30 June 2021

Applied Network Science: “Urban spatial order: street network orientation, configuration, and entropy”

Figures 4 and 5 put Chicago’s low entropy and Charlotte’s high entropy in perspective. Of these 100 cities, Chicago exhibits the closest approximation of a single perfect grid with the majority of its streets falling into just four bins centered on 0°, 90°, 180°, and 270°. Its φ = 0.90, suggesting it is 90% of the way between perfect disorder and a single perfect grid, somewhat remarkable for such a large city. Most American cities’ polar histograms similarly tend to cluster in at least a rough, approximate way. Charlotte, Rome, and São Paulo, meanwhile, have nearly uniform distributions of street orientations around the compass. Rather than one or two primary orthogonal grids organizing city circulation, their streets run more evenly in every direction.

Most of the North American cities lie near each other in three adjacent clusters (red, orange, and blue), which contain grid-like—and almost exclusively North American—cities. The orange cluster represents relatively dense, gridded cities like Chicago, Portland, Vancouver, and Manhattan. The blue cluster contains less-perfectly gridded US cities, typified by San Francisco and Washington (plus, interestingly, Buenos Aires). The red cluster represents sprawling but relatively low-entropy cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas. Sprawling, high-entropy Charlotte is in a separate cluster (alongside Honolulu) dominated by cities that developed at least in part under the auspices of twentieth century communism, including Moscow, Kiev, Warsaw, Prague, Berlin, Kabul, Pyongyang, and Ulaanbaatar. Beijing and Shanghai are alone in their own cluster, more dissimilar from the other study sites. The dark gray cluster comprises the three cities with the most circuitous networks: Caracas, Hong Kong, and Sarajevo. While the US cities tend to group together in the red, orange, and blue clusters, the other world regions’ cities tend to distribute more evenly across the green, purple, and light gray clusters.

Geoff Boeing

Interesting study into the structure of street networks in cities across the globe. The conclusions are roughly in line with previous expectations: North-American cities generally have neatly ordered, grid-like street orientations, owing to their relatively short history and highly centralized planning, while the rest of the world is much more varied, combining different cultures and historical periods into their current street layout. Cool graphics aside, this aspect should be high on the list of priorities for the people designing self-driving cars: an AI system trained on the highly regular grid of US cities will likely have a tough time navigating Singapore, Rome, or São Paulo.

29 June 2021

The New York Times: “Shoshana Zuboff explains Why You Should Care about Privacy”

In what ways does Apple uphold or contradict its stated motto that “privacy is a fundamental human right”?

I had a data scientist who said to me the other day, Look, the underlying norm of all software and apps designed now is data collection. For all intents and purposes, all of them are designed to engage in surveillance.

Apple still makes the majority of its revenues through its sales of iPhones and other devices. Nevertheless, an increasing portion of its revenue comes from services, and a big chunk of services is selling apps. So even if it’s not a surveillance capitalist, it is a powerful enabler. A powerful accessory to this crime of surveillance capitalism.

And, of course, there are other ways in which Apple and Mr. Cook really violate the principles that he so eloquently states. Apple in China is obviously a huge example of that. Apple’s relationship with Google. So Apple is deeply compromised.

The question in my mind is now under the spotlight that Mr. Cook has chosen to shine on himself and this corporation: Are they going to move to truly fill the shoes of what it would take to be a privacy god, or are they going to continue to sort of fudge this along and play both sides?

Lauren Jackson

Wonderful way to present the conflict between Apple’s stated principles and their less than principled actions. As I wrote before, I agree with the statement below as well, and with most of this interview.

The New York Times: “1,500 Eggs were Waiting to Hatch. Then a Drone Crashed.”

Every April, thousands of elegant terns migrating from Central and South America nest in the sands of the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, one of the last remaining protected coastal wetlands in Southern California.

This year, however, their refuge was no sanctuary. On May 13, a drone crash-landed on their nesting ground, scaring off about 2,500 of the terns. Left behind were about 1,500 eggs, none of which were viable after they were abandoned.

