Yesterday, we had a date night, and over dinner, we thought “Wouldn’t it be nice to watch Contact? Neither of us have seen it since it came out, almost 20 years ago.”
First, we opened up Netflix, and searched for ‘Contact’. It wasn’t available there, but Netflix said it could show us movies similar to it. (It also showed us ‘Star Trek: First Contact” as an option, more on that later.)
So, we try iTunes. We’re trying it on my computer, because S’s Mac has mysteriously stopped talking to our USB speakers. Fast-forwarding through the standard iTunes bad user experience, we eventually figure out how to rent ‘Contact’, the movie, in HD for $4.99. It starts downloading. We hook up the projector, start the movie, and we see the following screen:
The movie that we just paid money to rent will not play on a display that iTunes was more than happy to play on just a couple of years ago.
Think about what just happened here. We went to the extra effort of purchasing a movie rental, and it is treating us like we’re trying to pirate it.
Doing some quick googling, we determine that we might be able to get the SD version to work with our setup, but iTunes won’t let us change from HD to SD (and keeps trying to download the HD version, despite the fact that this will overfill the hard drive).
So, back to Netflix. We eventually settle on Firefly (a really interesting concept, more on this in a later post). Netflix just works.
Or at least Netflix tries to work. Somewhere during this process, my Mac has silently decided that it should no longer talk to the USB speakers. There being no useful way to debug this in the ‘System Preferences’ menu, we end up lugging my sound system from my computer, which has a headphone jack connector like so:
The headphone jack connect works. We finally start to relax, I start watching Firefly for the first time, then we watch the masterpiece which is Star Trek: First Contact, and go to sleep happy.
With the iPhone 7, Apple is using this power to no longer include a standard headphone jack. Now all music, audio, Stripe payments, what have you, will be streamed digitally. It will probably work, it might even work perfectly and for a long time. But at some point, someone will decide to add DRM to that stream, and all of a sudden your music will stop working.
All because Apple decided to remove your headphone jack.
iTunes standard bad experience:
– You have to search twice in the search bar for it to actually search
– The search function has a pre-defined list of types of media, and it will always show them to you in that order. Compare with the Google search for ‘Contact’.
– If you start downloading a rented HD movie, you can’t switch to the SD version, even if you realize you don’t have enough hard drive space, or the HD movie won’t play because of the HDCP DRM.
– And don’t get me started on how slow it always is.
What do you look for when you’re reading a comic? The words? The art? Both? Does one interfere with the other?
I was talking with S recently, and I was extolling the virtues of Casey and Andy, one of my favourite web comics. S mentioned that she had tried to read it multiple times (often at my behest), but had been unable to get into it because of the art.
Thinking about it, I realized that the webcomics I like are generally very simple art-wise. I’m not sure if I actively prefer webcomics with worse art, but I may prefer those with simpler art. Some of the ones I read most often:
I feel that all of these, their art enhances the story. In Transmet, it really brings the world alive, and it works that you have a really busy future city, where everything is happening all the time. You also get important information about Spider’s personality and how he treats people. Watchmen is just a work of beauty woven on so many levels, and I like the vibrant colours of Ex Machina. I feel that something more realistic would almost detract, bring things closer to the uncanny valley, perhaps.
Interestingly, I have a perhaps similar reaction to music, that when I’m listening to a piece of music, I can really only listen to the music part of it, the words I can almost never hear, except when they are very clearly in the foreground, and/or I’ve heard them many times before. This may be related to being an instrumentalist in my previous life.
tl;dr: I like the words of web comics. I like it when the art is simple, or when the art if more complex and is cast in a supporting role to the story. Art more than that can detract (for me, at least) from the words, which (in comics) are my favourite part.
This comic is perhaps one of his more bizarre comics, but I think a fair example of his artistic style/talent. He mentioned in his AMA that “I realized I hated doing the artwork. I just liked telling jokes to people and the art was a necessity for it. That was the main reason I stopped making the comic.”
