I thought I'd start a series of posts on my favorite music. This is one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands: To Bid You Farewell, by Swedish metal band Opeth.


The United States Navy has a new recruiting slogan: "A Global Force for Good". This might seem like an uncontroversial, or even bland phrase for the most powerful navy on earth. However, it seems a lot of sailors disapprove:

Navy Times received 56 e-mails from readers, and all but six disliked the slogan.
Their reasons were many. Several sailors said they worried the new slogan was wrong for the Navy’s reputation as a combat force.
“This bumper-sticker jingle would look good on a flower-toting cart, but when an [aircraft carrier] that displaces over 100,000 tons pulls up off your coast, generally the thought is, ‘Oh crap, the U.S. Navy is here,’” said Information Specialist 1st Class (SW/AW) Joshua Forman, of the 2nd Fleet Military Intelligence Operations Center.

I think Spc. Forman has a point: the new motto of the US Navy should be "Oh crap, the US Navy is here."

Scientists have found a massive diamond planet weighing more than Jupiter, orbiting a star right here in the Milky Way Galaxy. This particular star is a pulsar, a fast rotating neutron star which emits a powerful blast of electromagnetic radiation. Pulsars, like all neutron stars, are extremely dense collapsed stars more massive than our Sun, but have a much smaller volume (This particular neutron star is about as wide as London, but almost twice as massive as our Sun.)

So this star system consists of a dense pulsar more massive than our sun, but only about 15 kilometers in diameter, rotating ten thousand times per second and emitting a powerful beam of gamma radiation, and being orbited by a massive diamond planet the size of Jupiter (which used to be a companion star, until it was destroyed and swallowed by the pulsar).

I just think it's a good idea to reflect upon how bizarre our universe is every now and then.

Oscar Pistorius, a South African sprinter who was born without legs below the knee, has successfully qualified for the 2012 London Olympic games. The video below is truly inspiring.

James Earl Carter, more commonly known as Jimmy Carter, is one of the most maligned presidents in American history. However, I think this is totally unfair. Carter inherited a lot of serious problems, high levels of inflation, the oil embargo, the Iran Hostage Crisis, a stagnant economy, failing industries, and rising crime.

Carter didn't successfully solve all these problems, but he actually took steps to improve the situation. Unfortunately, Carter's reforms didn't take effect until the Reagan administration had already begun.

Here are some excellent descisions made by James Carter:

1. Decontrolling the oil price, and deregulating the oil industry: This decision helped pave the way for decades of low oil prices from the 1980s to early 2000s. American oil imports fell by 50% from 1979 to 1983. Unfortunately, Carter left office before the price could fall, so the credit all went to Reagan.

2. Saving Struggling American Industries: The rail industry had suffered decades of decline by the time Carter came into office. Price controls, high levels of regulation, and increased competition from the trucking industry, had brought the industry to the verge of complete collapse. Carter deregulated the freight rail, trucking, telecommunications, and air travel industries. All of these industries bounced back, and the competitiveness in telecommunications Carter encouraged helped spawn the information technology boom of the last 30 years, producing the Internet, cell phones, and other defining technologies of the modern era.

3. Fighting Inflation: The Fed Chairman Carter appointed was Paul Volcker. Volcker ended the loose monetary policy that had resulted in such a high level of inflation and imposed tightening policies. Volcker's approach finally broke the inflation problem to a manageable level in the 1980s. Volcker came under attack due to the short recession his policies supposedly triggered, but ultimately he was vindicated by history as a courageous leader.

4. Keeping America out of war with Iran: Due to the hostage crisis, Carter was under heavy pressure to invade and subjugate Iran. Carter, much to his credit, took the more reasonable path of diplomacy and negotiation (although he did try to stage a rescue mission, which failed due to bad weather).

