August 29, 2015

From Self-Funding, and Sony, Khanna Builds PlayStation Supercomputer to Advance Science



KhannaGauravPlaystationSupercomputer2015-07-05.jpg"Gaurav Khanna with a supercomputer he built at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth physics department using 200 Playstation 3 consoles that are housed in a refrigerated shipping container." Source of caption: print version of the NYT article quoted and cited below. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



(p. D3) This spring, Gaurav Khanna noticed that the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth physics department was more crowded than usual. Why, he wondered, were so many students suddenly so interested in science?"

It wasn't a thirst for knowledge, it turns out. News of Dr. Khanna's success in building a supercomputer using only PlayStation 3 video game consoles had spread quickly; the students, a lot of them gamers, just wanted to gape at the sight of nearly 200 consoles stacked on one another.


. . .


Making a supercomputer requires a large number of processors -- standard desktops, laptops or the like -- and a way to network them. Dr. Khanna picked the PlayStation 3 for its viability and cost, currently, $250 to $300 in stores. Unlike other game consoles, the PlayStation 3 allows users to install a preferred operating system, making it attractive to programmers and developers. (The latest model, the PlayStation 4, does not have this feature.)

"Gaming had grown into a huge market," Dr. Khanna said. "There's a huge push for performance, meaning you can buy low-cost, high-performance hardware very easily. I could go out and buy 100 PlayStation 3 consoles at my neighborhood Best Buy, if I wanted."

That is just what Dr. Khanna did, though on a smaller scale. Because the National Science Foundation, which funds much of Dr. Khanna's research, might not have viewed the bulk buying of video game consoles as a responsible use of grant money, he reached out to Sony Computer Entertainment America, the company behind the PlayStation 3. Sony donated four consoles to the experiment; Dr. Khanna's university paid for eight more, and Dr. Khanna bought another four. He then installed the Linux operating system on all 16 consoles, plugged them into the Internet and booted up the supercomputer.

Lior Burko, an associate professor of physics at Georgia Gwinnett College and a past collaborator with Dr. Khanna, praised the idea as an "ingenious" way to get the function of a supercomputer without the prohibitive expense.

"Dr. Khanna was able to combine his two fields of expertise, namely general relativity and computer science, to invent something new that allowed for not just a neat new machine, but also scientific progress that otherwise might have taken many more years to achieve," Dr. Burko said.


. . .


His team linked the consoles, housing them in a refrigerated shipping container designed to carry milk. The resulting supercomputer, Dr. Khanna said, had the computational power of nearly 3,000 laptop or desktop processors, and cost only $75,000 to make -- about a tenth the cost of a comparable supercomputer made using traditional parts.



For the full story, see:

LAURA PARKER "An Economical Way to Save Progress." The New York Times (Tues., DEC. 23, 2014): D3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date DEC. 22, 2014, and has the title "That Old PlayStation Can Aid Science.")






August 28, 2015

No Increase in Public's Concern with Income Inequality Since 1978



(p. 4A) DENVER (AP) -- Income inequality is all the rage in public debate nowadays. Political figures from Sen. Elizabeth Warren on the left to Republican presidential prospect Jeb Bush on the right are denouncing the widening gap between the wealthy and everyone else.

But ordinary Americans don't seem as fascinated by the issue as their would-be leaders. The public's expressed interest in income inequality has remained stagnant over the past 36 years, according to the General Social Survey, which measures trends in public opinion.

In 2014 polling, Republicans' support for the government doing something to narrow the rich-poor gap reached an all-time low. Even Democrats were slightly less interested in government action on the issue than they were two years ago.

The survey is conducted by the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago. Because of its long-running and comprehensive questions, it is a highly regarded source on social trends.

In the latest survey, made public last week, less than half of Americans -- 46 percent -- said the government ought to reduce income differences between the rich and the poor. That level has held fairly steady since 1978. Thirty-seven percent said the government shouldn't concern itself with income differences, and the rest didn't feel strongly either way.



For the full story, see:

AP. "Income Inequality? Pols Want to Talk about It; Public Yawns." Omaha World-Herald (Monday, March 23, 2015): 4A.