Also, you probably know him as Andy Weir, the guy who wrote ‘The Martian‘.
You can see a takedown of his drawing of a different comic called ‘Cheshire Crossing’ here.
So, a good friend of mine recently posted the following meme:
“According to astronomy, when you wish upon a star….
You’re actually a few million years late.
That star is dead.
Just like your dreams.”
It’s a really depressing thought, perhaps even more depressing than the Nietzsche/Kubrick mashup: “God is dead, and you are alone in an uncaring universe.”
At least with an uncaring universe, something with persist after you are gone. If all the stars are dead before you can even see them, would there even be anything left after we are gone?
But extraordinarily depressing statements require extraordinary evidence. So let’s take this sentence apart and define some things.
First: “According to astronomy” means that we get to (and have to) use astronomy in our proof or disproof. It also likely refers to modern astronomy, as it did not specify a time/technology period. (It may be interesting to see if any answers would be different under astronomy from a different time period, but that will be a secondary investigation.)
So, this restricts us to the realm of non-moving (or slowly-moving) celestial objects. From the film, the star also seems significantly brighter than the surrounding stars, but the exact extent to which this is true could be dramatic license.
The rhyme mentions ‘first star I see tonight’, which also suggests that the celestial object seen is unusually bright.
So, non-moving (or slowly moving) celestial objects which are bright. This leaves us with comets, planets, and bright stars.
Comets are objects orbiting through the solar system, and unless they fall into the sun, impact another body, or otherwise breakup, they tend to go on ‘living’ after we see them. (Halley’s comet has been known since at least 240BC.)
Planets could easily look like stars, often like unusually bright stars. Venus was called the ‘evening star‘ since antiquity, and it would be bright enough (up to apparent magnitude -4.9) to be significantly brighter than anything else in the sky. Venus could be considered ‘dead’ because it may have once supported life before a runaway greenhouse effect millions of years ago, but this seems an unlikely metaphorical interpretation. Mercury (up to apparent magnitude -2.45) would also be significantly brighter than anything but Venus (and the moon and sun), but has never been ‘alive’, being too close to the Sun. Mars (up to apparent magnitude -2.91) could have been alive at some point, in the same vein as Venus. One or more of the moons of Jupiter (up to apparent magnitude -1.61) or Saturn (up to apparent magnitude 1.47) could have been home to life, under this same metaphorical definition. (The other planets and other bodies in the solar system are too dim to ever be a ‘bright star’.)
So, a planet could be a metaphorical source for this quote, but this seems unlikely, as the quote seems to be referring to the fact that the celestial object is no longer emitting the light itself.
This leaves us with bright stars. Looking at the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius (up to apparent magnitude -1.46), it is only about 8.6 light years away, so we would know in less than a decade if something were to happen there.
You will note that even the furthest among these, Deneb is still only 2600 light years away, much closer than the ‘few million years’ mentioned above.
Based on all this evidence, it would seem that the original meme:
“According to astronomy, when you wish upon a star….
You’re actually a few million years late.
That star is dead.
Just like your dreams.”
is false, which is good, because it would be super-depressing otherwise.
If you enjoyed this sojurn through astronomy, you may like the rest of my blog. Comment below with things you want me to talk about or investigate!
If you have a better source for this, please let me know.
If you want to be pedantic (and I know you do), you could say that meteors are the dead husks of possible (or tidally destroyed) planets, and their burning up in the atmosphere is hundreds of millions of years after they ‘died’.
Much less than a second, even if you assume they impact the Earth’s atmosphere thousands of kilometers away.
