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Yonatan Zunger

Yonatan Zunger Verified in Google 

Head of Infrastructure for the Google Assistant

Occupation: Engineer (Google)

Location: Mountain View, CA

Followers: 135,233

Following: 2,426

Views: 104,258,942

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Top posts in the last 50 posts

Most comments: 383

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2016-05-04 03:37:20 (383 comments; 118 reshares; 542 +1s)Open 

As of today, the second seal has been broken and a rider on a red horse has come forth Donald Trump is essentially the guaranteed Republican nominee for president. Let me give some predictions of what's going to happen next:

(1) People will start to argue harder and harder that Trump isn't really that bad, and he doesn't actually mean all the things that he says. Even while you'll never hear this from his campaign, it'll be a major theme among commentators, especially those tied to the Republican establishment. 

The main thing driving this will be cognitive dissonance: if you believed that the American public had just nominated a not-particularly-crypto-Nazi, then you would have to conclude that the people around you are either evil or fools, and that's not something nice to think about. But if he's not really that bad, then it's OK. The second thing... more »

Most reshares: 118

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2016-05-04 03:37:20 (383 comments; 118 reshares; 542 +1s)Open 

As of today, the second seal has been broken and a rider on a red horse has come forth Donald Trump is essentially the guaranteed Republican nominee for president. Let me give some predictions of what's going to happen next:

(1) People will start to argue harder and harder that Trump isn't really that bad, and he doesn't actually mean all the things that he says. Even while you'll never hear this from his campaign, it'll be a major theme among commentators, especially those tied to the Republican establishment. 

The main thing driving this will be cognitive dissonance: if you believed that the American public had just nominated a not-particularly-crypto-Nazi, then you would have to conclude that the people around you are either evil or fools, and that's not something nice to think about. But if he's not really that bad, then it's OK. The second thing... more »

Most plusones: 676

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2016-05-20 03:07:46 (77 comments; 91 reshares; 676 +1s)Open 

Something I did not know: at the Statue of Liberty's feet are broken chains, and in the original design of the statue, she did not hold a book in her left hand, but rather the chains she had shattered.

Edouard de Laboulaye and Frédéric Batholdi, the two men behind the statue, were fervent abolitionists, and the initial impetus for the statue was the ratification of the 13th Amendment.

The final design of the statue, in which the chains are visible only from a helicopter, was the result of strong objections from the project's American backers, upon whom de Laboulaye and Batholdi were relying to fund the pedestal and the site; they wanted no mentions of slavery. In 1885-6, the United States was fully in the throes of "reconciliation," the process of the official forgetting of pre-War history, the rehabilitation of the political image of the South, and thef... more »

Latest 50 posts

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2016-05-24 04:28:14 (44 comments; 28 reshares; 216 +1s)Open 

A fascinating dive into one of the USSR's largest classified projects: to map the world.

It's easy for many of us to forget what life was like even a few years ago, before we had high-quality, automated maps in our pockets at all times. Driving somewhere required writing out directions, carrying books of maps, or both; getting lost was easy in only slightly unfamiliar places, requiring one to go in search of a phone.

More importantly, when a place was entirely unfamiliar – say, when one moved somewhere new – one acquired geographical sense only gradually, from repeated travel through the area. Most people simply didn't have detailed maps to look at.

This made the Soviet protocol of having all maps available to the public be inaccurate enough to be useless a valuable way to make life harder for attackers and spies. (Remember that the USSR put a great deal ofeffo... more »

A fascinating dive into one of the USSR's largest classified projects: to map the world.

It's easy for many of us to forget what life was like even a few years ago, before we had high-quality, automated maps in our pockets at all times. Driving somewhere required writing out directions, carrying books of maps, or both; getting lost was easy in only slightly unfamiliar places, requiring one to go in search of a phone.

More importantly, when a place was entirely unfamiliar – say, when one moved somewhere new – one acquired geographical sense only gradually, from repeated travel through the area. Most people simply didn't have detailed maps to look at.

This made the Soviet protocol of having all maps available to the public be inaccurate enough to be useless a valuable way to make life harder for attackers and spies. (Remember that the USSR put a great deal of effort into concealing a lot of its logistic details – something which forced the US to guess at its real size and strength, and in fact frequently grossly overestimate it.)

But at the same time, the USSR made extraordinary maps of the entire world – even, very likely, of your own neighborhood. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, these have started to leak their way onto the market, and there are even websites like https://www.sovietmaps.com/ dedicated to showcasing them.

Via +Sordatos Cáceres ___

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2016-05-24 04:10:57 (81 comments; 11 reshares; 116 +1s)Open 

This post will probably only make sense to people who have gone through really terrible CS interview processes.

While I can't imagine ever asking a candidate a question quite this pointless, I really hope that if I did, one would answer like this.

Via +Jeff Dean 

Hilarious: solving the Fizz Buzz interview question in Tensorflow - http://buff.ly/22mKaye

#ml #oveeengneering +Jeff Dean​___This post will probably only make sense to people who have gone through really terrible CS interview processes.

While I can't imagine ever asking a candidate a question quite this pointless, I really hope that if I did, one would answer like this.

Via +Jeff Dean 

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2016-05-22 22:12:35 (57 comments; 15 reshares; 208 +1s)Open 

A sadly accurate summary of why airport security in the US is increasingly tedious, yet persistently ineffective. The short version is: the TSA has all the wrong incentives, and especially its upper management has every reason to steadily do worse.

If you reward things like "total organizational headcount" and "didn't fail an audit," as opposed to the actual metrics you're trying to improve, like "make aircraft no longer a logistically useful target for terror attacks while minimizing total load on the system," you'll get people optimizing for the things you don't want them to. It's as simple as that.

"But that’s not how political and bureaucratic logic works. If the TSA loosens up its screening procedures to the point where almost everything gets through, the lines move -- but then there’s not really any point in having the TSA."___A sadly accurate summary of why airport security in the US is increasingly tedious, yet persistently ineffective. The short version is: the TSA has all the wrong incentives, and especially its upper management has every reason to steadily do worse.

If you reward things like "total organizational headcount" and "didn't fail an audit," as opposed to the actual metrics you're trying to improve, like "make aircraft no longer a logistically useful target for terror attacks while minimizing total load on the system," you'll get people optimizing for the things you don't want them to. It's as simple as that.

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2016-05-22 20:33:30 (56 comments; 6 reshares; 196 +1s)Open 

Seen in a shop today: a Bas-Armagnac whose grapes were ripening as the Nazis were being pushed out, and which was the first distillation of victory. The photograph can't capture its true color; it is the most perfectly-colored eau de vie I have ever seen. 

Seen in a shop today: a Bas-Armagnac whose grapes were ripening as the Nazis were being pushed out, and which was the first distillation of victory. The photograph can't capture its true color; it is the most perfectly-colored eau de vie I have ever seen. ___

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2016-05-22 07:06:59 (128 comments; 37 reshares; 324 +1s)Open 

From a 1968 IBM ad: the typical programmer of the day. Their new PL/1 language answers the age-old question: "Can a young girl with no previous programming experience find happiness handling both commercial and scientific applications, without resorting to assembly language?"

(And yes, this woman did in fact look like the very typical programmer of the day. Check out pictures of Margaret Hamilton (head of software for the Apollo program) or Katherine Johnson (who computed the trajectories) if you don't believe me. And note that the typical programmers of the day were not all white, either!)

Via @pwnallthethings and @jackyalcine on Twitter.

From a 1968 IBM ad: the typical programmer of the day. Their new PL/1 language answers the age-old question: "Can a young girl with no previous programming experience find happiness handling both commercial and scientific applications, without resorting to assembly language?"

(And yes, this woman did in fact look like the very typical programmer of the day. Check out pictures of Margaret Hamilton (head of software for the Apollo program) or Katherine Johnson (who computed the trajectories) if you don't believe me. And note that the typical programmers of the day were not all white, either!)

Via @pwnallthethings and @jackyalcine on Twitter.___

2016-05-22 04:04:26 (210 comments; 13 reshares; 216 +1s)Open 

A request to all you out there: Please stop retweeting (and resharing, and repositing, and so on) anti-Semitism, especially anti-Semitic images. This started for good reasons, but continuing makes things very actively worse.

If you need to document it, there are simple changes you can make instead.

(I'm very happy to say that this hasn't been nearly as much of an issue on G+ as it has been on other sites. We've managed to keep our density of Nazis considerably lower – although for my money, anything greater than zero is still too high. So if you have no idea why I'm posting this, you can count yourself lucky, and continue to enjoy your life here on the Plus.)

A request to all you out there: Please stop retweeting (and resharing, and repositing, and so on) anti-Semitism, especially anti-Semitic images. This started for good reasons, but continuing makes things very actively worse.

If you need to document it, there are simple changes you can make instead.

(I'm very happy to say that this hasn't been nearly as much of an issue on G+ as it has been on other sites. We've managed to keep our density of Nazis considerably lower – although for my money, anything greater than zero is still too high. So if you have no idea why I'm posting this, you can count yourself lucky, and continue to enjoy your life here on the Plus.)___

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2016-05-22 00:38:59 (198 comments; 51 reshares; 297 +1s)Open 

More on the subject of why it's expensive to be poor. A lot of this is exactly the sort of thing you'd expect: things are cheaper in bulk, which is great if you can afford a bulk purchase. Sales are great, if you can stock up when they happen.

Here are some interesting details on that, including studies on how big the effect really is using a commodity that people tend to use continuously and stably: toilet paper.

h/t +Kee Hinckley 

More data about the expense of poverty.

" When Orhun and Palazzolo compared households with similar consumption rates shopping at comparable stores — and controlling for two-ply TP — they found that the poor were less likely than wealthier households to buy bigger packages, or to time their purchases to take advantage of sales. By failing to do so, they paid about 5.9 percent more per sheet of toilet paper — a little less than what they saved by buying cheaper brands in the first place (8.8 percent).

Perhaps this sounds like a subtle discovery about minor household goods. But it supports a larger point about poverty: It's expensive to be poor. Or, to state the same from another angle: Having more money gives people the luxury of paying less for things. "___More on the subject of why it's expensive to be poor. A lot of this is exactly the sort of thing you'd expect: things are cheaper in bulk, which is great if you can afford a bulk purchase. Sales are great, if you can stock up when they happen.

Here are some interesting details on that, including studies on how big the effect really is using a commodity that people tend to use continuously and stably: toilet paper.

h/t +Kee Hinckley 

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2016-05-21 17:50:14 (27 comments; 40 reshares; 321 +1s)Open 

This is a story of humanity at its best, and at its worst: of the woman who cared for the dying when even their own families wanted nothing to do with them, even burying them with her own hands when the time came.

May we all try to live up to such an example.

