29 November 2022

The New Yorker: “How the War in Ukraine Might End”

More recent theoretical literature had acknowledged the two-sidedness of war, Goemans writes, but here, too, important aspects had been missed. War theory imported from economics the concept of “bargaining”, and wars were thought to begin when the bargaining process—over a piece of territory, usually—broke down. The most common cause of the breakdown, according to war theorists (and again borrowing from economics), was some form of informational asymmetry. Simply put, one or both sides overestimated their own strength relative to their opponent’s. There were many reasons for this sort of informational asymmetry, not least of which was that the war-fighting capacity of individual nations was almost always a closely guarded secret. In any case, the best way to find out who was stronger was to actually start fighting. Then things became clear quite quickly. Many wars ended in just this way, with the sides reëvaluating their relative strengths and opting to make a deal.

But there were other kinds of wars, in which factors besides information predominated. These factors, in part because they did not play prominent roles in economics, were less well understood. One was the fact that contracts in the international system—in this case, peace deals—had little or no enforcement mechanism. If a country really wanted to break a deal, there was no court of arbitration to which the other party could appeal. (In theory, the United Nations could be this court; in practice, it is not.) This gave rise to the problem known as “credible commitment”: one reason wars might not end quickly is that one or both sides simply could not trust the other to honor any peace deal they reached.

Keith Gessen

Ostensibly written about the war in Ukraine, this article does a much more interesting job than most of linking the current conflict with similar instances in history and war theory in general – arriving at the well accepted conclusion that this war won’t end quickly, as neither side is willing to back down and reassess its minimum war goals.

24 November 2022

CNN Politics: “Ukraine suffered a comms outage when 1,300 SpaceX satellite units went offline over funding issues”

The recent outage started on October 24 and was described by one person briefed on the situation as a “huge problem” for Ukraine’s military. The terminals had been disconnected, this person said, due to a lack of funding.

The outage affected a block of 1,300 terminals that Ukraine purchased from a British company in March and were used for combat-related operations.

SpaceX was charging Ukraine’s military $2,500 a month to keep each of the 1,300 units connected, pushing the total cost to almost $20 million by September, the person briefed on the matter said. Eventually, they could no longer afford to pay, the person said.

Earlier this month, Musk said that of the more than 25,000 terminals now in Ukraine, fewer than 11,000 were paying for the service, which can run as high as $4,500 per month.

Alex Marquardt & Sean Lyngaas

Interesting background information about the Starlink terminals used by Ukraine’s military – to no-one's surprise, Elon Musk didn’t actually donate the terminals, nor was he supporting the monthly operating fees.

22 November 2022

CNET: “Chrome banishes JPEG XL Photo Format that could Save Phone Space”

JPEG XL is an industry standard, but Google likes a rival it helped develop called AVIF, and Apple iPhones shoot photos in yet another format, HEIC.

There’s more to like about JPEG XL than space savings. It’s tuned for photographic use, doing a better job at preserving fine details and textures than video-derived formats like AVIF and HEIC. JPEG XL also improves image quality through HDR support, one of the reasons that Adobe -- ordinarily conservative with new file format support -- endorsed it. Facebook praises JPEG XL’s speed, and Intel thinks JPEG XL is the best of the next-gen photo format options.

Google doesn’t have veto power over JPEG XL’s future, but as the maker of the world's most-used browser, it can effectively block its use on the web.

Stephen Shankland

Speaking of image formats and browser support, here’s another example of Google using Chrome’s dominance to favor its own interests on the web, in this case by refusing to support an industry standard on questionable grounds. From everything I’ve read about JPEG XL it’s superior in almost every way to both JPEG and AVIF. But hey, this is what happens when developers cheer on browser engine consolidation because it makes their lives easier; eventually the dominant player gets to veto which standards receive attention and which fade into oblivion.