In my 20 years of working with wildlife and in the field, I have never seen such devastation, said Melissa Loebl, an environmental scientist and manager of the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, which encompasses more than 1,300 acres of mud flats, saltwater and freshwater marshes, dunes and other habitats in Huntington Beach, Calif.

Michael Levenson

For as long as they have been around, I have had a vague, irrational aversion of drones, and this kind of incident gives me a valid reason to dislike these gadgets and their reckless owners. As in many other instances, when new technologies become widely available, few can recognize their negative consequences in advance, and put proper regulations in place. In this case, protecting a nature preserve from human disturbance normally involves fences, patrols, and fines for trespassers, but drones easily circumvent those measures. I would imagine a nation-wide registration for drone owners would help here, to quickly track down and punish offenders, otherwise this sort of casual destruction will continue unrestrained.

28 June 2021

ZDNet: “Windows 11: Is Microsoft having its Spinal Tap moment?”

When I saw the first signs of the new hype campaign, driven by “leaks” of visual changes code-named Sun Valley, I assumed there must be more under the surface. Surely this new version of Windows will be an iceberg, with most of the interesting stuff below the water line. Those underwhelming interface changes are just something to make the demos flashy, right?

Or maybe not.

It appears, based on a million leaks, that Microsoft is going to increment the main Windows version number from 10 to 11 because… honestly, I have no idea why. Because they can? Because the marketing people need something to do? Because someone calculated that whatever business unit Windows is now in needs an extra three-tenths of a percent of revenue in FY 22?

Choose your adventure.

Ed Bott

The Windows 11 launch event is now behind us, but I still find myself agreeing with the article above, baffled as to why this minor update deserves a major version increment.

22 June 2021

Minor Planet Mailing List: “2014 UN271: A possible dwarf planet from the Oort Cloud on a tour through the Solar System”

Some very recent exciting news from the Dark Energy Survey collaboration (https://minorplanetcenter.net/mpec/K21/K21M53.html)

This new object, 2014 UN271, is not just unusual, but radically exceptional among all known bodies in the Solar System to date. Discovered about 29 AU out from the Sun and currently around 22 away, its orbit takes it from just beyond the orbit of Saturn (10.9 AU) all the way out to the Oort Cloud - no, not the Hill Cloud. the Oort Cloud. The incoming barycentric aphelion was 39,400 +/- 1200 AU, and outgoing it will be an even huger 54,600 +/- 2300 AU (!!)

Based on the given absolute magnitude, and given how exceptionally red it looked in 2014 precovery images from CFHT (the g - r color was 0.9, and r - i was 0.5!) I would estimate at an albedo of 0.01-0.08 a diameter of 130-370 kilometers (nominally 160) which puts it on a similar scale, if not larger than, Sarabat’s huge comet C/1729 P1, and almost undoubtedly the largest Oort Cloud object ever discovered - almost in dwarf planet territory!

Sam Deen

Exciting indeed! This newly discovered TNO is larger than most known comets, with the possible exception of Sarabat’s comet, and potentially nearly the size of major main belt asteroids – and comparable to the largest centaur Chiron. It can certainly make you wonder what other planetoids lie undiscovered on the outskirts of our solar system. As 2014 UN271 is currently on an approaching trajectory, astronomers will have plenty of opportunities to refine its orbit and study it during its perihelion passage, currently estimated for January 2031, and beyond. Some have reported observations of a cometary coma around it already, but its closest approach brings it just outside the orbit of Saturn, so it will be too far from the Sun to be visible to the naked eye, or to generate a sizeable coma.

21 June 2021

6FPS by Chuq: “My Life in the Apple Ecosystem (and more)”

It’s an example of a bad trend I see out of Apple, a refusal to embrace and compete in existing market areas, but instead trying to use their existing ecosystem to force people into exclusive relationships with Apple. Almost as if they don’t feel they can compete and win, so instead they attempt use their 800 pound gorilla status in some area to force us into doing it their way in others. And often, this blows up in their face, and it may be blowing up in their face big time right now, but we’ll get to that shortly.

