4 stars

The Antikythera Cosmos: Experts recreate a mechanical Cosmos for the world's first computer | YouTube

Very, very cool new research:

Researchers at UCL have solved a major piece of the puzzle that makes up the ancient Greek astronomical calculator known as the Antikythera Mechanism, a hand-powered mechanical device that was used to predict astronomical events.

Known to many as the world's first analogue computer, the Antikythera Mechanism is the most complex piece of engineering to have survived from the ancient world. The 2,000-year-old device was used to predict the positions of the Sun, Moon and the planets as well as lunar and solar eclipses.

Published in Scientific Reports, the paper from the multidisciplinary UCL Antikythera Research Team reveals a new display of the ancient Greek order of the Universe (Cosmos), within a complex gearing system at the front of the Mechanism.

Lead author Professor Tony Freeth (UCL Mechanical Engineering) explained: "Ours is the first model that conforms to all the physical evidence and matches the descriptions in the scientific inscriptions engraved on the Mechanism itself. […]

However, until now, a full understanding of the gearing system at the front of the device has eluded the best efforts of researchers. Only about a third of the Mechanism has survived, and is split into 82 fragments - creating a daunting challenge for the UCL team.

The biggest surviving fragment, known as Fragment A, displays features of bearings, pillars and a block. Another, known as Fragment D, features an unexplained disk, 63-tooth gear and plate.

Previous research had used X-ray data from 2005 to reveal thousands of text characters hidden inside the fragments, unread for nearly 2,000 years. Inscriptions on the back cover include a description of the cosmos display, with the planets moving on rings and indicated by marker beads. It was this display that the team worked to reconstruct.


Private Schools Have Become Truly Obscene | The Atlantic

From the always-brilliant Caitlin Flanagan:

Elite schools breed entitlement, entrench inequality—and then pretend to be engines of social change. […]

“Next it’ll be a heliport,” said a member of the local land-use committee after the school’s most recent remodel, which added two floors—and 12,000 square feet—to one of its four buildings, in order to better prepare students “for the exciting world they will inherit.” Today Dalton; tomorrow the world itself.

So it was a misstep when Jim Best, the head of school—relatively new, and with a salary of $700,000—said that Dalton parents couldn’t have something they wanted. The school would not hold in-person classes in the fall. This might have gone over better if the other elite Manhattan schools were doing the same. But Trinity was opening. Ditto the fearsome girls’ schools: Brearley, Nightingale-Bamford, Chapin, Spence.

How long could the Dalton parent—the $54,000-a-kid Dalton parent—watch her children slip behind their co-equals? More to the point, how long could she be expected to open The New York Times and see articles about one of the coronavirus pandemic’s most savage inequalities: that private schools were allowed to open when so many public schools were closed, their students withering in front of computer screens and suffering all manner of neglect?

The Dalton parent is not supposed to be on the wrong side of a savage inequality. She is supposed to care about savage inequalities; she is supposed to murmur sympathetically about savage inequalities while scanning the news, her gentle concern muffled by the jet-engine roar of her morning blowout. But she isn’t supposed to fall victim to one.


3 stars

My Mom Believes In QAnon. I’ve Been Trying To Get Her Out. | BuzzFeed News

By 2020, I’d pretty much given up on swaying my mom away from her preferred presidential candidate. We’d spent many hours arguing over basic facts I considered indisputable. Any information I cited to prove Trump’s cruelty, she cut down with a corresponding counterattack. My links to credible news sources disintegrated against a wall of outlets like One America News Network, Breitbart, and Before It’s News. Any cracks I could find in her positions were instantly undermined by the inconvenient fact that I was, in her words, a member of “the liberal media,” a brainwashed acolyte of the sprawling conspiracy trying to take down her heroic leader.

The irony gnawed at me: My entire vocation as an investigative reporter was predicated on being able to reveal truths, and yet I could not even rustle up the evidence to convince my own mother that our 45th president was not, in fact, the hero she believed him to be. Or, for that matter, that John F. Kennedy Jr. was dead. Or that Tom Hanks had not been executed for drinking the blood of children. […]

That campaign season, my mom and I had our first conversations about politics. I was still the voice she trusted most, and she was partial to the sons of single mothers, so it wasn’t hard to pitch my candidate. She declared her support for Obama, convincing her siblings and friends to vote for him. Those months turned out to be the final chapter of our political alignment.