For more details on the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) General Social Survey (GSS) results through 2014, see:

Inequality: Trends in Americans' Attitudes URL: http://www.apnorc.org/projects/Pages/HTML%20Reports/inequality-trends-in-americans-attitudes0317-6562.aspx#study






August 27, 2015

Homo Sapiens Made Eye Contact with Dogs to Dominate Neanderthals



(p. C6) In the space of just a few thousand years, as we spread through the region, we killed off the apex predators: first the Neanderthals and then, over time, cave bears, cave hyenas, lesser scimitar cats, dholes, mammoths and woolly rhinos, among other animals. How did we manage this? According to Ms. Shipman, we enlisted the help of dogs.


. . .


Ms. Shipman devotes the final third of her book to exploring a fascinating range of evidence--genetic, archaeological, anthropological--that provides substantial support for this theory. She never proposes that the alliance of humans and dogs alone led to the extinction of the Neanderthals. In all likelihood, she writes, the mere presence of humans, a competitive new predator in the Eurasian ecosystem, was an important stressor, as were climate change and perhaps even infectious diseases brought by humans from Africa. But the domestication of dogs, she suggests, significantly tipped the balance: "The unprecedented alliance of humans with another top predator (wolf-dogs or a kind of wolf) may have been the final stress that pushed Neanderthals and many other species down the slippery slope toward extinction."

So how did humans manage to domesticate wolves while their Neanderthal cousins, so similar in so many ways, did not? Here Ms. Shipman gets imaginative. Modern humans, she writes, have recently been shown to be the only extant primates whose irises are surrounded by white scleras--the whites of our eyes. We're also the only primate to have eyelids that expose much of our scleras. What evolutionary advantage could this have possibly given us? "The white scleras and open eyelids," she proposes, "make the direction of a person's gaze highly visible from a distance." Having white scleras allowed us to communicate subtly at a distance among ourselves and with our new best friend, dogs, a biological advantage that may have made all the difference as we competed for prey with Neanderthals--who, if they were like every other primate we know of today, had dark scleras.

Most animals, including apes and wolves, don't make eye contact with humans; nor do they gaze at faces for long. Dogs, on the contrary, are excellent gaze-followers, a trait that scientists believe we selectively bred into them during their domestication. Once we had teamed up with dogs, we were unstoppable.



For the full review, see:

TOBY LESTER. "The Slippery Slope to Extinction." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., March 21, 2015): C5-C6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 20, 2015.)


The book under review, is:

Shipman, Pat. The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2015.






August 26, 2015

Pentagon Seeks Innovation from Private Start-Ups Since "They've Realized that the Old Model Wasn't Working Anymore"



(p. A3) SAN FRANCISCO -- A small group of high-ranking Pentagon officials made a quiet visit to Silicon Valley in December to solicit national security ideas from start-up firms with little or no history of working with the military.

The visit was made as part of an effort to find new ways to maintain a military advantage in an increasingly uncertain world.

In announcing its Defense Innovation Initiative in a speech in California in November, Chuck Hagel, then the defense secretary, mentioned examples of technologies like robotics, unmanned systems, miniaturization and 3-D printing as places to look for "game changing" technologies that would maintain military superiority.

"They've realized that the old model wasn't working anymore," said James Lewis, director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "They're really worried about America's capacity to innovate."

There is a precedent for the initiative. Startled by the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, at the Pentagon to ensure that the United States would not be blindsided by technological advances.

Now, the Pentagon has decided that the nation needs more than ARPA, renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, if it is to find new technologies to maintain American military superiority.


. . .


The Pentagon focused on smaller companies during its December visit; it did not, for example, visit Google. Mr. Welby acknowledged that Silicon Valley start-ups were not likely to be focused on the Pentagon as a customer. The military has captive suppliers and a long and complex sales cycle, and it is perceived as being a small market compared with the hundreds of millions of customers for consumer electronics products.

Mr. Welby has worked for three different Darpa directors, but he said that Pentagon officials now believed they had to look beyond their own advanced technology offices.

"The Darpa culture is about trying to understand high-risk technology," he said. "It's about big leaps." Today, however, the Pentagon needs to break out of what can be seen as a "not invented here" culture, he said.

"We're thinking about what the world is going to look like in 2030 and what tools the department will need in 20 or 30 years," he added.