“Who knew there’d come a time when people didn’t want to bury their children?” -- Ruth Cocker Burks http://www.out.com/positive-voices/2016/5/19/meet-woman-who-cared-hundreds-abandoned-gay-men-dying-aids …___This is a story of humanity at its best, and at its worst: of the woman who cared for the dying when even their own families wanted nothing to do with them, even burying them with her own hands when the time came.

May we all try to live up to such an example.

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2016-05-21 16:11:42 (52 comments; 17 reshares; 117 +1s)Open 

A question as old as the modern idea of dating is how many people you should date before seriously looking for a long-term partner. Fortunately, it turns out that there is a mathematical answer to this question – one which is actually useful. It turns out that the best strategy depends on how strongly you want to trade off between finding the absolute best match and the odds of not finding any match at all, but in all cases, the principle is the same: you should date some people at first, and then switch into a "mate-hunting" mode where you pick the first person better than anyone you've met yet. How long you should date around is a function of that good versus better tradeoff.

As far as I know, the polyamorous or serially monogamous versions of this problem (when should you start looking for another partner?) remain open questions, so there's still plenty of work to be doneby... more »

In 1960, math gave the monogamous a way to increase their odds of settling with the correct partner. The "fussy suitor problem," popularized in an issue of Scientific American that year, tackles the question: "is this person the best choice to meet all your needs?" Though the problem ignores that individuals are dynamic and needs change over time, the math is sufficiently interesting to merit taking a closer look.___A question as old as the modern idea of dating is how many people you should date before seriously looking for a long-term partner. Fortunately, it turns out that there is a mathematical answer to this question – one which is actually useful. It turns out that the best strategy depends on how strongly you want to trade off between finding the absolute best match and the odds of not finding any match at all, but in all cases, the principle is the same: you should date some people at first, and then switch into a "mate-hunting" mode where you pick the first person better than anyone you've met yet. How long you should date around is a function of that good versus better tradeoff.

As far as I know, the polyamorous or serially monogamous versions of this problem (when should you start looking for another partner?) remain open questions, so there's still plenty of work to be done by the mathematoromantic community out there.

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2016-05-21 05:16:09 (53 comments; 101 reshares; 587 +1s)Open 

Hidden Figures is a movie coming out early next year about three black women who worked on the Apollo project – an engineer, a trajectory computer, and one of the computation team leaders. This is entirely based on real people; Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, who led trajectory computations for the lunar flights, received the Medal of Freedom last year.

This is a great subject for a movie: it's a story not nearly enough people know about, about really interesting people with complex conflicts in their lives who were also working on one of the great accomplishments of the twentieth century.

So why is it that this review decided it had to start out like this:

"Taraji P. Henson hates math, and Octavia Spencer has a paralyzing fear of calculus, but that didn’t stop either actress..."

(We know math is mean and scary, especially forwome... more »

Hidden Figures is a movie coming out early next year about three black women who worked on the Apollo project – an engineer, a trajectory computer, and one of the computation team leaders. This is entirely based on real people; Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson, who led trajectory computations for the lunar flights, received the Medal of Freedom last year.

This is a great subject for a movie: it's a story not nearly enough people know about, about really interesting people with complex conflicts in their lives who were also working on one of the great accomplishments of the twentieth century.

So why is it that this review decided it had to start out like this:

"Taraji P. Henson hates math, and Octavia Spencer has a paralyzing fear of calculus, but that didn’t stop either actress..."

(We know math is mean and scary, especially for women, but they overcame their fear so that they could play in this movie!)

Or let us know that

"The role of Ms. Johnson is a meaty one, as well as a departure, for Ms. Henson, who... collected a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Cookie, the brazen, razor-tongued matriarch on Fox’s nighttime soap “Empire.”"

Glad to know that meaty roles are somehow a departure for Henson. I'm also glad to have been told that Cookie is "brazen" and "razor-tongued;" thank you for letting me know which stereotype I should be expecting. (Incidentally, I've seen Empire; Cookie is a very meaty character indeed, and for my money the most interesting and complex character in a great show.)

And of course, even though everyone involved with the film is emphasizing the broad importance of the story – the story, among other things, of the tremendous number of women who held key roles on the project – the article spends plenty of time telling us that it's a black movie, which will satisfy black audience's calls for more diversity in Hollywood.

Essentially, this review managed to speak well of a movie while simultaneously suggesting that its leads are kind of stupid, not really very experienced actors, and are there primarily for purposes of "diversity." So you, as the (presumably imagined) white reader of this, should feel proud that you know about it but not feel under any undue pressure to watch it, because it's not really for you. You see, films with black people in them are only for black audiences; films with white people in them are the ones which are for everybody, because they're more universal.

I strongly suggest that you ignore everything this asinine review says and go see the movie. First, it's an excellent story, and one that could make for great film. Second, Taraji P. Henson alone is a good reason to see a movie: if you haven't seen her act before, you should, and if you have, well, you know. And third, this is a whole part of our history – whether "us" in this case is Americans, geeks, engineers, women, black people, people who care at all about space, or any combination thereof – which is really fascinating to learn about and which you've probably never gotten to hear before.___

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2016-05-20 07:26:17 (55 comments; 49 reshares; 190 +1s)Open 

This is a short, concise, and extremely clear talk on decriminalization of sex work. It's about the different legal approaches different countries use, and why many of them are a bad idea. It's about why people want to criminalize or eliminate sex work, and what the consequences of that actually are. And ultimately, it's about the most important question in such a situation: what are the laws that the people affected actually want?

You would think this would be the question about most kinds of laws, but the laws around sex work tend to be constructed rather spectacularly without the input of any of the parties affected – with a few key counterexamples, such as New Zealand's 2003 legal reform.

I'm not normally in the habit of sharing TED talks – the tend towards the self-congratulatory and/or asinine. But this one is worth a watch or a read.

This is a short, concise, and extremely clear talk on decriminalization of sex work. It's about the different legal approaches different countries use, and why many of them are a bad idea. It's about why people want to criminalize or eliminate sex work, and what the consequences of that actually are. And ultimately, it's about the most important question in such a situation: what are the laws that the people affected actually want?

You would think this would be the question about most kinds of laws, but the laws around sex work tend to be constructed rather spectacularly without the input of any of the parties affected – with a few key counterexamples, such as New Zealand's 2003 legal reform.

I'm not normally in the habit of sharing TED talks – the tend towards the self-congratulatory and/or asinine. But this one is worth a watch or a read.___

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2016-05-20 03:07:46 (77 comments; 91 reshares; 676 +1s)Open 

Something I did not know: at the Statue of Liberty's feet are broken chains, and in the original design of the statue, she did not hold a book in her left hand, but rather the chains she had shattered.

Edouard de Laboulaye and Frédéric Batholdi, the two men behind the statue, were fervent abolitionists, and the initial impetus for the statue was the ratification of the 13th Amendment.

The final design of the statue, in which the chains are visible only from a helicopter, was the result of strong objections from the project's American backers, upon whom de Laboulaye and Batholdi were relying to fund the pedestal and the site; they wanted no mentions of slavery. In 1885-6, the United States was fully in the throes of "reconciliation," the process of the official forgetting of pre-War history, the rehabilitation of the political image of the South, and thef... more »

Something I did not know: at the Statue of Liberty's feet are broken chains, and in the original design of the statue, she did not hold a book in her left hand, but rather the chains she had shattered.

Edouard de Laboulaye and Frédéric Batholdi, the two men behind the statue, were fervent abolitionists, and the initial impetus for the statue was the ratification of the 13th Amendment.

The final design of the statue, in which the chains are visible only from a helicopter, was the result of strong objections from the project's American backers, upon whom de Laboulaye and Batholdi were relying to fund the pedestal and the site; they wanted no mentions of slavery. In 1885-6, the United States was fully in the throes of "reconciliation," the process of the official forgetting of pre-War history, the rehabilitation of the political image of the South, and the formalization of the "New Slavery" system in both North and South which was to prove so immensely profitable. Such a public decree of slavery as an evil, and the antithesis of liberty, would have been an entirely unwanted political problem to those who wanted the country to "just get over it."

The chains remained virtually unknown until recently, with even the National Park Service not mentioning their existence in its publications. Ordinary tourists never saw them; thanks to the steep angle of the plinth, they're completely invisible from the ground. It was only in 2011 that (for reasons not fully clear) this changed, and the USNPS now discusses this history at length on its site.

Via +Ralf Haring and +Peter da Silva.___

2016-05-19 02:20:53 (22 comments; 5 reshares; 80 +1s)Open 

Politics unfortunately abounds in shams that must be treated reverentially for every politician who would succeed. If you are the sort of man whose stomach revolts against treating shams reverentially, you will be well advised to stay out of politics altogether and set up as a prophet; your prophecies may perhaps sow good seed for some future harvest. But as a politician you would be impotent. For at any given time the bulk of your countrymen believe firmly and devoutly, not only in various things that are worthy of belief, but also in illusions of one kind and another; and they will never submit to have their affairs managed for them by one who appears not to share in their credulity.

--- F.S. Oliver

Politics unfortunately abounds in shams that must be treated reverentially for every politician who would succeed. If you are the sort of man whose stomach revolts against treating shams reverentially, you will be well advised to stay out of politics altogether and set up as a prophet; your prophecies may perhaps sow good seed for some future harvest. But as a politician you would be impotent. For at any given time the bulk of your countrymen believe firmly and devoutly, not only in various things that are worthy of belief, but also in illusions of one kind and another; and they will never submit to have their affairs managed for them by one who appears not to share in their credulity.

--- F.S. Oliver___

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2016-05-19 01:15:29 (33 comments; 23 reshares; 232 +1s)Open 

Another thing I've been incredibly excited about for ages: the custom silicon we built for machine learning. The impact they have on the ability to do artificial intelligence at scale is tremendous.

(I didn't work on these; I just thought they were incredibly awesome, from day one)

Tensor Processing Units (TPUs)
I'm very excited that we can finally discuss this in public. Today at Google I/O +Sundar Pichai revealed the TPU (Tensor Processing Unit), a custom ASIC that Google has designed and built specifically for machine learning applications. We've had TPUs deployed in Google datacenters for more than a year, and they are an order of magnitude faster and more power efficient per operation than other computational solutions for the kinds of models we are deploying to improve our products. This computational speed allows us to use larger, more powerful machine learned models, expressed and seemlessly deployed using TensorFlow (tensorflow.org) into our products, and to deliver the excellent results from those models in less time.

TPUs are used on every Google Search to power RankBrain (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RankBrain), they were a key secret ingredient in the recent AlphaGo match against Lee Sedol, they are used for speech and image recognition, and they are powering a growing list of other smart products and features.

+Norm Jouppi and the rest of the team that developed this ASIC did a fabulous job, and it's great to see it discussed in public!

