Thursday, December 24, 2015

Merry Christmas!



Even though I've studied the state of human development for some time, these are the sorts of changes not even Soviet statisticians would have been brave enough to make up! In less than 25 years, the world has gone from mostly poor to mostly well off.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Cheap Energy = High Growth?

Interesting article from Next Big Future asking whether building cheap energy sources will usher in rapid economic growth. The author challenged readers to come up with ways this might happen and I thought of:

  1. More computing power because of lower thermal/efficiency constraints. High performance computing is limited because of efficiency/power costs and form factor issues. For instance, a high performance desktop (let alone a high performance computing cluster) can draw several hundred watts. Running a 1.2kW machine continuously costs $1,000/year with a typical $0.10/kWh fee. If electricity was nearly free, we would expect to see even more powerful machines in widespread use. However, dissipating that kind of heat would require dedicating cooling infrastructure; it's an order greater cost to an already impractically expensive system but easily negated if electricity is cheap enough. All this extra computational power means faster progress with chemical simulations and protein folding among other applications.
  2. Increased agricultural output. I'd been looking at grow lights and even with LEDs, it is not economically sensible because of electricity prices. 
  3. Desalination. 
The article covered many of the biggies like cheaper aluminum, heated roads, massive terraforming. One I thought about but couldn't really explain was a kind of virtuous circle of 3D printing, self replication, and material extraction - all to trend towards nanotechnology, robotics, and biotech proliferation. Consumer 3D printers use crappy plastics but with nearly free energy, metalworking becomes doable and higher precision 3D printers/CNC machines become possible. The minerals composing the Earth's Crust are: Silicon, Aluminum, and Iron. The cost to extract aluminum made it on par with the cost of silver; now it's in foil and cans and is basically disposable. Just a few minutes think about it and the imagination goes into overdrive. 

There are many synergies that come about with cheaper energy. Another way to put it is that cheaper energy means higher energy consumption. And higher energy consumption is strongly correlated to higher income.

Electricity Use vs Income (log-log)




Oil User vs Income (log-log)


Some might argue that correlation is not causation and that in this case, higher incomes were responsible for higher energy consumption. However, if Say's Law is true, higher production necessarily means higher consumption and, mathematically based on the definition of GDP, higher income per person.

There are other factors involved in economic growth, sed ceteris paribus, greater energy production will drive economic growth since most, maybe even all, economic activity requires it.*

* It might be possible to make a praxeological argument for it along the lines of: unease leads to attempts to remove that unease. Cheaper energy will often allow new superior options to remove that unease. If and when someone does scratch that itch ... hmm, I probably need to reread Human Action

Monday, December 14, 2015

Laurie Calhoun and Just War Theory

Tom Woods interviews Laurie Calhoun regarding Just War Theory. Woods prefaced his podcast by saying that he's largely come to reject it so he mostly assents to her reasoning. I'm sure Woods, as someone who previously believed in Just War theory, changed his position with great consideration. And I'm sure that Calhoun's book contains a more exhaustive and systematic treatment of the subject.

I'm saying this because Calhoun did not present a good case for rejecting the theory.

Objection: The principles of Just War tend to be used platitudinally by warmongers.

Here I'm going to invoke the principle abusus non tollit usum, i.e., abuse does not take away use. The fact that an evildoer justifies his behavior in terms of something good does not somehow invalidate the good thing. The example she uses is the just cause principle which she says doesn't mean anything other than that the leader wants to wage war. Yet the fact that she does allow for the use of self defense means that she views self defense as a just cause for violence. Only complete pacifists might be said to deny there being any sort of just cause for violence.

Objection: There have been no cases where someone has supported a war, then become familiar with Just War theory. who then proceeded to withdraw support for war.

Hard to say but it'd hard to believe there hasn't been a single leader in history who wanted war and, conferring with a bishop or priest, decided against it. History is mainly about the wars that do get fought, not the wars that aren't. There are probably better examples, but General Paulus choosing to surrender rather than fight to the death, as ordered by Hitler, in Stalingrad is an application of the Just War principle of fighting only when there is a reasonable chance of success. Had the Japanese adopted these principles, they might have chosen to eschew human wave tactics and saved the lives of countless people.

Objection: The "Last Resort" requirement doesn't preclude anyone from doing anything

The fact that rulers often go to war under the pretense of it being the "last resort" when it often isn't probably means that rulers tend to be unprincipled. The fact that Christians lie and steal constantly doesn't mean that the Ten Commandments are invalid and should be discarded.

If Calhoun accepts that violence is acceptable in some cases, i.e., self defense and neighborhood defense - though perhaps not defense of neighbor extended generally, then war can be resorted to. But if war can be resorted to, how can any person who desires peace not suggest that it be the last resort? What place should "going to war" be placed among the options politicians have?

Objection: George Bush, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, etc. all use Just War Theory to justify their aggression

Again, abusus non tollit usum. There's also a kind of fallacy of association, i.e., equivocation, going on here.

Objection: It is the composition fallacy to extend the right of individual self defense to groups. 

This is trickier. As someone who adheres to methodological individualism, I tend to agree. But if someone is part of an invading army, they have assumed a collective identity voluntarily. So it is appropriate to say, "defend against the German Sixth Army" whereas it is not appropriate to say "defeat Germany". The people living in Germany are not necessarily the same as the Germans who freely joined the German government/military to initiate aggression against others.

And if an aggressor collectivizes me (despite my identifying otherwise) and decides to aggress against that collective, i.e., Americans, then I am in danger and have the moral options for self-defense that result.

Objection: War is being waged abroad which is analogous to a neighbor who creeps into another neighbors house and kills him because he thinks he may try to harm him later. This is a crime in civil society

Preƫmptive war is very difficult to justify.* However, if a murderer is active, even if they have not initiated aggression against you or your particular neighborhood, using violence to stop that murderer is (in my mind) acceptable. When the Soviets were conquering Eastern Europe, certainly an attack on Soviet military positions in occupied territory by previously non-belligerent actors would not be a crime - especially given the Soviet ideological basis of violent revolution to usher in Communist dominion.

Objection: Just War theory is actually not a limit to war but rather the most dangerous weapon for a bellicose leader. 

How about a theory that suggests that what is best in life is conquest and indiscriminate killing of military and civilians? A worldview that glorifies death in combat? The Vikings and Mongols show what unlimited war can be like. Although the type of warfare practiced in World War II is sometimes called Total War, had it been unlimited, then Dresden and Hiroshima would not have been the exception.

Objection: Just War states that soldiers must obey the authority no matter what

Certainly not. There are many examples of soldiers who refused to kill innocent people and who paid for their insubordination with their lives. These usually became saints. It is absurd to think that Augustine or Aquinas would believe those soldiers would have been better off following orders on account of Just War theory.
As an aside, she suggests that the "legitimate authority" as divinely appointed is a medieval Catholic phenomenon and that it was the Protestant Reformation which brought the idea of fallibility to rulers. This is incorrect. Divine authority resting in political leaders predates Christianity and the Catholic Church; it is not at all specific to medieval Catholic Europe. Pharaoh was a god, the Roman emperor was a god, the Chinese emperor ruled by the Mandate of Heaven, etc. Indeed it is one of the hallmarks of Judaism and Christianity to reject political leaders as being divine which typically led to conflicts between political and religious authorities. Ironically, the idea of secular authority as supreme gained traction in Western Europe (in the East, the issue was largely decided along caesaropapist lines) because of Protestantism. German princes since 1648 were greater authorities than the Church, and the King of England was the head of the English Church.
Objection: The doctrine of double effect in warfare is really based on the idea that "we are good" and "they are bad". For example, the US government justifies civilian casualties in Vietnam because they were an unintended consequence of bombing military targets but hypocritically declaims the civilian deaths from the 9/11 attacks. 

It's true, almost self-evident, that there are few who engage in wars without believing the enemy is bad. But while we cannot read men's souls, some attempt to determine intent does inform our evaluation of whether some act of violence was justified.

Flying planes into the World Trade Center buildings is as clear a deliberate attack on civilian targets as can be. In this case, it is clear that the people who perpetrated those attacks were unjust under Just War theory (and any theory where civilians are considered innocent) even if the attackers justified their cause on account of US interventionism in Saudi Arabia. Punishing the conspirators ought to be uncontroversial.

A retaliatory strike on account of the attack on the Pentagon, however, isn't as clear cut. The Pentagon is a military target and the people working there do have significant responsibility for the stationing of US troops in Saudi Arabia, Iraqi sanctions, etc. Live by the sword, die by the sword.**

Bombing, with its attendant "collateral damage", has always been hotly debated by Just War theorists. Just as economy of the United States is often mis-characterized as a Free Market system, so too is the foreign policy of the US Government mis-characterized as a Just War based policy. In some ways it is, in some ways it isn't.

