Thursday, August 28, 2014

P vs. NP and the Computational Complexity Zoo

Here's a nice 10 min video explaining a famous still unsolved math problem that every computer science major learns about. It even appeared in an episode of Elementary. Most of it should be understandable to everyone.

Interviews with a former member of Kim Jong-il's "pleasure squad"

Stumbled on this from 2010 Interviews with a former member of Kim Jong-il's "pleasure squad. I couldn't find the other parts, but this was interesting.

Evidence for Supernovas Near Earth

NASA says there is Evidence for Supernovas Near Earth.

Once every 50 years, more or less, a massive star explodes somewhere in the Milky Way.  The resulting blast is terrifyingly powerful, pumping out more energy in a split second than the sun emits in a million years.  At its peak, a supernova can outshine the entire Milky Way.

It seems obvious that you wouldn't want a supernova exploding near Earth.  Yet there is growing evidence that one did—actually, more than one. About 10 million years ago, a nearby cluster of supernovas went off like popcorn.  We know because the explosions blew an enormous bubble in the interstellar medium, and we're inside it."

Astronomers call it "the Local Bubble." It is peanut-shaped, about 300 light years long, and filled with almost nothing. Gas inside the bubble is very thin (0.001 atoms per cubic centimeter) and very hot (roughly a million degrees)—a sharp departure from ordinary interstellar material.

CGSociety - Building 3D with Ikea

Building 3D with Ikea describes how many of the images in their catalog (including entire room scenes) are not actual photographs but are entirely computer generated images of their products.

How The Ancient Egyptians (Should Have) Built The Pyramids

The Physics arXiv Blog writes How The Ancient Egyptians (Should Have) Built The Pyramids.

"Today, Joseph West at Indiana State University and a couple of pals suggest an alternative method for moving giant stone blocks. Their approach considerably reduces the ground pressure but at the same time allows the blocks to be moved with significantly less effort than dragging. They have even tested the idea to measure the amount of force workers would have had to use to move the blocks. Their idea is remarkably simple. They strap wooden rods to a block, turning its profile from a square into a dodecagon, which can then be moved more easily by rolling."

Bonus points if that quote reminded you of Lisa Simpson.

Revisiting the end of The Sopranos

The Sopranos is undoubtedly one of the best shows ever on television and also one of the most influential. There are other shows I like better, but it's mostly personal preference. I was less happy with the later seasons and as I wrote, I was unhappy with the ending. Rereading that post now, I still agree with it all. Spoilers below.

Yesterday Martha P. Nochinson wrote in Vox, Did Tony die at the end of The Sopranos?: David Chase finally answers the question he wants fans to stop asking. David Chase responded and Todd VanDerWerff of Vox followed up, David Chase responds to our Sopranos piece.

I really don't get this. I'm sure Chase gets asked about the ending all the time, and I'm sure he's tired of talking about it. I'm also sure it's exactly what he wanted it to be and that he thought about it a lot before making it. Everything he wanted to say was in what we all watched. The finale was inherently ambiguous. Aside from wondering if your cable went out, everything you wondered is a valid thought that Chase wanted you to think about. Maybe he died, maybe nothing happened. What's certain is that the show ended. If Chase said now that he lived or died it doesn't matter. The finale left it open to interpretation and that's fine. You can love it or hate it, but it's not like this has been a seven year cliffhanger and we're just waiting for the resolution.

Here's Nochinson's opinion (there's some other setup about Welles, Brunel and Poe being influences to Chase):

Welles' magic, Bunuel's real-looking dreams, Poe's sand that keeps flowing through our fingers no matter what we try to do to stop it, are the inspirations for the cut to black. The cut to black brought to American television the sense of an ending that produces wonder instead of the tying-up of loose ends that characterizes the tradition of the formulaic series. Tony's decisive win over his enemy in the New York mob, Phil Leotardo, is the final user-friendly event in Chase's gangster story that gratifies the desire to be conclusive, and it would have been the finale of a less compelling gangster story. The cut to black is the moment when Castaneda and the American Romantics rise to the surface and the gangster story slips through our fingers and vanishes.

I'm not guessing. When I asked Chase about the cut to black, he said that it is about Poe's poem "Dream Within a Dream." "What more can I say?" he asks when I prod him to speak more, and I admire his silence. I am his audience too and he wants me to reach for his meaning. And here's what I conclude. Though you wouldn't know it from watching Hollywood movies, endings are by nature mysterious. There is the instability of loss in an ending as well as the satisfying sense of completion. American television before Chase, with the exception of David Lynch's Twin Peaks, one of Chase's avowed key inspirations for the art of The Sopranos, built a craft that dispenses with the destabilizing aspects of an ending. The true art of closure will not tolerate such a boring decision. Moreover, the art of closure forbids merely telling the audience in words that there is loss, since words can create the illusion of safety and control. Chase's art seeks a silent level of knowing more profound than words. He believes we already know if we open up to that deeper part of us.