Blog post:
https://cloudplatform.googleblog.com/2016/05/Google-supercharges-machine-learning-tasks-with-custom-chip.html

Link to the part of the keynote where Sundar discusses TPUs:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=862r3XS2YB0&feature=youtu.be&t=7300

WSJ article:
http://www.wsj.com/articles/google-isnt-playing-games-with-new-chip-1463597820

Edit: Added a link and some text.___Another thing I've been incredibly excited about for ages: the custom silicon we built for machine learning. The impact they have on the ability to do artificial intelligence at scale is tremendous.

(I didn't work on these; I just thought they were incredibly awesome, from day one)

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2016-05-18 22:04:39 (96 comments; 39 reshares; 422 +1s)Open 

Today we publicly announced the Google Assistant. This piece is a fairly thoughtful discussion of what that means, and what an "AI-driven" world, with your assistant always available to you, may mean.

For those who have been wondering what I've been working on, or what the "ambient computing" I've referred to is, this is it. I've also updated my profile since I can finally say what my real job is: head of infrastructure for the Google Assistant. I'm tremendously excited about this, and think these technologies have the power to profoundly change the world for the better. 

Today we publicly announced the Google Assistant. This piece is a fairly thoughtful discussion of what that means, and what an "AI-driven" world, with your assistant always available to you, may mean.

For those who have been wondering what I've been working on, or what the "ambient computing" I've referred to is, this is it. I've also updated my profile since I can finally say what my real job is: head of infrastructure for the Google Assistant. I'm tremendously excited about this, and think these technologies have the power to profoundly change the world for the better. ___

2016-05-18 04:57:53 (55 comments; 6 reshares; 163 +1s)Open 

Reminder for people watching the Democratic primaries with bated breath: These aren't winner-take-all votes like in the general election. They use various kinds of proportional representation, so the difference in the number of delegates you get if you win by a hair or lose by a hair is actually pretty small.

This is true even though the press keeps talking about who "won" various states. There is no overtime in the primaries; states can end in a tie. Like Kentucky just did. Honest press coverage would instead say that a particular candidate picked up so many delegates; in a two-way race, you could just report the net number one person gained. (e.g., "Clinton picked up 31 delegates in New York," or "Sanders picked up 21 delegates in Utah")

As of tonight, the score is Clinton by 279, after Sanders picked up 4 in Oregon and both tied in Kentucky. There... more »

Reminder for people watching the Democratic primaries with bated breath: These aren't winner-take-all votes like in the general election. They use various kinds of proportional representation, so the difference in the number of delegates you get if you win by a hair or lose by a hair is actually pretty small.

This is true even though the press keeps talking about who "won" various states. There is no overtime in the primaries; states can end in a tie. Like Kentucky just did. Honest press coverage would instead say that a particular candidate picked up so many delegates; in a two-way race, you could just report the net number one person gained. (e.g., "Clinton picked up 31 delegates in New York," or "Sanders picked up 21 delegates in Utah")

As of tonight, the score is Clinton by 279, after Sanders picked up 4 in Oregon and both tied in Kentucky. There are 781 ordinary delegates still in play, of which 601 are in two states. (California and New Jersey) Superdelegates are technically not locked until the convention, so aren't counted above, but all signs indicate Clinton up 484 in those, with 148 more still undeclared. You can see the full scoreboard at http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2016/president/democratic_delegate_count.html .

Of all the things to be annoyed about in this Presidential race, I realize this is a minor one, but seriously, if you're going to cheer from the sidelines, at least learn the basic rules of the game.___

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2016-05-17 06:26:00 (114 comments; 62 reshares; 396 +1s)Open 

There are a lot of things you don't realize are unusual until you step outside of them for a while.

The article below is by +Brad Templeton, and his experience of being questioned by the FBI for taking a photo of the Sun. (His camera was apparently pointed in a direction which could have also caught a Federal building, although the building wasn't marked as such) If you live in the US, you're probably nodding your head and thinking that "yes, that's about what you should expect" – whether your second thought is "and that's horrifying" or "the government has to protect its buildings."

A few years ago, I was in Tel Aviv, and was carrying my camera, having spent some time photographing the city. My cousin (a professor of political science) and I were talking as we went to a meeting she had with some government official she wasin... more »

There are a lot of things you don't realize are unusual until you step outside of them for a while.

The article below is by +Brad Templeton, and his experience of being questioned by the FBI for taking a photo of the Sun. (His camera was apparently pointed in a direction which could have also caught a Federal building, although the building wasn't marked as such) If you live in the US, you're probably nodding your head and thinking that "yes, that's about what you should expect" – whether your second thought is "and that's horrifying" or "the government has to protect its buildings."

A few years ago, I was in Tel Aviv, and was carrying my camera, having spent some time photographing the city. My cousin (a professor of political science) and I were talking as we went to a meeting she had with some government official she was interviewing at a Ministry of Defense building. When I realized that we were right next to the building, I said "Oh, shit!" and hurriedly put my camera away. She was completely confused; why was I doing this?

It was only when she didn't understand at all that I realized how the behavior that I'm completely used to – that having a camera out in the vicinity of a government building (a military one, at that!) would be taken as such an open provocation that I would be almost certainly detained and the camera seized, if I was lucky – is neither historically normal in the US, nor is it common in the rest of the world. Even in Israel, a country that has good reason to have an extremely alert security posture, it had never occurred to anyone that possession of a camera in the vicinity of a government building should draw an immediate armed response.

The rest of that trip was a similar exercise in noticing small differences. Re-entering the United States was another one; surrounded by signs warning you not to attempt to use a phone or photograph anything, you are moved through passport control, screens playing videos about the various crimes you are warned not to commit. At the end you show papers, and are fingerprinted, photographed, and interrogated. (This is what they did for citizens; I can't imagine what the non-citizens line was like) All the officials present, from the people inspecting papers to the people moving people about through the line, were overtly hostile; after the INS/DHS merger, USCIS clearly viewed its primary mission as preventing people from entering the country.

Not all of it has to do with "national security;" consider how children are allowed to play. In the US, they need to be monitored 24/7; playing in the front yard, much less going to the park on their own, is a sign of possibly criminal neglect. As a child in the US, I would go all over the neighborhood when playing; in Israel, my friends and I would roam over a good mile's radius, and my mother would routinely send seven-year-old me to the grocery store to pick things up.

When in the US for any length of time, this entire situation seems perfectly normal, and people wonder what I'm complaining about. And that's the thing: it had been feeling perfectly normal to me as well, until being out of the country for a few weeks reminded me that not only do other places not do this, but until recently, the US didn't, either.

Brad Templeton now has a police record, and any future investigations that touch on him will turn up that he was questioned for suspicious photography (and maybe more) of a government building. The fact that he has only this, and wasn't arrested or imprisoned, is largely because he looks like a respectable, white, professor.

I would ask when we started considering this "normal," but we all know the answer to that: after 9/11, when "security" became the watchword which would trump any question of legality or constitutionality. What worries me is that, fifteen years later, we are entering a world where there are adults with no memory of any other world. How do you move a world towards freedoms that nobody remembers, or argue against safety measures that "everybody knows" are required, since they've always been there?___

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2016-05-17 03:00:52 (47 comments; 66 reshares; 409 +1s)Open 

In the category of "holy crap:" What do you get when you combine a T-34 tank, the engines from two MiG-21 fighters, and a very large source of water? A fire truck, of course. A really big fire truck that can blow out an oil well.

Part of me suspects that a very excited six-year-old was involved in designing this. If one wasn't, one should have been.

Via +Alex Scrivener​ 

The Russians mounted MiG jet engines on top of a T-34 tank. When water is injected into the turbines, it creates enough of a hurricane to blow out oil well fires.___In the category of "holy crap:" What do you get when you combine a T-34 tank, the engines from two MiG-21 fighters, and a very large source of water? A fire truck, of course. A really big fire truck that can blow out an oil well.

Part of me suspects that a very excited six-year-old was involved in designing this. If one wasn't, one should have been.

Via +Alex Scrivener​ 

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2016-05-15 19:28:43 (74 comments; 51 reshares; 251 +1s)Open 

The United States has been at war continuously since 2001, and by most metrics, this is the longest war in our history – with no signs of ending anytime soon. But it's a profoundly different kind of war experience for several reasons, and this article (almost accidentally) gives an interesting perspective on that.

"The president has tried to reconcile these truths by approaching his wars in narrow terms, as a chronic but manageable security challenge rather than as an all-consuming national campaign."

This, I think, is a key insight: we are experiencing war now as a chronic, rather than acute, phenomenon. Several things have enabled this. First is the fact that the wars we have been fighting in the past decades (with the exception of some idiotic bungling in Iraq in 2003) have not been wars against specific foes with concrete objectives; rather, they have beenlo... more »

The United States has been at war continuously since 2001, and by most metrics, this is the longest war in our history – with no signs of ending anytime soon. But it's a profoundly different kind of war experience for several reasons, and this article (almost accidentally) gives an interesting perspective on that.

"The president has tried to reconcile these truths by approaching his wars in narrow terms, as a chronic but manageable security challenge rather than as an all-consuming national campaign."

This, I think, is a key insight: we are experiencing war now as a chronic, rather than acute, phenomenon. Several things have enabled this. First is the fact that the wars we have been fighting in the past decades (with the exception of some idiotic bungling in Iraq in 2003) have not been wars against specific foes with concrete objectives; rather, they have been long-term holding actions against whoever happens to be fighting our troops, be it al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, arbitrary sides of a chaotic civil war in Iraq, or ISIS in the wreckage of Iraq and Syria. The very name "War on Terror" indicates its infinite duration; having no particular enemies, it can have no clear goals.

Second is a combination of changes which mean that wars can be operated without requiring the full commitment of US resources – most importantly, that perpetually scarce resource of political attention. The most important change was probably the elimination of the draft; in an all-volunteer force, membership in the military is highly socially separated, so that you either know a lot of people in the military or you know none. As military families tend to come from political "outsider" classes, this makes it very easy to go on sending troops and never having this be front and center in the press. (And it also makes it very easy to ignore the costs of war on these families, or to not talk about what properly funding the VA would look like)

Another such technology has been the increasing rise in asymmetric warfare on our part, especially the use of armed drones in areas like Yemen. Bombing raids against semi-military targets (typically individuals who mission planners have concluded are military targets, but who are living and targeted within a civilian environment) are routine, but highly classified and so never discussed. Even without classification, the press has generally shied away from any mention of it; so when American weapons were used by Saudi proxies to kill nearly 100 people at a market in Yemen in March, nearly the entire European-language press, from Fox News to the BBC, said nothing.*

This creates a deadly form of blindness: the Arabic and Farsi-language press most certainly did cover this, just as they cover all such stories. You can imagine how our outcry would be if a foreign country bombed a shopping mall and our government were powerless to react; outcry over there was no smaller, and for the same reason. But because the press never discusses these matters, we find ourselves shocked and surprised when we are attacked.

