Biweekly links for 12/28/2009

  • The Nobel Laureate Versus the Graduate Student
    • A fascinating account of the 1962 debate between John Bardeen and Brian Josephson about Josephson’s suggestion that a superconducting current could tunnel through an insulator. Josephson was a 22 year-old grad student; Bardeen had already won one Nobel, and done the work that would result in a second.

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Biweekly links for 12/25/2009

  • Let’s make language exams useful « Secret Blogging Seminar
    • David Speyer has what looks like a viable proposal for crowdsourcing translation of mathematical texts.
  • Median age of NIH grantholders
    • Stunning graph: the median age has increased by nearly half a year per year for the past 35 years.
  • How to Teach Physics to Your Dog Is Out Today! : Uncertain Principles
    • Chad Orzel’s book, long awaited by canines and their owners everywhere, is now out! I saw an early draft of part of the book, and thoroughly enjoyed it – it’s great to see a book by someone who understands quantum mechanics thoroughly, and who can explain it so clearly, correctly, and entertainingly!
  • Seth’s blog » Blog Archive » What’s Appreciative Thinking?
    • “To learn appreciative thinking is to learn to appreciate, to learn to see the value of things. More or less the opposite of critical thinking.

      That I had to make up a phrase shows the problem. I have complained many times about an overemphasis on critical thinking at universities. Sometimes I’d say, “Have you ever heard the term appreciative thinking? No? How many times have you heard the term critical thinking?””

  • Steal These Books –
    • “With the recession, shoplifting is on the rise, according to booksellers. At BookPeople in Austin, Tex., the rate of theft has increased to approximately one book per hour. I asked Steve Bercu, BookPeople’s owner, what the most frequently stolen title was.

      “The Bible,” he said, without pausing.”

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Biweekly links for 12/21/2009

  • Preskill Lecture Notes on Quantum Field Theory
    • I’ve just dipped in here and there, but these are great. Don’t miss the link to the notes on general relativity, all the way at the bottom of the page. And, of course, there’s John’s famous notes on quantum computing.
  • A Glint From Across The Solar System | The Loom | Discover Magazine
    • What an amazing Universe we live in: a photograph from space of “a glint of sunlight reflecting off the surface of a lake of liquid hydrocarbons on Titan, a moon of Saturn.”
  • Nicholas Gruen: How blogging can be a public service – the Sydney Morning Herald
    • Nicholas Gruen Chairs Australia’s Gov 2.0 taskforce: “In the future I’d like to see governments draw volunteer enthusiasts from the community more closely and explicitly into their own activities in policy design and service delivery. And they can go further still. Shouldn’t the best volunteer contributors – whether they’re correcting text or discussing policy alternatives – be afforded greater recognition? Over time we could see if they were interested in being given greater responsibility, just as public servants are offered promotions. This could widen the pool of available talent to the public service and provide alternative pathways for recruiting people and developing their skills and authority.

      If those pathways of promotion were built, as structures of authority are built in the world of Web 2.0, they would be based on self-selection, enthusiasm and a record of aptitude and contribution in the field.”

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Biweekly links for 12/18/2009

  • Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » Hopefully my last D-Wave post ever
    • Scott, in full ironic mode, proposes a crowdsourcing project that could really take off: “Yes. I concede! D-Wave wins, and I hereby retire as skeptic. So the next time they announce something, there’s no need to ask me for my reaction. I’ll be too busy tending to my own project, codenamed ARGHH@home, which consists of banging my head against a brick wall.”
  • A guide to the day of big data : Nature
    • Review of “The Fourth Paradigm: Data-Intensive Scientific Discovery”
  • Doron Zeilberger’s course on Experimental Mathematics
    • This looks very interesting, especially since Zeilberger has co-authored several short notes with his computer, Shalosh B. Ekhad; indeed, recently Shalosh has struck out on his or her (?) own, with a number of sole author publications.
  • Avatar and the camera
    • Nice short article explaining how the new cameras used to film Avatar extend the “cinematic language of the lens”.
  • The Great Beyond: Flu database row escalates
    • Remarkable wrangling over databases containing genetic information about influenza.
  • Amazon EC2 Spot Instances – And Now How Much Would You Pay?
    • Amazon has created a market in computing power. Questions to ponder: how would you improve the market?
  • Another Privacy Misstep from Facebook | Freedom to Tinker
    • “Viewed through this lens, Facebook’s business dilemma is clear. The company is sitting on an ever-growing treasure trove of information about users. Methods for monetizing this information are many and obvious, but virtually all of them require either telling users’ stories to third parties, or modifying users’ stories — steps that would break users’ mental model of Facebook, triggering more outrage.

      The challenge is finding a structure that allows the company to explore new business opportunities, while at the same time securing truly informed consent from the user community. Some kind of customer advisory board seems like an obvious approach. But how would the members be chosen? And how much information and power would they get? This isn’t easy to do. But the current approach isn’t working either. If your business is based on user buy-in to an online community, then you have to give that community some kind of voice — you have to make it a community that users want to inhabit.