5. Camp David Accords: Negotiated the long standing peace between Israel and Egypt.

1. Hybrid Ferrari: Clean, Green, and sexy as hell. I need this car.

 2. Bugatti Veyron: With a top speed over 250 MPH, this car makes your Ferrari look like a used Nissan Stanza. Costing millions of dollars, the Veyron is also one of the most expensive exotic sports cars you can buy.

3. 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Gullwing: Are totally unnecessary gullwing doors dorky or awesome? Mercedes has admitted that the gullwings on this car are a "form over function" choice, but when the form is this hot, I'm inclined to ignore the impracticality. 

 4. Cadillac CTS coupe: This is the only one of these cars I've actually gotten to ride in, and it is very impressive. The CTS coupe is the best example I've seen of Cadillac's "Art and Science" design philosophy. It also doesn't hurt that it has a supercharged 556 horsepower engine. 

 5. Matte Black Rolls Royce: This car looks like the batmobile. Enough said.

The relationship between unemployment and economic growth used to be simple: when GDP fell, unemployment rose, when GDP rose, unemployment fell. Economists even estimated the relationship between these two measures. Arthur Okun, the economist who first attempted to measure this relationship, estimated that it took a 3% decline in GDP to produce a 1% decline in unemployment. Later, Ben Bernanke estimated the relationship to be closer to 2:1. This simple ratio became codified as "Okun's Law".

In the ongoing Great Recession, Okun's Law has been turned on its head. The decline in unemployment has actually been faster than the decline in GDP. In addition, the unemployment rate hasn't fallen substantially, in spite of the slow but steady economic growth we've had since July 2009.

Why might this be? The usual explanation for unemployment is "sticky wages". The employment market doesn't clear entirely because employers are reluctant to cut wages instead of simply firing people. This is because employees tend to react badly to having their wages cut: morale declines, and employees often start to steal from or even sabotage their employers.

Even worse than Sticky Wages might be "Sticky Health Insurance". Health care costs tend to rise much more quickly than inflation or real wages. In fact this pattern has been true in virtually every country, and has gone on for decades. Employers are reluctant to cut health care benefits for the same reason they're reluctant to cut wages: it makes employees angry and resentful. Because of this, the real cost of employing someone with the same level of health benefits and wages rises significantly each year regardless of whether or not they actually increase your salary or benefits.

This spike in labor costs is a powerful force preventing companies from hiring new people. In previous years, the increase was less important, since health insurance was a smaller fraction of total compensation. But after decades of no increases in real wages, and constant increases in health care spending, that is no longer the case.

Severing the employer-health insurance connection might be the key to solving this problem and lowering unemployment, but that seems to be the last thing our politicians are interested in.

Don't tase me bro-bot!

The US military first used drones in operations in Vietnam. At the time these robotic war machines were simply remote-controlled reconnaissance tools, not weapons of war. Over time, the military started to realize Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) could become powerful tools for projecting power across thousands of miles of hostile territory.

Eventually, the idea of controlling territory with flying attack-robots trickled down to civilian law enforcement. In 2009, a SWAT team in Austin, Texas used a drone to watch the movements of an armed drug dealer, helping the police plan their assault against him. Now, there's this:

The idea is a surveillance drone which can also fire shotgun shells, tasers, and even launch grenades. And this device would be used to target civilian criminals. You can see why this kind of device might be useful for cops to have, and you can also see why this might scare the hell out of people.

So what do you think? Should civilian law enforcement be able to use attack drones against criminals?

There is an interesting genre of journalism called the "self-refuting article". These are articles that contain all the necessary information within them to refute the article's own thesis.

Here is a great example, from Wired's Autopia, an article called Why the Hell Do You People Still Drive? The purpose of this article is to argue that motorcycle ownership is obviously superior to driving a car.  And this is the way the second paragraph starts:

Five weeks ago, however, I rolled a Ural sidecar off road at 50 mph, breaking my left wrist.
 Ok, that's a pretty good reason not to drive a motorcycle. Other good reasons:

1. You live in a place which actually has rain, cold weather, snow or ice. So basically anywhere outside of southern California.
2. You would occasionally like to travel outside of southern California.
3. You would like to be able to buy more than 3 days worth of groceries at a time.
4. You have kids.
5. You have friends.