I call bullshit. First off, if this is true and related to The Sopranos then to most viewers he certainly missed the "satisfying sense of completion" part. I also don't agree that endings are mysterious or know what "you wouldn't know it from watching Hollywood movies" is supposed to mean. Isn't that saying that this is true, except for these thousands of counter-examples I'll just ignore? And what does this mean: "The art of closure forbids merely telling the audience in words that there is loss". Who mentioned that as a rule? Since when does closure have to involve "loss"? Who said anything about using only "words"?

There's no doubt that great works of art can have meaning at deep levels. And film is a medium that has the potential to reach us non-verbally. Silent films succeeded (even without interstitials) and then with the invention of sound many filmmakers got lazy. Stanley Kubrick (who never got lazy) once said "I don’t like to talk about 2001 too much because it’s essentially a non-verbal experience. It attempts to communicate more to the subconscious and to the feelings than it does to the intellect." Few people ever understood the ending of 2001 but there was an ending to the story, even if it was the beginning of another.

Since The Sopranos ended, the film Inception came out. If you haven't seen it, go see it. Spoilers for it in this paragraph. That famously had another cut-to-black ending and I loved it. The whole film was about dreams and recognizing reality and questioning how we know something is real. That last scene could have one of two possible outcomes that were setup previously. The ending made the audience answer that question about the film and if they thought hard enough, about their own lives. It was a great ending and made the film more than merely about the plot.

The last season of The Sopranos used other characters to explore a lot of different ways one could get out of the mob (suicide, running away, turning snitch to the feds, etc.) I'm sure that was meant to foreshadow Tony's choices (if he wanted to get out) but the first half of the finale resolved so many plot points so neatly I thought it was a dream (unfortunately I don't remember those details now). I still think the last scene was a remarkable achievement in creating tension but I don't think leaving it open as it did, accomplished much for telling a story.

Lets say Tony died. Would it have been unsatisfying to see someone suddenly kill him and have it cut to blood splattering on his family? It would have been shocking and people would have been talking about it (and maybe even wondering who did it), but it would have also been justified. Tony did a lot of bad things and that's what he had coming to him. Let's say he didn't die and this was just another day in the life. Would it have been unsatisfying if the camera pulled away and the music faded? Maybe a bit, but the show was also about how people in this life also struggle with everyday things and that will continue forever (because there will always be criminals). People would have complained that justice was not served but that happens some time (there's still a mob). There are a few other possible endings but the way it was setup, none of them would have added much to the story. Nevertheless, to say that endings are inherently mysterious and yet somehow cheapen the experience is a cop out.

If endings are so mysterious and Chase hates them so much, then why did every other episode have an ending? The show was one of the early examples of a new era of serialized story-telling on TV. Individual episodes that collectively told a larger story. The episode that hooked me on the show was when AJ found out what his dad did for a living. It had an ending. Lots of other characters on the show had "endings" and they were usually poignant. Character arcs don't have to end in death, so by definition their story continues but a well crafted arc still has an ending.

I stand by my original thought, the cut-to-black was a gimmick. It was certainly memorable and generated tons of buzz so it was successful in that. Maybe all publicity is good publicity but I still think there's a difference between famous and infamous. One thing is clear to me though (and VanDerWerff agrees and claims Nochimson agrees), David Chase saying whether Tony Soprano died or not is not a useful question and people should stop asking him it. Asking what he meant to convey is more valid, but it would also mean he failed to get his point across.

Monday, August 25, 2014

A Deadly Epidemic of Violence Against Women

The Atlantic reports on A Deadly Epidemic of Violence Against Women

"The map is of South Carolina and its counties. 'All 46 counties have at least one animal shelter to care for stray dogs,' The Charleston Post Courier reports, 'but the state has only 18 domestic violence shelters to help women trying to escape abuse.' One of the red dots represents a 31-year-old, Amerise Barbre, whose boyfriend strangled her. Each red dot represents a woman killed by a husband or boyfriend. In the eight-year period shown, that sort of murder happened 292 times.


'Most state legislators profess deep concern over domestic violence,' the newspaper notes in the introduction to a seven-part feature. 'Yet they maintain a legal system in which a man can earn five years in prison for abusing his dog but a maximum of just 30 days in jail for beating his wife or girlfriend on a first offense.' Domestic abuse reportedly occurs there about 36,000 times per year."