For the full story, see:

JOHN MARKOFF. "Pentagon Shops in Silicon Valley for Game Changers." The New York Times (Fri., FEB. 27, 2015): A3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date FEB. 26, 2015.)






August 25, 2015

Without Clear Regulatory Pathway, Investors Will Avoid the New, Small, Safe, Modular Nuclear Reactors



(p. D1) To its advocates, nuclear power is a potent force for fighting climate change, combining the near-zero emissions of wind and solar energy with the reliability of coal and gas. And nuclear power, which provides about 19 percent of all electricity in the United States and 11 percent worldwide, could be a greater source.


. . .


In a report she prepared in 2009, Ms. Squassoni wrote that in light of steep construction costs, only a handful of new reactors would come on line by 2015, even in the best of circumstances.

"If you really wanted to reduce carbon emissions through nuclear, it was going to be incredibly expensive," she said. "You'd have to build an incredible number of power plants."

Now plants are even more expensive, in part because of new safety requirements in the wake of Fukushima. So-called small modular reactors have been proposed as a lower-cost alternative. There are many different designs -- at least one is meant to run on waste fuel -- but the federal Department of Energy has provided significant development money only for two designs that are smaller variations of the most common kind of reactor.

Ashley Finan, an analyst with the Clean Air Task Force, which focuses on technologies to fight climate change, said that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had not made it easy for alternative designs to win backing from private investors.

"There's a lack of a clear and predictable regulatory pathway," Dr. Finan said. "You're really not able to attract funding without a clear regulatory process."

As a result, small modular reactors are many years from reality in the United States. Overseas, there are only a few isolated small-reactor projects underway, including one under construction in China.

Most modular designs have features that are intended to make them safer than existing reactors. Safety, as always, looms large in the debate about nuclear power. Although some watchdog groups point to incidents like leaks of radioactive water from some plants, the industry in the United States promotes its safety record, noting that events like unplanned reactor shutdowns are at historical lows. And the American industry's one major accident, at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, pales in comparison with Fukushima or the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union.



For the full story, see:

HENRY FOUNTAIN "THE BIG FIX; Nuclear: Carbon Free, but Not Free of Unease." The New York Times (Tues., DEC. 23, 2014): D1-D2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date DEC. 22, 2014.)






August 24, 2015

Pope Rejects Market Mechanisms Because Pope Rejects Market's Respect for Consumer Choice



(p. A19) The pope is not hostile to market mechanisms because he is a raving socialist, as some have suggested. Instead, his stance is a natural consequence of his theology.

To understand the pope's position, remember that, even though he is adopting a progressive stance on the environment, he is not a liberal. Indeed, he rejects one of the central tenets of liberalism, which is a willingness to acknowledge genuine disagreement about the good.

The fundamental problem with markets, in Pope Francis' view, is that they cater to people's desires, whatever those desires happen to be. What makes the market a liberal institution is that it does not judge the relative merits of these desires. The customer is always right.

Pope Francis rejects this, describing it as part of a "culture of relativism." The customer, in his view, is often wrong. He wants an economic system that satisfies not whatever desires people happen to have but the desires that they should have -- a system that promotes the common good, according to the church's specification of what that good is.



For the full commentary, see:

JOSEPH HEATH. "Pope Francis' Climate Error." The New York Times (Sat., JUNE 20, 2015): A19.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date JUNE 19, 2015.)






August 23, 2015

Starting in Late Middle Ages the State Tried "to Control, Delineate, and Restrict Human Thought and Action"



(p. C6) . . . transregional organizations like Viking armies or the Hanseatic League mattered more than kings and courts. It was a world, as Mr. Pye says, in which "you went where you were known, where you could do the things you wanted to do, and where someone would protect you from being jailed, hanged, or broken on the wheel for doing them."


. . .


This is a world in which money rules, but money is increasingly an abstraction, based on insider information, on speculation (the Bourse or stock market itself is a regional invention) and on the ability to apply mathematics: What was bought or sold was increasingly the relationships between prices in different locations rather than the goods themselves.

What happened to bring this powerful, creative pattern to a close? The author credits first the reaction to the Black Death of the mid-14th century, when fear of contamination (perhaps similar to our modern fear of terrorism) justified laws that limited travel and kept people in their place. Religious and sectarian strife further limited the free flow of ideas and people, forcing people to choose one identity to the exclusion of others or else to attempt to disappear into the underground of clandestine and subversive activities. And behind both of these was the rise of the state, a modern invention that attempted to control, delineate, and restrict human thought and action.