It's clear Calhoun does not place much stock in the Principle of Double Effect because in her mind, intention is unimportant. Though she did not state as much, she seems to believe in a Consequentialist or Utilitarian ethic. One of these days I'll go into why that view is actually unrealistic.

Objection: Just War is always justified because it is interpreted by leaders to be so - it is their prerogative.

Just because Obama claims the prerogative for justifying the bombing of Syria doesn't mean he actually has it. Just War criteria can be used by individuals, as moral actors, to help them determine whether some action is permissible.

Some examples:

The German state having agreed to a certain land border with Poland, nevertheless decides to invade. As a Polish soldier, you might face a number of problem situations that Just War theory can help solve. Is it okay to bomb a German column inside the Polish border? Yes. Even if the column is far from your town? Yes. Is it okay to bomb a German children's hospital? No. Even with a direct order? No. Is it okay to lead a cavalry lancing charge against tanks? No. Is it okay to ignore all overtures for peace coming from the German government? No.

These might seem obvious, but they are only obvious because of the moral framework within which Just War theory exists. There are many difficult questions that Just War theory does not clearly address which is why the ethics surrounding violence continue to be debated. But to dismiss Just War the way Calhoun does? Madness.

Objection: The Just War injunction to treat soldiers as human beings is pointless as we see governments fail to do this all the time

Again, abusus non tollit usum.

* In the case of the United States which enjoys the security of the two largest oceans on Earth and peaceful relations with its two much weaker border nations, it is nearly impossible. Of the nations on Earth, the US - assuming the international framework - should have been the last nation to have ever considered invading Iraq.

** Usually this is taken in a negative way but I interpret it as the recognition that violence begets violence, even if completely justified. If I killed a home invader, I should have some expectation that friends of the invader might want to exact revenge on me and so on. Those consequences that attend violence should be part of the calculus involved in deciding whether to employ it.

Applied to a nation's soldiers, they should know that they've forfeited the presumption of innocence by choosing (obviously mitigated in cases of draft) to join a group that believes in violently executing the will of the state. But it is possible to maintain the sanction of Just War theory if politicians act accordingly - the Swiss are the best example.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Right Ascension

Donald Trump wants to temporarily ban Muslim immigration. Many people suggest that ostracizing Muslims can radicalize them while opponents wonder whether "we" should be letting people in who are so easily prone to radicalization.

It's hard to argue with either view. I think it makes sense to restrict the entry of Salafist or Wahhabist (Sunni) Muslims who, unfortunately, form a large part of the Muslim community. At the very least, the United States should stop supporting Saudi Arabia which has been supporting these movements; but you'll hear very little criticism of such an important geopolitical ally.

Had Trump prefaced his ban with a clear exception for peaceful and persecuted Muslim groups like the Ahmadiyya and Sufi whose beliefs tend to be viewed as heretical by mainstream Islam, it would have been a reasonable policy. There's not much the non-Muslim world can or even should do to help Islam at large engage with modernity, but one hopes that the flourishing of peaceful Muslims would help.

What is definitely not helpful is the portrayal of Trump as the reincarnation of Hitler. Rather than shock and silence the opposition, the constant comparisons of Trump's rise with Hitler and the Nazis for policies that are not at all equivalent to the brutal murderous Nazi regimes only legitimize fascism. That is, if you call someone a Nazi every time they oppose you, they are not going to think Nazism is a big deal.

And this is what I'm seeing in conservative and even libertarian circles. There have always been racist and fascist leaning elements among conservatives, but the failure of the media to rise above race-baiting and Nazi name calling serves, ironically, to emphasize those elements. And while we may not have much say in the de-radicalization of Islam (and this is probably going to be the case as long as the Saudis still own and run the most important spaces in the Islamic world), Americans do have a say with how we discuss what ought to be prosaic issues, like immigration.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Sorry Star Trek, the future belongs to Khan, not Kirk.

The Washington Post had an article yesterday about editing genes to cure aging. It's probably still an outlier type of article to really say that the discussion has moved to the mainstream, but it's there.

The method used, CRISPR, is not new to people who follow life extension efforts. And when I say life extension, I don't mean eating healthy and exercising, but actually reversing the aging process and eliminating old age as a cause of death. The funding in the field is miniscule and the conversation is dominated by enthusiasts rather than professionals. Professionals are loathe to take on the project. One that did, Aubrey de Grey, issued a challenge with prize money to anyone who could demonstrate that his approach to anti-aging was unsound. It's the old aviation prize approach but Diamandis seems to make it work.

But now that a Harvard professor of genetics is talking about reversing aging, hopefully we'll see more professionals get involved. Singularity University is as good an effort as one could hope for in this regard although its publication, Singularity Hub, is really lacking; it's just a general science and tech blog no better than Next Big Future or 33rd Square.* It was a mistake for Singularity University to incorporate the Singularity Hub blog as its voice because there still is no well-curated accessible resource for directly related GNR approaches to singularity technologies.

For executive summaries about the where we are on the road, it's probably best to just check out Ray Kurzweil's latest talks. For the state of the art, Gennady Stolyarov's Fight Aging

Eliminating aging through genetic engineering presupposes technologies that will enable all kinds of other types of bio-engineering and augmentation. Just about everyone would be on board with fixing the genes responsible for cystic fibrosis but there's a lot of angst over genetic engineering as a kind of crypto-Nazi eugenics program. People inclined to see reality in terms of class distinctions are probably less sanguine than libertarian types like myself. Either way, I don't think a bright line can be drawn for therapeutic versus superficial improvements in gene editing which leads to a transhumanist vision of the future rather than one where everyone has the Einstein's brainpower and Mr. Universe's body etc.

* It's not that I don't appreciate the work that Brian Wang does at his site Next Big Future (which unfortunately seems to be focused on the Chinese military lately) or Geoffrey Brennan's site 33rd Square, but neither is really qualified to give insight into the technologies they report on. Gennady Stolyarov's Fight Aging doesn't look nearly as slick as the previous sites, but he's an actuary and actuarial thinking is a good mindset to have when evaluating research. Or maybe I'm just biased towards a fellow libertarian. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

5.6 Good Things

I read somewhere that it takes five compliments to balance out every insult in terms of emotional banking. Harvard Business Review, the best thing coming out of Harvard*, suggests the ratio should be a 5.6.

Anyway I was going to complain about how crappy Ars Technica is as a reaction to their panning of Amazon's The Man In the High Castle. But Ars Technica was never good - or at least it hasn't been good since Conde Nast bought them out. But even before then, it tended to distance itself from its amateur enthusiast audience rather than embracing it. Well that's one complaint about a tech site.

So here are five tech sites that are better. The PC enthusiast market is less active so it's a bit of a case of you've seen one tech site, you've seen them all.

[H]ard|OCP
Mad ShrimpsSmallNetBuilder - Network focused
TechPowerUp - Aggregates reviews from enthusiast sites
Xbit labs - Usually only review major hardware releases but they're thorough

And here's the 0.6

SilentPCReview - The site is quieter (pun intended) now that PCs are more energy efficient and quiet components are more normal. The forums are good for specialist knowledge on quiet components just as Guru3Ds forums are good for graphics card minutiae.

It's actually kind of hard to compile good PC enthusiast sites because of the shift in focus to mobile. The thing with the shift to mobile is that the audience and even the very way we interact with the hardware is very different. The correlation between the trendy mobile space and anti-gamer editorial bias isn't coincidental. Also not coincidence? Ars Technica is anti-gamer.

* Do backhanded passive aggressive type compliments count?

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Using uBlock, an ad blocker, to block newsletter signup popups

There are millions of websites out there trying to get and keep your attention. Someone figured that prompting users with a popup asking them to sign up for an e-mail newsletter is effective in driving traffic and conversion rates. Here's a typical example


For the most part, it seems uBlocker's ruleset seems to either have grown to encompass these newsletter ads or websites have abandoned them. For the sites that still use them:

Here's an imperfect way of eliminating them. You have to do it on a per-site basis and it isn't foolproof, but if you are used to browsing without popups, it can be worth it.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention my go-to first method for blocking popups and annoying content in general. Disable javascript. In Chrome, click on the small icon next to the URL and the option to enable or disable javascript is there. This also bypasses more primitive paywalls.

Step One: Install uBlock Origin. Here's the link for Chrome and here's the one for Firefox. This method will probably work for Adblock/Adblock Plus although I find uBlock superior.

Step Two: Right click on the ad and click "block element"


Step Three: It's best to first click on the background until you see the whole page selected. uBlock will name the element being blocked. If it says something along the lines of "ad wrapper" or "ad container", block it.


