Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Fantastic questions for Bush and Kerry

...are here. It's a shame they won't get asked.

Great Hackers and Nasty Little Problems

Paul Graham has a new essay up. He has some good things to say about what motivates hackers:
One of the worst kinds of projects is writing an interface to a piece of software that's full of bugs. Another is when you have to customize something for an individual client's complex and ill-defined needs. To hackers these kinds of projects are the death of a thousand cuts.

The distinguishing feature of nasty little problems is that you don't learn anything from them. Writing a compiler is interesting because it teaches you what a compiler is. But writing an interface to a buggy piece of software doesn't teach you anything, because the bugs are random. So it's not just fastidiousness that makes good hackers avoid nasty little problems. It's more a question of self-preservation. Working on nasty little problems makes you stupid. Good hackers avoid it for the same reason models avoid cheeseburgers.
If working on "nasty little problems" is like eating a cheeseburger, I guess I need to go on a diet in more ways than one...

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Found: One Band of Syrian Musicians

A Stanford news director tracked down the musicians behind the recent airline scare story. It turned out to be the backup band for Nour Mehanna, who is a sort of Syrian Wayne Newton.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Software radios with unlimited bandwidth

Marginal Revolution has a good post regarding some cool upcoming technologies:
Consider the way radio works now. Two stations can't be broadcasting at the same frequency unless they are so far apart that receivers can only hear one of them at a time. Bring them too close together and the primitive sensors we use for electromagnetic radiation will get both signals and become confused.

Now consider the situation with another sort of electromagnetic sensor -- the human eye. There is no rule that says you and your friend can't wear the same color shirt in the same room for fear that people will be unable to distinguish the two of you. The eye has no trouble seeing multiple sources of the same electromagnetic frequency and distinguishing them. You can easily focus on any one of several sources of the same electromagnetic frequency even though you are receiving others.

What's the difference between your eye and your FM radio? Entirely that your eye is directionally sensitive and the radio is not. The radio has much the same view of the world that a non-directional photocell with a color filter would have -- it can tell that a particular frequency has arrived but not from where and it can't distinguish multiple signals directionally. Imagine if you had to see the world that way.

Well, as it turns out, you don't have to see the world that way. There's a technology out there (the details aren't important) called "phased arrays" that allows you to broadcast a signal very directionally (like shining a light at one and only one person) or to focus very directionally on a single signal (so that you can listen to one FM broadcast on 99.5 and not hear another originating one mile away at the exact same frequency.)

This is not a theoretical technology -- it has been in use in military radar systems (such as the one used on the very expensive Aegis ships the navy has) for decades. However, it depends on doing very complicated signal correlations, and until now that has been very expensive. However, if you do the work in software, it turns out to be pretty straightforward and the expense falls by 50% every year.

Monday, July 12, 2004

More Moore

I keep getting dragged into Michael Moore arguments. The most common defense of Moore I hear isn't "he's telling the truth", it's more along the lines of "he's no worse than Bush!" (or Limbaugh, or Fox News, or...)

This is nonsense.

Moore claims to be in the debunking business. When you are standing on a soapbox pointing a finger and saying "HE is LYING to you!" need to be damn sure your own facts are correct. Not arguably correct, not true depending on your definition of "is", not true in the sense that you're using unaltered video footage of people saying things they actually said at some point, but correct, including context and implication, Yes, Bush was lying to me when he gave alleged reasons for invading Iraq, but I KNEW he was lying at the time. Bush is a politician and I expect politicians to lie. Politicians are in the lying business; that's what they do.

Moore claims to be making documentaries. A member of the press. In that role, we expect him to assemble information into a coherent whole that makes sense and conveys useful, truthful information. He's supposed to add context and help people understand the world better. But his latest movie does just the opposite. He panders to the prejudices of his audiences, feeding them false information they are likely to want to believe. That is propaganda, not documentary. That's what's so disturbing.

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Spiderman in Lego

Spiderman 2: you've seen the movie (it's excellent, by the way), but have you seen it in Lego?

Thursday, July 08, 2004

DailyGammon in the news

The New York Times has discovered online backgammon addiction. I answered a few of the reporter's background questions about DailyGammon.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Should we regulate fireworks?

Glen Whitman of Agoraphilia reluctantly says:
I hate to admit it, but I think regulating fireworks, and even implementing an outright ban in especially fire-prone areas, is probably a good idea. Will people flout the regulations, leading to smuggling and black markets? Yes, but I still suspect the gains exceed the losses (though I’m open to evidence showing that my concerns are out of proportion to the problem). We can’t eliminate the risk entirely, but we can at least reduce it substantially.
How could we measure the benefit of fully-unrestricted fireworks? The benefit consists of vast numbers of happy people enjoying entertainment. Note that fireworks have a positive externalities as well as negative ones --that guy on your block who spends $300 putting on a big show benefits everybody who sees and enjoys it. The benefit to /him/ has to exceed $300 or he wouldn't spend that much, so the amount people in a state cumulatively spend on fireworks is a lower bound to the benefit to the state as a whole; you'd need to inflate that number a fair bit to account for the benefits to non-paying observers.