Etc. Reading journalistic articles and trying to find self-refuting evidence is a great way to gain critical reading skills. Try it!

Just wanted to put up a quick post to say that posting will be light for the next couple of days while I move to a different state. I should be back up to full speed by Sunday at the latest.

From Wired's Gadget Lab, comes this awesome, and slightly creepy wrist-phone concept designed for Kyocera. The idea is to give kids an easy-to-use cell phone, which they can use to call their parents, in case of emergency. Designing it as a bracelet is a great way to keep kids from dropping or losing the device (which is hard enough for adults to manage).

While that much seems reasonable, and even technologically feasible, the designer decided to go even further with the idea, designing the device to measure the child's heart rate and send the data to the child's parents via email!

The technology probably doesn't exist to make this watch feasible right now (especially since it is supposed to include a video-calling function. But eventually, I could see a version of this technology coming to market. Kidnappers beware!

It's all about the Benjamins Woodrows.

It seems that Google has agreed to buy Motorola's mobile phone business, primarily for their patent portfolio. The fact that Google saw this decision as necessary is very troubling for the future. To understand why, you need to know about a concept called the Tragedy of the Anti-Commons.

The Tragedy of the Anti-Commons

As Alex Tabarrok from Marginal Revolution explains:

The tragedy of the commons occurs when no one has the right to exclude users of a resource and, as a result, the resource is overused. The tragedy of the anti-commons occurs when many people have the right exclude users of a resource and, as a result, the resource is under-used.
An example of the anti-commons tragedy: imagine you want to build a railroad from one city to another. There are hundreds of different landowners in between the two cities, and even one person stubbornly refusing to sell can prevent the entire railroad from being built. The problem is that there are too many property rights rather than too few.

Google's Anti-Commons Problem

Right now, Google's Android Operating System is under assault in many different patent lawsuits filed by several different companies, especially Microsoft and Apple. Google is buying Motorola primarily to access their large patent-portfolio which would help to protect them from these lawsuits. At the same time, Microsoft and Apple have been buying smaller software companies (like Nortel Networks) to help defend themselves from similar suits.

Why this Should Worry You

Imagine that you've just created an innovative new mobile OS. You start visiting the major hardware manufacturers to try to sell them your software, and they like what they see. Several of them agree to offer your OS as an option on their new smartphones.

However, the established companies don't want a new competitor to steal market share from them. Soon after you make your first sales, several different companies file patent-infringement lawsuits. Of course, you didn't actually steal their code, but that doesn't matter. There are thousands of patents issued every year, can you honestly say for sure that you haven't violated one of them? Your legal expenses start piling up, even if you win all the cases, you'll be driven to bankruptcy just defending yourself. At this point your only hope is that someone with a lot of money will buy you out and defend your fragile new company (this is how Google acquired Android). If not, you'll be ruined.

In other words, only huge companies have the resources to protect themselves from this torrent of patent lawsuits. New companies stand no chance by themselves. In addition, even these powerful players have to spend billions of dollars on buying companies for their patents, and millions in legal fees. These Intellectual Property based anti-commons problems are becoming more and more dangerous as the economy becomes more dominated by IP heavy fields like technology and healthcare.

The end result is an economy dominated by a small number of huge companies. Potential new competitors are squeezed out, and the remaining corporations spend more money attacking each other and defending against others' attacks than they spend on research and development. If a company does try to introduce new features, this will only open them up to even more patent lawsuits. Progress in technology grinds to halt.

This is certainly a worrying pattern, and something we should all watch for in the future. 

1. Breaking Bad: This show, about a man with terminal cancer who starts cooking methamphetamine as a way of making money for his family, has received constant praise since it first premiered.

Why I haven't watched it: it sounds depressing and complicated.

