Friday, January 28, 2011

Crossing the uncanny valley

I missed this when it came out two years ago:

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Can you identify a song just from its rhythm?

I actually got this right. Maybe that's a clue!

Video Games are good for you!

If you're a US soldier in Afghanistan, and you limit yourself to 3-4 hours a day:

The soldiers’ coping behaviors included a range of activities, like reading, listening to music, using Facebook and working out. But what proved to be the single most protective activity — the habit that best bolstered the soldiers’ mental resilience — was spending three to four hours a day playing videogames. A regular daily gaming habit corresponded with the overall lowest levels of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, suicide attempts or domestic violence.

And yet — and here’s where we see too much of a good thing — for soldiers playing more than 28 hours a week, there was a steep decrease in the protective benefits of gaming. Indeed, 40 hours a week or more was predictive of significant psychological distress.
This is some good news, after hearing about this depressing finding:
Recreational sitting, as reflected by television/screen viewing time, is related to raised mortality and CVD risk regardless of physical activity participation. Inflammatory and metabolic risk factors partly explain this relationship.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

New interface look for Storyteller Dice Roller

The red-on-black look of the old interface was generating a lot of negative feedback, so I switched it to something more conventional.

Dust Storm performance April 12 8pm Sonoma State University

photo by Christopher Irion

Announcing a performance of Dust Storm: Art and Survival in a Time of Paranoia by Rick Foster with images by Chiura Obata. Performed by Zachary Drake by special arrangement with AEA. Tuesday evening April 12th 8pm Sonoma State University Warren Auditorium. Free and open to the public. There will only be about 50 additional seats available (the others will be taken by students). I'll post more information as I find out more.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Republicans undermining the Congressional Budget Office

Ezra Klein on Republican efforts to undermine the credibility of the CBO:
But beneath it is something more insidious: an effort to discredit the last truly neutral, truly respected scorekeeper in Washington. The facts don't support the particular case the Republicans want to make, so they're trying to take down the people who supply the facts. But once that's done, it can't easily be undone. And the true loser will be the very thing Republicans claim to care most about: the deficit.

If getting the CBO's seal of approval ceases to matter, then political parties will cease to try. That's when the "smoke and mirrors" will really begin: when bills just have to sound good rather than pencil out. When there are no skeptical budget experts sending legislation back to the authors with a note that says, "Sorry, not there yet." When policy debates are decided by who can yell the loudest rather than who can write the best bill.

I am deeply suspicious of deficit hawkery in general. When I hear someone wax doom-and-gloomy about the defecit, I brace myself for the inevitably regressive "fix" they subsequently suggest. How refreshing it would be if "fiscal conservatives" talked about returning the top income tax rates to what they were in the 90's, or closing the hedge fund manager salary loophole, or reducing our global military footprint! Too many times "fiscal conservatism" has been invoked to block or reduce progressive measures (we must raise the Social Security retirement age!), but somehow these concerns evaporate when it comes to lowering the estate tax or engaging in costly overseas occupations. If the deficit is such a crisis, then surely returning the top marginal rate to 39% from 36% should at least be on the table. If it isn't, then please don't ask me to take your concern about the deficit seriously.

But we do need to know how much things will cost. Because we have to be able to determine whether something is worth the additional spending. And the CBO, though certainly not flawless, is at least a good attempt at getting such numbers. So it's sad to see such an institution attacked. If you think their methodology is bad, that's one thing. Criticize it. Come up with a better methodology and argue why you're right. But the idea that we shouldn't have such an organization and that Democrats and Republicans should be able to come up with their own numbers for the costs of their bills seems like a very bad idea to me.

By the way, the people who lend the US government money don't seem that fazed by the budget deficit: the ten-year T-bill is currently yielding 3.47%. That means people are willing to lend money to Uncle Sam at 3.47%. Which means they're pretty damn sure they're going to get paid. I can't get that kind of rate, even if I put up my house as collateral. I think Congress will actually really start caring about the deficit when the people lending money to the government start caring about it, and showing that care by charging higher rates.

I am far more concerned about the massive unemployment this country is facing, which nobody seems to think is a crisis. (Of course, I have a personal stake in this country's unemployment rate, and am doing my best to reduce it ever-so-slightly by getting a job.)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Quote of the Day

"[...]in the modern world productivity’s about organization as well as machines. Federal Express didn’t invent the airplane or the truck or the cardboard box, but they came up with a different way of putting it all together."

-Matthew Yglesias

Amateurs over professionals

Turns out bloggers were much better at estimating Apple's financial numbers than analysts who were presumably paid large sums of money to get those numbers right. Of course, the bloggers have a financial stake in getting the numbers right, too. Still, rather embarrassing for the analysts.

I wonder if this was an isolated incident, or if there's going to be a general trend of enthusiasts outperforming professionals in certain areas. I'm thinking of Nate Silver's recent success at election forecasting. Also, I'm recalling how when I worked in the games group at Microsoft, people in the Excel group were often better at our games than our own testers who were being paid to the best they could be at the game.

Do people who are naturally enthusiastic about something have an advantage over mercenaries? Do institutional analysts have to worry about offending clients or pleasing bosses with numbers in ways that bloggers don't? Or is this just a fluke, or limited to areas in which people like geeking out?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Dude, this is awesome: Food printers!