Cracks began showing within months of Obama’s inauguration. My mom read that his healthcare plan would fund abortion procedures. It was a small slice of a broad program, but that was all it took. She felt betrayed by him and condemned the liberal media’s influence on me, the trusted voice who had led her astray.


How Facebook got addicted to spreading misinformation | MIT Technology Review

Facebook has consistently pointed to the efforts by Quiñonero and others as it seeks to repair its reputation. It regularly trots out various leaders to speak to the media about the ongoing reforms. In May of 2019, it granted a series of interviews with Schroepfer to the New York Times, which rewarded the company with a humanizing profile of a sensitive, well-intentioned executive striving to overcome the technical challenges of filtering out misinformation and hate speech from a stream of content that amounted to billions of pieces a day. These challenges are so hard that it makes Schroepfer emotional, wrote the Times: “Sometimes that brings him to tears.”

In the spring of 2020, it was apparently my turn. Ari Entin, Facebook’s AI communications director, asked in an email if I wanted to take a deeper look at the company’s AI work. After talking to several of its AI leaders, I decided to focus on Quiñonero. Entin happily obliged. As not only the leader of the Responsible AI team but also the man who had made Facebook into an AI-driven company, Quiñonero was a solid choice to use as a poster boy. […]

But Entin and Quiñonero had a different agenda. Each time I tried to bring up these topics, my requests to speak about them were dropped or redirected. They only wanted to discuss the Responsible AI team’s plan to tackle one specific kind of problem: AI bias, in which algorithms discriminate against particular user groups. An example would be an ad-targeting algorithm that shows certain job or housing opportunities to white people but not to minorities.

By the time thousands of rioters stormed the US Capitol in January, organized in part on Facebook and fueled by the lies about a stolen election that had fanned out across the platform, it was clear from my conversations that the Responsible AI team had failed to make headway against misinformation and hate speech because it had never made those problems its main focus. More important, I realized, if it tried to, it would be set up for failure.

The reason is simple. Everything the company does and chooses not to do flows from a single motivation: Zuckerberg’s relentless desire for growth. Quiñonero’s AI expertise supercharged that growth. His team got pigeonholed into targeting AI bias, as I learned in my reporting, because preventing such bias helps the company avoid proposed regulation that might, if passed, hamper that growth. Facebook leadership has also repeatedly weakened or halted many initiatives meant to clean up misinformation on the platform because doing so would undermine that growth.

In other words, the Responsible AI team’s work—whatever its merits on the specific problem of tackling AI bias—is essentially irrelevant to fixing the bigger problems of misinformation, extremism, and political polarization. And it’s all of us who pay the price.


2 stars

Excel Never Dies | Not Boring

In the popular marketing book Alchemy, Rory Sutherland writes, “A spreadsheet leaves no room for miracles.” We could not disagree more strongly.

Most software we use at work exists in one of two categories: 

  1. It’s new and we love it for now. 

  2. It’s old but we have to use it and we hate it. 

But there’s one software product born in 1985, before many of us were even a twinkle in our parents’ eye, that inhabits its own category: it’s old, but we love it, we always will, and you’ll have to pry it from our cold, dead, fingers. That product, of course, is Microsoft Excel. […]

But the enduring, passionate user fervor for the product isn’t even its most unique attribute. Excel’s most lasting impact extends beyond the spreadsheet itself.

Excel may be the most influential software ever built. It is a canonical example of Steve Job’s bicycle of the mind, endowing its users with computational superpowers normally reserved for professional software engineers. Armed with those superpowers, users can create fully functional software programs in the form of a humble spreadsheet to solve problems in a seemingly limitless number of domains. These programs often serve as high-fidelity prototypes of domain specific applications just begging to be brought to market in a more polished form. 

If you want to see the future of B2B software, look at what Excel users are hacking together in spreadsheets today. Excel’s success has inspired the creation of software whose combined enterprise value dwarfs that of Excel alone. There are two main ways Excel has set the broad roadmap for the B2B software industry for decades, and will continue to for years to come


How Did East Asia Overtake South Asia? | Dr. Alice Evans

Circa 1900, women in East Asia and South Asia were equally oppressed and unfree. But over the course of the 20th century, gender equality in East Asia advanced far ahead of South Asia. What accounts for this divergence?