2. Sealab 2021: Adam Reed has written and produced two of my favorite TV shows of all time: Frisky Dingo and Archer. Both of these shows are incredibly funny, fast-paced and enjoyable, relying heavily on callback gags and clever wordplay.

Why I haven't watched it: As much as I like Adam Reed's writing, based on what I've seen his work has consistently gotten better as time goes by. This implies that his earliest show, Sealab, is probably not as good. Callback gags are great, but they take time to develop. I actually did watch the first episode of Sealab 2021, and found it somewhat dull. I've been reassured that the quality improves with time, but I want to watch the show in order, so I just wind up putting it off.

3. The Shield: This hour-long FX police drama received high praise for its gritty realism and excellent acting. Based (loosely) on a corrupt division of the Los Angeles Police Department, it tells a fascinating story about moral gray areas.

Why I haven't watched it: Spoilers. I happened to catch a few episodes when it was on and saw a major character (I think) die. This kind of makes me reluctant to get invested in the show.

4. Mad Men: I've heard this AMC period drama about a New York Ad Agency in the early 1960s is one of the best shows on TV. Apparently it is also influencing the fashion and culture of the modern period.

Why I haven't watched it: It seems kind of boring.

5. The Wire: This show about drug enforcement in Baltimore is considered one of the best TV dramas ever made.

Why I haven't watched it: It seems kind of grim and depressing. Definitely the kind of show that would likely be rewarding in the long run, but would take some investment of time.

I don't normally write about politics, but I thought this was amusing enough to warrant a post:

1. Michele Bachmann 4,823 votes
2. Ron Paul 4,671
3. Tim Pawlenty 2,293
4. Rick Perry 1,718 write-in votes
5. Rick Santorum 1,657
6. Herman Cain 1,465
7. Mitt Romney 567
8. Newt Gingrich 385
9. Jon Huntsman 69
10. Thad McCotter 35

The key here is that Romney came in 7th. Romney hasn't put much effort into Iowa, so it isn't too surprising that he didn't fare well, but 7th is an embarrassing showing for the Republican front-runner.

Some other quick thoughts. Bachmann's win is a big deal. If she can manage a win in Iowa, she might just have enough momentum to become a serious candidate. She's already the "Tea Party"'s favorite, so a win in Iowa would require everyone to take her seriously. More realistically, a win in Iowa would virtually guarantee her the Vice President spot, since she has Tea Party cred, is a woman, and has potential to divide the base if she isn't on the ticket.

Ron Paul's close second place showing is impressive but not really surprising. Paul always does well in straw polls because his supporters are fanatical and they always show up to be polled. Paul isn't really running for president, he knows he'll never be nominated due to his libertarian and Anti-War views. He just wants to spread his libertarian beliefs to the public, and a presidential campaign is a great way to do it.

Pawlenty's 3rd place showing is a big failure. He needs a win in Iowa or people will forget he exists. He is seriously that boring. Other than Bachmann, Perry is the other clear winner here. Perry just declared his candidacy moments before the poll, and didn't even appear on the ballot. So everyone who voted for him had to write him in. Factoring this news in, the prediction market Intrade currently considers Perry to be the most likely candidate to win the nomination.

Santorum and Cain are beginning to appear irrelevant. Gingrich is hated by basically everyone at this point. Huntsman's 9th place isn't a big deal, since he isn't really running for president. Honestly, Huntsman is basically a Democrat, so he never stood a chance at the nomination. My guess is that Huntsman really wants the Secretary of State job, and is trying to get it the same way Hillary Clinton got it, by being politically useful.

Right now, electric vehicles are held back from widespread adoption by two things: 1. the lithium required for building high-tech batteries is quite rare and expensive, and 2. also current batteries cannot store enough energy to give vehicles sufficient range. Because zinc-air batteries are made from abundant, inexpensive materials, and high energy density, they could have an extraordinary potential to electrify vehicles and end the world's addiction to oil.