21 November 2022

WebP image support in Blogger

Blogger has not exactly been pushing out updates over the past years – in fact, its official blog has been silent since 2020. One might even suspect it’s on life support inside Google, and the only reason it’s up and running is that higher-up executives largely forgot it’s still around (although with the current tech slump they might rediscover and seek to eliminate this errant source of expenses). When updates do happen, users are caught by surprise and have to chase details on the help forums – for instance earlier this year after an update to the image delivery system that altered URLs, removing the initial image file name, and annoyed many people. Fortunately, the file name returned after a couple of weeks, maybe because of the complaints, maybe because the team behind it realized it was a silly choice to display a random string of characters instead of a readable file name.

18 November 2022

Galaxy Brain: “Welcome to Geriatric Social Media”

I’ve been trying to talk myself into the social-media death-spiral idea, but it feels like the wrong framework to describe what is essentially just an evolution of the way people use the internet. To suggest that momentary stalls or plateaus, or even declines in platforms, spell certain death is, to some degree, to buy into Silicon Valley and Wall Street’s notion that anything other than perpetual hockey-stick growth is a death knell (and I find that outlook generally toxic and grating).

There are a few things that I think are probably going on, instead. The first is that some platforms just have a natural network decay. Facebook was, at first, novel and exclusive (I got an invite from a friend who was in college! Very exciting!). Then, it grew and took on a different kind of utility (you could find all kinds of people on it from your past, or whom you met at a party!). Soon, every human you knew was on it, and, overnight, it morphed into a lot of people’s main news source. The loudest, angriest people—many of whom didn’t quite understand how to talk to people online—made it an unpleasant place to be, so a lot of people left or stopped engaging, and the loudest voices got louder.

The same thing is happening on Twitter. One thing I’ve noticed a lot is that a lot of my favorite power users have become power lurkers. They haven’t given up the platform, but they realize that posting is mostly a losing game full of professional liabilities, endless and futile fights, and diminishing returns. And that’s grim because, for those who do post, we’re much more likely to encounter the loudest, angriest, most politically charged voices in response, which in turn makes the place less fun to be around!

Charlie Warzel

I find this notion of the impending doom of social media hilarious. While a minority is arguing about the supposed death of social networks on Twitter, regular people are perfectly happy sharing and chatting over private messages. The only ones caring about this non-issue are those who obsess over status and signaling: politicians, celebrities and journalists, companies looking for their next incremental sale.

16 November 2022

No Mercy / No Malice: “Hubris”

Corporate hubris takes various forms. Research shows overconfident CEOs are prone to distorting their investment decisions: They overinvest when cash flows are strong, and cut too deep when they need external financing. Case in point is Meta, where we’re witnessing hubris play out in dramatic form. The unconstrained boy-king is betting his company — his shareholder’s company, really — on a fever dream in which he is God in a world littered with Nissan and Nespresso billboards, a “metaverse”. More recently, FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried believed he could defy the laws of economics and borrow against large sums of a fake currency he made up. Essentially, Bankman-Fried constructed the Burj Khalifa on a foundation of quicksand. And now comes the fall.

Success can be our undoing when we’re promoted beyond our true capabilities. The Peter principle holds that because people get promoted on the basis of prior performance, they will inevitably rise to the level of their incompetence. Our brains make it easy for our ambition to exceed our ability: The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a demonstrated cognitive weakness, that the less we know about something, the more we overestimate our knowledge. That’s why stupid people, and people who make great cars and then buy media companies, are so dangerous.

This has been a banner week for the powerful coming undone. In no particular order, the largest social network company in history, Meta, which has lost more than two-thirds of its value over the past year, announced it was laying off 11,000 people; the most prominent crypto billionaire lost nearly his entire fortune after he overleveraged his empire to keep it expanding; and the richest man in the world … impregnated a bathroom sink before putting on a master class on how power corrupts.

Scott Galloway

The past year has not been kind to tech companies; between significant declines in stocks, hiring freezes, and more recently layoffs, you might say we’re experiencing a tech recession, affecting the entire sector from the largest companies such as Apple, Amazon, and Meta, to the mixed media & tech companies, such as Disney and Netflix, to startups and Bitcoin. The damage extends outside the US as well, as layoffs are happening in the Asian Internet sector and at our homegrown aspiring unicorn UiPath. A notable exception: TikTok, which apparently plans to double its staff.