TiVo Launches Over-the-Air DVR

I've had a TiVo for a long time and a Roamio for about a year and love it. It was expensive and my cable bill is high but I'm good with that and get a lot of use out of it. CNN Money reports Simple, Brilliant and Legal -- TiVo Launches Over-the-Air DVR. I'm not sure why legal is in the headline, they must be comparing it to the Aereo and the Supreme Court case decided a couple of months ago but the article makes no mention of it or any other legal issues.

So the new Roamio OTA can record four shows at once and hold 75 hours of HD programming, pretty nice. Otherwise it's a Roamio, with the great interface, channel guide and integrated streaming services like Netflix and Hulu Plus (of course you have to subscribe to those). The difference is it gets TV the old-fashion way using an antenna (aka OTA). The really attractive thing is, it's only $49.99! At that price it's a steal. I might have made the tuner/storage trade-off a little differently, more storage and less tuners (since OTA has so many fewer channels than cable) but it also works with a TiVo Mini, so you can dedicate a tuner to stream stuff recorded to a different TV in the house.

But there's a downside, like other TiVos the Roamio OTA requires TiVo Service which is $14.99/month. The people I know using OTA TV are doing it because they don't want to pay cable fees. I doubt they're interested in paying $15/month (or $500 for lifetime service). The TiVo really is easy to use and $15/month is a lot less than cable fees so so maybe there's a market for that, but I suspect it will be a big turnoff, as it's been with other TiVo products. Also the TiVo Mini I mentioned is $100 and requires a $6/month service, so I don't know how attractive that is to pair with a $50 device.

Burger King may buy Tim Horton's to cut its taxes — here's why

Vox explains the details of tax inversion simply in Burger King may buy Tim Horton's to cut its taxes — here's why.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Researchers find it’s terrifyingly easy to hack traffic lights

Ars Technica reports Researchers find it’s terrifyingly easy to hack traffic lights "Taking over a city’s intersections and making all the lights green to cause chaos is a pretty bog-standard Evil Techno Bad Guy tactic on TV and in movies, but according to a research team at the University of Michigan, doing it in real life is within the realm of anyone with a laptop and the right kind of radio. In a paper published this month, the researchers describe how they very simply and very quickly seized control of an entire system of almost 100 intersections in an unnamed Michigan city from a single ingress point."

I think the first time this was done in a movie was the original The Italian Job which I recently saw and liked. Still, scary to think about it in real life.

Stealing encryption keys through the power of touch

Ars Technica reports Stealing encryption keys through the power of touch "Researchers from Tel Aviv University have demonstrated an attack against the GnuPG encryption software that enables them to retrieve decryption keys by touching exposed metal parts of laptop computers."

This research is a side-channel attack. The metal parts of a laptop, such as the shielding around USB ports, and heatsink fins, are notionally all at a common ground level. However, this level undergoes tiny fluctuations due to the electric fields within the laptop. These variations can be measured, and this can be used to leak information about encryption keys.

The measurements can be done by directly attaching a digitizer to a metal part of the laptop, but they don't have to be this obvious. The researchers showed that they could retrieve information with connections at the far end of shielded USB, VGA, and Ethernet connections. They also used human touch: a person in contact with metal parts of the laptop can in turn be connected to a digitizer, and the voltage fluctuations can be measured.

The researchers note that this works better in hot weather, due to the lower resistance of sweaty fingers.

During encryption and decryption operations, the processor has to perform certain long-running operations (for example, exponentiation of various large numbers), and these operations caused a consistent, characteristic set of voltage fluctuations. When sampling the voltages at a rate of a few MHz, keys for the RSA and ElGamal encryption algorithms could be extracted in a few seconds.

Friday, August 22, 2014

iPhone 5 Battery Replacement Program

If you're having battery problems with an iPhone 5 you might be entitled to a free replacement battery. Check out Apple's iPhone 5 Battery Replacement Program.

Got weapons? Nude body scanners easily defeated

Ars Technica reports Got weapons? Nude body scanners easily defeated "Researchers are delivering a paper at a security conference Thursday highlighting how easy it is to get weapons through the nude body scanners that have been removed from US airports but have been placed at other government installations across the globe."

We spent how many millions on these?!? And tech people have been saying this since they were announced. Sigh.

Bret Victor, beast of burden

I've looked for this a couple of times and can't find it on my blog. I thought I posted about it before. Apparently a lot of Bret Victor's ideas inspired some things in the new Swift's Sandbox used for OS X development. I've only looked a few of the videos, but pick anything out of the Recent Output section and it's bound to be interesting.