For the full review, see:

PATRICK J. GEARY. "Lighting Up the Dark Ages." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., May 30, 2015): C6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 29, 2015.)


The book under review, is:

Pye, Michael. The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe. New York: Pegasus Books LLC, 2014.






August 22, 2015

Rather than Debate Global Warming Skeptics, Some Label them "Denialists" to "Link Them to Holocaust Denial"



(p. D2) The contrarian scientists like to present these upbeat scenarios as the only plausible outcomes from runaway emissions growth. Mainstream scientists see them as being the low end of a range of possible outcomes that includes an alarming high end, and they say the only way to reduce the risks is to reduce emissions.

The dissenting scientists have been called "lukewarmers" by some, for their view that Earth will warm only a little. That is a term Dr. Michaels embraces. "I think it's wonderful!" he said. He is working on a book, "The Lukewarmers' Manifesto."

When they publish in scientific journals, presenting data and arguments to support their views, these contrarians are practicing science, and perhaps the "skeptic" label is applicable. But not all of them are eager to embrace it.

"As far as I can tell, skepticism involves doubts about a plausible proposition," another of these scientists, Richard S. Lindzen, told an audience a few years ago. "I think current global warming alarm does not represent a plausible proposition."


. . .


It is perhaps no surprise that many environmentalists have started to call them deniers.

The scientific dissenters object to that word, claiming it is a deliberate attempt to link them to Holocaust denial. Some academics sharply dispute having any such intention, but others have started using the slightly softer word "denialist" to make the same point without stirring complaints about evoking the Holocaust.



For the full commentary, see:

Justin Gillis. "BY DEGREES; Verbal Warming: Labels in the Climate Debate." The New York Times (Tues., FEB. 17, 2015): D1-D2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date FEB. 12 (sic), 2015.)






August 21, 2015

More Tech Stars Skip College, at Least for a While



(p. B1) The college dropout-turned-entrepreneur is a staple of Silicon Valley mythology. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg all left college.

In their day, those founders were very unusual. But a lot has changed since 2005, when Mr. Zuckerberg left Harvard. The new crop of dropouts has grown up with the Internet and smartphones. The tools to create new technology are more accessible. The cost to start a company has plunged, while the options for raising money have multiplied.

Moreover, the path isn't as lonely.


. . .


Not long ago, dropping out of school to start a company was considered risky. For this generation, it is a badge of honor, evidence of ambition and focus. Very few dropouts become tycoons, but "failure" today often means going back to school or taking a six-figure job at a big tech company.


. . .


(p. B5) There are no hard numbers on the dropout trend, but applicants for the Thiel Fellowship tripled in the most recent year; the fellowship won't disclose numbers.


. . .


It has tapped 82 fellows in the past five years.

"I don't think college is always bad, but our society seems to think college is always good, for everyone, at any cost--and that is what we have to question," says Mr. Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook.

Of the 43 fellows in the initial classes of 2011 and 2012, 26 didn't return to school and continued to work on startups or independent projects. Five went to work for large tech firms, including a few through acquisitions. The remaining 12 went back to school.

Mr. Thiel says companies started by the fellows have raised $73 million, a record that he says has attracted additional applicants. He says fellows "learned far more than they would have in college."



For the full story, see:

DAISUKE WAKABAYASHI. "College Dropouts Thrive in Tech." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., June 4, 2015): B1 & B10.

(Note: ellipses added. The phrase "the fellowship won't disclose numbers" was in the online, but not the print, version of the article.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date June 3, 2015, and has the title "College Dropouts Thrive in Tech.")






August 20, 2015

The Complementarity of Humans and Robots in Education



(p. 6) Computers and robots are already replacing many workers. What can young people learn now that won't be superseded within their lifetimes by these devices and that will secure them good jobs and solid income over the next 20, 30 or 50 years? In the universities, we are struggling to answer that question.


. . .


Some scholars are trying to discern what kinds of learning have survived technological replacement better than others. Richard J. Murnane and Frank Levy in their book "The New Division of Labor" (Princeton, 2004) studied occupations that expanded during the information revolution of the recent past. They included jobs like service manager at an auto dealership, as opposed to jobs that have declined, like telephone operator.