Zinc-Air Batteries work by oxidizing zinc with oxygen from air. The air (cathode) is not packaged with the battery, so the entire volume of the battery can be used to store the anode (zinc). Because of this unique design, zinc-air batteries can be far more energy dense than the most advanced lithium-ion batteries available today. In fact, it is possible that zinc-air batteries could be more than 10x more energy dense (watt-hours/liter) than lithium ion batteries.

There are some downsides to applying this technology in cars, though. Rechargeable zinc-air batteries are difficult, since the chemical reaction has to be reversed without corrupting the structure of the battery. There are several companies (ReVolt, is one) working on this technology at the moment, and several groups are currently claiming breakthroughs.

Regardless of whether current breakthroughs in the technology make it to market, it seems that zinc-air is definitely a technology to watch as we enter the Peak-Oil years.

Wired has a cool story about a company called "zerotoinfinity" which plans on offering helium balloon rides to the edge of space: more than 20 kilometers above the ground. Using a balloon to get near space (the definition of what is considered "space" is somewhat arbitrary) has some advantages and disadvanatages:

1. A longer ride: Most rocket trips to space last a very short time, and the time actually in space can be only a few minutes. A balloon can make the trip last for hours.

2. Lower fuel costs: The balloon would likely use less energy during its ascent and descent than a rocket.

3. A disadvantage is the waste of precious helium. No one knows how long our scarce helium reserves will last.

The article is here.

In 1960, Detroit was America's 4th biggest city, in 2010 it was only 18th. The last 50 years have not been kind to the Motor City.

Over the past 30 years, there have been many attempts to arrest the city's gradual, constant decline. The focus of these efforts have been major new infrastructure projects, like the Detroit People Mover. The People Mover is a type of monorail which travels in a big loop around parts of downtown Detroit. It currently operates at about 2.5% of capacity. In other words, it is usually almost empty.

Cities with growing populations need new infrastructure projects to support the needs of the growing population. Ironically, growing cities often find expanding their infrastructure to be difficult, since developers often want to use the same land that could be used for roads and rails to build homes and office buildings.

In a mostly-empty city like Detroit, however, it is very easy to build new infrastructure, since acquiring empty land is easy (and nobody else wants it).
This was once a densely packed urban neighborhood.
Shrinking cities don't need more infrastructure, they need less. As the population shrinks, the costs of maintaining the infrastructure of a much larger town increasingly burdens the smaller city. The old infrastructure starts to crumble and roads become unusable due to potholes.

I've previously defined cargo cults as attempts to copy the success of advanced economies by impersonating their surface behaviors, without understanding the actual cause of the advanced economies to function. The desire to expand Detroit's infrastructure comes from a cargo-cult desire to impersonate the surface behaviors of growing cities. Naturally this hasn't worked at all.

What Detroit needs is not more empty roads and unused trains. What they need is less crime and a better business environment. That is what ended the decline of New York City, and I suspect it would work for Detroit, too.

MIT researchers have announced that they have developed a treatment that could eventually cure the common cold, the flu, and other viral infections. The treatment works by targeting double stranded RNA, which is only used by viruses, not by animal cells.

Human testing hasn't started yet, so far the only tests have been in vitro tests with human cells and on influenza-infected mice. But so far the results have been promising: mice treated with the new technology (called DRACO) have been completely cured of the infection.

Obviously these are still early stages for this research program, but if it is successful, it could be an incredible advancement in medicine. Influenza alone kills hundreds of thousands of people a year. If this treatment works as well in humans as it does in mice, I hope the Nobel committee will pay attention.

According to Rasmussen Reports, 74% of Americans now believe the economy is getting worse, and only 10% think it's getting better.

That's the bad news.

The good news is that, while economists debate whether the economy will "double-dip" back into recession, most Americans believe the recession never ended. So, as the economy crashes to the ground all around us, we can at least say that Americans get it (even if our economists don't).