A close supernova might also qualify, as it could easily be brighter than anything else in the night sky, would last just long enough to be a ‘wishing star’, and would have been ‘dead’ for some time before it was seen by a human observer. This might indeed be source of this rhyme, where a ‘guest star‘ could inspire wishing and omens. However, looking at this list of supernovae, any supernova which would have been visible as a ‘bright star’ with the naked eye would be at most tens or hundreds of thousands of light years away, not qualifying for the ‘few million years’ mentioned above. I also personally see supernovae more as a seeding of the galaxy with heavier elements, and thus wishing upon one of these would be wishing that the spreading of heavier elements would inspire life to form elsewhere in the universe.
I see no way that any reasonable person could confuse the Sun or Moon with a ‘wishing star’.
Trigger warning: Conversation and possibly dark humour about fictional (and possibly not-so-fictional) people dying in car and train accidents.
How do you design a self-driving car to appropriately value human life? Can you use a Facebook group to speed the development of philosophical discourse?
The ‘Trolley Problem‘ is a problem in ethics, first known to be described in its modern form in the early 1950s. Basically, it boils down to the question:
If you have a choice between action and inaction, where both will cause harm, but your action will harm fewer people, is it moral to perform that action?
Interestingly, people answer this question differently, based on how active the action of harm is, the ratio of people hurt between the choices of action and inaction, and other reasons.
The astute will notice that this type of decision problem is a very common one, the most obvious being in military applications, but also vaccines (and invasive health procedures in general), firebreaks, and perhaps the canonical example, automobile design and manufacturing.
This type of decision making has become even more important with the advent of self-driving cars:
Now, you can argue that this page is purely for entertainment, but I think there’s a lot more hidden there. There is a fomenting and interchange of ideas, much faster and more fluidly than at any time in history. The person who writes the next book on the ethics of decision making could well be influenced by or be an avid user of a site such as this one.
They may have started with Rick-rolling, but image macros are helping the advancement of human knowledge. Stew on that one for a while.
If everyone cooperates, overall they will receive a better result, but if any one of them betrays the others, they get an even better result, but everyone else’s result is much worse. This theoretically leads everyone to betray everyone else, leading to everyone having a worse overall outcome.
People also like the feeling of control.
Check out the article. Apparently, the Sophists were the first (recorded) right-wing think tanks.
My undergrad Philosophy 101 prof. made the argument that because philosophy was not useful for anything else, it must be inherently be useful (and that that was better).
Dark humour. You have been warned.
And it might not even be a book! A blog post, even! 😀
She was in the zone. It had taken two hours, half a RedBull (she would be paying for that later), and pissing off that guy who always seemed to want to talk longer than a conversation.
Free, flying through the code. There really was nothing like it.
She was working on a new DB caching layer for their server-side app. It was one of those ‘augmented reality’ games, but for corporate training. It still felt good to work on it though, to coerce the bits to bend to her will.
“Achievement Unlocked: You have met five new people in one day!”
Ugh. It sounded terrible, having to meet so many people all the time. To have to spend all that time and effort to convince them that the correct answer to a problem was, well, correct. If only they would just *see*.
But she had given up hope of being able to open peoples’ eyes. Give her code, or a nice juicy math problem, and she’d be content for hours, sometimes days.
“Time to eat”, she thought to herself. She gets up, to go to the kitchen. Nyancore streams from her discarded headphones. As she turns, you can see the t-shirt she’s wearing says:
“Of all the things I miss, I miss my cache the most.”
She looks towards you and says “You can’t fault me for that.”
The ‘standard’ wildcard character, specifically referring to a character is the question mark, ‘?’. Generally standing in for any one of some set of things (or in Perl, 0 or 1 of a thing).
The ‘larger’ wildcard character, ‘*’, which stands for any number of something (including 0), sometimes expressed as ‘%’, if you’re speaking SQL.
The ‘even larger’ wildcard character, ‘…’, which is like a recursive ‘*’.
But could there be something larger still? Something which climbs the directory hierarchy in the oppsosite direction, perhaps? Something which can make it past all of the automatic filters, but is clearly wrong? Something like typing ‘NaN‘ into a number field box? Something which steps outside the usual boundaries, like Thiotimoline?