Total Solar Eclipse in US in 2017

This seems like a lot of warning, but it lets it be branded as the Great American Eclipse "On August 21, 2017, millions of people across the United States will see nature's most wondrous spectacle — a total eclipse of the Sun. It is a scene of unimaginable beauty; the Moon completely blocks the Sun, daytime becomes a deep twilight, and the Sun’s corona shimmers in the darkened sky. This is your guide to understand, prepare for, and view this rare celestial event."


Judgmental Maps

Judgmental Maps are pretty fun, though they haven't done boston yet.

First Flight with the Wright Brothers

In Focus shows the First Flight with the Wright Brothers "Yesterday was National Aviation Day, a holiday established by president Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1939 to celebrate developments in aviation. The date selected was the birth date of aviation pioneer Orville Wright, who, along with his older brother Wilbur, is credited with inventing and building the world's first practical fixed-wing aircraft and making the first controlled, powered and sustained flight more than a hundred years ago. The Wright brothers documented much of their early progress in photographs made on glass negatives. Today, the Library of Congress holds many of these historic images, some of which are presented below. [18 photos]"

W10 0000626u 500

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Pop Awake At Night? Researchers Blame ‘Sleep Switch’ In Your Aging Brain

WBUR reports Pop Awake At Night? Researchers Blame ‘Sleep Switch’ In Your Aging Brain "Researchers have just reported in the journal Brain that they’ve found a group of neurons — in the aforementioned nucleus – that function as a kind of ‘sleep switch,’ and whose degeneration over the years is looking very much like the cause of age-related sleep loss. It’s also looking pivotal in the insomnia that often causes nocturnal wandering in people with Alzheimer’s disease.

‘This is the first time that anyone has ever been able to show in humans that there is a distinct group of nerve cells in the brain that’s critical for allowing you to sleep,’ said the paper’s senior author, Dr. Clifford Saper, chair of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School."

Car Shopping

Probably going to be a little quieter than usual. My 14 year-old Acura TL died and I'm looking for a replacement. Any suggestions are welcome.

By died I mean got too expensive to repair. The winters here did a number on the underside. I had corrosion in the front sub-frame making it possible for a wheel to break off. Also in the brake line and I was leaking brake fluid. A hard stop could have blown it and I would have lost my brakes. Also the flanges in the exhaust assembly were disintegrated, leaking and needed to be replaced.

Corrosion 500

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Caesar Augustus Died 2000 Years Ago

Timothy B. Lee is covering an anniversary today I didn't know about. Caesar Augustus died 2000 years ago. Here's why he was one of history's greatest leaders. "Today marks the 2000th anniversary of the death of Caesar Augustus on August 19, 14 AD. Augustus was Rome's first emperor and one of the most accomplished leaders in world history. He made possible the Pax Romana, a 200-year period of relative peace and prosperity that allowed the Roman empire to have a profound and lasting influence on the culture of the Europe."

I guess that the switch to the Gregorian Calendar means it wasn't really 2000 years ago today.

And here are 40 maps that explain the Roman Empire.

Police are operating with total impunity in Ferguson

Matt Yglesias wrote Police are operating with total impunity in Ferguson.

"Above you'll see a picture of Scott Olson, the Getty photographer who's brought us many of the most striking images of protests and police crackdown that followed the shooting of Michael Brown.

The other two men in the photograph, despite presumably being police officers, are not identifiable at this time. Unlike normal police officers, they are not wearing name tags or badges with visible numbers on them. When police arrested the Washington Post's Wesley Lowery and the Huffington Post's Ryan Reilly, they weren't wearing badges or nametags either. Reasonable people can disagree about when, exactly, it's appropriate for cops to fire tear gas into crowds. But there's really no room for disagreement about when it's reasonable for officers of the law to take off their badges and start policing anonymously.

There's only one reason to do this: to evade accountability for your actions."

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Newman Chronicles

A 2008 Vanity Fair piece, The Newman Chronicles about Paul Newman. Lots of interesting and unexpected stories. For example,

"This past year, at one of the usual meetings of parents and children at the original [Hole in the Wall Gang Camp], Newman showed up; crowds pressed close. The mother of one little girl spoke to Ray Lamontagne, the head of the camp’s board. Her daughter wanted to tell Paul Newman something, but she couldn’t get over to him because she was in a wheelchair. Lamontagne fought his way through the crowd and brought Newman back to the little girl, and he knelt down by her wheelchair. ‘For the first time in my life I have a friend,’ the little girl told him. ‘I’ve never had a friend before, because I’ve been in a wheelchair most of my life, so kids avoided me. So thank you, Mr. Newman, for this camp.’ Newman had tears in his eyes."

The Future of Publishing

Lane Diamond makes a lot of good points in The Future of Publishing – One Man’s Perspective