Misc: October 2007 Archives


October 26, 2007

Matthew Yglesias approvingly quotes David Brooks:
David Brooks really nails an important part of the internet experience:
Until that moment, I had thought that the magic of the information age was that it allowed us to know more, but then I realized the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less. It provides us with external cognitive servants -- silicon memory systems, collaborative online filters, consumer preference algorithms and networked knowledge. We can burden these servants and liberate ourselves.
Right. I had a weird experience on Monday of playing on a pub trivia trivia team after not having done so for several years. Every time a question got asked that I didn't know the answer to, I felt this overwhelming urge to reach for my iPhone, a device I didn't have back in my earlier quizzing days. The idea of being limited to the information that was actually in my head was very distressing.

So, I started to write about how this is all really obvious and old news —I've seen people referring to their PDAs as external brains since long before they were even networked—but it's actually 6000 year old news. The first major technology that let you expand your ability to offload substantial amounts of work previously done by your brain was writing. The second was mathematics.

Computer scientists like to talk about a memory hierarchy: a computer can have a lot of different kinds of storage: registers, onboard cache (on the chip), offboard cache (on the motherboard), main memory, hard drive (typically a cache plus the disk), online tape, archival tape, etc. The general principle is that the further away you get from the CPU the larger the capacity is, but the longer the access time. So, performance is to a great extent limited by your ability to keep important data at hand. If the working set of your program is too large to be contained in the close/fast/small levels of the memory hierarchy, the CPU tends to idle as data needs to be moved in and out of memory levels.

Obviously, brains aren't constructed in this way, but you do have short and long term memory, and written words provide a form of ultra-long-term memory, as well as (of course) a way to communicate sections of your memory to others. One way to think about this second feature is that it's the ability to have things in your "memory" that you never actually learned. I.e., they never passed through your biological memory, you just look them up when you need them.

The disadvantage of this form of ultra-long-term memory, of course, is that it's unbelievably slow. I keep paper notebooks, but actually finding things in them can be quite difficult ("you can't grep dead trees"). An electronic memory is obviously much easier to find stuff in. The "remember stuff you never knew" feature is even worse. First, you need to actually find the book you're looking for, then you need to actually find the section of the book, then you need to actually digest the information. Only then is it in short term and you actually know it. Compare this to long-term memory, where you just need a reminder and it all starts to swap back into short-term (though this can take quite some time.)

So, the basic problem with paper memories is that the gap between them and the next step up in the memory hierarchy is just too large. One way to think of electronic memories is that they close that gap. At one level, that's great, but at another it still pretty much sucks. It's massively slower to find (let alone assimilate) things from the Internet than it is to remember them (assuming I actually can). What I really want is to just have the information piped directly into my brain. We're a ways away from that, but if we ever can, it will seem like every bit the miracle that the Internet does now, and Google will look just as clunky as books by comparison.

The above is all about memory, but there are actually at least four mental tasks you can outsource: memory, processing, input, and output. Our current technology lets us outsource all of these to some extent, but really it's quite far from what you'd like.

Required reading:
This sort of enhancement is one of Vernor Vinge's writing. "Bookworm, Run!", which is the first place I saw this kind "The Peace War" is very focused on outsourced processing. "Rainbows End" is a more complete vision of both the potential of this kind of technology and of the threats that come along with it.
P.J. Denning's "The Working Set Model for Program Behavior".


October 17, 2007

I'm looking for a Web-based traffic school for a ticket received in Palo Alto. Have any readers investigated the options and want to share their experiences?

UPDATE: Apparently the only online traffic school you can use in Santa Clara County is DriversEd, which annoyingly requires you to take an in-person test at the end of the class. Has anyone done this? Trying to figure out if it's enough of a pain to make just taking the points attractive.


October 14, 2007

Re-watched Wargames last night and noticed something funny. I don't think it's a spoiler to note that the motivating factor for putting the computer in charge of missile launch is that NORAD runs a simulation and determines that 22% of missile commanders won't turn the key. A few notes about this. First, 78% launch success rate is pretty good. Given the amount of missile overcapacity had in the 80s—and still have, I suppose—it doesn't seem to me that this presents much of a problem.

Also, the point of deterrence is to make the enemy believe you'll destroy them if they attack. Once they have actually launched their missiles and they can't be recalled, launching your own missiles is just revenge—pretty questionable behavior if you're a consequentialist. Of course, maintaining a posture of deterrence requires a credible commitment to a strategic posture of retaliation (recall Hermann Kahn's advice about how to play chicken), or rather having your opponent think you have such a commitment. If that commitment is a bit rickety, there are two alternatives: shore it up or just don't let anyone find out.


October 13, 2007

Coming home from dinner tonight, Mrs. Guesswork noticed that a passing bus had "CALL 911" instead of the ordinary route number on the external LED display. We followed instructions and called 911, who said that others had called it in as well.
  • I wonder if buses have some "I'm being hijacked" button accessible to the driver.
  • I wonder what's going on with this one (the 911 operator didn't say.

If anyone in Palo Alto notices this on the news and sees what's up, can you post something in the comments?


October 11, 2007

Like Matthew Yglesias, I'm not particularly bothered by Ann Coulter expressing the opinion that the world would be better if Jews (and presumably everyone else) converted to Christianity:
COULTER: The head of Iran is not a Christian.

DEUTSCH: No, but in fact, "Let's wipe Israel" --

COULTER: I don't know if you've been paying attention.

DEUTSCH: "Let's wipe Israel off the earth." I mean, what, no Jews?

COULTER: No, we think -- we just want Jews to be perfected, as they say.