For example, you’re giving a speech or lesson, and someone asks you a question. Many of the same tactics are helpful. It’s helpful to know your audience, to have an idea of their background(s), which types of words will work best for explaining things, and to have an idea of what they perceive the relative level of hierarchy is between you and them.
But once you have an idea of these things, what do you do?
This trigger for this post was an article reporting on Jon Stewart talking about how Hillary Clinton pauses for a few seconds between a question and when she answers:
…“It’s — look, there are politicians who are either rendering their inauthenticity in real enough time to appear authentic, and then their are politicians who render their inauthenticity through — it’s like, when your computer … if you have a Mac and you want to play a Microsoft game on it …”
AXELROD: Yes, yes.
STEWART: … and there’s that weird lag.
AXELROD: Yes. No, I mean …
STEWART: That’s Hillary Clinton.
AXELROD: … that’s a big problem. There’s like a seven-second delay and all the words come out in a perfectly …
AXELROD: … politically calibrated sentence.
STEWART: Right. Now, what gives me hope in that is that there’s a delay, which means she’s somehow fighting something. I’ve seen politicians who don’t have that delay and render their inauthenticity in real time, and that’s when you go, ‘That’s a sociopath.’
So, when you’re answering a difficult question, do you pause? Why? For how long?
For me, it depends on the type of question. For emotionally difficult questions, some of it is finding a neutral perspective from which to address the question, to speak to the person(s) asking the question in a positive and useful way. Sometimes it’s choosing the appropriate emotional outlet for whatever I’m feeling at the time.
For technically difficult questions, it feels much more like assembling a mental model in my head, or choosing between different visualizations/places to start. Parts of this can feel similar to emotionally difficult questions (perspectives vs. visualizations), but to me they feel quite different.
 Article is here. In a footnote because the editorializing in the article is outside the scope of this post.
In the emotional perspective sense.
This is often laughter for later when I’m alone. I mean, really, we’re just ape-like creatures who don’t know the first thing about ourselves. Why are we getting all angry about minutiae? This can only be funny.
Now that I say this, I’ll have to watch next time. But something getting my back up really feels different from trying to focus and assemble a visualization. Maybe being able to relax for all types of questions would make them more similar.
(A brief aside. ‘Alignment’ in this context is from Dungeons & Dragons, where each character is considered to be aligned along two axes, ‘lawful-neutral-chaotic’ (respect for the rule of law) and ‘good-neutral-evil’ (good of the many vs. good of the few). This gives 9 ‘alignments’, from ‘lawful-good’ to ‘chaotic-evil.)
Some had him as ‘lawful-good’, or trying to do the best for the many while respecting laws. some had him as ‘lawful-neutral’, where adherence to laws is more important than the good of the many. I can see the ‘lawful-neutral’ interpretation, just from listening to one of his quotes:
So, I would count this as the Prime Directive is a ‘law’ that is mostly ‘good’, and Picard usually tries to move it towards ‘good’ when there is wiggle room. At the same time, when the ‘law’ conflicts with the ‘good’, sometimes (but seldom) he chooses ‘law’, so ‘lawful-good’ seems appropriate.
2) Now, let’s look at truth. Another quote seems to be in order here:
This would suggest that barring violating the Prime Directive above, truth should be ‘good’, specifically the speaking of truth to power. (I think that’s what actually necessitates the Prime Directive, else if truth was pre-eminent, interference to tell people the error of their ways would be a very convenient excuse.)
So, truth is probably ‘good’. Is it ‘lawful’? You could make the argument that adherence to truth is equivalent to a code of honour, and it’s just as important (or more important) to do things the right way as to reach your objective. So, truth can be either or both of ‘lawful’ and ‘good’. The quote above from ‘The First Duty‘ is speaking about the good of the many (Starfleet, the reputation of his dead friend, and the trust between Starfleet officers) outweighs the good of the few (Wesley’s year of school, his reputation), so I’d call this a meeting of ‘lawful’ and ‘good’.