"Why do they hate us?," one facile article after another writes; if it's from a left-wing newspaper, it's because of our cultural imperialism, and if it's from a right-wing newspaper, it's because of our freedom, and both smack of pompous self-justification: "it's because we're so damned powerful and great." The suggestion that, just maybe, people in these countries aren't particularly different from us, and the things that upset them are things which are actually pretty upsetting, almost never gets aired.


You may think that this is an anti-war article. Actually, it's not.

The fact is that chronic warfare is the rule in human history, not the exception. Giant set-piece wars like those of the 19th and 20th centuries are (thankfully) the anomalies. The wars we are seeing now are the chronic consequence of the ultimate limitation of resources. There is good reason to believe that some of them, at least, are reasonable choices: for example, ISIS is determined to be a bloodthirsty, expansionist force, and any solution to the longer-term problems of the region almost certainly will need to begin with their military defeat.

What this article is against is blindness. We cannot fight chronic wars for the rest of American history without being aware of what we are fighting, how we are fighting, and why we are fighting it. Our tactical decisions today in Yemen – to contain a politically unstable area in which groups like al-Qaeda may form a powerful foothold with a combination of continuous (highly classified) drone strikes from bases in Africa and the funding, quasi-managing, and arming of Saudi proxy forces, as a way to avoid the costs of a direct on-the-ground military intervention there – are not obvious and will have serious long-term consequences for the future. The children growing up in Yemen today will not see Americans as heroes; they will see them as monsters, an unknowable enemy which blows people up out of a clear blue sky for reasons nobody understands. Is this the right choice of costs and benefits? Are there other ways we could approach this problem which would be wiser?

Or take our military deployments. While we're no longer in quite as much chaos as in the mid-2000's, where stop-loss orders and blue-green rotations were feeding every available service member into the Middle East for years on end, the way we're fighting these chronic wars has led to a profound change in the nature of military life, and especially of family life for soldiers. What support systems do we need to be offering? Does it make sense to turn soldiering into a specialized field, the province of just a subset of the population, or does the nature of war (and of the political decisions that come with it) require that we share this across all of society to avoid either going to war foolishly or having a military elite take over?

I think that this article's appraisal of warfare as a chronic condition is a very astute one, and it's one worth considering seriously. Chronic and acute conditions are managed very differently. With medical conditions, the objective is no longer to end the condition (which is not generally possible), but to live as healthy and meaningful a life as possible in its presence. With political conditions, the options are no different – and a decision to "manage" the condition by a process of willful ignorance is a profoundly terrible one. We cannot allow the ordinariness and continuity of war to make it invisible to us, any more than one could manage diabetes by deciding not to think about it.

* You can see one of the few English-language coverages of this at The Intercept, which ran an excellent and well-researched story: https://theintercept.com/2016/04/07/u-s-bombs-were-used-in-saudi-led-attack-on-market-in-yemen-rights-group-finds/___

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2016-05-15 18:28:19 (16 comments; 14 reshares; 156 +1s)Open 

A simple but interesting thing: thermal imaging of New York City from orbit.

Via +Dave Pentecost.

Earth from Space: New York City Thermal Infrared Overlay

In this composite image you can see parts of New York City and New Jersey, imaged by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) with a thermal infrared overlay taken by the Thermal InfraRed Sensor (TIRS) aboard Landsat 8. The images were taken July 25th, 2015 at 3:39pm GMT.

When I processed this image I was surprised about the distribution of hot spots. I expected Central Park to be as cool as it is because dense vegetation prevents urban heat islands (https://goo.gl/X14sgO). But although the rest of Manhattan has a somewhat sparse vegetation the surface temperatures are cool in comparison to other areas. At first I thought I made a mistake yet when comparing this image to the infrared image in the article linked below they show a similar distribution of hot spots. Take a look here and read more about urban heat islands:
http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=6800
http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/GreenRoof/

The area on Google Maps:
https://goo.gl/NlTcKP

More on the features in the image:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manhattan
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_City

Technical Data

For those interested, here the technical data for this image. The underlying image is a panchromatic OLI Band 8 image, the overlay is a combination of Thermal InfraRed Sensor (TIRS, https://goo.gl/bAzPDO) Bands 10 and 11 images. The resulting colors represent the surface temperature from purple-blue (cool) to yellow-red (warm). Image scale is 15 meters/pixel. Image resolution for the underlying image is 15 meters, the thermal infrared data has a resolution of 100 meters.

More images of Earth from Space:
https://plus.google.com/+PierreMarkuse/posts/5JKHy5s29eB
https://plus.google.com/+PierreMarkuse/posts/ZTBuGxcdG8y

More on Landsat 8:
http://landsat.gsfc.nasa.gov/?page_id=407
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Landsat_8

Image credit: Landsat 8 data courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey / Processed by +Pierre Markuse 

My Space/Space Technology collection recently surpassed 145,000 followers. I would have never expected that much interest, thanks to all of you! If you haven't already, maybe also try my Astronomy/Astrophysics collection here https://goo.gl/x0zPAJ , or circle me +Pierre Markuse to get all of my posts which usually are science-related.

#science #newyork #newyorkcity #manhattan #ny #nyc #landsat #landsat8 #earth #space #satelliteimages #infrared   #thermalinfrared   #urbanheatislands  ___A simple but interesting thing: thermal imaging of New York City from orbit.

Via +Dave Pentecost.

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2016-05-15 05:28:47 (61 comments; 49 reshares; 671 +1s)Open 

Many people were upset by the reclassification of Pluto as a "dwarf planet." But there was good reason for it: it turns out that there are a bunch of things in our Solar System about the size of Pluto, and Pluto isn't even the largest; Eris takes that crown, about 27% heavier than Pluto. (Although Pluto is slightly larger across)

So today, we list the members of our Solar System as being one star (the Sun), four gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune), four rocky planets (Earth, Venus, Mars, and Mercury), five dwarf planets (Eris, Pluto, Haumea, Makemake, and Ceres), and about 200 known potential dwarves. (There are also 182 known moons of these various planets, of which 19 are large enough that they would count as dwarf planets if they were in orbit around the Sun. Our own is the fifth-largest)

And in fact, it looks like a new dwarf planet may have been... more »

Many people were upset by the reclassification of Pluto as a "dwarf planet." But there was good reason for it: it turns out that there are a bunch of things in our Solar System about the size of Pluto, and Pluto isn't even the largest; Eris takes that crown, about 27% heavier than Pluto. (Although Pluto is slightly larger across)

So today, we list the members of our Solar System as being one star (the Sun), four gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune), four rocky planets (Earth, Venus, Mars, and Mercury), five dwarf planets (Eris, Pluto, Haumea, Makemake, and Ceres), and about 200 known potential dwarves. (There are also 182 known moons of these various planets, of which 19 are large enough that they would count as dwarf planets if they were in orbit around the Sun. Our own is the fifth-largest)

And in fact, it looks like a new dwarf planet may have been confirmed! New measurements of one of these candidates, (225088) 2007-OR₁₀ (known as "2007OR₁₀" for short), reveal that it's actually far bigger than was previously believed, but is simply dark enough that it was previously hard to see. In fact, it's actually the third-largest of the dwarves, covered (we suspect) in a steadily-changing surface of methane ice, and 1,535km across – a surface the size of Africa.

As its rather cryptic name suggests, 2007OR₁₀ was discovered in 2007, but hasn't even been studied enough to get a formal name yet. It's likely to get one soon; by the rules of the International Astronomical Union, as a trans-Neptunian planet it should be named for a god related to creation. (See https://www.iau.org/public/themes/naming/#dwarfplanets if you're curious about the detailed rules)

What's fascinating about this is that it highlights just how hard it is to see objects in our Solar System. Planets are only visible by the light they reflect from the Sun, or by their gravitational pull on other objects. If they aren't very reflective (like Eris, whose smooth, icy surface makes it the second-shiniest object in the Solar System; only Saturn's moon Enceladus is more reflective), or massive enough to see their gravitational pull felt across the immense distances of the outer Solar System (as only the gas giants are), then they are virtually invisible. We don't actually know how many dwarf planets we have, or how large the biggest of them are, especially once you get to the far outer reaches of the system where you would only spot an item by sheer chance.

Our discovery of planets is just beginning. Even as we are finally becoming able to see things smaller than the largest gas giants in other star systems – our catalogue of known exoplanets has 3,406 entries as of today – we can't even claim a decent catalogue of the smaller planets of our own system, because they hide in its vast deeps just like unknown species hide in the depths of our oceans.

You can see some useful lists of Solar System objects at the pages below, although note that they haven't yet been updated to include the larger size of 2007OR₁₀!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Solar_System_objects_by_size
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_natural_satellites
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dwarf_planet___

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2016-05-13 19:45:48 (41 comments; 48 reshares; 370 +1s)Open 

Warning: Nerd Sniping Ahead

This is an absurdly interesting Wikipedia article: a timeline of various events in geology, biology, physics, and culture which we can expect at various points from ten thousand years in the future on forward. Almost each line of this table has a giant story behind it which could be the seed for an hour of discussion or more.

I blame +Craig Sosin for this, and for the fact that I will have to consciously avoid reading this if I want to get work done today.

Warning: Nerd Sniping Ahead

This is an absurdly interesting Wikipedia article: a timeline of various events in geology, biology, physics, and culture which we can expect at various points from ten thousand years in the future on forward. Almost each line of this table has a giant story behind it which could be the seed for an hour of discussion or more.

I blame +Craig Sosin for this, and for the fact that I will have to consciously avoid reading this if I want to get work done today.___

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2016-05-13 07:26:58 (112 comments; 21 reshares; 310 +1s)Open 

You have probably never thought of the ways you could use a black hole to generate nearly unlimited amounts of clean energy. That's probably because you've either never looked at the plasma jets black holes in space create, or because you have and you realized that trying to put one of those in your back yard would probably be a spectacularly bad idea.

But the laws of physics are surprisingly versatile, and so I would like to present to you Yonatan's No-Fail Clean Energy Plan. (Our motto: "What could go wrong?") From myths and misconceptions about black holes to the ways you could turn the top 80 meters of Texas soil into the world's ultimate power source, here is everything you never wanted to know about general relativity. (And so never thought to ask)

You have probably never thought of the ways you could use a black hole to generate nearly unlimited amounts of clean energy. That's probably because you've either never looked at the plasma jets black holes in space create, or because you have and you realized that trying to put one of those in your back yard would probably be a spectacularly bad idea.