Step Four: Again, right click on the ad and click around until you see the whole ad selected. Sometimes it isn't possible and you will have to repeat the process for all the parts that remain. But if you do are able to click such that the whole ad gets selected, that makes it easier.



Monday, November 16, 2015

De mortuis nil nisi verum

From 30,000 feet, the mass murders in Paris are not significant.* The global trend has emphatically been towards less and less violence despite the media narrative to the contrary. The Islamists have not reversed the progress made in lifting most of the world out of povertypeople living longerbringing people together, and reducing violence.**

In terms of causes of death or injury, global jihad probably doesn't even make the top 100. It probably cracks the list if you are living in the MENA region, but even then, I doubt it's that high. Don't get me wrong, radical Islam, and yes, by extension, Islam itself, is a problem. But it's not such a problem that it requires trillions of dollars and persistent bombings and military intervention to "keep us safe". If anything, we are less safe - though the establishment darlings in the main US parties think the solution is ever more intervention.

It's a little depressing. No, it's very depressing that the default attitude in one of the most prosperous times in human history is fear. Maybe it's always been that way. Fear when electrification, sanitation, immunization, telecommunication, and all these wonderful things were spreading. The fifties nostalgia and science fiction might have just been a thin veneer hiding fears of the prospect of nuclear war. But microwaves, computers, and the jet-age weren't fiction. Dr. Strangelove or Leave It to Beaver? Neither. Zeitgeist is sophomoric. The optimism of an age, however, was probably with the kids who grew up during the time. Maybe they should be the ones running the news.

I remember when I was in grade school, there used to be a show called Nick News or Kidz News or something. We used to make fun of it, even though the show was aimed at us. Most fifth graders are smart enough to know when they are being patronized but that never occurred to the producers I guess. They probably had all sorts of experts involved who believed it was just the thing to address some deficiency in some metric in some study produced by some think tank somewhere.

How do kids see the future? I hope it's not Hunger Games and other dystopias. What is this generation's Star Trek? Not the movie, but the show. Or maybe there are no more unifying themes in American society. The Frontier is settled, the Cold War won and we're just muddling through. Even then, how many actual frontiersmen and cold warriors were there? Very few. The Indians and Russians, maybe they were all a distraction - though is it really a distraction if it gives you purpose? I'll grant the jihadis that. They have a sense of purpose, even if it is in aggression and violence. I mean, just look at the places where euthanasia is growing! Places like the Netherlands, Oregon, and Switzerland. Peaceful, prosperous places, and people want to die. If life is without meaning or purpose, then death is not peaceful; it stings.

* Personally I'm not a fan of the infographic kinetic typography style, but as they say, content is king. Speaking of which, the content isn't completely accurate but it's pretty good. Accurate statistics taking in a war environment is essentially impossible.

** We see in the data that tribal societies are amazingly violent. Mel Gibson's Apocalypto was probably underselling it. The author files these under "non-state" violence which can be disconcerting to people, like myself, who view the state monopoly on violence as a negative, but it would be a mistake to conflate libertarian advocacy for non-state solutions (e.g. Alternative Dispute Resolution vs courts for the provision of order; private security companies vs police, private schools vs. public schools, etc) with a desire to return to a pre-Industrial hunter gatherer state.

But I'm very grateful to the work of people like Max Roser and Hans Rosling whose data driven approaches are an antidote to the sensationalism that drives the media.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

No Adam and your legion of hackey writers, the Electoral College doesn't ruin democracy

Democracy is already a ruinous system. It is the tyranny of the majority and the terror of minorities. It's hilarious how something that, by definition, tramples the aspirations of the minority through threats and violence is taken for granted as a good thing. Even the word undemocratic is a pejorative. Incidentally, it's always bothered me when a media outlet calls a government they don't like a regime. The Assad regime for instance. How that sort of editorial slant makes it past the style books, I don't know.

If I were writing bots that trawled the news to do some sort of analysis for feeding trading algorithm bots, noting a change in reporting from "[Demonym] Government" to "[LastNameGovernmentLeader] regime]" would be a good shorting strategy. Probably means it's time for a regime change and for the US to spread some democracy.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

More Tim Eyman, less Kshama Sawant please.

Most of the results are in and it looks like Tim Eyman's initiative to lower the state sales tax from 6.5 to 5.5 percent unless voters are allowed to amend the state constitution to require more stringent controls on tax increases has won. I'm happy to have voted for it although it puzzles me how such a proposition (with a lower case p) for such marginal changes that only a policy wonk could care about could produce so much opposition. The major state newspaper editorial boards were opposed which just goes to show that if you let the media shape your reality, you will lose touch with reality.

Most counties voted for I-1366 with the main holdout being Seattle. Not a surprise considering one of Seattle's major races was between a progressive and a socialist. The socialist Kshama Sawant won that one. She's famous for having brought in the bone-headed $15 minimum wage in Seattle.*

If she cares so much about economic inequality, she should mandate full economic egalitarianism. Everyone must be as wealthy as King County's wealthiest, who, in this case, happens to be Bill Gates. Until that happens there can be no justice. It's not fair that Bill Gates has a net worth of $80 Billion.

Since it's impossible to give everyone in Seattle $80 Billion (though Jeff Bezos would only need $37 Billion), the only way to achieve economic equality is through wealth redistribution. No billionaires allowed. Had Sawant's sociopathic vision been implemented earlier, there never would have been a Microsoft or Amazon which is too bad for people like me who enjoy Amazon Prime and Microsoft Windows.

Ironically, had there been no Microsoft, Sawant would likely still be in India.

In general, I think immigration and open borders are good things, but I'd make an exception for people like her.

* Unlike a lot of conservative commentators, I don't think this will lead to large scale unemployment in Seattle, not because minimum wages are immune to the problems affecting price floors (they aren't), but because workers whose skills aren't worth at least $15/hr will go elsewhere. Seattle's average productivity and per-capita income will increase and the policy will look like genius.

 It's a little bit like China's PISA scores. The PISA tests are meant to measure children's educational development in different countries but China's score comes from a favorably selected group in the wealthiest city in the nation. That didn't stop obsolete media outlets from heralding the Chinese educational system.

Not saying the Shanghai data aren't useful. Shanghai is a huge city and even if it is only partially representative, it suggests it could be an economic powerhouse without peer. It's not a surprise they took the top spot, not that international comparisons mean anything.

Data from international comparisons are useful, but these things usually reinforce the position "national" thinking has on people. It's like how talking about people in collectivist terms e.g. class, gender, race, nationality etc. biases the individual to think in those terms as opposed to the correct framework, see Methodological Individualism. This isn't to say that groups don't exist, but the nation-state and the inter-national system are constructs that take for granted the legitimacy and preĆ«minence of the state.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Where are you Yatima?

The following popped up in my RSS

http://www.kurzweilai.net/china-plans-worlds-largest-supercollider

As is usual with the Kurzweil AI site, there's a lot of useless speculation. Googling "Circular Electron Positron Collider" did lead me to the following comment regarding the future of high energy physics via larger particle accelerators:
Yatima says: 
August 8, 2013 at 3:18 amConsidering the way “western” economies stay mired in inflationism, debt traps and welfare-warfare statism — if China manages to make a soft-ish landing for their overleveraged, bubbling, export-slanted and cheap-labor-from-the-countryside dependent economy (as well as not fall into the trap of internal or external armed conflict), they might be a contender for a projet of a 2030 or later timeframe. They are flush with foreign cash (or rather, US gov’nment IOUs) and looking for national prestige so they could start on design work immediately. Is anyone talking to them?

In a lot of ways these huge projects by the Chinese government remind me of the good ol' days when geopolitics was the US and the USSR. None of this BRICS stuff or Islamic extremism. The relationship between the US and China is more like Firefly's "Alliance" than the Cold War's Rambo or Rocky, but the simplifying paradigm of a bi-polar world has a lot of appeal.


Two is none

I'm mailing off the Anova sous-vide device for exchange but thought I'd give it one last try.

Low Liquid. No worries, I can sous vide the old fashioned way so I grabbed my ThermoWorks RT-301WABlank screen. The older units like mine, which I'd bought in 2011, were prone to rapid battery drain so, not a problem; I had bought several of whatever the weird watch battery this thing takes just for this situation.

Swapped the battery out and ... still nothing.

I had it coming; the device only has a 4.6/5 star rating on Amazon. As I wrote before, 4.6 is basically junk. Ninety two percent. Suckered in by the Halo effect yet again. As a cognitive bias it's not an entirely unreasonable one; companies that become a trusted name have an incentive to maintain that trust. It means repeat customers and higher margins, though, there's always a temptation to kill the golden goose through branding leverage hell.