The successful occupations, by this measure, shared certain characteristics: People who practiced them needed complex communication skills and expert knowledge. Such skills included an ability to convey "not just information but a particular interpretation of information." They said that expert knowledge was broad, deep and practical, allowing the solution of "uncharted problems."


. . .


When I arrived at Yale in 1982, there were no undergraduate courses in finance. I started one in the fall of 1985, and it continues today. Increasingly, I've tried to connect mathematical theory to actual applications in finance.

Since its beginnings, the course has gradually become more robotic: It resembles a real, dynamic, teaching experience, but in execution, much of it is prerecorded, and exercises and examinations are computerized. Students can take it without need of my physical presence. Yale made my course available to the broader public on free online sites: AllLearn in 2002, Open Yale in 2008 and 2011, and now on Coursera.

The process of tweaking and improving the course to fit better in a digital framework has given me time to reflect about what I am doing for my students. I could just retire now and let them watch my lectures and use the rest of the digitized material. But I find myself thinking that I should be doing something more for them.

So I continue to update the course, thinking about how I can integrate its lessons into an "art of living in the world." I have tried to enhance my students' sense that finance should be the art of financing important human activities, of getting people (and robots someday) working together to accomplish things that we really want done.



For the full commentary, see:

ROBERT J. SHILLER. "Economic View; What to Learn in College to Stay One Step Ahead of Computers." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., MAY 24, 2015): 6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date MAY 22, 2015, and has the title "Economic View; What to Learn in College to Stay One Step Ahead of Computers.")


The Levy and Murnane book mentioned above, is:

Levy, Frank, and Richard J. Murnane. The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Some of the core of the Levy and Murnane book can be found in:

Levy, Frank, and Richard Murnane. "Book Excerpt: The New Division of Labor." Milken Institute Review 6, no. 4 (Dec. 2004): 61-82.









Eight Most Recent Comments:



Jim Rose said:

It is often forgotten that the Minister for International trade and industry in the late 1960s up until 1971 was Tanaka – the most corrupt man in postwar Japanese politics. He had previously been Minister for Public Works, but to generate the necessary bribe income to pay an entire generation of Japanese politicians to step aside to allow him to become Prime Minister in the early 1970s at a young age, he thought the Ministry of International trade and industry was a better position to garner influence and donations. My professors in Japan worked in the Ministry of International trade and industry and the Ministry of Finance in the 1970s and 1960s. None of them seemed to carry over their picking winners skills into their private portfolios when they retired. see http://utopiayouarestandinginit.com/2014/03/14/if-you-are-so-smart-why-arent-you-rich/



Aaron said:

Interested to see how not only did Hamilton gain a vote, but also how Jefferson lost one.



Dave Megan said:

Merging of companies is always better when they have a better goal. It will give better service for the public.



Ed Rector said:

The 'quickened pace of production' of the early Reagan years was directly attributable to RR's massive deficit spending. The national debt almost tripled under the watch of St. Ronnie. BO will have to work overtime to even approach this record of accomplishment.



Aaron said:

The last two paragraphs comport perfectly with what Paul Tough describes in a book you posted on a few months ago, "How Children Succeed." Tough advocates that a stable, loving relationship between kids and their parents, especially in the first few years of life, produces self-assured and less anxious adults due to brain formation or chemical reactions that take place in a baby's brain (simplified summary). As always, appreciate the posts, especially the Paul Tough book.



Rev. Pfloyd said:

Hans' "The Best Stats You've Ever Seen" Ted Talk is my favorite Ted Talk ever, which is a pretty big statement when you share company with talks like Sir Ken Robinson's education talk and Steven Pinker's Human Nature and the Blank Slate" talk.



Rev. Pfloyd said:

Voting with your feet. And of course now people are fleeing France to move across the water to England for the same reason. It's truly a global world; soaking the rich really isn't an option anymore.



otacon said:

The media tends to be a willing participant in fanning the flames of racism. Check CNN or the Drudge Report. Every day there is at least one racially charged story. Every day. It has become a tool for news outlets to get clicks but ultimately is a disservice to pretty much everyone.





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