The first-order difference between East and South Asia is economic development. East Asian women left the countryside in droves to meet the huge demand for labour in the cities and escaped the patriarchal constraints of the village. They earned their own money, supported their parents, and gained independence. By contrast, the slower pace of structural transformation has kept South Asia a more agrarian and less urban society, with fewer opportunities for women to liberate themselves.

But growth is not the whole story. Cultural and religious norms have persisted in spite of growth. Even though women in South Asia are having fewer children and are better educated than ever before, they seldom work outside the family or collectively challenge their subordination. By global standards, gender equality indicators in South Asia remain low relative to regions at similar levels of development or even compared with many poorer countries.


Crossing Rivers | The Oregon Trail Game

Find out everything you want to know about the classic versions of The Oregon Trail game – how the game was created, what the game looked like, how to find free copies of the classic game to play, and the latest news about the game. […]

The inclusion of river crossings was one of the key innovations in my design for The Oregon Trail – a feature which had not been present in the original version of OREGON. I felt that a fully realized river-crossing module would provide a great educational opportunity, in addition to enriching the overall gameplay. And indeed, for most players of the game, the river crossings are the second most exciting part of the product, eclipsed only by the hunting activity.

As I conducted my research prior to designing the game, I learned that the overlanders to Oregon had to cross a lot of rivers. (And in some cases, when the trail went up a river valley, they had to cross the same river several times.) But from the standpoint of gameplay, it was better to include only a small number of river crossings in the game. Furthermore, after 3 or 4 crossings, there would be little educational value in including more. I eventually settled on the Kansas River, the Big Blue River, the Green River, and the Snake River – although at times I seriously considered several other rivers as well.


Biden is triangulating the Left | Noah Pinion

When it comes to the politics of the Biden administration, most of the attention is on the fights with the Republicans — and rightly so, since they have the power to block legislation in the Senate, and because they have a good chance of mounting a comeback in the 2022 midterms. But there’s an interesting little side dynamic between Biden and the Left. Essentially, on domestic policy, Biden has triangulated — enacting the kind of economic policies the Left tends to like, while largely shutting their faction out of direct influence. And that’s pulling the Left in two different directions. […]

In other words, Biden is bringing the most transformational progressive agenda since LBJ. And this presents the Left with a bit of a dilemma, because one of their core bedrock beliefs during the campaign season was that Biden was a basically Clintonite centrist. The fact that their predictions have been hilariously wide of the mark, and Biden is governing more like FDR, presents leftists with a choice: They can either admit (however grudgingly and provisionally) that Biden is a lot better than they thought, or they can find reasons to denounce Biden in spite of all he’s doing. And I think those impulses are going to pull the Left in two different directions, and possibly even lead to a parting of the ways.


No One Is Prepared for Hagfish Slime | The Atlantic

The slime looks revolting, but it’s also one of nature’s more wondrous substances, unlike anything else that’s been concocted by either evolution or engineers. Fudge, who has been studying its properties for two decades, says that when people first touch it, they are invariably surprised. “It looks like a bunch of mucus that someone just sneezed out of their nose,” he says. “That’s not at all what it’s like.”

For a start, it’s not sticky. If there wasn’t so damn much of it, you’d be able to wipe it off your skin with ease. The hagfish themselves scrape the slime off their skin by tying a knot in their bodies and sliding it from head to tail.

The slime also “has a very strange sensation of not quite being there,” says Fudge. It consists of two main components—mucus and protein threads. The threads spread out and entangle one another, creating a fast-expanding net that traps both mucus and water. Astonishingly, to create a liter of slime, a hagfish has to release only 40 milligrams of mucus and protein—1,000 times less dry material than human saliva contains. That’s why the slime, though strong and elastic enough to coat a hand, feels so incorporeal.


Meet the Sea Slugs That Chop Off Their Heads and Grow New Bodies | New York Times

“We’ve known for a long time that sea slugs have regenerative capabilities, but this really goes beyond what we had thought,” said Terry Gosliner, senior curator of invertebrate zoology at the California Academy of Science.

Dr. Gosliner, who has discovered over one-third of all sea slug species known to exist, suspects that the impressive regenerative capability of these sea slugs may relate to another impressive biological talent they possess.