On the cost side of the ledger, we'd mostly have to look at whether banning fireworks actually reduces fires. The argument to the contrary would be similar to the argument that banning drugs leads to more dangerous drug use. In this case: if people are violating the law to set off any fireworks at all, they're likely to set off bigger ones in more remote areas when they do so.

My guess is that fireworks laws do more harm than good in most states, but this seems like the sort of problem you could get actual numbers for and figure out. You'd have to use a John Lott sort of approach, comparing changes in the laws to trends in your "social cost" metric.

If you did find fireworks have significantly more negative than positive externality, wouldn't the efficient thing be to /tax/ them proportionate to the excess social cost rather than have an outright ban? And base the tax on the propensity of that type of firework to cause externalities - the "safe and sane" type should still be pretty cheap.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Michael Moore movie is a mess

I noticed lies and selective arguments in the very first few minutes of Farenheit 9/11. This set off my BS-detector, and from then on I had a hard time taking his other claims at face value. Which turned out to be a good thing.

A few early issues I noticed:
  1. Moore claims Bush's friends on the Supreme Court decided the election in his favor, ignoring the fact that, had the count gone through, Bush would still have won. Thus, the Supremes were in retrospect only deciding the election procedure, not the election results.
  2. Moore shows a talking head claiming Gore would have won under almost any recount scenario; this claim is false. I don't know whether the clip was speculative or where it came from, but the actual recounts done by newspapers after the fact showed that Gore lost in all but one of the recount scenarios that focused on "undervotes", including the specific scenario that would have happened had the Supremes not stopped it.
  3. In claiming that Bush spent too much time on vacation, Moore says "relaxing at Camp David" in voiceover while showing Bush walking /next to Tony Blair/.
    [disclosure: I read a Slate review that mentioned this scene before I saw the movie, otherwise I would have missed it. It's only on screen for a couple of seconds, but it perfectly illustrates that Bush is correct when he later claims he does work on some of his "vacations".]
Here's a big collection of problems with the claims in the movie that have come to light so far: Fifty-six deceits.

A few I found noteworthy:
  1. Moore implies the Saudis got to fly when others weren't allowed to (the comparison with Ricky Martin) but the Saudis didn't start leaving until September 13 or later, meaning after the general public was allowed to fly.
  2. Moore implies the Saudis weren't investigated. The FBI claims 30 Saudis were interrogated and all who left were evaluated and deemed not security risks.
  3. Moore asks a guy how much the Saudis invest in the US; the guy says "I've heard as much as 860 billion." Actual number is less than half that. Moore could have looked it up, but either he's sloppy or he doesn't mind making exaggerated claims.
  4. Moore implies it's unusual for the Secret service to provide protection to the Saudi foreign embassy in DC; actually they provide
    protection to all the foreign embassies in DC that request it; this is not in any way unusual.
  5. Moore implies that only one name was blacked out in a document they received and that this is highly significant because somebody is trying to hide a secret connection; in fact, many names were blacked out in that document.
  6. Moore implies the Saudis gave the Bushes 1.4 billion dollars ("who's your daddy?") of business; this charge is pretty much bogus;
    the connections are tenuous at best: "...former president Bush didn't join the Carlyle advisory board until April, 1998—five months after Carlyle had already sold BDM to another defense firm."
  7. Moore paints giving contracts to the Carlyle Group as the same thing as supporting the nefarious republican Cabal, but anti-Bush billionaire George Soros was on the board at the same time.
  8. The US-based build-an-oil-pipeline-through-Afghanistan scheme was a Clinton-era Unocal project, abandoned in 1998.
And so on. Moore is a propagandist. He makes and reports claims almost entirely without regard to whether they are true or consistent; rather, they are selected on the basis of potential to outrage and impress and entertain. Having said all that, I did find the film entertaining. Great use of old stock footage and music. I liked his making fun of the coalition of the willing. I agreed with his analysis of the Patriot Act. I was horrified at the war scenes and sympathized with the grieving widow (though we saw too much of her). I agreed that we didn't need to invade Iraq, even though Moore's theories as to why we did were laughable and weirdly inconsistent with his theories on Afghanistan.

The movie was "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Friday, July 02, 2004

Booze is good for you

Here's a great Chick-tract parody on why alcohol prohibitionists are wrong...