13 November 2022

CNN Travel: “Europe wants a high-speed rail network to replace airplanes”

Imagine a network of modern, super-fast and comfortable trains hurtling between every major city in the European Union, providing a reliable, comfortable and sustainable alternative to air travel.

That was the vision outlined by rail industry leaders in Lyon, France, on June 29, amid ambitious European plans to double high-speed rail use by 2030 and triple current levels by 2050.

Only a massive – and accelerated – expansion of the high-speed network can achieve these hugely ambitious targets, but are they a realistic and affordable proposition?

According to EU statistics, 17 of the 20 busiest air routes in Europe cover distances of less than 434 miles (700 kilometers) – exactly the kind of distances where city center-to-city center trains can offer faster, cleaner and more sustainable journeys – if the right infrastructure exists.

A Paris-Berlin flight generates at least six times the carbon dioxide emissions of a similar train journey, according to a joint report from environmental organizations in Germany, Poland, Spain and France. Flights of less than 621 miles (1,000 kilometers) between and within European countries are estimated to create 28 million metric tonnes of CO2 every year.

Ben Jones

Besides the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, an extensive, reliable, and well-integrated European high-speed rail network would have other benefits, improving for instance logistics across the continent. 2022 has been a recurring lesson in the importance of resilient supply chains, which were hit both by geopolitical factors (the war in Ukraine) and climate disruptions (the persistent drought draining rivers and diminishing shipping volumes). A pan-European rail network could supplement and act as a backup for existing transportation infrastructure, reducing the impact of similar issues – or, in the more serious case of military conflict, could be used to relocate troops and military equipment.

11 November 2022

IEEE Spectrum: “For Better or Worse, Tesla Bot is Exactly What We Expected”

Most of what we saw in the presentation was hardware. And hardware is important and a necessary first step, but software is arguably a much more significant challenge when it comes to making robotics useful in the real world. Understanding and interacting with the environment, reasoning and decision-making, the ability to learn and be taught new tasks—these are all necessary pieces of the puzzle of a useful robot that Tesla is trying to put together, but they’re all also extremely difficult, cutting-edge problems, despite the enormous amount of work that the research community has put into them.

And so far, we (still) have very little indication that Tesla is going to be any better at tackling this stuff than anyone else. There doesn’t appear to be anything all that special or exciting from Tesla that provides any unique foundation for Musk’s vision in a way that’s likely to allow the company to outpace other companies working on similar things. I’ll reiterate what I said a year ago: The hard part is not building a robot, it’s getting that robot to do useful stuff.

Evan Ackerman

Interesting rundown of the announcements at this year’s Tesla AI Day, in particular the unveiling of the Tesla Bot prototype. Tesla seems to be going all-in on synergies between the humanoid robot and its existing automobile business, by porting software components developed for its vehicles to the robot’s environment, and suggesting that, once fully functioning, the robots would be laboring at Tesla’s assembly lines, among other uses. A solid plan in theory, although the road to achieving it appears murky and convoluted.

10 November 2022

The Verge: “With Netflix’s ads tier, you never know what you’re going to get”

Netflix Basic with Ads is finally here, offering a cheaper Netflix subscription at $6.99 per month with the tradeoff that you might have to watch some ads with your movies and TV shows. I spent some time messing around with a new account on the tier on Thursday, and while the experience of using Netflix was mostly the same, what struck me was the unpredictability of how many ads I’d have to watch.

Netflix says you can expect to see an average of 4 to 5 minutes of ads per hour. That’s about what I experienced as well, but I was surprised by when the ads might appear. It isn’t like broadcast TV where you knew exactly when and, often, how many ads you’d have to sit through before the show came back.

Jay Peters

The ads tier is obviously not available in Romania yet, but based on these reviews I find it mostly unappealing. The biggest issue for me – and many other viewers I suspect – would be increased unpredictability: you can’t know when to expect ads, how many of them, which shows have ads inserted and which don’t, and, worst of all, you don’t know which shows will be straight out unavailable because of licensing restrictions. A more compelling and consistent experience would be to only play ads between episodes in a series, or before a movie, as in cinemas; that way Netflix would retain at least some of its premium feel by not interrupting a story.