It’s an indication of an attitudinal shift in Apple I don’t like: it’s one thing to believe it can and should be the dominate player in a market, and when you turn out dominant products like the iPhone, you deserve to be. But increasingly, it seems Apple is shifting from “we can be the biggest player in this market” to “we don’t believe we should have any competitors in this market”. And that trend really worries me and makes me less supportive of Apple in general.

I used the word "arrogance" above to describe Apple’s attitude towards developers. In looking at the material released in the Epic trial from inside Apple, another word also seems to define Apple’s attitude: Entitlement.

Somewhere along the way, Apple convinced itself it’s entitled to take all of this revenue from all of the places it’s taking it.

This disappoints me greatly, but worse, there seems no self-awareness of the negative reputation side effects the combination of arrogance and entitlement will engender.

When I was doing developer relations things, I was always arguing that we needed to do what was needed to make developers WANT to work with us; Apple’s attitude is they have to, so why bother?

Chuq von Rospach

I am a bit reluctant to share this essay, as it is part of a newsletter, not published on a website, and another article I had linked to years ago has since disappeared from his site. But his observation about Apple’s changing attitudes towards competition and its relationship with developers are a worthwhile read, even if others have made similar remarks before.

20 June 2021

Marian Coman – Haiganu: Fluviul șoaptelor

in Bucharest, Romania
Coperta Haiganu: Fluviul soaptelor de Marian Coman

Surghiunit dintre Cei Mari în lumea oamenilor în urmă cu nenumărate veacuri, zeul Haiganu rătăcește de atunci fără noimă printre aceste ființe inferioare lui, chinuit necontenit de vocile lor care‑i pătrund în minte, mereu, fără oprire, un fluviu de vaiere și durere pe care Haiganu trebuie să‑l asculte. Uneori, când gemetele lumii îl copleșesc, sau oameni nesăbuiți încearcă să‑l păcălească, puterea nimicitoare a lui Haiganu nu mai poate fi ținută în frâu, o lumină albă țâșnind din singurul lui ochi și arzând totul în cale‑i. Dar în ultima vreme din torentul năucitor s‑a desprins o voce, deosebită de restul, singura care îl alină pe Haiganu cu povești, ținând la depărtare corul chinuitor al celorlalți pentru prima oară de când pribegește printre oameni. Așa îl cunoaște Haiganu pe Zourazi, un fiu de mag prins de Dekibalos printr‑o vrajă a lui Moroianu, laolaltă cu mulți alții copii.

Romanul de față s‑a născut întâi sub forma unei benzi desenate, un proiect rar pe piața românească, care n‑a avut cine știe ce tradiție în acest sens din partea autorilor sau cerere din partea publicului. Inspirația a venit din folclorul românesc, în special din basmul lui Harap Alb și vechile zeități dacice, deși romanul se îndepărtează semnificativ de aceste surse. Cu singurul său ochi în frunte, Haiganu e modelat după Ochilă, dar, cel puțin deocamdată, nu îi întâlnim pe ceilalți însoțitori fantastici ai lui Harap Alb, și nici pe Harap Alb însuși. Împăratul Roșu în schimb este prezent la marginea povestirii, o amenințare care își țese pe ascuns planurile de a cotropi lumea. Dekibalos poartă numele celui mai faimos rege dacultimul de altfel, învins de împăratul Traian – dar setea lui de sadism și sânge are prea puține legături cu personajul istoric. Moroianu se leagă de folclorul mai recent, invocând moroiul, un soi de zombi autohton, atât cu numele, cât și prin comportament. Panteonul geto-dacic este prezent în numele Celor Mari: Gebeleizis, Derzelas, Pleistoros, Neris, Bendis; dar zeitățile în sine nu intervin în cursul acțiunii, ci sunt doar invocate în rugi și farmece.

