Fun with Classifying Things

I’m doing some work classifying proper names, and I had cause today to see if the algorithm I was using knew whether “Jonas Brothers” and “One Direction” were bands. It handled the former fine, but not so much the latter. This seems important.

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Relatedly, and perhaps more importantly, it thinks Kanye West is an airport, which is … interesting!

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More on this project later, obv. 

Software Engineering and its Discontents

This actively made me feel a kind of despair for all of modern capitalism: The Horrifically Dystopian World of Software Engineering Interviews. While the piece is about, as its lays out fairly clearly right there in the title, software engineering, it is actually about the awfulness of a Straight Outta Matrix Pods economy where we use algorithms to force people to generate algorithms that don’t matter about the wonders of algorithms that are better than the last algorithms that are now gamed and didn’t matter anyway. 

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This is what happens when people worship at the altar of Cool Googley Interview Questions, and then people game those. It becomes an arms race of stupid and dystopic.

Basketball, Bored of the Rings, and Greil Marcus

I like finding people who care intensely about (fairly) non-trivial things I care zero about. It is pleasing in a cultural fire break sort of way to have these people out there, keeping the flaming front from advancing by their presence.

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I’ll give you two examples.

First, there is basketball, and, more specifically, Bill Simmons’ podcast fixation with basketball. To be completely clear here, I think Bill Simmons is unfairly great podcast hosts: charming, discursive, direct, intelligent, etc. He has his flaws, but he makes me listen to things I care zero about, which brings me to basketball.

Dribble. Dribble. Dribble. Fake. Dribble. Shoot.
…and on its chest were the dreaded runes, Villanova.
“Aieee! A Ballhog!”
– Bored of the Rings (1969)

I care zero about basketball. It’s the 28.8 baud modem of sports: a click whhhh rrrr bzzzz of sports-related noise that, I’ve always felt, can be fairly safely ignored. Its practitioners are incredible athletes, but the sports itself is weirdly hermetic and repetitive. Like the Ballhog in Bored of the Rings, kind of an anticlimax when you were expecting, I dunno, giants. But the people who love it, love it, and that keeps me feeling safe, so I listen: Tell me more about the Celtics, whoever they are.

My other example is Greil Marcus, the longtime music critic who now writes for the Los Angeles Review of Books. I love his columns So Much. They are listy things, with ten-is  books ’n’ songs ’n’ cultural bits that caught his eye, sometimes for obvious reasons, but mostly for Greil-ish reasons of his own. Check the excerpt below and you’ll get a sense of His Things, with ruminations on Amazon Prime series that no-one but Marcus knew existed, books that I won’t ever add to my wish list to ignoramus’s but like that someone else will. I love every dot-numbered paragraph of it, and love that he is out there keeping me safe. 2020 02 21 15 22 44

Kedrosky: Natural experiments, bomber raids, etc.

Natural Experiments, Bomber Raids, and Economics

The spring morning of May 11, 1944, dawned mostly clear over southern England. There were a few high clouds, but it was a bright and breezy day with a high of 20 C. A good day for an Allied bombing raid, albeit one that turned out to matter decades later. 

Shortly after 10 am, 364 B‐24s and 536 fighter aircraft of the Eighth Air Force, second and third Bomb Divisions, took off for Germany from their bases. And a second raid, involving 609 B‐17s and 471 fighter aircraft of the first and third Bomb Divisions, took off just before 3 pm. And, a 2011 paper argues, the two massive waves of bombers had an unexpected effect: they changed the weather. 

To understand why, it helps to keep a few things in mind.

There was no other air traffic at the time, mostly because of the war, but also because the commercial air travel industry was in its infancy. As a result, contrails—those dense and persistent condensation trails in the sky induced by hot jet exhaust meeting ice crystals —were non-existent. There is a large and growing literature about the effect of air travel on climate, and, more specifically, on the effect of contrails on the weather. The general view in the climate research community has been that contrails have an effect, but, until recently, it’s been hard to find sufficiently well-designed studies to make that definitive.

That 2011 study helped give an answer. It showed, via a kind of natural experiment, that waves of airplane-caused cloudiness (i.e., contrails) changed the weather. Specifically, one paper argues, the absence of contrails induced an almost 1° reduction in the daily high/low temperature range, caused, it seems clear, by those waves of bombers. 

Contrails nasa langley research center 1024x8091

We saw something similar after 9/11 in the United States. With more than 36,000 canceled flights, contrails disappeared from the sky, which was usually gridded with the things as this NASA satellite picture from 2004 shows. And just like in 1944, there was a change in the daily range of temperatures: During the three-day aircraft grounding, the average daily temperature range in the US increased by 1.1° C. 