But the laws of physics are surprisingly versatile, and so I would like to present to you Yonatan's No-Fail Clean Energy Plan. (Our motto: "What could go wrong?") From myths and misconceptions about black holes to the ways you could turn the top 80 meters of Texas soil into the world's ultimate power source, here is everything you never wanted to know about general relativity. (And so never thought to ask)___

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2016-05-12 20:40:40 (129 comments; 85 reshares; 369 +1s)Open 

Natural language understanding (NLU) is one of the hardest problems for computers to solve -- but one we've made tremendous advances in in the past few years. Today, Google open-sourced SyntaxNet, one of the latest such systems that uses deep neural nets to parse sentences into trees -- the first step in understanding what a sentence means. (It also released a prebuilt SyntaxNet model for parsing English, named Parsey McParseface)

There are a lot of reasons why language processing is hard. The ambiguity of the meaning of words (bank as in river, or bank as in finance?) is pretty easy to deal with, but often the entire structure of the sentence is ambiguous, and you need not only grammar but world knowledge to parse it. To take an example from this article, in the sentence "Alice drove down the street in her car," does it mean (Alice drove down the street) (in her car), or (Alice... more »

Natural language understanding (NLU) is one of the hardest problems for computers to solve -- but one we've made tremendous advances in in the past few years. Today, Google open-sourced SyntaxNet, one of the latest such systems that uses deep neural nets to parse sentences into trees -- the first step in understanding what a sentence means. (It also released a prebuilt SyntaxNet model for parsing English, named Parsey McParseface)

There are a lot of reasons why language processing is hard. The ambiguity of the meaning of words (bank as in river, or bank as in finance?) is pretty easy to deal with, but often the entire structure of the sentence is ambiguous, and you need not only grammar but world knowledge to parse it. To take an example from this article, in the sentence "Alice drove down the street in her car," does it mean (Alice drove down the street) (in her car), or (Alice drove down) (the street in her car)? You need to know something about how streets and cars work to realize that the first is a lot more sensible than the second.

In fact, language understanding is what we refer to as "AI-complete:" to solve the problem requires solving the entire problem of human-level intelligence. (Fortunately, we can still solve the large majority of language understanding -- enough to be practically very useful -- without doing that.)

You can think of language understanding as happening in several steps, with a lot of ambiguity which is only gradually resolved. (I'm going to skip speech understanding, which has even more ambiguities in it as we try to resolve sounds into words) First, you might break the sentence into a tree, showing that this is a verb and it affects these nouns and so on. As in the Alice driving case, you may end up with a few possibilities. Then, you have to understand what each item in the sentence means; for example, resolving pronouns so that you know who "you" is in this sentence. Then a lot of world-knowledge comes in, because many sentences only make sense if you use that information. And if you're lucky, at this point you have a clear and unique interpretation left.

Except, you're rarely that lucky. Here are some fun examples:

I poured water into a glass.
I poured Harry into a glass.
*I poured water after a glass.

The third of these sentences seems grammatically fine at first -- we just switched one preposition for another -- but it makes no sense to pour anything "after" anything else, and that's a property of the idea of pouring. The second sentence is grammatically sensible, but it's a pretty surprising use of the word "pour;" it suggests that Harry was some kind of fluid. The meaning of a surprising sentence is generally the thing that wasn't obvious about it.

You can also look at how sentences relate. Consider:

I poured water into the glass. I poured the glass into the sink.

After the first sentence, you could say "the glass is full of water" -- but saying that requires you to understand that a glass is a container, and that pouring fills its target. In the second sentence, you first resolve the determinant "the," so you know that we're talking about the same glass as before; and that the object of pouring is either the fluid being poured, or the container being poured out of, and in the latter case, it implies that the container is now emptied. So the second sentence means that you poured water into the sink from the glass.

But this isn't all! You could also interpret "the glass" in the second sentence as the fluid, and these sentences make perfect sense if we're talking about a pile of molten glass. (In which case your sink has probably had it) You need world knowledge to differentiate the two.

For an example of how even resolving pronouns can be AI-complete, here's a classic example:

WOMAN: I'm leaving you.
MAN: .... Who is he?

To understand who "he" is referring to in the second sentence, you need to understand a huge number of things. The first sentence implies that the woman and the man had a romantic relationship, because to leave a person implies termination of such a relationship, which means one existed beforehand. Now the man is inferring from the woman's statement that she's leaving him for another man, and is really asking who that man is, which requires a fairly complex understanding of the way romantic relationships work in certain societies. And for us to understand his sentence requires us to understand what the man thinks that the woman is thinking, which means that we need to understand how people understand other people just to resolve the pronoun "he!"

Fortunately, most natural language problems aren't this complicated. That's useful, because people increasingly want to interface with computers using natural language (people don't say noun phrases as much into speech interfaces the way they do into search engines), people want computers to handle natural language jobs (remember how bad voice mail trees used to be? Not that they're fantastic now), and computers need to understand language in a whole range of contexts, from captioning videos to understanding documents.

The past few years have brought around tremendous shifts in this field, just as they have in the related fields of speech recognition and synthesis and language translation. Things which used to be nearly impossible (even part-of-speech tagging was considered extremely hard just ten years ago!) are now routine -- and I expect that in the next few decades, we'll continue to see tremendous shifts in computers' ability to understand us and speak with us naturally.___

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2016-05-12 07:14:00 (27 comments; 33 reshares; 330 +1s)Open 

Handmade globes have always been a rarity, because they are difficult to make well, but they are also beautiful and useful. This is a short essay and collection of photos about Bellerby &co., a London firm which is one of the few which does it – after having started almost accidentally, when its founder wanted to make an 80th birthday present for his father.

Handmade globes have always been a rarity, because they are difficult to make well, but they are also beautiful and useful. This is a short essay and collection of photos about Bellerby &co., a London firm which is one of the few which does it – after having started almost accidentally, when its founder wanted to make an 80th birthday present for his father.___

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2016-05-12 06:52:51 (30 comments; 24 reshares; 243 +1s)Open 

Some updates I'm happy to see: Google Translate now works in offline mode (no network needed) on both iOS and Android; its Word Lens feature (take a picture and translate whatever you see) now works in both Simplified and Traditional Chinese (as well as the 27 other languages it already supported); and for Android users only, we have "Tap to Translate," where you can now translate text in any app, without having to copy and paste into Translate. (Very useful for chats, social media, news, and the like)

Details beyond the ones in the article at the Google Blog: https://googleblog.blogspot.com/2016/05/translate-where-you-need-it-in-any-app.html

Some updates I'm happy to see: Google Translate now works in offline mode (no network needed) on both iOS and Android; its Word Lens feature (take a picture and translate whatever you see) now works in both Simplified and Traditional Chinese (as well as the 27 other languages it already supported); and for Android users only, we have "Tap to Translate," where you can now translate text in any app, without having to copy and paste into Translate. (Very useful for chats, social media, news, and the like)

Details beyond the ones in the article at the Google Blog: https://googleblog.blogspot.com/2016/05/translate-where-you-need-it-in-any-app.html___

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2016-05-11 06:57:07 (35 comments; 15 reshares; 132 +1s)Open 

This case is exactly why the decision in Elonis v. US is such a problem. For context, Elonis was criminally charged with and convicted of making felonious threats, after he posted online fairly detailed death threats against several people, including his ex-wife and the FBI agent who was investigating him. His defense was that they were "only rap lyrics," part of his aspiring musical career; the jury didn't buy it. (Having seen the case record, let's say that his defense was really stretching it)

The appeal, which ultimately won at the Supreme Court, was about a more technical issue: did the prosecutor have to prove that Elonis intentionally threatened these people, or that he merely did so negligently?

Under the law, there are several levels of "guilty mind:" intent, in which you do something with the purpose of achieving a goal; knowledge, in which you do... more »

This case is exactly why the decision in Elonis v. US is such a problem. For context, Elonis was criminally charged with and convicted of making felonious threats, after he posted online fairly detailed death threats against several people, including his ex-wife and the FBI agent who was investigating him. His defense was that they were "only rap lyrics," part of his aspiring musical career; the jury didn't buy it. (Having seen the case record, let's say that his defense was really stretching it)

The appeal, which ultimately won at the Supreme Court, was about a more technical issue: did the prosecutor have to prove that Elonis intentionally threatened these people, or that he merely did so negligently?

Under the law, there are several levels of "guilty mind:" intent, in which you do something with the purpose of achieving a goal; knowledge, in which you do something knowing that an outcome is almost certain, although it may not have been your primary intent; recklessness, in which you do something not caring that an outcome is substantially likely; or negligence, in which you failed to act on a duty not to do something. If the thing you did is kill someone, then those levels of guilty mind correspond to the crimes of murder, manslaughter, and negligent homicide, respectively. (And without any guilty mind, it's simply accidental death, and not a crime)

The question asked in Elonis was that, if it was already proven that the threat made would have caused a reasonable person to fear for their life (a requirement of the law), if the law also required that they prove intent to cause that fear. If not, then this would have been a negligence standard: that is, you have a duty not to make people fear for their life, and to fail to do so is a crime.

The Supreme Court ruled (fairly reasonably) that a negligence standard for making threats isn't consistent with what the law says, and is probably a terrible idea anyway. (Essentially, it's too easy to do that by accident, even if you're paying attention, to make this an actual federal felony) They also ruled that proof of knowingly making a threat is sufficient. And (for reasons that were somewhat unclear, including to some of the Justices) they decided not to say anything about whether recklessness is enough under the law.

As a result we get this case, in which Angel Dillard, an associate of convicted terrorist and killer Scott Roeder, wrote a letter to a doctor who was training to offer abortion care saying that, should she continue her studies, she would have to be checking under her car every day for bombs, and that "thousands of people" associated with Dillard would be studying her background and daily habits.

This case was prosecuted under a slightly different law – the FACE Act, one specific to attempts to deny access to clinics, as opposed to the general federal threats law – but here the jury instructions took the "safe" path suggested by the Court in Elonis, requiring that they ask if Dillard intended to cause fear.

And the same thing happened: the jury ruled that while any reasonable person would, indeed, fear for their life if they received this letter, but that Dillard did not "intentionally [seek] to intimidate Means," and so doing this was legally A-OK.

The problem with intent standards for threats is that they're nearly impossible to prove. The simple act of sending someone a letter explaining how they will be targeted by a car bomb isn't proof of intent; in fact, it's somewhat unclear what would constitute proof of intent, short of the defendant just yelling "Yes! I intended to do it!" in court. It makes the law on threats essentially empty.

A recklessness standard would be a far more reasonable one; it would mean, in practice, a "reasonable person" standard; that is, that prosecutors would have to show that, given all the circumstances of the case, a reasonable person would have considered it a threat. The sender, being considered a reasonable person by default (unless they are mentally incompetent to stand trial), would then be presumed to have understood this as well, and to have done it anyway; that is, been reckless as to the effect of their action.


The reason we have a law against threats in the first place – and the reason why this is one of the few standard categories of speech which is not Constitutionally protected – is that credible threats cause real harm. To individuals, they can entirely disrupt a person's life, forcing them into hiding, preventing them from working at their job, interrupting their relationships. To a society, they can shut down speech by making the cost of speech too much to bear: anyone who doesn't have the resources to continue to function under continuous death threats wouldn't be able to speak out against anyone who wanted to make them. That sort of thing amplifies asymmetries in power, and can corrode the basic mechanisms of democracy.

