Etc: Links for 13th December, 2019

  1. Via Girish U, a lovely read on video games, and archeology… of mind bending types.
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    “The mystery maze table in Entombed reminds us that, even with a good record, fully understanding a game is another thing entirely. Maybe we’ll never quite grasp it. Entombed presents us – somewhat ironically – with a dead-end.

    The instruction manual, to be fair, did warn us. “Before you know it,” it read, “you’ll be entombed!””
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  2. “Gods begins with a sweeping proposition Modern thinking began when man abandoned the belief that events are due to the whim of the gods and embraced the notion that we are active, independent agents who can manage risks. Thus in the worldview of ancient Greece, a man’s destiny swayed with the whim of the gods, logic prevailed over experimentation, and the use of letters for numbers inhibited man’s ability to calculate. But by the thirteenth century, new mental tools were in place the Hindu-Arabic numbering system, algebra, accounting, and other necessary equipment for the first insights into the laws of chance.”
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    A review of Against the Gods, by Peter Bernstein. Lovely book, lovely review. Do read both!
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  3. “Even if you don’t consider yourself a particularly superstitious person, you probably say “bless you” when someone sneezes, just in case the devil should decide to steal their soul – as our ancestors thought possible during a sneeze.”
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    The Conversation on superstitions.
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  4. Via the Browser, from the Paris Review, a thought-provoking article on superstitions.
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  5. And why all the talk about superstitions? Check the date! Well, and the day!

Etc: Links for 18th October, 2019

  1. “If I win, I’ll be 18,000 chips to 2,000 chips ahead. If Levitt wins, game over.”
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    Tim Harford plays poker with Steve Levitt. This was a very enjoyable read!
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  2. “And yet there is something about TikTok’s presence in mainstream culture — as a testing ground for “real” stars, as an Emmys joke about what the kids are into — that underestimates the power of the thing itself. It feels as if there are endless TikTok universes unfolding all at once. And so last week, over 48 hours, five critics of The New York Times with different specialties and varying familiarity with the app took a look at what it has to offer.”
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    The NYT profiles tiktok – we are clearly in peak tiktok territory now.
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  3. “During one such inspection in 1731, a British merchant captain named Robert Jenkins protested the intrusion, and in the ensuing scuffle the Spanish captain’s blade somehow separated Captain Jenkins from his left ear. This civilian injury was far from newsworthy back in Britain—after all, smuggling was a rough business. Eight years later, however, when Great Britain sought a pretext for war, it became politically expedient for British politicians to suffer outrage over this unauthorized amputation. Legend has it that Captain Robert Jenkins himself held aloft the very ear in question at a Parliamentary hearing, as evidence for the grave insult to the crown—though there is no historical proof that this exhibition actually occurred. Ear regardless, the outrage was successfully fabricated, and the resulting years of hostilities would come to be known as “The War of Jenkins’ Ear.””
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    11,000 words, but all of them fascinating. This is about a ill fated expedition through the Drake passage. Via The Browser.
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  4. “But the purpose of chronic pain, which scientists define as pain that lasts for more than three months after its initial cause, is more mysterious. The pain’s origin might be muscular-skeletal – the result of a fall, perhaps – or neuropathic, caused by damage to the nervous system. Or it might be a result of a long-term condition, such as fibromyalgia. Whichever way, it is a pain that has gone on beyond its expected life span and does not respond to medication. Often it is a discomfort that has become invisible and shifted shape, growing harder to understand the greater the distance from its original cause. A physiotherapist suggested to me that chronic pain was like a musician being given a piece of sheet music to play. The musician learns the music and when the music is taken away, she continues to play it. The body has learned the pain by heart.”
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    On the tragedy of, and a potential solution to, chronic pain.
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  5. The Madras Courier on a short history of the telephone.

