pounds, ounces, and teaspoons

An interesting possible consequence of Brexit – the UK could go back to the Imperial measurement system. I can’t help gloating just a bit as an American, but overall I think it is bad idea. The U.S. should eventually give it up and go metric. Except for the imperial pint glass of course, long live the empire!

UPS trucks don’t turn left

UPS claims to save a lot of time, fuel, and reduce accidents significantly by avoiding left turns at intersections with no left turn signals. In other words, they circle right until they get where they need to go, and it ends up saving time, energy, and lives. I’m glad to see this – as someone who makes 99% of my own trips on foot, I know vehicles turning left with fast-moving oncoming traffic are incredibly risky for pedestrians. Some people are jerks and have no respect for human life. But during those other 1% of trips where I am the driver, I understand why even well-intentioned, ethical people can put pedestrians at risk – because you are so focused on the cars and making a safe turn you are just not looking for pedestrians. I think most left turns should be eliminated (or left turn signals put in, or pedestrian scrambles, or lights turned off in favor of stop signs) purely on safety grounds, but if doing that wouldn’t even cost drivers any time or money the argument gets even stronger.

the Anthropocene

When exactly did the Anthropocene begin? Trying to measure that is important to certain people. The answer according to certain of those certain people is 1950…

According to their calculations, human activity eclipsed the sun, Earth, and errant falling stars as the dominant process shaping life on this planet around 1950. “This coincides with things like the first nuclear bombs, which put traceable radiation in the atmosphere, which is visible in the sedimentary record,” says Gaffney. They aren’t the first to fix on the post-war period. The 1950s mark what many researchers call the Great Acceleration, when the booming middle class caused spikes in global GDP, agricultural land use, paper production, dam building, personal vehicle ownership, international tourism, and other markers of consumption. Steffen and Gaffney’s equation just adds more oomph to the argument that the Anthropocene began in the same era as color TVs.

banking deregulation is back

Remember that financial crisis thing in 2008 where U.S. financial firms almost destroyed the world economy? No, neither does anyone in Congress, because they are dead set on destroying the regulations put in place after the crisis to try to keep it from happening again. Here is a long article from the Center for Public Integrity.

U.S. ground troops to Syria?

According to CNN, the U.S. is considering sending regular combat ground troops to Syria, supposedly to fight ISIS. The article doesn’t say how many. There are already advisers and special forces there.

This reminds me of the description in The Best and the Brightest of how the Vietnam War started and later escalated. And there would be some similarities in fighting a shadowy and ill-defined enemy. The strange thing though is that by fighting rebels who are fighting the Syrian government, we would be helping the Syrian government, which is allied with Iran and Russia, supposedly our enemies and the enemies of our allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. It’s all very murky and confusing, and kind of obviously a bad idea.

a class on how to consume news

SUNY Stonybrook and the University of Hong Kong have a course on Coursera called Making Sense of the News: News Literacy Lessons for Digital Citizens. I wouldn’t have thought I needed a course on how to consume the news, but maybe a refresher on the basics of journalism and how to spot propaganda, whether government or corporate or something else, is not a bad idea. Prior to 2003 or so, I tended to trust the New York Times. After the weapons of mass destruction debacle, I widened my sources of news. But I stuck to professional journalistic sources, along with some of the emerging aggregators of journalistic sources, like Slate’s Todays Papers, which were a relatively new idea at the time. So the lesson I learned back then was that professional journalistic sources can be susceptible to propaganda. (Noam Chomsky explained pretty well why this is a long time ago in Manufacturing Consent – basically the cheapest and lowest-risk thing to do from a business perspective is to parrot government and corporate press releases.)

Today I find myself reading a wide range of aggregators, magazines and blogs, some making no pretense of avoiding overtly partisan language. Some of the stuffy but venerable old sources like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Economist are behind pay walls and I am not willing to pay for those when there are so many sources of free information. I’ve dropped the BBC because it seems lean heavily on videos these days and I have no time for those, and likewise I don’t have time for NPR or podcasts in general.

When I have occasionally read the New York Times lately, I am surprised at the openly disrespectful language they are using to cover the Trump administration. While I don’t think the individuals they are covering are worthy of respect, the office still is. And by using this kind of language they are walking into the trap of appearing partisan, when they are actually presenting facts and analysis in a reasonably fair and ethical way. I guess Fox News started the process of lowering the bar for everyone, which is a shame. I would even put John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver in this category – even though I tend to agree with them and find them funny, I am uncomfortable with the idea of serious news as entertainment. I would rather keep the two separate.

Basically my strategy is to take in a wide range of information and let my brain do the sifting. I tend to trust my own brain above most others, but I have some nagging doubts whether the biases in what goes in ultimately affect what comes out the other end, which is my internal world view or mental model of the world. And in turn that is what determines my views on the issues, who I vote for, and what issues I am willing to invest precious time, money or effort in trying to influence.

slot machines and pseudo-random numbers

Russian hackers have been able to beat a certain brand of slot machine by buying old models, studying their coding, and figuring out the pattern of random numbers they generate. From Wired:

But as the “pseudo” in the name suggests, the numbers aren’t truly random. Because human beings create them using coded instructions, PRNGs can’t help but be a bit deterministic. (A true random number generator must be rooted in a phenomenon that is not manmade, such as radioactive decay.) PRNGs take an initial number, known as a seed, and then mash it together with various hidden and shifting inputs—the time from a machine’s internal clock, for example—in order to produce a result that appears impossible to forecast. But if hackers can identify the various ingredients in that mathematical stew, they can potentially predict a PRNG’s output. That process of reverse engineering becomes much easier, of course, when a hacker has physical access to a slot machine’s innards.