  1. Introduce a thousand SKUs with your company's name on it for a slight markup
  2. Maintain markup through status/luxury marketing. 
  3. Go bankrupt when exposed/fashions change.
  4. Sell trademark to a company that will destroy any remaining value your brand had
see: Polaroid, Eddie Bauer (or any outdoors company really), any of the LVMH companies, Black & Decker, etc.


The ThermoWorks' halo product is the ThermaPen. It is widely considered to be the best food thermometer in the business, or at least that's what Big Kitchen* tells me, so I figured the cheaper made-in-China RT301WA would be a Pareto buy - 80% of the capability for 20% of the cost.

It never occurred to me that ThermoWorks is a small company that is not going to be able to get the top-tier in Chinese factory production. I just figured that the company did the hard work and passed the savings on. But even $30 for a digital thermometer is netting huge margins which is why there are now more players in the space - all leveraging Chinese manufacturing. Worryingly, some of these, e.g. LavaTools, form some of the top picks by America's Test Kitchen and The Sweethome (a meta review site that increasingly looks like it doesn't have the art of meta analysis figured out. Back to consumersearch.com for me).

The RT301WA is no longer sold on Amazon though it is available on ThermoWorks' own site. It's been revised to use a more common battery with larger capacity. Even though you can still buy it, I can't help but feel like it is a fly-by-night product. Should have gone with the Thermapen. Quality only hurts once and all that.

The Thermapen is made in England. I tend to associate general manufacturing quality with car reliability and the fact that the UK doesn't produce cars any more says a lot. The Thermapen is probably a quality unit but overpriced. I wish one of the big Japanese electronics firms would wade in. Come to think of it, Panasonic has never let me down. Well, I did have a semi-rugged Toughbook fail on me but that was largely my fault. Panasonic rice cooker, Panasonic bread maker, Panasonic phone, Panasonic batteries, Panasonic camcorder, Panasonic digicam, Panasonic laptop. Now that I spent the time thinking about the Panasonic stuff I use, I'm surprised because I don't have any brand loyalty to the company. I think that's maybe because Panasonic is rarely the top of the line product in terms of features: Zojirushi, Nikon, Apple, and Sony tend to lead in those product categories, but it always seems to be a competent choice. Now there's a company I wish I had studied in business school.

* Linking the big names and companies wouldn't even make for an interesting infographic; they're mostly on Food Network. It casts doubt on the scientific objectivity of Alton Brown or Anthony Bourdain's renegade image. Alton Brown shills for Shun knives. Emeril has his line of cookware. Someday, we will all have meters and the the panoply of SI calibration equipment.


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Dear Diary, today the government changed for the better

Not "my" government.* The Chinese government. They relaxed their draconian and suicidal One-Child Policy in favor of a two-child limit. It makes sense considering the demographic implications of a steeper or even upside down population pyramid.

On the day I wrote an earlier post about my doubts regarding the rise of China, a debate was taking place at the Intelligence Squared US forum on that topic. It's not synchronicity because the clock for every Asian reads "Time for China". Or maybe that was Made in China.

As is usual, the wrong side "won" the IQ Squared debate. The side arguing that China is going to be a long term enemy gave far better arguments that China and the US are going to be long term enemies. Ultimately I think they are wrong, but the arguments the other side provided ran along the lines of "is fate unchangeable?"

Nostalgia compels a 10/10 rating

In other news, the ever myopic US defense establishment has selected Northrup to build the next stealth bomber. Back during the days when the B2 was the most expensive aircraft ever built (it still is), no one would have thought "well, let's just go with these guys again". But then, who could have foreseen the rise of two defense companies inept enough and wasteful enough to make Northrup look good.

Part of me wishes that my beloved YF-23, the star of Jetfighter II, could have survived into a stealth strike platform. What a beautiful plane that was. 


* I didn't vote for any of these people to rule over me.

How Chinese sellers can sell a mini tripod and air mail it to anyone in the US for less than a buck.

If you've browsed eBay within the past few years, you've undoubtedly seen a listing like this:

There are thousands and thousands of listings on eBay for goods that you can get from China for unimaginably low prices. How is it possible? It isn't because of slave labor.*


A lot of American eBay businesses put the blame on eBay and they are partially right. Here are three ways American sellers are at a disadvantage versus Chinese sellers
  1. ePacket. ePacket was setup by eBay to give free tracking and delivery confirmation to packages coming from China. The US Postal Service usually charges a couple bucks for this. For a place like eBay whose bread and butter is cheap trinkets, this is pretty big.
  2. eBay charges no Final Value Fees for most Asian countries, whereas it's a whopping 10% in the US. 
  3. Universal Postal Union regulations. They state that international mail, once at the country of destination, must be delivered domestically for free. So once a product from China (or anywhere) arrives at a US port, the USPS will deliver it for no charge. It works both ways, so if you mail something to someone in China, you pay USPS to deliver it to a Chinese port, and China Post will deliver it anywhere in China for free.

Although the Chinese middle class is now larger than the American middle class, and although consumption in China has risen dramatically, trade still largely flows from China to the US. Hence the chorus of complaints from American sellers and the bewilderment of American buyers at such low prices. 

But those three reasons still don't explain how someone can ship a package from Hong Kong thousands of miles to the United States for less than a dollar. Near zero shipping costs for sea freight is believable but that takes 17-20 days. Those Chinese eBay sellers are shipping via air mail which is the most expensive transport mode.

How expensive? The EMS (a subsidiary of the state-run China Post) cost to ship a 50 gram package is 180 Yuan- as of writing $28.31.


By comparison it's around $26.50 based on a flat rate envelope to ship air-mail from the US to China via our own state-run USPS.

These air mail prices are in line with what you'd expect.

However, when you look at buying a tripod direct from the factory in China, we see this shipping table. This is from AliExpress, which is sort of like China's eBay.



Again, state-run EMS is cheaper than the private carriers but look at China Post Air Mail and ePacket. Both are air mail services that cost under $2.00 to ship. The private carriers are well over 2,000% higher! A dummy might conclude that they are all collaborating to price themselves out of one of the largest and fastest growing air freight markets on the planet and can't compete with the lean, efficient Chinese government. Or, maybe, just maybe, the government shipping options are being subsidized.

Why? I believe it is to drive export growth. Exports were an important factor in the rise of Japan and South Korea so the Chinese Communist Party probably thinks export subsidies can juice growth. Indeed, if you use EMS's "International E-commerce Express" (emphasis mine) service which currently only covers shipments to the United States, the cost is 6 Yuan or only $0.94 compared to nearly $30 if you use the regular EMS service. That's right, if you are in China selling stuff online to people in the United States, you get a 97% off shipping.

The cost, in the sense of the expense portion of gross profit, is probably a bit over $4 based on the fact that Amazon, which has optimized shipping charges like no other entity on this planet and still operates its shipping at a large loss, charges a $4 minimum to air mail Hong Kong.** 


Who is picking up the difference? As with all subsidies, it's the taxpayer. In this case, the Chinese taxpayer chips in at least $3, likely quite a bit more, every time an American buys a small trinket off a Chinese eBay seller/AliExpress/DealExtreme (and increasingly Amazon). 

But wait, a $0.99 tripod after $0.94 in shipping, that's 5 cents. These tripods are around $0.33 in bulk so that is a $0.28 loss. What I think some of these sellers are doing is taking a small loss in order to build their feedback ratings. But they probably need it considering the negative feedback they get when customers' only option is to keep a bad item or fork over $25 to return.

* Though if you consider taxation to be a kind of slavery, then yes. It's slave labor.

** Not including the Kindle which is a loss leader.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Knowledge is not understanding, unless it is

"Knowledge is not understanding"

Sounds profound, dunnit? Or, like Chesterton's quip that the problem with capitalism is that there are too few capitalists, is it an aphorism that doesn't stand up to scrutiny?*

SPOILER:  it's meaningless

Knowledge and understanding are synonymous but not identical. For instance, saying:

I know John (as in "do you know John?") is different from I understand John (as in "do you know why John does what he does?"). The implication is that knowledge is superficial whereas understanding is deeper.

But the roles can be reversed.

I know John, (as in "How do you know he will be late?"). The knowledge here is greater than mere recognition. Similarly I understand him as in "Can anyone make out what John is saying?" is very superficial.

Ultimately the difference between knowledge and understanding is contextual and inconsistent which makes the phrase "knowledge is not understanding" rather particular. Depending on emphasis, knowledge and understanding in the context of bike riding can be the same contra Destin Sandlin. They can be different and saying I know how to ride a bike implies a deeper - experiential - knowledge than I understand how to ride a bike.