Etc: Links for 4th October, 2019

  1. Spiders can fly, and farther than you think.
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    “Spiders have no wings, but they can take to the air nonetheless. They’ll climb to an exposed point, raise their abdomens to the sky, extrude strands of silk, and float away. This behavior is called ballooning. It might carry spiders away from predators and competitors, or toward new lands with abundant resources. But whatever the reason for it, it’s clearly an effective means of travel. Spiders have been found two-and-a-half miles up in the air, and 1,000 miles out to sea.”
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  2. Ted Chiang (and if you don’t know who he is, look him up!) on parrots:
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    “Many scientists were skeptical that a bird could grasp abstract concepts. Humans like to think they’re unique. But eventually Pepperberg convinced them that Alex wasn’t just repeating words, that he understood what he was saying.Out of all my cousins, Alex was the one who came closest to being taken seriously as a communication partner by humans. Alex died suddenly, when he was still relatively young. The evening before he died, Alex said to Pepperberg, “You be good. I love you.”

    If humans are looking for a connection with a nonhuman intelligence, what more can they ask for than that?”
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  3. On rats in Alaska. A great story, lots of information that I didn’t know about rats, and lovely pictures to boot.
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    “Consider the rat—the inquisitive whiskered muzzle, those deft little paws, those assessing eyes. It looks smart, and it is. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be so indestructible. Rats are highly suspicious of new things, or neophobic, which makes them hard to catch because they steer clear of traps. In 2004, New Zealand biologist James Russell and a team of collaborators released a radio-collared male rat named Razza on a small island to test just how hard. They spent the next four months chasing him, writes William Stolzenburg in his 2011 eradication-for-conservation opus, Rat Island. Razza snubbed every treat. The radio signal failed when Razza swam to another island. In the end, Razza succumbed to a trap baited with fresh penguin, in an area where scientists tracked him with rat-sniffing dogs.”
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  4. On the ongoing, escalating, sometimes bewildering war between humans and mosquitoes.
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  5. And to round off our romp through the animal kingdom, bees.
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    “Argentine startup Beeflow says it has more than doubled its tiny workers’ pollen-carrying capacity by feeding them custom compounds. The nutrients enhance the bees’ immune systems to handle colder conditions and also increase their attraction to the particular flower the farmer wants them to pollinate—blueberries, raspberries, or the all-important almonds.”

ROW: Links for 24th July, 2019

How to learn more about a country? Read a bit about it! In the process of writing up these ROW links, I plan to link to five articles (mostly random) about a country. The only thing that is common to them is that they’re all about one particular country.

And today’s country is Australia: I have not (yet) been to the country, but loved reading about it in Bill Bryson’s book, and loved hating the Australian cricket team (still do!). But on a more serious note, it is a country that I need to read more about.

In no particular order, or theme, five articles I read recently about Australia:

  1. “It’s on the matter of culture that Alan is most unconsciously revealing — unconsciously because Alan’s generation did not think of it as “culture” so much as of “character”. His upbringing was simple, in farming country near Gosford since swamped by housing. “I didn’t known what a steak was until I got to Sydney,” he recalls. “My mother knew how to cook rabbit 10 different ways.””
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    How to not begin with an article on cricket? Alan Davidson, the original Wasim Akram – and a profile on him by Gideon Haigh. Please read, if you are a fan of cricket, Haigh’s book on Warne, called… “On Warne“.
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  2. “Australia loves larrikins, as long as they are white, and polite, and display no flamboyance and voice no controversial opinions. Australia laments there is no colour in public life anymore, complains that sports-people show no personality in their interviews, and then punishes them the moment they do. Australia is willing to embrace Nick Kyrgios, as long as he becomes someone else.”
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    From Australian sportsmen then, to Australian sportsmen now. Nick Kyrgios.
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  3. “Australia will be a great nation, and a power for good in the world, when her head of state is a part-Aboriginal and her prime minister a poor man. Or vice versa.”
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    Words written by Les Murray, who passed away recently. This article is via The Browser, and is worth reading for glimpses of Murray’s poetry, but also for an insight into Murray’s opinion about Australia.
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  4. “It is commonly reported that the colonisation of Australia was driven by the need to address overcrowding in the British prison system, and the fact of the British losing the Thirteen Colonies of America in the American Revolution; however, it was simply not economically viable to transport convicts halfway around the world for this reason alone.[4] Many convicts were either skilled tradesmen or farmers who had been convicted for trivial crimes and were sentenced to seven years’ transportation, the time required to set up the infrastructure for the new colony. Convicts were often given pardons prior to or on completion of their sentences and were allocated parcels of land to farm.”
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    Almost everybody who has attended a class I’ve taught on Principles of Economics knows the story – well, the story stands on somewhat weakened foundations.
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  5. Finally, Professor Cowen picks his favorite things Australian. I am gloriously unaware of all of them.