DEUTSCH: Wow, you didn't really say that, did you?

COULTER: Yes. That is what Christianity is. We believe the Old Testament, but ours is more like Federal Express. You have to obey laws. We know we're all sinners --


DEUTSCH: Welcome back to The Big Idea. During the break, Ann said she wanted to explain her last comment. So I'm going to give her a chance. So you don't think that was offensive?

COULTER: No. I'm sorry. It is not intended to be. I don't think you should take it that way, but that is what Christians consider themselves: perfected Jews. We believe the Old Testament. As you know from the Old Testament, God was constantly getting fed up with humans for not being able to, you know, live up to all the laws. What Christians believe -- this is just a statement of what the New Testament is -- is that that's why Christ came and died for our sins. Christians believe the Old Testament. You don't believe our testament.

I realize it's not considered polite to say this sort of thing in public, but let's recap the argument:

  1. We're all sinners (Rom 3:23).
  2. When sinners die, pretty bad stuff happens to them, even if it's just weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 25:30).
  3. Subscribing to Christianity is only way to escape this nasty fate. (John 3:16).

You don't exactly have to be Jack Chick to believe this stuff—it's pretty much the mainline Christian value proposition. And if you do, it seems like you might think it was pretty much a good thing if your fellow man subscribed to it as well, thereby avoiding an eternity of everlasting torment.

I do realize that phrasing this as there being no Jews is pretty offensive sounding—and of course Coulter specializes in that—but I don't think she's saying you can't eat latkes, just that you'd be expected to believe in Jesus, etc. Now, this isn't exactly a value proposition I'm particularly interested in either, but I don't see that it's really any worse than wishing everyone were a Republican, which I imagine Coulter does as well.

It should be relatively obvious that if you're a member of religion X, you probably think that the beliefs of religion Y are silly/wrong for any Y != X (and as Dawkins points out, atheists just think this for all religions). As a matter of civic politeness, people generally refrain from pointing this out, but that's just politeness, a collective version of refraining from pointing out that someone is wearing a really bad toupee.


October 10, 2007

In the comments on this this post about unredacting digital photos, Adam Roach writes:
Here's something that's confused me about the coverage of this case: whenever referring to the man in the pictures, the media has taken care to describe him as an "alleged pedophile."


Based on the descriptions of the portions of the photographs that haven't been published by the mainstream media, these are photographs of the man having sex with clearly under-aged boys.

I can see how you would need to be careful if you were attaching a name or specific identity to the statement -- any identified person would merely be an alleged pedophile until the case goes to trial and a conviction is obtained.

But the man in the photos? The man in the pictures that depict him engaging in pedophilia is a pedophile.

Well, yes and no.

First, I haven't seen the pictures—and no, please don't send them to me. So, I can't attest that they represent pedophilia at all. Rather, Interpol and those who have seen them allege that they do.

Look at it this way: the dude's face was obscured. Someone unobscured it. I think it's reasonable to assume that the unobscuring actually got the original face before the transformation was applied. On the other hand, it's certainly possible that the face we're now seeing was photoshopped onto the body of someone engaging in pedophilia (Rugbyjock, one of the Fark photoshop regulars, specializes in photoshopping people's heads onto gay pornography). If that were true, then while I guess it's true that the pictures show someone engaging in pedophilia, the referent of "the man in the pictures" starts to get a bit fuzzy.

To get a little more exotic, it's possible that the original source material was of someone having sex with under-age boys, but that the adult's face and body has been photoshopped to look quite a bit not like him. At this point, the referent of "the man in the pictures" starts to get extremely fuzzy. And then there's the possibility that the pictures were completely photoshopped, for instance, by photoshopping adults to look under-aged.

Do I actually believe any of these things are particularly likely? No. But they're not impossible and that's the sort of doubt "alleged" is intended to preserve.


October 7, 2007

OK, so I'm watching Mission Impossible and I've got some questions (spoilers follow after the break.)

October 5, 2007

I wanted to point to Marina Krakovsky's interesting Slate article about the same-day appointment movement for doctors (sometimes called advanced or open access). The basic idea is that whenever patients call, you try to offer them an appointment the same day. Most of the doctor's schedule is kept open for appointments the same day so you can afford to do this. I go to the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, which uses this policy for their general practititioners, and I can attest that it works quite well. I don't always get to see my own doctor, but I generally get to see someone almost immediately, which is really nice. They don't seem to have the same policy for specialists, and it's pretty noticeable when you want to see one.

One essential feature is that the doctor's practice needs to accept some overcapacity. A detailed description of the issue can be found is here but the basic problem is the discreteness of the time units. Say you scale your capacity to match average load. On days when you exceed your average load you need to turn people away. This creates a backlog, but on days when you are under your average load, you generally can't call people in off that backlog, so you gradually build up a larger and larger backlog.

It would be of interesting to know how the overcapacity required to make open access work compares to the overcapacity required to make scheduled appointments work. Obviously, in a perfectly scheduled system, you can work with basically no overcapacity, bringing in an extra person to help out when the backlog starts to get too bad. But real systems have two forms of variance: emergency appointments and no-shows. Emergency appointments require you to keep some overcapacity to service them (the carve-out model), or deny service. By contrast, no-shows produce unintended overcapacity (airlines deal with this by overbooking, but if you're a doctor you can't really tell someone in your waiting room that you can't see them and compensate them with a free trip anywhere in the US). This means that you end up just being idle and doing paperwork, going home, or whatever.

I haven't done any kind of literature search for this, but it seems like a relatively straightforward operations research/queueing theory question.