Here's one kind of printer for which I'd be particularly hesitant to buy 3rd-party cartridges from shady eBay dealers: a food printer. Gizmodo:
Scientists at Cornell University's Computational Synthesis Lab are developing a commercially-available "3D food printer" that would allow users to "print" meals using "raw food 'inks'" inside syringes. Sounds delicious!

Cooking is so hard, what with "ingredients" and "recipes" and "having to leave your house to go shopping." So thank goodness for the fab@home project [link added] an open-source collaboration on 3D printer technology that's developing a "food printer" intended for home use.
The whole idea of a custom manufacturing unit in your house is awesome, and it sounds like the technology is coming together. Think of how many D&D minis I could make!!! And they'd be perfectly customized to my exact specifications, assuming the proper design software existed.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Quote of the Day

"Twenty years from now, conservatives will deny they were ever anti-gay, just as they now have no memory of ever supporting discrimination against African-Americans or women."

-David Boaz, as quoted by Jennifer Rubin on Right Turn

What the presidency does to you

(Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty via Sullivan)

Is it just me or does Obama look much older now than he did just three years ago? Admittedly, this photo is from Tucson, so his grieved expression makes him look older. But I don't remember all that gray hair. It must be very draining.

If home security were run by the UN

HT: Mad Latinist

In fairness to the UN, the severe limits on its powers are by design and the fact that it is an organization with severe limits is the only way a lot of nations (especially ours) are willing to participate.

Still, just as the Articles of Confederation proved inadequate to deal with the challenges facing the newly independent American colonies, I suspect the UN will prove inadequate to deal with the challenges facing the world today. But making an institution powerful enough and accountable enough to deal with problems like climate change, global pandemics, genocide, and crimes against humanity is a very difficult task. It's hard enough resolving tariff disputes. I suspect nation states and smaller entities (corporations, factions, political movements) are going to be where international power resides for quite some time.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Frightening demonstration of subliminal idea planting

If this is authentic, then it's pretty freaky.

Orgy in the legislature!

Wouldn't it be awesome if humans dealt with the problem of dividing precious resources the way bonobos do:

Bonobos like apples. They like them a lot. As a matter of fact, it’s difficult to do bonobo research without a supply of green apples to motivate them to do the experiments.

But they like group harmony most of all. And the sudden appearance of the apples in their midst immediately raises the threat of discord. Who will get to eat the apples?

If these were chimpanzees, the strongest males would immediately claim the fruit. There would be a fair amount of shoving, and possibly some bloodshed.

But bonobos are so communal that the tension produced by something so precious as an apple in their midst must be dispelled by a gesture of community. In this case, everyone gets to cool off with a little sexual comfort from their neighbor. Then, self-interest replaced by a certain yummy group feeling, they settle down to share the apple.

Sometimes, I think the only path to decreased human suffering lies in tinkering with our very nature. We're buggy. Let's fix us. (Yes, yes, we know so little. Yes, yes, there would be unintended consequences. Yes, all of that. But isn't making human nature better, more moral, something we should strive for?)

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Attempted Assassination in Arizona

Our country got uglier today. A Congresswoman was shot in the head, apparently point-blank, today, many reports said she was dead, but now apparently she isn't as of 1:11pm Pacific. Other people apparently were killed. Dish is covering it.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Finnish "Hitler dog" became Nazi obsession

In addition to their other faults, the Nazis were apparently rather thin-skinned:

BERLIN – Newly discovered documents have revealed a bizarre footnote to the history of the Second World War: a Finnish mutt whose imitation of the Hitler salute enraged the Nazis so deeply that they started an obsessive campaign against the dog's owner.

Absurdly, a totalitarian state that dominated most of Europe was unable to do much about Jackie and his paw-raising parody of Germany's Fuehrer.

In the middle of World War II — months before Hitler ordered some 4.5 million troops to invade the Soviet Union — the Foreign Office in Berlin commanded its diplomats in the Nazi-friendly Nordic country to gather evidence on the dog, and even came up with plans to destroy the pharmaceutical wholesale company of its owner.

HT: Mad Latinist via Facebook.

You'd think they would have had more important things to think about. But I guess that's what totalitarianism is: the inability to let anything slide. Eventually, they did drop the matter, but it did seem to take up some bandwidth in some pretty important ministries at a pretty critical time. Maybe, in some small way, that dog helped win the war.

PS: I have no idea why that AP story includes a bunch of links to itself. Rather tautological. They seem to be automatically generated, and if you hover over them in the Yahoo version of the story they generate some other links to versions of the same story. It seems to me that many news organizations don't know how to make hyperlinks useful.

Monday, January 03, 2011

"Settlers is the new Monopoly" watch

Internal Monlogue has been following the "Settlers of Catan is the new Monopoly" idea for a few years now. Here's another recent blog post on mental_floss touting that idea:
The boardgaming world was, however, been pretty stolid for the bulk of the 20th century, with very little innovation from within; the mainstream board gaming companies’ idea of creativity is coming up with themed versions of existing stalwart games. But in 1995, the game Wired magazine dubbed the “Monopoly killer” (although Monopoly isn’t dead … yet) entered the market, and after a long, slow incubation period, is moving into the mainstream and threatening the established order of board games.