Have you heard that the hot items on sale on the British version of Amazon.com are Aluminum baseball bats? Is America's Pastime finally gaining popularity in England?

Oh.... Never mind.

Civilians aren't allowed to own firearms in the UK, hence the substitute good reference.

The Kingdom Spire would be almost 3 times as tall as the Empire State Building, the tallest building in NYC.
From Sinularity Hub:

When the Kingdom Tower is built on the outskirts of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia it will not only become the tallest building in the world, it will shatter the old record....
...the tower is a part of an economic initiative to strengthen Saudi Arabia’s economy by diversifying away from crude oil. For those with the means, the Kingdom Tower will be the poshest of the posh. It features a Four Seasons hotel, Four Seasons serviced apartments, luxury condominiums, top class office space and the world’s highest observatory. Total construction area is 530,000 square meters (5.7 million square feet). Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, a Chicago-based architecture firm, won the contract for the Kingdom Tower earlier this week. Smith already has experience with designing tallest buildings in the world. He designed Burj Khalifa while at another architecture firm. The final details of Kingdom Tower’s design are yet to be worked out, but construction is to begin immediately. The total cost for the tower is approximately $1.2 billion.
Most of the oil-rich states in the Middle East have rapidly growing populations. At the same time, the only real source of income the people have is petroleum export. This means that oil revenue has to increase exponentially or the standard of living of the people will begin to fall.

The governments of these countries understand this, and so they have made various attempts to "industrialize" their countries, mostly by building flashy skyscrapers and overblown infrastructure projects. But these massive expenditures are generally massive, failures. A good example of this is the Burj Khalifa. According to Wikipedia:

The project's completion coincided with the global financial crisis of 2007–2010, and with vast overbuilding in the country, led to high vacancies and foreclosures. With Dubai mired in debt from its huge ambitions, the government was forced to seek multibillion dollar bailouts from its oil rich neighbor Abu Dhabi. 
Due to the slumping demand in Dubai's property market, the rents in the Burj Khalifa plummeted 40% some ten months after its opening. Out of 900 apartments in the tower around 825 were still empty at that time.
 Skyscrapers and shopping malls are commonly found in the developed world, true. However, the root of the wealth of developed countries is a high productivity workforce. This pattern of copying surface characteristics of developed countries without copying the foundation of what makes them successful is classic cargo cult behavior.

As a tangent, I'll predict that the Kingdom Tower will be as big a failure as the Burj Khalifa. A good rule of thumb for the people managing the Saudi economy might be that you should not try to build skyscrapers taller than the tallest in New York City, London or Tokyo. If a skyscraper of that height can't be profitably built in the cities with the most valuable real estate in the world, it definitely won't work in your cities, where real estate is worth far less.

A propaganda poster for Mao's Great Leap Forward, depicting a Chinese worker carrying a steel girder.

I mentioned in my previous post that the central feature of cargo cults is the attempt to recreate the success of an advanced economy by impersonating the surface characteristics of that economy. This sort of behavior isn't limited to a few islands in the Pacific Ocean. Perhaps the largest cargo cult in history was 20th Century communism.

Communist leaders like Mao believed they could simply copy a few characteristics of industrialized economies, and thereby achieve wealth and prosperity. Mao knew that wealthy, industrialized countries produced a lot of steel, so he simply mandated that Chinese peasants start backyard blast furnaces. These desperately poor peasants were then required to meet absurdly high production quotas for steel. From Wikipedia:

These small steel blast furnaces were constructed in the backyards of the communes, hence their names. People used every type of fuel they could to power these furnaces, from coal to the wood of coffins. Where iron ore was unavailable, they melted any steel objects they could get their hands on -- including pots and pans, and even bicycles -- to make steel girders, but these girders were useless, as the steel was impure and of poor quality, and thus cracked easily. Unbeknownst to the Communist Party officials, the result was not steel, but high carbon pig iron which needs to be decarburized to make steel.