08 November 2022

Vulture: “Podcasting is Just Radio Now”

It’s been almost eight years since Serial dropped. An entire industry has roared to life, drawing in Hollywood studios, corporations, celebrities, and billions of dollars. But the blockbuster podcast — a subgenre or prestige tier essential to the medium’s rise as an artistic force — is in a serious funk. Your phone is full of podcasts, I’m sure, and maybe you’ve convinced a friend to add one of your darlings to their queue. But when was the last time a single title was being dissected by everyone you know?

For some in the business, the medium’s diminishing ability to drive such moments poses an existential problem. What does it mean for podcasting as an art form if it rarely inspires widespread critical discussion? Let me put it this way: The Bear was a hit, said Fowlkes (now a podcast talent agent with the Gernert Company), referring to the summer’s breakout TV show. It was in the conversation. Nothing in podcasting right now feels like it ripples outside of the bounds of people who already listen to podcasts.

Nicholas Quah

I can’t quite grasp the reasons for this constant fretting around podcasting, and this article seems to constantly swing from concerns about podcasting as an art medium and the business side. It would seem to me that these goals are somewhat contradictory; art is not something that can be replicated with consistency by applying a set recipe, nor does it resonate with every listener the same way. Art is supposed to be special, inspiring, unique; if you set about generating art on a manufacturing line, churning out episodes for money, it loses these qualities making it distinct.

05 November 2022

Triton Station: Define “better”

Dr. Sutter makes a number of other interesting points. He says we shouldn’t pick [a hypothesis] that sounds cooler or seems simpler. I’m not sure which seems cooler here – a universe pervaded by a mysterious invisible mass that we can’t [yet] detect in the laboratory but nevertheless controls most of what goes on out there seems pretty cool to me. That there might also be some fundamental aspect of the basic theory of gravitational dynamics that we’re missing also seems like a pretty cool possibility. Those are purely value judgments.

Simplicity, however, is a scientific value known as Occam’s razor. The simpler of competing theories is to be preferred. That’s clearly MOND: we make one adjustment to the force law, and that’s it. What we lack is a widely accepted, more general theory that encapsulates both MOND and General Relativity.

First, remember some history. When Newton introduced his inverse square law of universal gravity, it was promptly criticized as a form of magical thinking: How, Sir, can you have action at a distance? The conception at the time was that you had to be in physical contact with an object to exert a force on it. For the sun to exert a force on the earth, or the earth on the moon, seemed outright magical. Leibnitz famously accused Newton of introducing ‘occult’ forces. As a consequence, Newton was careful to preface his description of universal gravity as everything happening as if the force was his famous inverse square law. The “as if” is doing a lot of work here, basically saying, in modern parlance OK, I don’t get how this is possible, I know it seems really weird, but that’s what it looks like. I say the same about MOND: galaxies behave as if MOND is the effective force law. The question is why.

Stacy McGaugh

I must admit I haven’t paid too much attention to this particular conundrum in astrophysics because, as with many current topics in advanced physics, there doesn’t seem to be much tangible progress to follow. But I found the arguments of this article in favor of at least thoroughly researching MOND compelling. Preliminary results from the JWST, finding evidence of multiple, evolved galaxies much earlier in the history of the universe than current models predict, may also support MOND, or at least some revision of our understanding of cosmology.

The Washington Post: “How 9/11 changed us”

The literature of 9/11 also considers Osama bin Laden’s varied aspirations for the attacks and his shifting visions of that aftermath. He originally imagined America as weak and easily panicked, retreating from the world — in particular from the Middle East — as soon as its troops began dying. But bin Laden also came to grasp, perhaps self-servingly, the benefits of luring Washington into imperial overreach, of bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy, as he put it in 2004, through endless military expansionism, thus beating back its global sway and undermining its internal unity. We anticipate a black future for America, bin Laden told ABC News more than three years before the 9/11 attacks. Instead of remaining United States, it shall end up separated states and shall have to carry the bodies of its sons back to America.