I’d say Picard is pretty firmly ‘lawful-good’, with some ‘neutral-good’ leanings (bending the rules to help people) and some ‘lawful-neutral’ leanings (sometime rules are absolute).
It’s the little things that sometimes make a difference. When I was teaching standardized test math so many years ago, I noticed as I was drawing problems on the board, all the little habits that I had picked up. Habits which make solving problems easier, habits which reduce the chance for error.
I think some of this (probably sometimes annoying) attention to detail had carried over to Sprint Planning meetings.
Planning Poker is a method for a group to converge on a time estimate for a task or group of tasks. There are a number of ways to do this. The ‘canonical’ way we were taught to do this was to use Fibonacci-numbered cards (1,2,3,,5,Eureka!). This involved a discussion of the task(s) to estimate until everyone had a reasonable idea of their complexity, then each person would choose a number estimate, all of which would be revealed simultaneously, to hopefully reduce bias. The discussion before estimation would not include estimates of how long things were estimated to take, to also try to reduce bias.
While we were running our planning meetings, I noticed that we would start to slip away from this ideal, perhaps because certain things were not important, perhaps because we didn’t see that certain things were important. For example:
We moved from cards to apps, and then to fingers. Using apps for estimation is less annoying than finding the cards each time, but fingers are even faster to find. I/we tried to get around the bias effect by having everyone display their fingers at once, and that worked reasonably well. Even making each person think about their estimate before display can help a lot with reducing the impact of what others might think of them.
One thing I tried which never really caught on when other people were running the meeting was saying ‘A,B,C’ instead of ‘1,2,3’, with the idea that it would be less biasing on the numbers people were choosing. (This may have mostly been an impression of mine, as the moving of the estimate from a mental number to a number of fingers may cement it in a slightly different mental state…)
If one is not careful, and perhaps somewhat impatient in meetings, one can start suggesting estimates before they are voted on. It can take considerable discipline and practice to not do this.
Another thing I noticed was how difficult JIRA was to use when one is not practiced in it, especially in a room with many people watching. Something that any experienced demo-giver would know like the back of PowerPoint’s hand.
That’s all I have for now. For more minutiae, tune in tomorrow!
For those of you who have not had the pleasure, these are the meetings at the start of an iteration, where the team sits down in a room, estimates a bunch of priority-ranked tasks, and decides (generally by consensus) how many of them they will commit to getting done in the next two weeks. Like all meetings, they can be good or bad, and the meeting chair (I feel) can make a large difference.
I am probably as guilty of this as anyone. I would recommend Randy Pausch’s ‘Time Management‘ for those who feel similarly.
Q10: Negative rates, and how they affect Berkshire:
1/4 to -1/4 is not very different. Both are ‘painful’ interest rates for investing $60 billion
Charlie Munger looks like a sea turtle.
Charlie seems to drink a lot of Coke, don’t know if Warren does, but that could just because Warren is the one talking most of the time.
Q11: BNSF Decline in commodity prices, and how that might change how much freight is shipped
“We don’t mark up and down our wholly-owned businesses based on motions in the stock market.”
Q12:Harry Potter(?!?) question? (The question asker compared the situation to Hogwarts, etc…)
How should children look at stocks when time horizons for ‘investing’ so short, and IPOs are making so much money?
‘If they want to do mathematically unsound things and one of them gets lucky and they put the one that’s lucky on television…’
Think of stocks as a business you own…
‘American business will do fine’
‘But not the average client of a stockbroker.’
‘The stockbroker will do fine’
Q13: NV lobbying against solar (rooftops) where the utility was forced to pay the increased rate to the homeowner instead of the government?
‘Who pays the subsidy’ is the issue… (‘A political question’)
‘If society is the one benefiting, then society should pick up the tab.’