Links for 30th May, 2019

  1. “While England are the clear favourites, the rest of the field is pretty even. Any team can beat any other on its day. India have their best-ever bowling attack in a World Cup, and Virat Kohli is the greatest batsman ever in this form of the game – but I am worried about their chances of winning it. The reason for that is strategic understanding. Kohli’s captaincy can be dubious at times in the shorter forms of the game, and he would consistently underestimate par scores while playing for his franchise in the IPL. The team has the talent to win – but does it have the approach?”
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    Amit Varma on how T20 changed the approach to ODI cricket, among other things. As always, worth reading.
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  2. “The result is the same – looking at all-time data, games where the team batting first scored between 200 and 250 are the most interesting. While games in this range remain interesting even after the 2015 World Cup, we find that games in the 250-300 range are on average more interesting, with interestingness sharply dropping off after 300.”
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    Karthik S. disagrees with Amit Varma’s article above – which is kind of the point of being a cricket fan. And that point, of course, spills over into other domains as well!
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  3. “The Louvre pyramid also highlights Pei’s tendency to recycle his own ideas. This practice is no disgrace if an abandoned original of merit is ultimately realized or improved with further development. Frank Lloyd Wright often dusted off plans for buildings that were sidelined for one reason or another and sometimes recycled them successfully. Pei’s first attempt to realize a monumental sloping glass structure was his initial 1966 proposal for the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, for a site next to the Harvard campus in Cambridge.”
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    I know next to nothing about architecture (if that!), but I enjoyed reading this article about IM Pei. Tangentially, this also reminded me of A. R. Rehman and his decision to reuse some tracks for Slumdog Millionaire. The parallels are hard to miss – and therein lies a useful lesson.
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  4. “Given that robots can move through space in uniquely nonhuman ways, they wouldn’t necessarily be subject to boundaries between private and public spaces that constrain delivery people, allowing them to move goods in and out of homes in a constant flow. Amazon already has its “smart” lock system allow human carriers to enter a home briefly to drop off packages, and Wal-Mart is testing a similar system that lets its workers deliver groceries to a home’s refrigerator. But fully automated robots could travel deeper into homes without compromising privacy. You wouldn’t need to get dressed to greet a robot, if you noticed its arrival at all. It might unobtrusively enter and leave through an opening the size of a pet door.”
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    What all can robots do? The paragraph above, in particular, was striking to me. Here’s why: I thought of the problem in this way – what can robots change in the way homes are run? The excerpt forced me to think the other way around: how do homes need to change to best utilize robots? Again, a useful lesson! Both links above (3 and 4) are thanks to The Browser. I subscribe to it, and so far, I am not regretting it at all.
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  5. “China took the first shots, and they took them a long time ago. For over a decade U.S. services companies have been unilaterally shut out of the China market, even as Chinese alternatives had full reign, running on servers built with U.S. components (and likely using U.S. intellectual property).
    To be sure, China’s motivation was not necessarily protectionism, at least in the economic sense: what mattered most to the country’s ruling Communist Party was control of the flow of information. At the same time, from a narrow economic perspective, the truth is that China has been limiting the economic upside of U.S. companies far longer than the U.S. has tried to limit China’s.”
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    The USA hasn’t started the trade war with China under President Trump, it has responded to China’s “shots across the bows”. Please read the entire article, it is an important one.

Video for 3rd March, 2019

Via The Browser, this excellent video showing evolution at play over millions of years. Keep an eye on the top right and the top left of the video as well!