So knowledge can be understanding, unless it isn't. The phrase is meaningless. It's something Jack Handey might say, but it isn't even entertaining. "Knowledge is not understanding" is wrong, but does not redeem, as Chesterton and Voltaire do, in wit. "Knowledge is not understanding" is worse than trivial because trivial information is at least true.

I guess what I'm getting at is that pothead philosophy is bad, mmkay? 

* I've had a number of arguments with distributists on this matter. They abhor the concentration of capital and are for decentralization of authority (subsidiarity) but don't realize that increasing the number of capitalists requires strongly authoritarian practices and greater centralization. The societal ideal for distributists is one where workers own the means of production. A typical contrast might be the capitalist system where a worker goes to work at a furniture factory. They don't own any of the equipment whereas in the distributist system, the worker would own the tools needed for their livelihood. The advantage, presumably, is that the worker's livelihood is no longer dependent on a factory owner.

The disadvantage is that there is less choice and more risk for a worker. So you bought all this woodworking equipment but the rage is plastic or metal furniture? Too bad. Maybe you want to switch to metalworking but would rather rent the equipment rather than buy. Or maybe you would even want to just do the work but not rent or own the equipment. But that's the scenario distributism is meant to avoid. How would a distributist society avoid that? Ban people from doing that the same way people who are want to work for under $15/hour won't be allowed to in Seattle because it's for their own good.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

They don't make 'em like they used to

My Anova One sous-vide ist Kaput.

I felt pretty good a couple weeks ago having successfully troubleshot my sous-vide machine. Went to cook another leg of lamb and cringed at another "Low Liquid" error stoppage. Figured it might be an issue with the ionic sensor again and started up the machine in a mug of hot vinegar.

That did the trick so I just added the vinegar to the water bath and the machine worked for a couple hours. Beep. "Low Liquid". Attempted to resuscitate but got "Low Liquid" again preceded by frenetic clicking.

Signed up to the Anova forums and am hoping someone has an answer or will allow a return/exchange. Having only done about 5 meals with the machine, it's a very poor return on investment if they decline.

It's a simple machine; far simpler than a washing machine. Yet the washing machine is more reliable despite having to do a lot more. Motors have to handle heavy unbalanced loads, water temperature also has to be regulated, there's a timer, multiple hoses and gaskets, dealing with dirt and debris, etc. Intuitively, the Anova should be significantly more reliable. The average Amazon rating of 4.7 stars is higher than its successor. 4.7 stars with at least a dozen reviews is my personal threshold for buying things off Amazon. Anything lower is junk tbh, sort of like how any seller below 99.8% feedback on eBay isn't worth the risk if the difference is a couple bucks.

This isn't me being elitist either. The nominal rating difference might be small but those seem to be magic numbers between a mediocre experience and a good one. Maybe everyone is handing out A's because that's how they were treated in school. Grade - and apparently rating - inflation is real.

Maybe that's how I've fooled myself into thinking things were better made in the past. Back when a 60% was a D, 70% was a C etc., a 90%+ was outstanding; something achieved by very few. It's hard to find a product on Amazon or a seller on eBay with a low rating, but that's a feature. Poor products and sellers get hounded out of the gene pool and the population improves. Along with those increased improvements are greater consumer expectations.

You would have needed all these devices in the 90s to do what a smartphone can do now.



It isn't a completely fair comparison. A smartphone can take and play back far better video. The calculating ability completely outclasses the pocket calculator. However, a smartphone can't fill a room with music the same way a boombox can and extended typing is a nightmare on a little phone. A cheap pocket calculator is going to survive a lot more abuse that most smartphones and with months of battery life compared to hours. And even if the calculator breaks, the guy pictured could still watch movies, listen to music, type stuff up, record video etc whereas you are hopelessly lost if your smartphone breaks.

The technologist in me thinks the solution is a tougher cell phone. And I do have a Sonim cell phone, the sort that you can put in a cement mixer, pour into a form, break the block, and have it emerge scathed but functioning. And yet, it's failed on me just like a similarly super rugged Panasonic Toughbook had failed on me before. Rugged products are usually underwhelming when it comes to features as well.

Maybe it's better to just get a whole bunch of cheap phones and computers. At some point having multiple things that work 90% of the time is better than having one thing that works 99% of the time - that's the principle behind RAID and a product I'm working on.

The issue with going for a cheap-lower reliability strategy is that things breaking is so inconvenient that it isn't worth it. Quality only hurts once. Measure twice cut once. How much is your life worth?*

Not sure where I'm going with this, except that I need to move Antifragile to the top of my reading list.

* The dumbest guideline for buying things.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

What's the deal with tea pulling?

A number of Michael Palin's travelogues show indigenous people pouring tea from some height into cups. This was common in North Africa in his Sahara series, on a dhow in the Indian Ocean in Around the World In 80 Days, and maybe in Full Circle in Malaysia.

From what I found online, foaminess is meant to improve the quality. The Japanese do this in the tea ceremony with their powdered tea. So, from West Africa to the Middle East and throughout Asia, this is done, but why not in Western countries?

Saturday, October 17, 2015

I love anomalies because they aren't really anomalous. Everything is the way it is for a reason but when we don't have an explanation for some odd behavior, a lot of people just paper over the cognitive dissonance and dismiss it as an anomaly. Back when Galileo pushed the theory that the Earth revolved around the Sun, people asked "If the Earth's moving, how come when I throw a ball up, it comes straight down?" and it wasn't until many years later thanks to Isaac Newton, the father of classical physics and calculus, that this objection was answered.

The "huh, that's funny" moment is where real progress takes place.

Like the case of a mathematics graduate with an above average IQ who did not have 90% of his brain. This has some implications for the assumptions behind General AI and the Singularity but I have to admit I'm somewhat partial to the explanation made by Youtuber InspiringPhilosophy. He uses this example to support his theory of an eternal soul via the mechanism of quantum entanglement.

There's a lot of woo-woo in the quantum sciences, mostly toward Eastern philosophies and religion; Oppenheimer and Schroedinger studied Hinduism for example. Bohr and Heisenberg, Wikipedia tells me, were Christians but a Christian understanding of quantum sciences hasn't really developed, unlike Monsignor Lemaitre's work which led to the Big Bang Theory.*

Something I like about "InspiringPhilosophy" is that he more or less approaches things from a traditional (classical) framework and can provide one answer to the question "How would the Greeks or Scholastics view quantum mechanics?" He could be way off base, but looking at Greek and Scholastic philosophers, that's a feature, not a bug.



* ZIMBABWE

A blogger explains why historians like Dale Schlundt falsely believe slavery was the cause for the Civil War

War apologists, particularly progressives and neoconservatives, like to talk about war as if it is a fight for a cause. A fight for (or against) democracy. Or communism. Or slavery. Or national honor. States rights. Terrorism. etc.

But this is only true for violent ideologues who form a tiny minority of combatants. The others are either territorial aggressors or people fighting those aggressors.

War happens because people fight back*

In all cases, initiating aggression is evil. This is true even if the defenders are ruled by evil men. Why? Because self-defense is a universal right. Anyone who brings war upon peaceful people (the majority of a society even during wartime) should not assume people are fighting back on account of ideology. If people largely fought on the basis of "causes", as progressives and neocons believe, you would not expect to see people in oppressive regimes defend themselves.

Uncle Joe's government perpetrated some of the worst crimes in all of history against its people; it is telling that when the Nazis invaded, few greeted them as liberators. The Russians fought ferociously. Why? Because the Nazis had initiated the aggression.

But don't the people living in a nation owe responsibility for the aggression promoted by their government? No. At least not as a collective. That's one of the fatal conceits of the nation state, that southerners had it coming because of Jeff Davis, that Iraqis deserved it because of Saddam, that Dresden was okay because of Hitler, My Lai because of Ho Chi Minh. Because the conflation of a nation with the nation-state is so pervasive, people tend to accept it by default.

The best way to undo this conditioning is conduct a thought experiment reversing "Us" and "Them". That is, always think in terms of the Golden Rule.

Does the average American deserve death because the US Military killed a lot of innocent people during an airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital?

There can be no escaping the fact that it was mass murder and would be a good pretext for an international coalition to bring regime change to the US through an invasion. Wars have been declared on far less noble grounds.

I suspect that most Americans would defend themselves against such an invasion, not because we support the bombing of hospitals, but because most of us had nothing to do with it.