This is classic cargo cult behavior. From Frank Dikotter's Mao's Great Famine:

Steel was the sacred ingredient in the alchemy of socialism... Steel output magically distilled all the complex dimensions of human activity into a single, precise figure that indicated where a country stood on the scale of evolution.  Mao may not have been an expert on industry, but he seemed able to rattle off the steel output of virtually every country at the drop of a hat.
The pattern continued to other areas of the economy, like textile manufacture:

[C]lothes became the battlefield where communist supremacy had to be asserted, as products from grey sheeting to cotton prints flooded the market... By the end of the year, as poor farmers in the countryside were facing a winter without cotton-padded clothes, some 14 million bolts had been sold abroad below cost.  All that was done in order for China to be able to claim the title of the world's third largest exporter of cloth - instead of being fifth.
 This happened in the Soviet Union as well:

If weight was the plan indicator for nails, the assortment would be heavily weighted with large nails; if the plan indicator was quantity, small sizes would predominate. The Soviets experimented by adding other indicators, but in the end a gross output indicator always determined the manager’s success or failure.

So the outcome of the Soviet attempt to industrialize was a bunch of tiny, useless nails, or a few huge, useless nails. The Soviets wanted to industrialize, without taking the normal approach of gradual industrialization. In other words, they wanted a magical, shorter path to wealth.

But I believe we can take the cargo cult idea even further, and apply it to some currently developing economies, and even the advanced industrial economies of the modern era.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

- Arthur C. Clarke

Back in World War II, the American military established bases on a number of isolated Pacific islands as part of the campaign to defeat Japan. The huge mobilization of aircraft, giant ships, thousands of men, and billions of dollars of food and equipment dazzled the poor islanders, many of whom had very little contact with the outside world before. Imagine being a stone-age islander and seeing a B-29 Superfortress fly overhead.

And then, after the American victory over the Japanese Empire, the Americans, with their planes and boats, and crates of food that fell miraculously from the sky... suddenly vanished. The islanders didn't understand how the American economy worked--they had never seen a factory or even a tractor before. All they saw were mechanical marvels and abundant food that came in massive cargo crates. To them, it seemed like magic, and so they copied what they saw, imitating the dress and behavior of the American military personnel in ritual form.

Cargo Cultists performing a ritual based on their memories of US soldiers and sailors.

 Many of these cults centered around mystical, Messianic Americans, like "John Frum" or "Tom Navy". One cult is devoted to Prince Phillip of the United Kingdom (he once visited the island of Tanna). Cultists insist that these figures will return, bringing endless cargo to the islanders and their descendants.

The central pattern of the Cargo Cult is not limited to a few isolated Melanesian islands, however. Many societies have tried to replicate the wealth and technology of Western countries by imitating their surface characteristics. In the rest of this series, I'm going to try to apply the idea of cargo cults to explain the behaviors of different historical groups, leading up to the present day. Stay tuned!

Obama is not pleased with S&P right now.

The word has just come through. S&P has officially downgraded the platinum AAA credit rating of US government debt, by one letter grade. We've known this was coming for a while now, but still... this is big news. This is the first time in history US debt has been downgraded, and this likely signals a major turning point, whether for good or ill.

The lesson here is something I've alluded to before, in my long series of posts on the general topic of sovereign debt: the US government is totally unwilling to make the dramatic spending cuts (or tax increases) needed to balance the budget, and this is known by the markets and ratings agencies.

While we won't truly know until the Asian markets open this Sunday, the short term impact of the debt downgrade will probably be small. Most people have known the downgrade was coming for weeks, so most of the impact was "priced in", so to speak.

The long term impact is unknown and unknowable. My guess is that the other ratings agencies won't immediately follow, so the cost of financing the debt won't really increase. Ironically, the instability this creates may actually help attract more money into government bonds, as investors "flee to safety".

Hopefully this will serve as a wake-up call to government officials that they really do need to get serious about balancing the budget.

But I wouldn't count on it.