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Biweekly links for 12/14/2009

  • Conversation Hackers
    • Article about online trolling. Uneven, but worth skimming and dipping in and out: “But what really happens in the virtual lobbies of the Flat Earth Society is more twisted. There is probably not a single sincere proponent of Flat Earth Theory on the whole site. Rather, the forum seems to have been designed as a gigantic Troll bait. The presence of Trolls is openly acknowledged on the forum, as some important moderators of the site, Flatters and Rounders alike, have been unmasked. They have been spotted on hacked private forums, where they were boasting about their hoax. Apparently, the ‘Flat-Earthers’ who created the site were really Trolls who planned to attract Round-earthers, and confound them with silly arguments. Instead, other Trolls showed up and began arguing for both positions.”
  • Zooniverse
    • The Zooniverse launches! A home for the ever-growing suite of projects inspired by Galaxy Zoo.
  • Open source hardware 2009 – The definitive guide to open source hardware projects in 2009
    • Make Magazine’s extensive guide to open source hardware.

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Chip design

About ten years ago I was at a dinner party where I met an Intel engineer who was working on the design of one of the Pentium series of microprocessors. He told me many fascinating things about the design process, and stated that there was no one person who came even close to understanding the chip in its entirety. Instead, Intel has fashioned a very clever social process where that is not necessary, and the engineers working on the chip only understand it collectively.

I’m wondering if any of my readers know of any illuminating references on the social aspects of the design process for modern microprocessors? I’d be interesting in anything from a few sentences through to an entire book. My immediate need is for a single number – how many engineers are involved in designing a new chip – but I’m also interested to learn more. I’d be fascinated if anyone knows of any connection between those social process and the famous Pentium floating point bug. Thanks in advance for any assistance!

Update: John Dupuis points me to the book The Pentium Chronicles:The People, Passion, and Politics Behind Intel’s Landmark Chips, which looks very promising. Other suggestions would still be very much appreciated, though!

Update 2: More reference goodness from John Dupuis. This time it’s a paper by Bell and Kastelic entitled “Inside Intel-coping with complex projects”. Many fascinating facts at first glance – the Itanium team involved up to 650 engineers and mask designers, and 4500 person-years of work – but I’ve got to run, and have no time to digest right now.

Biweekly links for 12/07/2009

  • Networks, Crowds, and Markets: A Book by David Easley and Jon Kleinberg
  • Continuous Partial Attention – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  • Is Google Making Us Stupid? – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    • The Wikipedia article on Nicholas Carr’s well-known article. Something I find fascinating is how good the Wikipedia article is – maybe Google is making us stupid, but Wikipedia certainly isn’t.
  • Chromoscope
    • Chromoscope is amazing – view the Milky Way at many different wavelengths.
  • Jared Diamond: Will Big Business Save the Earth?
    • Interesting article by Diamond. Not quantitatively convincing, of course – it’s an NYT op-ed – but does challenge much conventional wisdom in the green movement.
  • Fact-Checkers and Certified Public Logicians Boing Boing
    • “I have wondered for years, as magazines, newspapers, and other news organizations have been hemorrhaging money and employees, why someone hasn’t gone into the contract fact-checking business. Like, it could be an extension of There’s a huge redundancy in every publication having their own research desks, so they could lay off all of their fact-checkers and then outsource the job to the new, independent company that the best of them then all go to work for. Meanwhile, the company could also be hired by anyone else. Then, when the public sees the “Fact-Checked by MiniTrue (SM)” seal on someone’s independent blog, they know the information there has the same credibility as the big boys.”
  • Less Wrong: Parapsychology: the control group for science
    • I don’t buy this – parapsychologists who consistently get negative results (“still no telepathy”) are thrown out of the tribe – but it’s intriguing nonetheless: “Imagine if, way back at the start of the scientific enterprise, someone had said, “What we really need is a control group for science – people who will behave exactly like scientists, doing experiments, publishing journals, and so on, but whose field of study is completely empty: one in which the null hypothesis is always true.

      “That way, we’ll be able to gauge the effect of publication bias, experimental error, misuse of statistics, data fraud, and so on, which will help us understand how serious such problems are in the real scientific literature.”

      Isn’t that a great idea?

      By an accident of historical chance, we actually have exactly such a control group, namely parapsychologists: people who study extra-sensory perception, telepathy, precognition, and so on.”

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Pessimism as hubris

It seems to me that pessimism in the face of major problems is sometimes an act of hubris. I sometimes find myself pessimistic simply because I don’t see any way of solving major problems such as securing the world’s nuclear materials (still a surprisingly scary problem), or solving the climate change problem. But, of course, just because I don’t personally see how to solve a problem doesn’t mean a solution won’t come from a direction I don’t expect, and perhaps have never even heard of. I remember many discussions of nuclear war in my school in the early 1980s, and the mood was always very dark; no-one anticipated that the breakup of the whole eastern bloc was just a few years away.

Taken too far, this point of view can lead to foolish optimism: “someone will save us!” The ideal frame of mind seems to be to balance optimism, on the grounds that there is far more ingenuity in the world than we are aware of, with a certain amount of pessimism, to remain strongly motivated to act ourselves. The sky really has fallen on some civilizations.