Most southerners did not own slaves, most Germans weren't Nazis, most Vietnamese weren't Communists. This isn't to say that slaveowners, Nazis, and communists (and supporters of American foreign policy over the past decades whether the Commander In Chief had a D or R after their name) weren't perpetrators of aggression because they absolutely were. Those are ideologies based on aggression and violence.** But no one should delude themselves into thinking that the people fighting the Union armies in the South, Nazi armies in Russia, Allied armies in Germany, or the American army in Afghanistan are doing so out of some ideological struggle.

When you stop thinking of people living in an area in terms of their government's policy, it's easier to understand that most are living peaceful lives who are being forced, via taxes, to support their government right or wrong.

While it is admirable to want to liberate others, it is hypocritical to push for or idealize war as the means to accomplish it. Freeing others through increasing state violence against foreigners, i.e. war, not only perpetrates violence against peaceful people in other countries, it also perpetrates increasing violence domestically through suppression of civil liberties and higher taxes.

War is the health of the state.

* Otherwise it would be simple annexation

** Yes, if you voted for Obama or any of the politicians who supported continuing the American presence in Afghanistan, then you share responsibility for those deaths.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Five surefire ways to be more amazing!

Someone thought I'd enjoy the profanity laced video at the bottom and it got me thinking about annoying idioms.
  1. Method vs "methodology". If the sentence still makes sense using "method" instead of "methodology", method is the correct term. Here's an example by Ian Cutress of Anandtech who confuses the two. Here's an illustration of the difference: if you've been reviewing cars by measuring 0-60mph times and have decided to now review them by measuring miles per gallon instead, that's a new testing method. But if you are comparing the two methods, e.g. asking the question "Which of the two methods is better for reviewing cars?", that's methodology. You wouldn't say "my methodology" unless you were actually talking about your way of examining methods.

    It especially doesn't make sense to talk about a new testing methodology.
  2. Problem vs "problematic". For example "the death penalty is a problem" and is "the death penalty is problematic" There's no meaningful difference except problematic sounds uglier.
  3. Use or case vs "use case". This is common in IT writing. The writing style in IT is generally beyond redemption but hopefully this use doesn't spread. I hate to pick on Anandtech again, but here's Joshua Ho in his iPhone 6 review

    "As long as the overall average bandwidth demand doesn’t exceed the speed of the TLC, short-run bandwidth is solely limited by the speed of the SLC cache, which turns out to be the case for almost every normal use case."
  4. Using instead of "rocking". "I'm rocking a Razer Deathadder mouse"

    Guy Fieri tier.
  5. Just about anything instead of "nice". A perennial favorite among language critics, I don't know why "nice" bothers me in particular. Maybe it's because I can't say anything nice.
  6. Bonus 27 Oct:  "You do know that X, right? You do know that, right?" More passive aggressive than a Whole Foods clerk.

"Really?" and its cousin "Seriously?" have to go

* I use weasel words all the time because it is much more difficult to say what something is as opposed to merely describing it. Often, the simplest declarative requires an arsenal of qualifiers to make it completely true.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Anova Sous Vide "Low Liquid" warning

I have the Anova One Sous Vide immersion unit. In theory and in marketing, you can just "set it and forget it". Compared to fiddling with stovetop dials and periodic temperature measurements, it is super easy.

However, the last time I used it, the unit would disable itself within a few minutes and throw a "low liquid" warning despite a liquid level near the max line. That really hurts the utility of this thing since I still have to babysit what I'm cooking or else the food could dip into unsafe temperature territory for hours without me knowing about it.

Halting the device because of low liquid is a good fail-safe on top of the other safeties e.g. fuse, temperature probe which would shut down the heating element anyway at high temperatures, metal casing ... but it should never activate if the liquid level isn't actually low.

What could it be?

At first I thought that maybe there was some debris in the unit blocking the water level sensor so I removed the metal housing and rinsed it with a produce sprayer. No luck. Then I used a Waterpik because there's one crimped part that could trap material. Still nothing. The manual says not to use de-ionized water so I added a pinch of salt to ensure conductivity. That fixed it for about an hour and I was pretty happy.

Then it failed again.

The water level probe looked corroded so I scrubbed it with a pipe brush but it still failed. Next step? Disassemble, continuity testing, voltmeter etc. Checked out the Anova forums for return information but one person in the Anova forums had luck with their malfunctioning unit by raising the unit off the pot bottom. Not sure why that would affect anything since I've used it plenty of times before but maybe there's some odd shorting issue. Placed it on a plastic cap in the pot and it ran again.

Then it failed again.

The forum had one guy with a generic Error message on one of the beta units find a solution through descaling.

So I soaked the unit in vinegar and ran it until it stopped. Had to do this a couple times but it seems to be working now. Lamb leg had since been cooking in the oven so it's not a real test but it ran for a good amount of time.

I don't think the descaling cleaned the sensor since I had scrubbed it and the unit still failed almost immediately.* What I think happened was that the scale build up caused the heating element to run too long and it overheated. I noticed some clicking noises prior to each failure so maybe the fuse needs to be replaced. It's probably not a failing fan since that runs fine.

Maybe the programming runs something like IF internal temperature > thermal limit THEN display "Low Liquid"

Although I plan on descaling the unit more frequently, the engineering could definitely use some work! Aquarium heaters work constantly and for orders of magnitude longer time than I've used this sous-vide machine. Electric kettles can be absolutely covered in scale and still perform. My Keurig gets used frequently and only requires descaling if the coffee output volume is noticeably lower than normal. But it still works. While the Anova immersion sous vide machine is a propeller, thermocouple, water level sensor, and heater all digitally controlled, it really is a simple design that ought to be more reliable. Maybe I got a lemon, given the large number of five star reviews on Amazon, but at the very least, descaling should be specified as necessary and routine maintenance.

* One of the Anova engineers states that discoloration on the water level sensor is normal. If it really is the case that the sensor malfunctions because of scaling issues, a bob type system would be better.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

What would HAL think of politics?

Both the leftist New York Times and the gradually right trending Washington Post both thought Hillary dominated the Democratic debate. I'd really like to know their scoring methods because it was very clear to me that Bernie Sanders and even Webb (though he seemed awfully out of place) ran rings around her.

Maybe they were going by the rapturous applause she received in answering how her presidency would differ from Obama's:


Anderson Cooper's priceless follow up: "Is there any policy difference?"

To be fair, she was Obama's Secretary of State for a number of years and was largely uncritical of the administration during that time so highlighting major policy differences would be inappropriate.

Anyway I was thinking about Freeman Dyson's likening of the pre-WWI early 20th century our current early 21st century. Does he believe there will be another world war? Total war seems inconceivable among nuclear armed nations. Only the Swiss, and maybe the Finns are prepared for that. It's a little ironic that those nations are probably among the least likely to need the huge blast shelters they've built. Makes a bit more sense for the Israelis and Singaporeans though.

A popular theme among historians is that a resurgent China is going to vie with the US for hegemony or whatever. Doubtful. China's population is rapidly aging; there aren't enough children to both support the elders and sacrifice to war. Maybe there'll be a showdown in the Spratly's. The US might lose a carrier group (and despite official policy to the contrary, wouldn't go nuclear in response) but China is literally surrounded by wary rivals. Russia, India, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, the Koreas, Taiwan, and Australia all have China as a top national defense priority. When China increases its military, so do its nervous neighbors. When the US increases its military, there isn't any incentive for Canada and Mexico to do the same.

Hans Rosling believes that if China and India can avoid going to war, they will reach parity with the US in terms of GDP per capita on the 27th of July 2048.* Of course if Ray Kurzweil's prediction comes true, i.e., that the Singularity will occur in 2045, all bets are off.

*https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_asia_s_rise_how_and_when?language=en#t-891281

Monday, October 12, 2015

Mono no Aware

Freeman Dyson, October 2015
Interviewer: You were being invited to help solve problems in an era when things looked pretty grim ... now we've conquered a lot of these, but there seems to be an unquenchable thirst for apocalypse. 
Dyson: Yes. I don't know why, it's a mood of the times. I don't understand that better than anyone else. It is true that there's a large community of people who make their money by scaring the public, so money is certainly involved to some extent, but I don't think that's the full explanation.
It's like a hundred years ago, before World War I, there was this insane craving for doom, which in a way, helped cause World War I. People like the poet Rupert Brooke were glorifying war as an escape from the dullness of modern life. [There was] the feeling we'd gone soft and degenerate, and war would be good for us all. That was in the air leading up to World War I, and in some ways it's in the air today.
The years before 1914 were a tremendously promising time. Russia was getting richer, [but then] the whole thing fell apart. It's comparable today – we've done a much better job with feeding the world and if you look at the number of desperately poor people, it has been decreasing quite steadily.
The most important thing at the moment is China getting richer. What the rest of the world is doing doesn't really matter.
http://www.theregister.co.uk/2015/10/11/freeman_dyson_interview/ 
Have we abstracted our lives to the extent that we aren't living? Will it take mass slaughter to man to search for meaning again? It's not a surprise that as globalization has improved things materially, it only spreads the sameness and dullness of McWorld. Maybe on a long enough timeline, becoming Tyler Durden is inevitable.