Q14: Low oil prices influence BRK more now (because of various effects on various subsidiaries)?
‘We don’t think we can predict the price of commodities.’
‘I’m even more ignorant than you are.’
Q15: Would philanthropic establishment of new universities help with the cost of tuition, possibly by supply/demand?
‘If you expect financial efficiency in american higher education, you’re howling at the wind’
‘Glory of civilization’ (universities)
‘Monopoly and bureaucracy’ (description of universities)
We (USA) spend a lot of money on higher education. Being cheap is not our issue.
‘I’ve made all the enemies I can afford.’
Q16: On effects of Donald Trump on Berkshire
‘That won’t be the main problem’
‘I’m afraid to get into this area.’
‘Business in this country has done extremely well for 200 years.’
Returns on tangible equity have not suffered while those on fixed income have suffered.
GDP/capita has gone up in real terms
‘System works very well in terms of output per capita, as far as distribution (inequality), there are often more issues.’
‘Charlie, give something pessimistic to balance me out.’
‘I don’t think the future is necessarily going to be as good as the past, but it doesn’t need to be.’
‘You’re making free choices that you couldn’t 20 years ago.’
Q17: Norfolk Southern/CP failed merger fallout?
BNSF: Certain tests needed to be passed before a large railroad merger would happen (good for public interest, good for shareholders, etc…). That merger may have been good for the shareholders, but did not meet the overall criteria. Next round of mergers will occur when population makes transportation more scarce.
Q18: How do you feel about investment banks not being able to make as much money?
After 2008-9, regulations to increase capital requirements, particularly on larger banks….
‘You can change the math of banking and profitability of banking by changing capital requirements.’
100% capital requirement means not very profitable, 1% capital requirements causes huge problems
Investment banking not a thing we invest in.
‘Generally, we fear the genre more than we love it.’
Q19: Activist investor targeting if BRK trades at a discount to intrinsic value?
Defend by size, and by having money to buy shares at less than intrinsic value.
‘The numbers involved would be staggering.’
Mid-America does better by not being split up.
1973-1974 very good companies selling at a steep discount to what they’re worth… (When stocks at a discount, money is hard to come by)
We don’t worry about this and others do, they can get attacked by hostile takeovers/etc, and we can’t
‘…and you want a strong ally, how many people would you pick in preference to BRK?’
Train cars… Bank has lower cost of funds than we do
‘A trillion dollars, at 10 basis points’
Aircraft leasing not interesting…
‘We’re well located now, but I don’t think we have new opportunities.’
Q21: Which competitor would you take out and why
‘I don’t think we have to answer this one.’
‘Widening the moat’ is the goal.
‘Not trying to target competitors, just trying to do the best everywhere.’
‘Spoken like an anti-trust lawyer’
Q22: Sequoia, and Valeant position
The guy we trusted and recommended passed away in 2005.
The manager involved is no longer in charge.
‘If you have a manager, and doesn’t have integrity, make sure they’re dumb and lazy.’
‘Pattern recognition is very important in evaluation of humans and business.’
‘Frequently come to a bad end, but frequently looks good in the short term.’
‘Valeant of course was a sewer.’ (And they deserved what they got.)
Protege Partners Wager Results (longbets.org)
Hedge funds of funds vs. S&P500 index funds
‘That might sound like a terrible result for the hedge funds, but it’s not a terrible result for the hedge fund managers.’
‘180 million dollars a year, merely for breathing.’ (If Berkshire compensated 2&20.)
‘They can’t believe that they can’t hire someone to make them more money than average.’
‘Consultants can’t change too much year to year, because it looks like they don’t know what they’re doing.’
‘Charlie, do you have anything to add to my sermon?’
‘A tiny group of people.’ (Who can manage money consistently better)
‘Far far far more money made on Wall Street by sales abilities than investment abilities.’