This video is a very cool TED talk about the possibility of using LED light fixtures for local WiFi. The LED would shine on a receiver to transmit data via subtle changes in the frequency of the light. The light changes are apparently too small to be noticed by human eyes, but can still transfer data at high enough rates to stream high-definition video.

Naturally this means if you turn your light off, your internet would go off as well. The solution to this problem, according to Haas, is to simply lower the intensity of the light--even very low levels of illumination can still transmit data at high rates.

Haas lists several advantages of switching from radio based WiFi to LiFi (WiFi which uses visible light).

1. It's more energy efficient: LED light fixtures are far more efficient than fluorescent or incandescent bulbs.

2. More available spectrum: The visible light spectrum is larger than the radio spectrum. Since visible light spectrum isn't used for long-range communication, TV and radio spectrum don't block up spectrum that could be used for WiFi.

3. Security:  Visible light can't penetrate walls, so your neighbor can't steal your bandwidth, and hackers can't steal your personal data.

4. Cars could use their LED headlights and taillights to communicate with each other, and help avoid a crash.

Some people don't think this technology will work out, but it sounds extremely promising to me. Personally, I plan on signing up as soon as the technology becomes commercially available. 

Chimpanzees: they don't like taking orders from humans.

In modern times, we mostly think of dogs as pets, but historically, dogs have been productive, working members of human societies, and they played an important role in economic development throughout human history. Domesticating dogs helped humans become more efficient hunters and also helped humans transition to a pastoral lifestyle by helping herd oxen, cattle, etc. Many scholars believe that this pastoral period allowed humans to accumulate enough wealth to form the first settled, agricultural communities. Settling down in one place and growing crops, in turn, allowed enough accumulation of wealth and specialization of labor to enable the Industrial Revolution which made humanity so much wealthier. It seems as though dogs may have been key to enabling this early economic progress, so we owe a great debt to our canine friends.

But why dogs, instead of say, apes? Since apes are a good deal smarter than dogs, it seems obvious that apes would be more useful to domesticate than dogs. In fact, Apes can be trained to perform very complex tasks that require some level of abstract reasoning:

 In controlled laboratory experiments another chimpanzee called Judy quickly learns how to use a complex series of manoeuvres, turning wheels and pulling handles in order, to obtain a piece of fruit from a specially constructed wooden slot machine. But even more remarkably, other chimps watch her success and then learn the skill themselves.

In addition to being far smarter than dogs, apes have opposable thumbs. When you combine these qualities of intelligence and dexterity, it seems surprising that we haven't trained apes to do a lot of industrial or agricultural labor. In addition to being dextrous and intelligent, apes are far, far stronger than human beings. The typical chimpanzee is 4 to 5 times stronger than a man.

The main reason we don't actually use apes as free labor (like dogs), is that apes simply don't like to cooperate with humans. You can train a chimpanzee to do a specific task, and the chimpanzee will quickly master the skill. But in most cases, the chimp will eventually "go ape" and smash your equipment and try to rip your face off. Dogs almost never attack humans unless they've been specifically trained (or bred) for violence.

Of course, it seems likely that the earliest domesticated canines would have occasionally attacked humans too, but it is much harder to selectively breed chimpanzees than dogs, so getting rid of that kind of violent behavior is much more difficult.

Anyway, reading about how violent and unpredictable chimpanzees are really makes me grateful dogs decided to cooperate with humans, making our advanced technological civilization possible.

Man's Best Friend: Now would be a good time to give your dog a treat and a pat on the head.

New projections of discretionary spending after the new bill is passed. Note that these figures are in billions of dollars.
...are actually budget increases. We now live in an alternate universe where increasing the budget more slowly = crazy austerity measures.

I'm honestly not sure who this makes look worse: the Democrats who are calling this a disastrous budget cut that will end American Democracy, or the Republicans who invoked the Nuclear Option and couldn't even get real budget cuts. A pox on both their houses!