15 June 2021

Coronavirus in Romania: an end in sight?

In the two months since my last update, the situation in Romania has improved significantly. Week after week, cases have declined at a steady pace of 20–30%, down to only 100–200 daily, a level not seen since late May and early June of last year. The number of tests has remained relatively stable, so we can be reasonably certain these case numbers reflect reality. In parallel, the number of patients in ICU is considerably lower as well, confirming this trend: it declined under 900 on May 9th for the first time in six months, and is now already under 300. Authorities have lifted several restrictions on May 15th, starting with the curfew in large cities and mask mandates in open spaces, but masks are still required inside stores, public transportation, and crowded places like bus stations.

As expected, the reported deaths have continued to increase in the first half of April, reaching a record of 237 on April 20th, and then steadily declined at a rate of around 20% each week. On the other hand, the new increases in June, topping 200 daily deaths again on 8th and 9th, is only a reporting artifact. Looking into the detailed daily accounts reveals that many of these deaths occurred in previous months and are just now being added to the official statistic for COVID-related deaths. As an example, on June 8th the official death count was 277, but 256 took place in prior months, going back to June 2020, so the actual death toll for the day was 21. This follows the discovery of inconsistencies between deaths reported by individual hospitals and central government, so I guess this is the solution chosen by authorities to update the number of deceased because of the pandemic. It is a rather odd way of correcting statistics, as it skews both the old reports and the current ones for June and makes it difficult to correlate current mortality with the case numbers.

13 June 2021

‘Brave New World’ (Peacock, season 1)

in Bucharest, Romania
Brave New World TV series poster

Classic science-fiction novels do not have the greatest track record when it comes to movie adaptations. The most successful was arguably Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but his work is far more extensive. I, Robot converted Asimov’s nuanced ideas about robotics into a blunt Hollywood action movie; the upcoming Foundation series on Apple TV seems completely divorced from the source material. Dune’s adaptations so far have struggled to accurately reproduce the complexity of the novels; I have serious doubts whether Denis Villeneuve will achieve something better with his much-delayed movie. And nobody dared to touch the gut-wrenching 1984. The SF writer with the most successful film adaptations is likely Philip K. Dick, whose works inspired Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau.

Having said that, the resurgence of TV has allowed longer and more complex stories to be shown onscreen, and I think Brave New World makes a good example of successful adaption from a book that is almost a century old. The setup and plot follow the novel closely, while adding new elements that complement it rather well.

In a distant future, New London is a shining oasis of order and advanced technology in a desolated world. Each citizen has a well-defined place in the social hierarchy, predetermined at birth by his genetic makeup: Alphas at the top, enjoying the most privileges and occupying the positions of leadership; then Betas as knowledge workers and sexual companions for the Alphas; Gammas serving as house-staff for the upper casts; Epsilons doing repetitive, menial work like gardening, cleaning, and maintenance. As in the novel, despite their distinct roles, everyone is content to play their part for the greater harmony because negative emotions and thoughts are actively suppressed by the regular use of soma, a mood-altering drug that comes in many flavors for each of humans’ many feelings.

11 June 2021

The Guardian: “The endless hunt for the perfect flu vaccine”

One way to better protect older people is to vaccinate an entirely different demographic: schoolchildren. This notion was elegantly demonstrated in a natural experiment in Japan. From 1962 to 1987 most Japanese schoolchildren were vaccinated against influenza; at one point the vaccine was mandatory for a solid decade. The vaccination rate grew to around 85%, but the mandatory vaccination programme was discontinued in 1994. Over the next several years, there was an increase in the number of deaths in elderly people during the flu seasons. In the US, where there had been no change in the vaccination policy, deaths of elderly people over the same flu seasons remained unchanged. Vaccinating one part of the population, in other words, benefits another.