Bin Laden did not win the war of ideas. But neither did we. To an unnerving degree, the United States moved toward the enemy’s fantasies of what it might become — a nation divided in its sense of itself, exposed in its moral and political compromises, conflicted over wars it did not want but would not end. When President George W. Bush addressed the nation from the Oval Office on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, he asserted that America was attacked because it is the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world, and no one will keep that light from shining. Bush was correct; al-Qaeda could not dim the promise of America. Only we could do that to ourselves.

Clarke’s conclusion is simple, and it highlights America’s we-know-better swagger, a national trait that often masquerades as courage or wisdom. America, alas, seems only to respond well to disasters, to be undistracted by warnings, he writes. Our country seems unable to do all that must be done until there has been some awful calamity.

The problem with responding only to calamity is that underestimation is usually replaced by overreaction. And we tell ourselves it is the right thing, maybe the only thing, to do.

Carlos Lozada

Gripping essay about America’s reaction to the terrorist attacks on 9/11, describing the failures of intelligence agencies and successive administrations to take the threat seriously and act towards preventing it, but other failings of American society as well, down to deregulation and unrestricted lobbying causing numerous deaths in the World Trade Center because people did not have enough space to evacuate.

04 November 2022

Quanta Magazine: “What is a Particle?”

Different representations of the Poincaré group are particles with different numbers of spin labels, or degrees of freedom that are affected by rotations. There are, for example, particles with three spin degrees of freedom. These particles rotate in the same way as familiar 3D objects. All matter particles, meanwhile, have two spin degrees of freedom, nicknamed “spin-up” and “spin-down”, which rotate differently. If you rotate an electron by 360 degrees, its state will be inverted, just as an arrow, when moved around a 2D Möbius strip, comes back around pointing the opposite way.

Elementary particles with one and five spin labels also appear in nature. Only a representation of the Poincaré group with four spin labels seems to be missing.

The correspondence between elementary particles and representations is so neat that some physicists — like Van Raamsdonk’s professor — equate them. Others see this as a conflation. The representation is not the particle; the representation is a way of describing certain properties of the particle, said Sheldon Glashow, a Nobel Prize-winning particle theorist and professor emeritus at Harvard University and Boston University. Let us not confuse the two.

Natalie Wolchover

Interesting article about the multitude of ways in which physicists are examining the concept of elementary particle. Nevertheless, my initial impression was that the central premise of the article, that physicists know so little about the answer to this fundamental question, is a bit contrived – as if either the scientists were trying to justify their continuing experiments by downplaying existing knowledge and overemphasizing remaining mysteries, or the author was doing something similar to be able to cover the topic again and again in the future.

03 November 2022

Wired: “How Google alerted Californians to an Earthquake before it hit”

Here’s how it works: When an earthquake occurs, it sends softer seismic waves, known as P waves, through the ground. Not everyone in the earthquake’s area will feel these, but a network of 1,300 USGS sensors do. When four sensors are simultaneously triggered, they send an alert to a data processing center. If that data meets the right criteria, the ShakeAlert system determines that stronger S waves, the kind that can cause damage and hurt people, could be on the way. It’s then that warning systems, like Google’s, an app called MyShake, or government agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency and transit systems, will interpret the data and send out alerts.

Google has also turned individual phones into miniature earthquake sensors. All smartphones have accelerometers that can pick up signals of an earthquake. If triggered, the phone sends the message to a detection server, along with rough location data, like the city a device is in. The server then pieces together where the earthquake is happening from data collected on multiple phones and beams out the relevant alerts.

Stogaitis says phones only pick up the waves when plugged in and locked. That helps to avoid confusion from phones jostling around in bags and pockets. The long-term goal is to send signals with even more speed. We’re looking at trying to make the time from which [an earthquake begins] and the time that we detect it and send an alert as fast as possible, says Stogaitis.

Amanda Hoover

Coincidentally there was an earthquake in Romania in the early hours of the morning today. I don’t usually sense earthquakes when I’m sound asleep, but this time I woke up despite its small magnitude. To my surprise, a push notification from Google was waiting for me on the phone and it reminded me of this article from a couple of days ago.