (doing the most work possible), nor getting away without doing the work, but rather about doing what is necessary at the right time.
the story of [Newton's] apple is almost certainly false; Voltaire probably made it up. Even if Newton started thinking about gravity in 1666, it took him years of painstaking work before he understood it. He filled entire vellum notebooks with his scribbles and spent weeks recording the exact movements of a pendulum. (It made, on average, 1,512 ticks per hour.) The discovery of gravity, in other words, wasn’t a flash of insight - it required decades of effort, which is one of the reasons Newton didn’t publish his theory until 1687, in the “Principia.”

Although biographers have long celebrated Newton’s intellect - he also pioneered calculus - it’s clear that his achievements aren’t solely a byproduct of his piercing intelligence. Newton also had an astonishing ability to persist in the face of obstacles, to stick with the same stubborn mystery - why did the apple fall, but the moon remain in the sky? - until he found the answer.

In recent years, psychologists have come up with a term to describe this mental trait: grit. Although the idea itself isn’t new - “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,” Thomas Edison famously remarked - the researchers are quick to point out that grit isn’t simply about the willingness to work hard. Instead, it’s about setting a specific long-term goal and doing whatever it takes until the goal has been reached. It’s always much easier to give up, but people with grit can keep going.
Now, Isaac Newton probably didn't publish his results until 1687 because he was a secretive bastard. He held back the calculus until Leibniz published, and had a long-running feud with Hooke about who came up with other results. Nevertheless, the underlying lesson is correct: you've got to pick the right goals, and then go after them with a strong, sustained effort. It's what grandma would have done.

Brooks Brothers Riots-->Healthcare Riots

How many staffers can you find?


Slammin Iranian indie rock.

"It’s not easy getting visas to the United States when you’re from the Axis of Evil."
(via Andrew)

Henry Rollins vs. the Techno Viking

Here's what today's collective consciousness burped up.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Why You Can't Innovate Like Apple

Pragmatic Marketing discusses the distinctive competencies and choices Apple makes that make Apple Apple. Most of these are choices your company isn't going to make, either because of culture, cost (in dollars or effort). Even if you do, you probably won't get the returns Apple does, because they're evolved to fit the particular market niche they've created for themselves.

Great article.

(via Russell Davies)

Quote of the Day

“All experience on the subject and the teachings of all medical authorities on sea bathing, agree in support of the two following rules: namely, that a child under two years of age ought never, under any circumstances, to be bathed in the open sea, and that no one, child or adult, can enter the sea without danger while under the influence of emotional excitement.”

(via Siege)

Monday, August 03, 2009

Ancient Beer

Sam Calagione at Dogfish Head brewery makes a set of beers from recipes based on archeological findings, using some really wild techniques. Some of these sound really delicious and unusual.

House Porn 12: The New Antiquarians

Brooklynites use taxidermy, silversmithing, sculling equipment and old cabinetry to feather their nests. My house looks like this, but not on purpose, so I don't get an NYT article.
I am, however, finally reading Against Nature, which provides some really great decorating ideas. Now, I'm off to encrust my toroise in jewels.

Sunday, August 02, 2009


Even though he'd never been in the Army, a man was arrested for desertion upon returning from vacation in Mexico. The military had records indicating that he'd successfully completed basic training and two years of military service.