Elysia marginata and Elysia atroviridisare often called “solar-powered sea slugs.” They are among a small number of slugs that can incorporate chloroplasts from the algae they eat into their bodies. This lets the slugs sustain themselves, at least partially, on the sugars the chloroplasts produce through photosynthesis.


Exercise vs. Diet? What Children of the Amazon Can Teach Us About Weight Gain | New York Times

When children gain excess weight, the culprit is more likely to be eating too much than moving too little, according to a fascinating new study of children in Ecuador. The study compared the lifestyles, diets and body compositions of Amazonian children who live in rural, foraging communities with those of other Indigenous children living in nearby towns, and the results have implications for the rising rates of obesity in both children and adults worldwide.

The in-depth study found that the rural children, who run, play and forage for hours, are leaner and more active than their urban counterparts. But they do not burn more calories day-to-day, a surprising finding that implicates the urban children’s modernized diets in their weight gain. The findings also raise provocative questions about the interplay of physical activity and metabolism and why exercise helps so little with weight loss, not only in children but the rest of us, too.


March 13, 2021 | Letters from an American

Mexican immigration is nothing new; our western agribusinesses were built on migrant labor of Mexicans, Japanese, and poor whites, among others. From the time the current border was set in 1848 until the 1930s, people moved back and forth across it without restrictions. But in 1965, Congress passed the Hart-Celler Act, putting a cap on Latin American immigration for the first time. The cap was low: just 20,000, although 50,000 workers were coming annually.

After 1965, workers continued to come as they always had, and to be employed, as always. But now their presence was illegal. In 1986, Congress tried to fix the problem by offering amnesty to 2.3 million Mexicans who were living in the U.S. and by cracking down on employers who hired undocumented workers. But rather than ending the problem of undocumented workers, the new law exacerbated it by beginning the process of guarding and militarizing the border. Until then, migrants into the United States had been offset by an equal number leaving at the end of the season. Once the border became heavily guarded, Mexican migrants refused to take the chance of leaving.

Since 1986, politicians have refused to deal with this disconnect, which grew in the 1990s when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) flooded Mexico with U.S. corn and drove Mexican farmers to find work, largely in the American Southeast. But this "problem" is neither new nor catastrophic. While about 6 million undocumented Mexicans currently live in the United States, most of them--78%-- are long-term residents, here more than ten years. Only 7% have lived here less than five years. (This ratio is much more stable than that for undocumented immigrants from any other country, and indeed, about twice as many undocumented immigrants come legally and overstay their visas than come illegally across the southern border.)

Since 2007, the number of undocumented Mexicans living in the United States has declined by more than a million. Lately, more Mexicans are leaving America than are coming.

What is happening right now at America's southern border is not really about Mexican migrant workers.


1 star

A Drone’s Eye View of a Bowling Alley | Kottke

You may have already seen this; it’s gone viral, and deservedly so:

The very first sequence of this video is of the camera — presumably perched on a drone — dropping out of the sky, flying through the door of beloved Minneapolis institution Bryant Lake Bowl, and following a bowling ball down the lane…and it just keeps going from there. Great drone piloting, choreography, sound design, and execution of concept.


The Earth Rising Over the Moon | Kottke

Captured by the Kaguya lunar orbiter on April 5, 2008, this is an HD video of the Earth rising over the surface of the Moon. Watching stuff like this always puts me in a different frame of mind. (Turn off the sound if you don’t want to hear the super-cheesy narration.)


Scientists Discover Chunk of Protoplanet Older Than Earth In Sahara Desert | Vice

In the spring of 2020, an amazing relic was discovered in a remote region of the Sahara desert: an ultra-rare chunk of an embryonic planet that existed before Earth was born.

Known as Erg Chech 002 (EC 002), the meteorite was forged within the crust of an ancient protoplanet, a small celestial body that serves as a building block for planets. The volcanic space rock is “the oldest known lava” that has ever fallen to Earth and offers an unprecedented glimpse of planetary formation in the early solar system, according to a study published on Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


New Kind of Space Explosion Reveals the Birth of a Black Hole | Quanta

A supernova-like explosion dubbed the Camel appears to be the result of a newborn black hole eating a star from the inside out.


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