Jeremy Brown

This topic has lost much of its urgency with a far deadlier virus causing worldwide havoc, but some of the findings can prove insightful for dealing with this pandemic. The debate around school closures was fierce in many countries. Many claimed that young children do not spread the virus, based on the fact that they rarely develop symptoms; some countries even failed to test children to obscure results that would contradict those assumptions. This has been disproven whenever actual studies were performed, and a parallel with influenza further reinforces this often neglected point: protecting children from infection indirectly protects their families and social contacts, including old relatives who are most vulnerable to both influenza and COVID-19.

10 June 2021

The Guardian: “Dirty lies: how the car industry hid the truth about diesel emissions”

And, as it turned out, Volkswagen wasn’t the only one evading the law. Less flagrantly, but to similar effect, the vast majority of diesel cars were making a mockery of emissions rules. In the wake of the revelations in the US, European governments road-tested other big brands too. In Germany, testers found all but three of 53 models exceeded NOx limits, the worst by a factor of 18. In London, the testing firm Emissions Analytics found 97% of more than 250 diesel models were in violation; a quarter produced NOx at six times the limit. As the data kept coming in, our jaws just kept dropping. Because it is just so systematic, and so widespread, German says. VW isn’t even in the worst half of the manufacturers. With a few honourable exceptions, everybody’s doing it.

As Mock spoke, I began to absorb the particulars of Europe’s stunning failure. It starts with an enforcement structure that almost seems designed to let violators through. The European commission sets the rules on how much pollution a car is allowed to produce. But the job of enforcing them falls not to Brussels, but to national governments. And a car company preparing to release a new model can choose which country certifies it; every EU nation must then honour the approval. A savvy carmaker opts for a place where it provides lots of jobs, where officials are likely to be pliant.

The national enforcement agencies, for their part, are generally understaffed, poorly funded and lacking in technical expertise. Britain is an exception, but in most nations these weak agencies don’t even test cars themselves. About a dozen individual vehicles must be checked before a new model is approved, and the tests are often run by outside contractors. When they are done, the manufacturers hand the paperwork to regulators, and the results, says Mock, are usually accepted with little question.

Beth Gardiner

An older story, but exemplary to how big corporations can act against public interest if left unsupervised by government regulations and proper enforcement. The drive of senior management towards generating profits incentivizes them to search for shortcuts, to circumvent inconvenient rules and discard alarm signals from within the organization. And sooner or later this leads to negative outcomes, from the many toxic consequences of Facebook’s influence on public information, to unnecessary deaths, as it was the case with Boeing and even NASA.

05 June 2021

Wired: “Ex Machina has a Serious Fembot Problem”

Ex Machina poster

While interviewing Garland for a magazine piece, I asked him about the roles of men and women in his film; his response was that Ava is not a woman, she is literally genderless. Despite using female pronouns, he said, the things that would define gender in a man and a woman, she lacks them, except in external terms. … I’m not even sure consciousness itself has a gender.

In a way, Garland is right; pure intelligence wouldn’t have a gender any more than it would have a race. But to say that and then place that consciousness into a body that it will immediately recognize its likeness as female negates that point. If Ava has truly been educated about the human race, then she knows her face and form appeal to certain segments of the population. But even thornier is the fact that Ava falls squarely into so many of the tropes of women in film. She’s a femme fatale, a seductress posing as a damsel in distress, using her wiles to get Caleb to save her from Nathan and his Dr.-Frankenstein-with-tech-money quest to build a perfect woman. (Women: So much better when you can construct them out of bespoke parts and switch them off if they’re not working properly, amirite?)

Angela Watercutter

I have recently watched Ex Machina as it became available on Netflix, and I have to say, it has way bigger issues than fembots. This article captures them reasonably well, but at the end of the day, I found the movie utterly boring, lacking in action and original ideas. To call it ‘thought-provoking’ is a massive overstatement and I seriously cannot comprehend why so many people are so enthusiastic about this movie – then again, I had the same reaction to Her. Man building docile wife is a concept as old as ancient Greece at least, if we count the myth of Pygmalion, though I doubt the director had that in mind when he made the movie. Human-created artificial intelligence rebelling against its maker is a common SF trope at this point, so no points for originality here either.