In the past decades, we've seen threats used for a range of political purposes – from the Iranian threats which sent author Salman Rushdie into hiding for over a decade, to the threats which forced game developers like Brianna Wu into hiding just a few years ago. With the rise of political movements even more willing to use threats for political purposes – such as the fairly overt death threats made against delegates to the upcoming Republican Convention in case any of them were to switch votes on later ballots away from Trump –the overtness of the threats to the basic mechanisms of democracy become even more overt.

Loopholes like this in the law are wide-open gates for the most malicious actors in our society. When behavior that meets all the natural criteria for a crime is made legal through simple Congressional negligence, crime will prosper. The solution is simple: amend the federal laws on threats to explicitly require a recklessness standard.

(Of course, had the Court simply done what Justice Kagan suggested and decided if recklessness was the appropriate standard, which it almost certainly would have been, we wouldn't be in this mess... Sheesh.) ___

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2016-05-11 02:31:05 (58 comments; 14 reshares; 192 +1s)Open 

An update that several people have been asking for. +Amber Yust and the team are working on a host of ways to improve your ability to see and control what's going on with your account.

We just recently rolled out a new section of My Account - a list of the accounts you've blocked.

No more jumping through hoops to find someone if you need to unblock them, or to check if you already have someone blocked. Just visit https://myaccount.google.com and click on "Your personal info" -> "Blocked users" to open the list.

Want to unblock someone? Find them in the list and click the 'X' next to their name.

Note that you can't create blocks from My Account. New blocks are created in the products where you interact with people. This helps avoid blocking the wrong account: as it turns out there are a lot of people with similar names out there. We put the 'create block' option in places like G+ post menus or Hangouts conversation options so you know exactly who you'll be blocking.___An update that several people have been asking for. +Amber Yust and the team are working on a host of ways to improve your ability to see and control what's going on with your account.

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2016-05-10 19:26:17 (24 comments; 7 reshares; 98 +1s)Open 

Some very nice words from +John Scalzi on the process of growing up. I have to say that my own experience has felt much the same.

It's my birthday today, and on my site I have some thoughts about turning (gasp!) 47.

http://whatever.scalzi.com/2016/05/10/47/___Some very nice words from +John Scalzi on the process of growing up. I have to say that my own experience has felt much the same.

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2016-05-10 06:19:44 (41 comments; 22 reshares; 430 +1s)Open 

As of today, the North American Bison is the official mammal of the US. It's appropriate, as they are perhaps the continent's most distinctive large creature: descendants of Asian woolly cattle from the Pliocene, their population exploded when over 90% of their major predators (humans) were wiped out in the Great Plagues that followed European contact. This created the great buffalo herds which defined Plains culture for centuries to come, until they were almost entirely wiped out in the 19th century, largely as part of a strategy to collapse the food supply of those Plains tribes. Their fate then turned around again when they became one of the early targets of the conservation movement, with Teddy Roosevelt co-founding the American Bison Society to encourage their protection.

For those who have never encountered them, they are basically large, woolly, and ornery cattle, capable of... more »

As of today, the North American Bison is the official mammal of the US. It's appropriate, as they are perhaps the continent's most distinctive large creature: descendants of Asian woolly cattle from the Pliocene, their population exploded when over 90% of their major predators (humans) were wiped out in the Great Plagues that followed European contact. This created the great buffalo herds which defined Plains culture for centuries to come, until they were almost entirely wiped out in the 19th century, largely as part of a strategy to collapse the food supply of those Plains tribes. Their fate then turned around again when they became one of the early targets of the conservation movement, with Teddy Roosevelt co-founding the American Bison Society to encourage their protection.

For those who have never encountered them, they are basically large, woolly, and ornery cattle, capable of running with surprising speed whenever they find themselves annoyed. They are also quite tasty.___

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2016-05-10 05:38:26 (35 comments; 20 reshares; 166 +1s)Open 

The concept of this article is simple: despite years of people saying that "normal America" is small-town and rural, this hasn't been the experience of the average American for quite some time. We should ask what kinds of places really do represent "normal" today, and how this is changing.

Unfortunately, the article's approach to it doesn't seem very satisfying. They looked at metropolitan areas, and compared on the basis of which places are closest to average demographics by age, education, race, and ethnicity, finding that New Haven, Connecticut, is actually the most typical place. Leaving aside the obvious fact that looking at metropolitan areas would ignore rural areas by definition, there are two more subtle problems: first, that "these two places have similar age/race/etc distributions" doesn't really imply "these two places have similar... more »

The concept of this article is simple: despite years of people saying that "normal America" is small-town and rural, this hasn't been the experience of the average American for quite some time. We should ask what kinds of places really do represent "normal" today, and how this is changing.

Unfortunately, the article's approach to it doesn't seem very satisfying. They looked at metropolitan areas, and compared on the basis of which places are closest to average demographics by age, education, race, and ethnicity, finding that New Haven, Connecticut, is actually the most typical place. Leaving aside the obvious fact that looking at metropolitan areas would ignore rural areas by definition, there are two more subtle problems: first, that "these two places have similar age/race/etc distributions" doesn't really imply "these two places have similar experiences of daily life," and second, that a mean is only a useful way of comparing two things when the statistical distribution is a bell curve.

But despite the fact that the measurement was done dubiously, the question they ask is a good one. If I had the time to do some data analysis right now (and if I were more familiar with how to access US Census data), I might try to characterize the things that indicate people's lived experience with other variables:

- What is the population of the inhabited area where they live? (Defining the boundaries of "inhabited areas" would be a fun challenge; I would do it by starting from a map of census block groups, and joining adjacent groups looking for areas where there's a sudden drop in population.) This would capture the difference between living in a large city, a small town, or the countryside.

- What is the zoning of the block group where they live? Is it purely residential (as in suburbs), mixed-use (as in city centers), agricultural, other?

- What is the racial (and ethnic) breakdown of the block group where they live, compared to that of the overall inhabited area? Is their block group racially uniform or densely mixed? Is the larger inhabited area uniform, densely mixed, or separated into quasi-uniform neighborhoods? If they live in a uniform area, are they part of that uniformity, or are they different? This captures racial demographics, I think, more usefully than simple distributions: a city where two groups live side-by-side is very different from one where there are two sides of the tracks. Most importantly, people living in these kinds of places will have very different experiences of race.

- Same question as above, but for socioeconomic status. This one is trickier, because net household income isn't a good proxy for that. The numbers I would really want are "average money available to deal with a sudden emergency without having to take out a loan" to represent financial stability, and some combination of net worth and education to represent long-term wealth. Those could be divided by monthly living expenses to give a sort of normalized sense of how large a short- and long-term shock a person could withstand, which is one of the more meaningful things one can measure. (Access to opportunity is the other big thing, but I don't know how to quantify that) Treat these as two "class" variables, perhaps, and do the same kind of geographic analysis as we did for race and ethnicity. This captures people's financial security.

If we had some way to measure the strength of people's social safety nets, I would add that in to the metric above, and instead of thinking of it as socioeconomic status I would just start calling this a "stability / security" metric. I think this captures the realities of people's lived experience much better than raw numbers like income or employment.

I would want to take those variables, and make a big table of them. Describe people's experiences by these things – population, zoning, race, stability – and look at how they vary across the country.

And what I would expect is that these would not form bell curves. Instead, we would see clusterings that would tell us something interesting.

The size of inhabited areas would almost certainly follow a power-law curve; a lot of tiny areas, a few big ones, but the average population that people experience is probably pretty big, in the high hundreds of thousands. Zoning would probably skew fairly heavily towards pure-residential areas, as suburbanization has spread pretty far. Experiences of race and financial stability will vary the most interestingly, I suspect, and we'll see clusters in that distribution – lots of people seeing one thing, lots of people seeing another, few in between.

With some variables (like population) having smooth distributions and others (like experience of race) having clusters, it would make sense to divide up the population along those clusters, each of them representing a different experience of America. Within each cluster, you could meaningfully talk about an average experience.

What I suspect would happen, if you did this, is that an awful lot of people would look at that experience and find it really foreign. That's not a flaw in the math: it's simply the fact that whichever experience of life you have, it's very likely that most of the people you know have a pretty similar experience. Your entire social network will see one thing, and it will look entirely normal, while other networks will see other things. That's exactly this phenomenon of clustering.

But the process would be highly instructive. Trying to understand the variables which describe when people's daily lives differ is important; so is trying to understand whether these variables cluster or spread out, because that tells us how well we really are understanding one another.

At the end of the day, though, none of this would have any effect on the infinite talk of "normal America," "real America," or the like. And that's because this talk was never, really, about what the average American experience is like; it has always been a deliberate attempt to confuse "normal" and "normative," to say that some particular kind of life is not only the average, but the baseline definition of Americanness, against which anything else should be considered a deviation. That is, these questions are rarely being raised honestly, but rather as a form of propaganda.

This propaganda is far from new; many of its origins are in the rapid industrialization of the 1840's, during which rural elites (town elders and the like) started preaching heavily about the evils of the city and how it would corrupt our youth. Even while the urban / rural distinction is no longer as overwhelming a political factor as it was then, it continues to have profound effects on our culture: rural American culture tends to prize getting along with the group, while urban American culture tends to prize getting along with people different from you, and even when all the people involved are living in exurbs, the underlying cultural lines still dominate much of our thinking.

So on the one hand, this question was never the right question to ask from a political perspective; nobody really wants to know what "real America" looks like. But on the other hand, many people do want to know this, because understanding who we are as a people – not just a single "average America," perhaps, but an understanding of the major groupings of experience of daily life we have in our country – is a profoundly important step in turning ourselves into a society.___

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2016-05-09 22:44:49 (36 comments; 11 reshares; 296 +1s)Open 

"Keep trying those shoes, everyone! One of these use cases will catch on with our customers soon enough."

Hahaha...___"Keep trying those shoes, everyone! One of these use cases will catch on with our customers soon enough."

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2016-05-09 19:23:16 (36 comments; 17 reshares; 181 +1s)Open 

Boulet discusses the problem with Hollywood deathtraps. See also: Batman, Isn't this giant investment to go around and punch individual muggers a kind of Rube Goldberg way to reduce crime in Gotham? 

Boulet discusses the problem with Hollywood deathtraps. See also: Batman, Isn't this giant investment to go around and punch individual muggers a kind of Rube Goldberg way to reduce crime in Gotham? ___

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2016-05-08 23:22:38 (7 comments; 36 reshares; 344 +1s)Open 

We have lost a truly extraordinary man. Joe Medicine Crow, historian, anthropologist, war chief of the Crow Tribe, a living link to our history, passed away at the age of 102 on April 3rd.