We are in the middle of a similar experiment today as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. There have already been more (mostly trans-Pacific) flights canceled than during 9/11, and outbound China shipping (another source of cloud) has contracted more than 30%. The impacts will be manifold. For example, as happened after 9/11 and after the May 11, 1944 bomber raids, we will likely see reduced cloud cover, at least over the Pacific, which will mean greater temperature ranges and more unusual weather, albeit on the US west coast.

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We will also see a sharp reduction in CO2 emissions from China, as has already been noted by energy observers. Estimates vary, but the drop could be 25% or more. Daily coal consumption from six major Chinese power firms has gone down dramatically, with no sign of recovery. 

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There will be other effects too, most of which will be unanticipated. We are in the midst of a massive natural experiment in turning back time, an unprecedented one in terms of scale and scope, and it is impossible to know the outcomes and consequences. 

Unrelated readings

Today in Ballard-ian Paragraphs

A cluster of at least 43 coronavirus infections at a church in South Korea – almost half the country’s total cases – has shed light on a “doomsday cult” that has earned a reputation for controversy due to its unconventional evangelistic activities .

– Source: SCMP

Charles Portis

Time just gets away from us. This ends my true account of how I avenged Frank Ross’s blood over in the Choctaw Nation when snow was on the ground.

– Charles Portis (1933-2020), True Grit

Cured of Mathematics

I will never believe you completely cured of Mathematics, as long as you sustain that these small bodies, of which you disputed the other day, are able to be divided to infinity.

Letter XIX to Pascal, Chevalier De Méré

Music history, path dependency, and Dresden


So, let’s do this again. Here are three things to think about—or at least that I’ve been thinking about.

The History of Music Technology

I don’t really care that much about music, which is one reason it is all the more strange I keep thinking about music. Or at least about the evolution of music. Or the evolution of its technology grammar. I blame Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason. 

I’ll explain. Almost a year ago the BBC did a wonderful documentary series on the history of music and technology, hosted by Pink Floyd’s Mason, which I heard at the time, but that promptly disappeared from the BBC website, other than a placeholder. I’m delighted to report that the series is now available again, and I’ve no idea for how long, on (grab it quickly). 

From the rise of multitrack, to the Hammond organ, to the electric guitar, to synthesizers and ORCH_2 hits, this series hot-swapped most of what I dimly knew about the building blocks of modern music, and replaced it with a new sonic grammar, one that was both coherent and evolutionary.

The upshot: I listen to music in an entirely different way. I don’t necessarily like it any more, but I now hear the evolving machine inside the noise. And it’s remarkable.

Path Dependency and Action Bias in Immunology

Humans like to feel like they’re doing something. They have, in behavioral jargon terms, an action bias—when faced with a problem they feel better if they do something than if they don’t, even if the thing they are doing doesn’t do much. Or is even counterproductive. 

My go-to example of this sort of thing comes from professional soccer goalkeepers. As a classic 2007 paper showed, they feel compelled to dive to one side or the other, despite having no idea (for the most part) what shooters are going to do. The action bias is so strong that they jump even when it’s fairly clear they would stop more shots if they simply stood still. They just want to be seen to be doing something. 

We see a similar action in bias in healthcare, where the over-prescribing of antibiotics can be seen the same way. According to a new study in this stream of work, around 10% of people like being prescribed antibiotics, even though they know they don’t do anything for their current malady. They just like feeling like they’re doing something. The effect is even more pronounced with younger patients, where a recent study presented evidence that more than one-in-four patients were being prescribed antibiotics unnecessarily. 

This matter, of course, mostly because it reduces the effectiveness of antibiotics through selection pressures on bacteria. But it has other effects too, as an increasing number of studies show, like potentially permanently altering the human gut microbiome, often in ways that have a long-term effect on future health. 

The human adaptive immune response is evolutionary, it responds to things, in part, based on what it’s previously seen, so our current resistance to viruses and bacteria is path-dependent. For example, a recent study showed how imprinted by their birth year with influenza A exposure have different responses to future flu outbreaks than those who do not. We are, in short, what’s made us ill.

The Firebombing of Dresden

This past Thursday was the 75th anniversary of the firebombing of Dresden. The anniversary of the horrors of Dresden was re-examined this week in an excellent BBC Start the Week episode, one that, among other things, called attention the almost immediate revulsion to the episode in newspaper headlines.

Even Churchill had a change of heart about its merits, writing a secret memo about the bombing, as well as asking privately “Are we beasts?”.

Unrelated reading
Video of the Week

The UTMB ultramarathon at night.