04 June 2021

mBio: “The Reemergent 1977 H1N1 Strain and the Gain-of-Function Debate”

The 1977-1978 influenza epidemic was probably not a natural event, as the genetic sequence of the virus was nearly identical to the sequences of decades-old strains. While there are several hypotheses that could explain its origin, the possibility that the 1977 epidemic resulted from a laboratory accident has recently gained popularity in discussions about the biosafety risks of gain-of-function (GOF) influenza virus research, as an argument for why this research should not be performed. There is now a moratorium in the United States on funding GOF research while the benefits and risks, including the potential for accident, are analyzed. Given the importance of this historical epidemic to ongoing policy debates, we revisit the evidence that the 1977 epidemic was not natural and examine three potential origins: a laboratory accident, a live-vaccine trial escape, or deliberate release as a biological weapon. Based on available evidence, the 1977 strain was indeed too closely matched to decades-old strains to likely be a natural occurrence.

While the use of the 1977 influenza epidemic as a cautionary tale for potential laboratory accidents is expedient, the relevance to GOF research is greatly diminished if the 1977 epidemic was the result of a vaccine trial or vaccine development gone awry; these are both more plausible explanations than a single laboratory accident. In addition, in 1977, influenza research was performed without modern biosafety regulations and protective equipment, making the lab accident hypothesis much less relevant to the modern GOF debate. While the events that led to the 1977 influenza epidemic cannot preclude a future consequential accident stemming from the laboratory, it remains likely that to this date, there has been no real-world example of a laboratory accident that has led to a global epidemic.

Michelle Rozo & Gigi Kwik Gronvall

Interesting research into the origins of another pandemic, much less severe than the current one. The authors conclude the more likely explanation is a faulty vaccine trial that allowed the virus to spread again among the general population. While this is only circumstantially related to the ongoing, and growing, discussion about the possibility of a coronavirus lab leak, it provides another solid reason why human challenge trials are a bad idea: if the vaccine on trial is ineffective, you risk spreading the very pathogen you were trying to combat.

01 June 2021

The Guardian: “Haiti and the failed promise of US aid”

But what worked for the US’s interests worked less well for Haiti. By the 1950s, neither Haiti’s agricultural economy, nor the dollars spent by thousands of American tourists every year, was enough to pay back those debts. By 1961, the US was sending $13m in aid to Haiti – half Haiti’s national budget – in part to help the nation bolster industry. Much of this early US aid to Haiti was looted or wasted by Haiti’s autocratic leaders, especially François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, and his son, Jean-Claude, who spent it on personal militias that terrorised Haiti’s citizenry. Since 1946, the United States has poured about $100m in economic aid … into Haiti without much to show for the money, the New York Times reported in 1963.

The most pernicious part of this programme was the agricultural policies that the US imposed on Haiti beginning in the 70s. The US pressured Haiti to reduce its tariffs on imported crops, then shipped surplus American crops into Haiti’s ports under the guise of “food aid”. Haitian farmers could not compete with all the artificially cheap rice and other food crops from abroad, which was part of the point. The strategy was to create another market for American farmers while pushing Haiti’s labour force away from the fields and into factories. As president, Bill Clinton furthered this programme, creating massive surpluses of crops such as rice by extending hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to US farmers. In Haiti, the result was that thousands upon thousands of farmers lost their land, but industrialisation never moved fast enough to replace their livelihoods.

Jacob Kushner

This older story about the failures of US-funded reconstruction programs in Haiti shows some parallels to the situation in Afghanistan: Unites States has invested heavily in both countries, but restructuring projects failed to become viable because they were mimicking the US model, without considering the local economy and the needs of the population.