Knowing the secret arithmetic that a slot machine uses to create pseudorandom results isn’t enough to help hackers, though. That’s because the inputs for a PRNG vary depending on the temporal state of each machine. The seeds are different at different times, for example, as is the data culled from the internal clocks. So even if they understand how a machine’s PRNG functions, hackers would also have to analyze the machine’s gameplay to discern its pattern…

… the operatives use their phones to record about two dozen spins on a game they aim to cheat. They upload that footage to a technical staff in St. Petersburg, who analyze the video and calculate the machine’s pattern based on what they know about the model’s pseudorandom number generator. Finally, the St. Petersburg team transmits a list of timing markers to a custom app on the operative’s phone; those markers cause the handset to vibrate roughly 0.25 seconds before the operative should press the spin button.

“hundreds of mini-brains on a chip”

This Wired article talks about tiny balls of mouse brain cells complete with blood vessels connected to a “microfluidic” chip that essentially acts as a heart.

In the last five years, researchers have engineered lots of dish-dwelling micro-organs, from itsy bitsy intestines to Lilliputian livers. They’ve simultaneously made major advances in biochips: small, Flash-drive-sized structures lined with a layer or two of cells and studded with biosensors and microfluidic channels. Those two-dimensional chips are useful for testing, say, how lung cells react to a piped-in toxin, but they’re too simplistic to truly mimic organs. That’s where organoids like Hoffman-Kim’s brain balls come in. For the first time, 2-D biochips are colliding with 3-D mini-organs—and together they’re making some of the best organ simulations ever.

Using these mashups, the idea is that scientists will be able to take a few of your skin cells, grow miniature versions of all your major organs, and put them on a chip. Then doctors can test out the best compounds for whatever disease you might have—not in a mouse, but in a mini-you. “This will enable a new era of personalized medicine,” says Ali Khademhosseini, a bioengineer at Harvard’s Wyss Institute who has been working on both mini-organs and biochips for the last decade.

In a paper that will be published later this month, Khademhosseini’s team created a series of chips connecting liver organoids and cancer cells with loops of tiny tubes. They pumped an anticancer drug through the system, tracking whether it killed the tumor cells and whether the liver cells could survive the toxic onslaught. That way, they could optimize a drug dosage that maxed cancer-killing power while keeping the liver out of harm’s way.

I can’t help wondering if these body-less mouse brains are sentient on some level, or if they could be. Do they have a natural life span, or can they regenerate and repair themselves indefinitely? Could someone create a human consciousness this way? If so, could it survive and develop in the absence of a body? Could it be plugged into a simulation so it thought it had a body? Could it be plugged into a spacecraft or a submarine and sent out to explore?

do we want a strong or weak dollar

This Economist article tries to explain whether a stronger or weaker dollar is better. The answer is both or possibly neither. A strong dollar makes imported stuff at the store cheaper for consumers, but it lowers the demand for exports and makes it hard for those same consumers to get well-paying jobs making stuff to export. It encourages trade deficits (more imports than exports) for this reason. Because it holds down wages for the working and middle classes, it makes income inequality worse. All other things being equal, the value of the currency should fall relative to foreign currencies in this situation until things are in balance again. This doesn’t happen to the U.S. dollar because it is the world’s reserve currency, meaning other countries are always willing to buy it – people consider it a safe investment even if it is paying very little interest. So this is one thing that is holding our interest rates artificially low. The author concludes that being the only reserve currency is actually not in the country’s long-term interests.

An overvalued currency and persistent trade deficits are fine for America’s consumers, but painful for its producers. The reserve accumulation of the past two decades has gone hand-in-hand with a soaring current-account deficit in America. Imports have grown faster than exports; new jobs in exporting industries have not appeared in numbers great enough to absorb workers displaced by increased foreign competition. Tariffs cannot fix this problem. The current-account gap is a product of underlying financial flows, and taxing imports will simply cause the dollar to rise in an offsetting fashion.

America’s privilege also increases inequality, since lost jobs in factories hurt workers while outsize investment performance benefits richer Americans with big portfolios. Because the rich are less inclined to spend an extra dollar than the typical worker, this shift in resources creates weakness in American demand—and sluggish economic growth—except when consumer debt rises as the rich lend their purchasing power to the rest.

Chalk the headaches generated by low interest rates up to the dollar standard, too. Some economists reckon they reflect global appetite outstripping the supply of the safe assets America is uniquely equipped to provide—dollar-denominated government bonds. As the price of safe bonds rises, rates on those bonds fall close to zero, leaving central banks with ever less room to stimulate their economies when they run into trouble.

One thing I know from painful experience is that when you live abroad, a falling dollar can hurt, because I was getting paid in U.S. dollars and had to pay my rent in Singapore dollars. So my rent was going up every month in U.S. dollar terms, and also going up every year in Singapore dollar terms. Ouch. Well, the life experience gained had a certain value I suppose. That was one of the only times lately that the U.S. dollar has been falling relative to Asian currencies, so I am just unlucky.