Elon Musk is similarly pessimistic.
Interviewer: What kind of cars will we be driving 20 years from now? 
Musk: Huh, man. I hope civilization is still around in 20 years

8:34

Maybe the end of civilization won't happen in 20 years. After all, humankind is moving toward ever decreasing birthrates; Italy and Japan can't even replace their populations. The Japanese twilight is quiet; you can get a feel for how life will increasingly look like from this documentary about its remote islands.

But what meaning and purpose can you find in your civilization if it is only going to end?

The Asian Advantage

My mom knows how to make a three stone fire. If you don't know what that is, don't worry, neither did I. Apparently it's how people made fire to cook before microwaves and stoves. It's how her family did things until "Esso" became available which was the shorthand for propane. Her family got electricity and telephone service in the 60s, the first in her town.

By most material measures, at that time, the Philippines was very poor compared to the US, even compared to the US poor.* Anyway, they came here, worked very hard, sacrificed tons, put me and my sister through college, and are now relatively well-off. Most Filipinos in the US are doing okay. Maybe not as high flying as the Chinese and Koreans, but compared to what they came from just fifty years ago, it's a Cinderella story.**

Nicholas Kristof, trying to defend his thesis that African Americans are doing poorly relative to whites on account of racism, tries to suggest that the reason Asian Americans do even better than whites despite being a minority is because Asian immigrants are well-to-do highly educated professionals.

Wrong.

Most Chinese immigration to the US was in the form of laborers driven by poverty and famine to seek a better life. They were mostly laborers and faced enormous discrimination. The Chinese Exclusion Act and anti-Chinese lynchings and mobs drastically reduced their population - in Seattle at least. Japanese people were sought after to replace them as cheap labor. Similar to Koreans today, the Japanese setup small shops and gradually became successful. Eventually the Japanese were barred from immigrating and Filipinos ended up replacing them.

The Chinese Exclusion act was only repealed during World War II, a period that saw the rise of Japanese internment camps. Although Japan became an important ally in the postwar period, the rise of Communist China, the Korean and Vietnam "wars" have provided plenty of fodder for Hollywood to stoke negative stereotypes. Maybe the post Civil War experience for African Americans has been one of greater oppression. Maybe not, the podium standings at the Oppression Olympics aren't important. What is important is the fact that discrimination does not explain the dismal situation faced by African Americans relative to other groups, especially Asian Americans have also faced systemic discrimination but have thrived.

There are many possible explanations for this: Confucian cultural emphasis on study, high savings rates (i.e. low time preference), strong families, optimal selection (migrants tend to have the risk taking qualities that favor entrepreneurship), and yes, even a racial component. Some of these things we can't change - at least until genetic modification becomes more available - but things like keeping a family together, studying hard, and saving money are things "black" and "white" America could learn from the so-called model minority.*** But all those things require quiet and long term sacrifice, something that does not fit with the news cycle and clickbait proclivities of mainstream media like the New York Times and writers like Nicholas Kristof.

FOOTNOTES

*  Although, interestingly, the Philippines punched well above its weight in health outcomes when compared to income as the following talk shows. It's a long talk and if you had to pick between reading the rest of this post or watching the talk, I suggest you watch the talk. It's the only "Everything You Know About X is Wrong!" piece on the Internet that lives up to the hype.

Hans Rosling, back when TED was good

** Better than Cinderella in many ways because modern civilizations have better health and dental care, access to more varieties of food and entertainment, cheaper and faster travel, near instant communications world wide, hot water on tap, air conditioning, the Internet, etc. And that's for average people, not just royalty.

*** The reasons for the decline in all these things are complex and some of them are external to the immediate actors. There's far less incentive to save, for example, if the government lowers interest rates and erodes the value of savings through inflation as is the case today. The trend over time has been for people to form relationships on the basis of enjoyment rather than to create a stable environment to raise children. Both can exist in a relationship but the outcomes are radically different if the former has priority over the latter. Etc, etc.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Initiative 1366

Politics is mostly a waste of time unless you are unimaginably wealthy. If you are lucky enough to be one of those people, you can invest in politicians to help make you even more wealthy. It's how companies like Halliburton - if you lean left and want to pick on the right - can charge $45 for a box of soda* or - if you lean right and want to pick on the left - how hospitals can charge $9,000 to bandage a finger.**

Contractors routinely "overcharge" the government and the government doesn't care because the taxpayer pays for it. Sure, the government has all kinds of auditors meant to stop this sort of thing but that three trillion dollars the Federal government collected last year has to go somewhere. And that's on top of the hundreds of billions the government borrows because that's not enough. And it will never be enough because voters have a hard time saying no to government initiatives and programs designed to support our troops or provide better access to health care.

On the ballot this November for Washington State is Initiative 1366 which will reduce the sales tax from 6.5% to 5.5% unless the legislature amends the state constitution to require a 2/3rds majority to raise taxes (as opposed to the simple majority required now).

As Washington does not have a state income tax, sales tax is a main source of revenue so this implies a 15.4% reduction. This would bring taxes per person, inflation adjusted, to 1997 levels.

State and Local Government Revenues Per Capita

Source: Washington State Office of Financial Management

In reality, because local jurisdictions have their own sales taxes, the reduction is even smaller. But that doesn't stop the CEO of Neighborcare Health from writing the Seattle Times to say how this will negatively affect health care. Neither does it stop the newspaper editors from complaining about how this I-1366 will hurt education even though spending has been skyrocketing in the US and results are stagnant***

Even though the graph below from a Huffington Post article attempts to color in states with high spending and high rankings and states with low spending and low rankings to bias the reader, you can see there is an extremely weak correlation between spending and ranking overall. If anything, it's the states like Iowa, Kansas, and Texas which should be the model.

Huffington Post Graph of Spending versus Ranking in State School Systems

 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/04/wallethub-education-rankings_n_5648067.html

The second part, the 2/3rds majority requirement is apparently a common thing among states, not that it matters. A state income tax is also very common and I would not want one introduced to Washington! Interestingly, that's how Tim Eyman is pitching I-1366 which makes sense since the voters have approved multiple initiatives previously that would have restricted the imposition of an income tax only to have their vote overturned by the courts. So there's a good chance this will happen despite the ever more careful wording of these things.

Even so, if I decide to vote this coming November, it will only be to select YES on I-1366. After all, I voted to end the state-run liquor monopoly and to decriminalize marijuana use and both measures passed. I don't smoke or drink and neither was ideal from a libertarian standpoint since both initiatives came with the introduction of or an increase in product related taxes. But I-1366, if it actually survives the courts, will be a strict win-win.

A Word About I-1183

Costco was behind ending the liquor monopoly and actually did a bit if jiu-jitsu against opponents on the I-1183 try. A similar attempt to end the state monopoly was defeated previously because of concerns that hard liquor would be sold at convenience stores and so the new initiative included language restricting the sale to only very large stores e.g. Costco.

However, contrary to what you would expect with privatization, Washington liquor prices have largely stayed the same with increased prices in smaller stores. This is a direct artifact of the introduction of the highest tax rate for liquor in the country. Costco advertises its liquor prices as a base price + the additional tax just so people know why they aren't saving all that much. Perhaps this is a kind of conditioning prelude to another initiative to lower liquor taxes although Costco could easily just sell top grade liquors under its Kirkland house brand for less.

The huge taxes that came with the initiative were placed there in order to make it palatable for voters concerned about so-called funding shortfalls. An appeal to a funding shortfall is even lazier than the appeal to childrenthe troops, or the sick and/or elderly because it could refer to any of the things for which a voter wants taxes used. In the case of Federal budget talks, this means closing down things that people like and that aren't used by the ultra wealthy to make more money, things like the National Park system but not things like billion dollar bombers and $9,000 bandages. And so the debt every American must pay back continues to grow.

* http://www.nbcnews.com/id/5333896/ns/nbc_nightly_news_with_brian_williams/t/new-halliburton-waste-alleged/

** http://www.nbcnewyork.com/investigations/I-Team-NJ-Hospital-Charges-8K-to-Bandage-a-Cut-Finger-270053241.html?cid=sm_n_main_1_20140806_29203456

*** http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bill-gates/bill-gates-school-performance_b_829771.html and
https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d14/tables/dt14_236.25.asp

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Lag Reduction FTW, literally

Some time ago I was chatting in a CS:GO stream and made a reference to Fatal1ty. No one caught it which made me kind of sad because Fatal1ty was the first big name in PC eSports. Well I suppose there was Thresh, but e-sports as we know them weren't quite a thing when he was dominant.