He will be missed, but hopefully, he will also be remembered.

I think the death of Prince kind of eclipsed this. Prince was a talented man, but he was no Joe Medicine Crow.

https://www.nps.gov/bica/learn/historyculture/joseph-medicine-crow.htm

http://www.badassoftheweek.com/medicinecrow.html___We have lost a truly extraordinary man. Joe Medicine Crow, historian, anthropologist, war chief of the Crow Tribe, a living link to our history, passed away at the age of 102 on April 3rd.

He will be missed, but hopefully, he will also be remembered.

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2016-05-08 20:37:06 (60 comments; 49 reshares; 240 +1s)Open 

This story is about one of the little-understood but important facts about our society: the power of insurance companies. And unlike most stories about shadowy instruments of power, this is about power for good.

All too often, organizations from powerful companies to local governments do things which are harmful to the public, but nonetheless expedient – from counties encouraging local police departments to operate like extortion gangs, to leaving people in sensitive jobs even though they're known to be misusing their power, to ignoring politically inconvenient safety hazards like toxic spills or rising sea levels. The vagaries of politics often seem to let such behavior go on with impunity, even though common sense suggests that no society should be letting it go on.

But it turns out that, while you can bullshit the public and browbeat your constituents, trying to do that toyo... more »

This story is about one of the little-understood but important facts about our society: the power of insurance companies. And unlike most stories about shadowy instruments of power, this is about power for good.

All too often, organizations from powerful companies to local governments do things which are harmful to the public, but nonetheless expedient – from counties encouraging local police departments to operate like extortion gangs, to leaving people in sensitive jobs even though they're known to be misusing their power, to ignoring politically inconvenient safety hazards like toxic spills or rising sea levels. The vagaries of politics often seem to let such behavior go on with impunity, even though common sense suggests that no society should be letting it go on.

But it turns out that, while you can bullshit the public and browbeat your constituents, trying to do that to your insurance company is less likely to succeed, because (a) they're big and (b) they are not interested in being financially on the hook for your mistakes. So insurance companies actually have a set of very non-perverse incentives: do what it takes to make the people they insure don't mess up in the first place, from requiring them to have good policies, to providing access to training and resources that individual insured places would normally not be able to get, to simply telling people that if they don't shape up, they can go and insure themselves.

We often wonder about the effect of large lawsuits: the money will, after all, ultimately come from the same constituency which was being harmed by the actions in the first place. But it turns out that legal judgments which enforce good behavior can have a real positive effect, because they cause insurers (who will actually be paying the dollar amount) to rethink their risk calculus and change policies not just locally, but across the board. The system of large legal settlements is designed not so much to punish a single wrongdoer (since it's actually really hard to do that), but to deter others – and since large organizations tend to be defined almost entirely by their wealth, threats of meaningful costs do actually change behavior.

(And conversely, a knowledge of protection from consequences changes behavior as well: the "moral hazard" risks created by bailouts are very real)

This article is about a specific case of that – the effect of insurance companies on police departments' tendencies towards violence against the public. It shows how this can be very effective against some kinds of problems, even though it's no panacea. But it's an important illustration of one of the less-visible, but quite important, mechanisms by which our society holds itself together.

Insurance is part of the duct tape and chicken wire of Western civilization. Strange, but true.___

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2016-05-07 00:24:06 (52 comments; 24 reshares; 118 +1s)Open 

This is a long but excellent article. If you want to understand the politics of sex work, of why there are people arguing for and against decriminalization, or of where the voices of actual workers are in this, this is a great place to start. I highly recommend it.

The most comprehensive summary of sex work politics you'll ever read. It discusses the difference between legalization and decriminalization, details the different approaches in various countries, explains how criminalizing clients (the Nordic or Swedish model) fails, and examines how Western feminism is placing the concerns of professional women over those of poor, vulnerable people and youth, who tend to be "rescued" by being thrown in jail, detained or deported. Read the whole thing. Twice.___This is a long but excellent article. If you want to understand the politics of sex work, of why there are people arguing for and against decriminalization, or of where the voices of actual workers are in this, this is a great place to start. I highly recommend it.

2016-05-04 07:22:35 (77 comments; 15 reshares; 141 +1s)Open 

Special Bonus Feature: The post that never saw the light of day.

A few months ago, I was planning a post comparing the pros and cons of various presidential candidates. However, I never finished actually writing it, and then candidates started dropping like flies, and I had actual work to get done.

But for those who are curious, here is the partially-written spreadsheet. Clinton was ranking as the Lesser of Several Evils, with Bernie Sanders and Incitatus close behind. Marco Rubio managed to nose out Cthulhu, while Ted Cruz fell behind Attila the Hun.

Incitatus has one other important advantage: while we're guaranteed to get a horse's ass no matter what, at least this way, we get the rest of the horse as well.

Special Bonus Feature: The post that never saw the light of day.

A few months ago, I was planning a post comparing the pros and cons of various presidential candidates. However, I never finished actually writing it, and then candidates started dropping like flies, and I had actual work to get done.

But for those who are curious, here is the partially-written spreadsheet. Clinton was ranking as the Lesser of Several Evils, with Bernie Sanders and Incitatus close behind. Marco Rubio managed to nose out Cthulhu, while Ted Cruz fell behind Attila the Hun.

Incitatus has one other important advantage: while we're guaranteed to get a horse's ass no matter what, at least this way, we get the rest of the horse as well.___

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2016-05-04 03:37:20 (383 comments; 118 reshares; 542 +1s)Open 

As of today, the second seal has been broken and a rider on a red horse has come forth Donald Trump is essentially the guaranteed Republican nominee for president. Let me give some predictions of what's going to happen next:

(1) People will start to argue harder and harder that Trump isn't really that bad, and he doesn't actually mean all the things that he says. Even while you'll never hear this from his campaign, it'll be a major theme among commentators, especially those tied to the Republican establishment. 

The main thing driving this will be cognitive dissonance: if you believed that the American public had just nominated a not-particularly-crypto-Nazi, then you would have to conclude that the people around you are either evil or fools, and that's not something nice to think about. But if he's not really that bad, then it's OK. The second thing... more »

As of today, the second seal has been broken and a rider on a red horse has come forth Donald Trump is essentially the guaranteed Republican nominee for president. Let me give some predictions of what's going to happen next:

(1) People will start to argue harder and harder that Trump isn't really that bad, and he doesn't actually mean all the things that he says. Even while you'll never hear this from his campaign, it'll be a major theme among commentators, especially those tied to the Republican establishment. 

The main thing driving this will be cognitive dissonance: if you believed that the American public had just nominated a not-particularly-crypto-Nazi, then you would have to conclude that the people around you are either evil or fools, and that's not something nice to think about. But if he's not really that bad, then it's OK. The second thing driving this will be the underlying urge of many disaffected (white, working or middle class) people to support him and the things he actually says; if you've got a narrative where it's not really that bad, it's fine to vote for this, then you can feel more comfortable considering it. And the third thing (affecting mostly professional politicians and media heads) will be simple professional party loyalty; the cost of defection away from a nominated candidate, in terms of career and so on, is just too high.

(2) You will hear a strong campaign from the Republican establishment (not Trump) that Clinton is the Devil and must be beaten. They won't be able to put together a clear story of why; to be honest, almost nobody ever has been able to. It's become so reflexive to see her this way that people have forgotten where it started. (That's not to say that Clinton isn't deeply flawed, but none of those flaws have anything to do with the weird conspiracy theories that will be circulating) 

This is mostly a way for the people in the establishment, the ones with the most dissonance to deal with, to focus themselves on saying "not Clinton" so they don't have to spend too much time saying "yes Trump."

It's going to be an incredibly nasty campaign, but that shouldn't surprise anyone.

(Yes, Clinton is going to be the Democratic nominee. I know Sanderistas can come up with arguments until the cows come home about how it's still perfectly statistically possible for him to win 64% of the remaining pledged delegates or somehow convince all the superdelegates to join him but... no. There is no way that actually works. Sanders gets to shift the party platform but he has no serious chance of being the nominee)


And if, God forbid, Trump were to be elected? I suspect that we would find that he is quite an honest man after all, at least insofar as he has no incentive to lie. I suspect that his promises about immigrants will quickly become a priority for him, with a certain amount of reality gating. Things we'd actually see:

(1) Punitive taxes and/or seizure of remittances abroad. This would cause massive economic disruptions all over the world (about $125B per year, most of it going to poor communities) and would probably ultimately be moderated in some way, but not before causing tremendous pain and chaos.

(2) Laws demanding strong proof of citizenship to work, and enforcing severe penalties against employers who violate them. These would cause a different kind of chaos, because a good quarter of citizens don't actually have such strong proof. Presumably offices would be set up to help people get that, and deployment of the law would be staged -- but that assistance would be sharply canted towards white communities. The intent, and effect, of the law would be to cause mass unemployment among Latino and Black communities. This would, indeed, cause many to flee the country, but even more to be dropped into extremely dire straits. I have no idea how this would play out.

(3) Laws enforcing Draconian penalties against anyone who helps people without knowing their immigration status. This would run into actual trouble for Trump once it started to affect better-organized churches; the Vatican may actually end up being a major counterforce, and this might have long-term consequences.

(4) Laws restricting employment of legal immigrants in various ways. Not in service industries, but in places where a demonstration of nativism will be politically useful. This will often be used as a negotiating tactic against businesses.

(5) Actual wall-building might start in a symbolic fashion, but the absurd logistics of it would prevent anything other than a flashy display.

Of course, none of this even starts to deal with his plans to institute trade wars with both China and Mexico (two of our three largest trading partners), or the effects that would happen when the leaders of politically savvy rival countries (e.g., China) realize that he can easily be goaded into foolish moves. Or what might happen if someone else (e.g., Kim Jong Un) tried to rattle sabers; I doubt that he has any deep understanding of just why the US hasn't tried to blow up North Korea in the past. (Answer: we could do it, but in the process South Korea would be turned into rubble, and Japan would probably lose a city or two. And it might escalate into a full regional war.)

So even though I anticipate several months of people telling me how he really isn't that bad, and of the curious experience of seeing a politician's supporters get exasperated and angry ("you're not repeating that old lie again!") when I suggest that their candidate might be honest, I don't think that just because he's the nominee, he's suddenly going to change his white sheets stripes.___

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2016-05-03 19:20:03 (28 comments; 21 reshares; 146 +1s)Open 

This is a very well-written article about the basic fact that communities will change, no matter what you do: the decision to not make a certain change isn't a vote for stability, but for whatever changes follow from that decision. This is an important idea, and one that's often critically absent from discussions about things like "gentrification."

Unpleasant truths about preserving communities.

Everything changes. That's the one unchangeable fact of human life. We need to look at ways for productive, constructive, beneficial change.