Johnathan Wendel

Wendel is retired because, like crime, the competitive First Person Shooter scene is a young man's game. He is in his early thirties, like me. There is no doubt he can get better at the game through practice:

Practice

Malcolm Gladwell says as much with his findings that masters of their field have at least 10,000 hours of attentive practice. That's six hours a day for ten years. But there's also the problem of declining reflexes as we age, and reflex times are key to twitchy games like CS:GO.

So what can we old-timers do? Well, one of the advantages old people have is more disposable income - at least if you are single. This means we can buy things to give us an advantage*

Since all but the highest levels of competitive play take place online, having a better computer can translate to advantages in game. This is particularly true with regard to latency. Let's imagine a peeking situation in CS:GO.

A typical player might have a regular locked CPU, 24" 1080p monitor that came with the computer, and a normal mouse. Imagine they connect to a server with 70ms ping and are heading around a corner where an enemy player is also approaching. For simplicity sake we will assume the enemy player has the same ping and reaction time; the only difference is that the enemy player has better hardware.

The server receives the positions of both players in 35ms, their locked CPU processes that data in 10ms, the monitor input lag introduces another 20ms, the monitor displays at 60Hz which is 16.7ms. So they see the enemy player up to 81ms after the data is actually sent.

The enemy player gets the positional data in 35ms, their faster CPU processes the data in 3.33ms, their monitor has 1ms input lag and is 120Hz which translates to 8.33ms. So they see the player up to 47ms after the data is actually sent. That is, they can see the player for up to 30ms without the other player seeing them.

The player hits the button and the mouse reacts in 15ms, the actual signal is sent in 8ms, and that gameplay data is sent in 35ms. So from click to server receipt can be up to 58ms.

The enemy player hits the button and the mouse reacts in 1ms, the signal is sent in 1ms, and that gameplay data is sent in 35ms. Only 37ms from click to server receipt. That is, the enemy player can afford to react up to 20ms slower and still prevail.**

Based on the stats from the human benchmark website, I think these are decent improvements. With regard to straight up reaction time, I'd estimate one sigma.***

There are a number of in-game settings that can help but there are many guides for that. I'm focusing on hardware here which generally doesn't get the same comprehensive treatment.

The Lag Chain


This is simplified but basically when you play, your computer sends information about positioning to the server and receives information about the positions of other players. In a situation, say peeking around a corner, the player computer with the lower ping will get information about the enemy player first. Then the computer attempts to render the scene, the monitor displays it, the player reacts by moving and clicking the mouse, and that event gets sent to the server. All of these events take time so anything that can reduce that time can theoretically help you get a fraction of a second jump on the enemy.


  1. Ping
  2. Rendering setup time
  3. Draw time
  4. Human Reaction Time
  5. Click time
  6. Event sent to server (ping time)
  7. Server calculation

Ping


The best thing you can do is use the CS:GO game settings to limit the server ping to the minimum (which in the browser is 50ms). It isn't exact but it will tend to place you in games with lower ping.

There's very little else you can do on your side to lower ping. Switching from wired to wireless doesn't reduce ping times appreciably unless it's a really bad wireless card or router. It's still an advantage to use wired just for the reliability.

Switching ISPs can the overall ping situations since larger ISPs tend to have better peering arrangements which means that for a given server, their traffic might be given priority and/or a shorter route.

There are services which purport to send your network traffic through shorter lines but I haven't seen any evidence that they work.

If you are using DSL, getting your provider to switch to non-interleaved can improve ping. The downsides are that the connection might not be as reliable which can sometimes require a speed downgrade.

If you are using Fiber, my connection of choice, check to see if you are using MoCA. This can introduce a latency penalty over using a straight ethernet connection to the router. Unlike the interleaving change, this one will require a technician unless you are good with networking.


Rendering Setup Time


Technically this is broken into many steps, some of which are done by the CPU and some of which are done by the GPU. I'm considering all the work done by the computer here once the gameplay packets from the server are received. 

CS:GO is one of the few games that is largely CPU bound, i.e., the speed of the CPU is the limit to how many frames per second the engine can render. There is a cap of 300fps so trying to achieve gains higher than that isn't that helpful though as frame rate varies depending on map and gameplay complexity, it pays to bump up the CPU horsepower to compensate. 

Overclocking can definitely help in this case so buy an overclockable CPU and overclock it. A lower end processor might get, say 100fps which is enough for singleplayer and 60Hz monitors, but it isn't optimal. 100fps translates to 10ms of latency versus 3.33ms for someone playing at 300fps.

It's possible, if the GPU is weak enough, that CS:GO is unable to hit 300fps. In that case, buy a better GPU. But CS:GO isn't particularly taxing GPU wise.

Draw



For this section, I'm examining the monitor side of things. Here, a 144/120Hz monitor offers a good advantage over a 60Hz monitor. 120Hz is 8.33ms of latency compared to 16.7ms for a typical 60Hz monitor. 144Hz is even faster but the reason I single out 120Hz is because Lightboost technology is only available at 120Hz, sadly.

Lightboost


Lightboost (strobing) basically gives CRT levels of clarity to LCDs. The advantage is that motion is much more clear. When you scroll down a webpage, the text gets hard to read for a number of reasons. But when using lightboost (combined with V-Sync), it is literally like sliding a piece of paper around. It's that clear.

The disadvantages are that it lowers screen brightness quite a bit and increased screen brightness helps reaction time. It also looks best with V-Sync but V-Sync adds a lot of lag which is a killer in competitive games. It cannot work with G-Sync technologies, and probably won't for a long time. It adds a tiny bit of lag since each frame is displayed nearly instantaneously as a whole instead of gradually in parts.

I love the motion clarity personally so I use it but it could very well be the case that 144Hz's lag advantage is better.

On top of Hz differences in latency, there's the phenomenon of pixel response time and input lag. Monitors intended for graphics use like IPS tend to have slower response times. There are, as of September 2015, no IPS monitors with a pixel response time fast enough for strobing to work. 

Input lag is the monitor's own processing time. Gaming monitors and gaming modes generally have much less input lag but that can be checked on review sites. There's a lot of "gaming" marketing snake-oil out there but gaming monitors are the real deal.

Unfortunately measuring input lag is a bit of an art so the results you see from TFTCentral and prad.de (my favorite monitor review site) will vary. Prad.de is German and English but to find the input lag for TFTCentral, it is the "signal processing" time. Ignore the Class designation on that site since it allows a huge 16ms variance for the highest rating. 

What you don't want is for the monitor to do upscaling if you are playing at non-native resolution. It's much faster for the GPU to handle that.

Human Reaction Time


Not much to say here, be well rested, maybe a bit of caffeine, warm up. Maximum brightness is useful but there's not much hardware can do to speed that up. A larger monitor means a larger target which should help reaction time so that might help although larger monitors are dimmer so there's a tradeoff. I play using the 4:3 stretched resolutions relatively close to the monitor so that does give some of that larger target advantage. Maybe glasses with mild magnification could help there as well.

Senses typically respond faster to auditory stimuli but who isn't playing with sound? Playing with positional sound can help you react better, though it isn't directly related to the latency question.

Click Time


I'm indebted to the work done by a pair of Japanese bloggers Utmalesoldiers and systema, who have, by far, the most scientific inquiry into CSGO/FPS gaming hardware and settings that I've ever seen.


Click the image for more detail


This graph is essentially a measure of the time between a click is pressed to the time it is registered. There's a lot more to mouse quality than mouse click lag time, but it is one factor to look at if you are trying to reduce total latency.

Mice also suffer from polling latency. I think the Windows default is 125Hz or 8ms whereas gaming mice can reduce that to 1ms (with a 1000Hz polling rate) or 2ms (500Hz which can be required for some iffy mice). There are noticeable differences that Mark Rejhon of Blurbusters has written about, but I would prioritize click latency over polling rate since the former can introduce unnecessary lag an order of magnitude above the latter.

Well that's it for now and don't forget, PRACTICE! I don't use optimal settings myself since I'm a casual player but I do like to understand the factors that affect gameplay.

* Wealthy young people, or young people with wealthy parents can further extend their reflex advantage with these tips as well.

** These advantages are insignificant compared to team strategy, aiming proficiency, map knowledge, etc. but as the other abilities reach maximum, latency plays a more important role.

*** I'd like to do a formal statistical calculation but I'd need more data. What is the typical spread for the individual? A 50ms advantage can essentially become practically worthless if the spread is very high whereas it is an automatic win every time if the spread is small enough.