But fundamentally the desire for the communities we inhabit to retain the basic character they had when we first grew to love them is extraordinarily human and pops up in all kinds of communities. The problem is that the underlying structure of the global economy is itself always changing. Demand for certain kinds of goods and certain kinds of job skills comes and goes. Tastes for living in certain kinds of areas rise and fall.

This means communities will inevitably change, one way or another. The decision to block a new plant or a new apartment building won't keep things the same; it only guarantees that change will take a different form. Communities that thrive will ultimately be the ones that accept that some form of change is inevitable, and intelligently pick which one they prefer.___This is a very well-written article about the basic fact that communities will change, no matter what you do: the decision to not make a certain change isn't a vote for stability, but for whatever changes follow from that decision. This is an important idea, and one that's often critically absent from discussions about things like "gentrification."

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2016-04-30 18:22:36 (15 comments; 31 reshares; 358 +1s)Open 

Just some great art for your day. In case you can't read the label, this is by the wonderful Matt Dixon (mattdixon.co.uk), who makes all sorts of great robot art.

Via +Daniel Estrada 

Стартуем ;)___Just some great art for your day. In case you can't read the label, this is by the wonderful Matt Dixon (mattdixon.co.uk), who makes all sorts of great robot art.

Via +Daniel Estrada 

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2016-04-29 19:59:12 (121 comments; 5 reshares; 131 +1s)Open 

So on the one hand, I think it's an excellent idea for Uber drivers (and other drivers similarly situated) to organize. A free market requires negotiations to be made without undue coercion, and in general, a balance of power between the sides is the best way to avoid that.*

But on the other hand, who exactly thought that a great name for this not-technically-a-union would be "Uber ALLES?" (Apparently, organizer Kevin Lynch, who explained how this is indeed a reference to the German anthem; "We feel we're the 'all,' and we're going to be over Uber eventually.")

Especially in a country where presidential candidates are routinely promising to get rid of all of those dirty immigrants, and where press coverage of political rallies lets us study different outlets' policies on printing phrases like "sieg heil," he may find that thisn... more »

So on the one hand, I think it's an excellent idea for Uber drivers (and other drivers similarly situated) to organize. A free market requires negotiations to be made without undue coercion, and in general, a balance of power between the sides is the best way to avoid that.*

But on the other hand, who exactly thought that a great name for this not-technically-a-union would be "Uber ALLES?" (Apparently, organizer Kevin Lynch, who explained how this is indeed a reference to the German anthem; "We feel we're the 'all,' and we're going to be over Uber eventually.")

Especially in a country where presidential candidates are routinely promising to get rid of all of those dirty immigrants, and where press coverage of political rallies lets us study different outlets' policies on printing phrases like "sieg heil," he may find that this naming scheme may be a little alarming to some of his prospective membership, especially in New York.

* This is why I'm generally in favor of unions; not to be confused with thinking everyone should be in a union, or with thinking that I like every particular union, either. Do not try to read too much into my politics here; they're much more tied to pragmatism than theory, and so it's just nuance and special cases, all the way down. ___

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2016-04-29 14:32:37 (46 comments; 54 reshares; 488 +1s)Open 

It's a fair point.

___It's a fair point.

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2016-04-27 07:48:12 (29 comments; 43 reshares; 386 +1s)Open 

Via +Steven Flaeck. I blame him for this.

___Via +Steven Flaeck. I blame him for this.

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2016-04-24 11:46:43 (101 comments; 25 reshares; 194 +1s)Open 

From the department of Only in Israel: ten suspects arrested for possession of goats with intent to perform a banned sacrifice.

For context: this sacrifice is banned because it would be performed on the Temple Mount, and would be interpreted by the Muslim population as an open declaration of war. The people arrested know this very well, and mean it as such, which is just a part of why the organization they belong to is banned. (The rest of it has to do with their open advocacy of genocide. Lovely fellows.) 

From the department of Only in Israel: ten suspects arrested for possession of goats with intent to perform a banned sacrifice.

For context: this sacrifice is banned because it would be performed on the Temple Mount, and would be interpreted by the Muslim population as an open declaration of war. The people arrested know this very well, and mean it as such, which is just a part of why the organization they belong to is banned. (The rest of it has to do with their open advocacy of genocide. Lovely fellows.) ___

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2016-04-23 19:49:29 (31 comments; 29 reshares; 376 +1s)Open 

While the title of this article may be a bit alarming, it's actually about some very positive developments. Today, underwater drilling rigs are inspected by people in individual submarines. But with new advances in swimming robots, derived from studying animal locomotion - in this case, sea snakes - it's become possible to create fleets of swimming robot cameras which can monitor sensitive underwater sites continuously. This means much better and earlier awareness of problems, which can prevent disasters like the Deepwater Horizon. Applied to scientific (rather than engineering) sites, it could mean ways to study underwater ecosystems continuously, without disturbing them.

That said, there's something pretty cool about having a pit of robot sea snakes in its own right. It may even be able to compete with sharks with friggin' laser beams. (Sorry, +Bruce Shark​) 

While the title of this article may be a bit alarming, it's actually about some very positive developments. Today, underwater drilling rigs are inspected by people in individual submarines. But with new advances in swimming robots, derived from studying animal locomotion - in this case, sea snakes - it's become possible to create fleets of swimming robot cameras which can monitor sensitive underwater sites continuously. This means much better and earlier awareness of problems, which can prevent disasters like the Deepwater Horizon. Applied to scientific (rather than engineering) sites, it could mean ways to study underwater ecosystems continuously, without disturbing them.

That said, there's something pretty cool about having a pit of robot sea snakes in its own right. It may even be able to compete with sharks with friggin' laser beams. (Sorry, +Bruce Shark​) ___

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2016-04-23 15:15:51 (29 comments; 5 reshares; 128 +1s)Open 

There's nothing surprising in this article - thieves generally steal things which they can easily convert to money - but there are a lot of details worth thinking about, including how durable bulk goods like soap and cigarettes end up acting as something between goods and currency.

"""
In fact, the consistent demand for products like soap on the illicit market can make it as good as stealing cash. Tide laundry detergent has widely been reported as a favorite target of drug gangs. In 2013, New York Magazine ran a story that described a Safeway store that lost $10,000 to $15,000 a month to thefts of Tide detergent. 

Products like cigarettes and soap are appealing because they can perform some of the major functions of money. Since there is a consistent demand and market for them, even when they’re not on store shelves, they retain their value. (Unlike an iPod, they never become obsolete.) Since they have standard sizes, they can also be used as a unit of account. You can pay for a candy bar with a few cigarettes, or pay for an old phone with a few packs of cigarettes.
"""

This is something I recall from before, probably from Off the Books, though I generally assume everything I know about the economics of crime comes from there. Physically and socially isolated communities can end up lacking currency. Yes, they lack money as in purchasing power, but they also lack currency re abstract units of storage and account. Lack of jobs and the in-kind structure of welfare cause a shortage of just dollar bills in their more fundamental role as tokens. ___There's nothing surprising in this article - thieves generally steal things which they can easily convert to money - but there are a lot of details worth thinking about, including how durable bulk goods like soap and cigarettes end up acting as something between goods and currency.

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2016-04-21 20:01:46 (23 comments; 15 reshares; 113 +1s)Open 

An odd bit of history for your day: in 1933, the FBI investigated a plot by American Jewish gangsters to assassinate Hitler. It is unclear whether or not the plot was real, but the FBI had no shortage of sources - mostly Nazi sympathizers - telling them where to look. 

An odd bit of history for your day: in 1933, the FBI investigated a plot by American Jewish gangsters to assassinate Hitler. It is unclear whether or not the plot was real, but the FBI had no shortage of sources - mostly Nazi sympathizers - telling them where to look. ___

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2016-04-21 19:44:36 (36 comments; 18 reshares; 147 +1s)Open 

The increasing discoveries about Zika are both fascinating and terrifying. Apparently it is not only mosquito-borne, but can be sexually transmitted as well, staying in the semen long after it has cleared the bloodstream; and its effects on the nervous system of adults may be far more widespread than was earlier believed.

It's sort of like living in a live-action version of +Plague Inc.​, and the player just got some very nasty upgrades.

Much of the focus on the Zika virus has been the extent to which Zika can harm fetuses, but recent research is beginning to uncover the many ways this virus impacts nerve function in older children and adults. During this recent outbreak, we've seen people exposed to Zika go on to develop a startling array of neurological disorders. So far there has been one reported instance of acute myelitis (an inflammation of the spinal cord); one of meningoencephalitis (inflammation of the brain and its outer membranes); two of acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, or ADEM (a brief but widespread inflammation in the brain and spinal cord), and a number of cases of Guillain-Barré.

We still don't understand the mechanism that causes neurological issues in people exposed to Zika, and research is ongoing. What is troubling about this outbreak is that the virus is not only mosquito-borne, but sexually-transmitted.

The first documented case of sexual transmission of Zika happened in 2008. The transmission was from a man to a woman; they had sex a few days before the man exhibited symptoms.

The first case of sexual transmission associated with the current outbreak was reported in early February in Texas. By late February, the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) had reported two additional cases of sexual transmission of Zika from men returning from Zika hotspots to their sex partners in the United States. As of March 18, 2016, the CDC has reported three additional cases, for a total of six confirmed cases of sexual transmission in the United States associated with this outbreak.

There have been two reports of Zika isolated from semen at least two weeks after onset of illness. Notably, blood plasma specimens collected at the same time as the semen tested negative for Zika. Another man's semen showed Zika particles 62 days after he experienced symptoms, though his blood by then was negative for the virus. We know that Zika remains in semen long after the virus clears out of the blood, but because we've not had the opportunity to do serial semen collection on those affected, we don't know exactly how long Zika persists in semen.

So far, we only know that semen can transmit Zika through the vagina, anus and mouth. We've seen transmission in heterosexual and gay couples. We don't know if vaginal fluid can transmit Zika yet. The CDC is currently recommending barrier protection during all types of sex, as well as mosquito control.

Zika virus was first discovered in 1947. It is named after the Zika forest in Uganda. At some point between then and 1952, when the first human cases were detected, Zika made its jump to humans. Since then, outbreaks of the virus have been reported in tropical Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. This piece in the Atlantic discusses Zika's trajectory, as well as the overall problem of a virus that has this type of long-term consequences.

For more information on the sexual transmission of Zika, please refer to the CDC's Interim Guidance for Prevention of Sexual Transmission of Zika Virus — United States, 2016: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/wr/mm6512e3.htm
___The increasing discoveries about Zika are both fascinating and terrifying. Apparently it is not only mosquito-borne, but can be sexually transmitted as well, staying in the semen long after it has cleared the bloodstream; and its effects on the nervous system of adults may be far more widespread than was earlier believed.

It's sort of like living in a live-action version of +Plague Inc.​, and the player just got some very nasty upgrades.

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