Five things #5

“T. K. hates a lot of things, but at the moment, it’s how she becomes the #1 target during dodgeball at gym. Everything changes, however, when she discovers that she has the ace ability to direct spherical objects — and she makes her classmates pay! But her powers are made for more than petty revenge, as she soon discovers while on a family vacation.” How to Move Spheres and Influence People is a short story set in the Wild Cards universe.

In Arctic Siberia, Russian scientists are trying to stave off catastrophic climate change by resurrecting an Ice Age biome complete with lab-grown woolly mammoths. Welcome to Pleistocene Park.

“The space between fiction and reality is where economic bubbles take shape.” Brent Goldfarb and David A Kirsch explore The economics of bubbles.

Going back a few months, Salman Rushdie discusses what Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five tells us now.

And finally, Antergos Linux is dead, long live EndeavourOS. Antergos was my main operating system for several years — I keep meaning to take a look at how well EndeavourOS has picked up the baton of being a newcomer friendly introduction to the occasionally painful world of Arch-based distributions.

Another Five Things

It isn’t easy being a troll. Hand Me Downs is a short story by Maria Haskins.

“We Handed A Loaded Weapon To 4-Year-Olds.” Developer Chris Wetherell built Twitter’s retweet button. He tells Buzzfeed why he regrets what he did to this day.

Rosie Fletcher at Den of Geek suggests the 2 hour 45 minute running time for It Chapter Two indicates that the horror genre is moving into the mainstream. And that’s a good thing.

Over at Aeon, Matthew Stanley recounts British astronomer and physicist, Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington’s attempt to test Einstein’s theory of relativity. It’s worth reading not just for the challenges Stanley faced, but also the way in which he managed to craft the subsequent narrative into a symbol of post-war German-British solidarity.

And finally, Alastair Campbell has left the Labour Party and asked Jeremy Corbyn to seriously consider whether he’s really up to the challenges ahead.

Five Things

This is a bit of an experiment and, as such, I am not making any promises about whether it becomes a regular (or even an irregular) feature on this blog. The motivation comes from the fact that, as I trawl various corners of the internet, I often encounter articles that are interesting but about which I have little or nothing to add.

I don’t want to descend into writing endless posts that say no more than Look At This, so I plan on pulling them together so that I can say Look At These. We shall see how, or if, this works.

First up is the short story that started me thinking about this type of post. Compost Traumatic Stress by Brian Koukol explores a once-sterile alien world seeded by the blood and guts of battle and follows the traumatized veteran tasked with keeping this alien fauna under control. It’s an effective and often moving exploration of the aftermath of war and well worth a read.

Taking a quick look at the ongoing disaster that is British politics these days, Jonathan Calder is exasperated with Heidi Allen and Nick Cohen is horrified at the way in which party politics have been allowed to undermine representative democracy. Personally, I think Parliament should insist on a vote of confidence for whoever the Tories select as the next Prim Minister. Regardless of how a party picks their leader, if that leader can’t demonstrate that they have the confidence of Parliament then they shouldn’t be able to form a government.

If Asian cinema has ever appealed to you (and it should) Paul Bramhall has a fascinating article on The General’s Son trilogy and the birth of the modern Korean gangster movie. I really need to carve out some time in my week to start making a dent in my DVD pile.

And finally, Susan Biali Haas suggests that working with your hands does wonders for your brain, which is all the excuse I need to spend more time pulling up nettles.

Oppy: Thanks for bringing us along.

After 15 years exploring the surface of Mars, the Opportunity rover’s mission finally came to an end earlier this week.

The Opportunity rover stopped communicating with Earth when a severe Mars-wide dust storm blanketed its location in June 2018. After more than a thousand commands to restore contact, engineers in the Space Flight Operations Facility at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) made their last attempt to revive Opportunity Tuesday, to no avail. The solar-powered rover’s final communication was received June 10.

The Rover’s 90 day mission kept going for 15 years, during which it found proof of liquid water on the surface of the red planet and set the off-world driving record.

Opportunity sent back a huge stack of photos, which you can find all over the internet. I was goint to post some of these, but then decided to leave you with XKCD instead.

opportunity_rover

Jengabot

This is cool. Researchers at MIT have developed a robot that can play Jenga.

At first glance, it doesn’t sound like much — computers can play chess, go and a variety of other games. What sets this apart, though, is that Jenga is a game that requires physically moving blocks around. And while this is relatively easy for humans, teaching a robot to move stacked blocks without collapsing the tower requires a collection of physical skills that has not — until now — been attempted with robots.

Combining interactive perception and manipulation – whereby the robot would touch the tower to learn how and when to move blocks – is extremely difficult to simulate and therefore the robot has to learn in the real world.

So the researchers placed a two-pronged industrial robot arm with a force sensor in its wrist by the Jenga tower and allowed it to explore rather than using traditional machine-learning techniques that could require data from tens of thousands of block-extraction attempts in order to capture every possible scenario.

It’s an impressive sight

The psychology of snap elections

Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham point to a 2003 study which argues that the timing of an election tells the electorate how confident the government feels about the future. Both the article and the paper are worth a read, but the short version is this:

  • We all know that the government knows more than we know about how things are likely to pan out.
  • So we tend to assume that a competent and confident (or even a strong and stable) government is not going to feel the need to dash to the polls. This is borne out by looking at past election timings.
  • So when a government does call a snap election, it’s because the Prime Minister thinks that things are going to start going very badly in the near future. This is also borne out by past election timings.
  • And deep down, regardless of the ratings when the election is called, we realise this

When Theresa May called the election in April, it was widely assumed that she would win a landslide. What has happened instead is that the electorate called her bluff.

Manipulating System 1

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman looks at the mental shortcuts we take and the ways in which these shortcuts mislead us. In doing so, he describes two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is quick, intuitive and emotional while System 2 is slower, more deliberative and more logical. Both systems have their place, but System one tends to dominate and is relatively easy to manipulate.

AC Grayling argues that this has happened, both in the Brexit referendum and the Trump election.

What Kahneman and other researchers have empirically confirmed in their work is that the majority of people are ‘System One’ or ‘quick’ thinkers in that they make decisions on impulse, feeling, emotion, and first impressions, rather than ‘System Two’ or ‘slow’ thinkers who seek information, analyse it, and weigh arguments in order to come to decisions. System One thinkers can be captured by slogans, statements dramatised to the point of falsehood, and even downright lies, because they will not check the validity of what is said, but instead will mistrust System Two thinkers whose lengthier arguments and appeals to data are often regarded as efforts to bamboozle and mislead.

Grayling goes on to say:

A senior BBC news editor told me that there was fierce debate among his colleagues about how they were reporting the Brexit referendum campaigns. They were conscious that that the Leave campaign, in particular, was putting out highly doubtful if not downright dishonest statements either very late or very early in the day in order to have them reported in morning news programmes, knowing that fact checking and the need to modify or retract misleading statements would only come later in the day, by which time the statements would have done their work with System One audiences.

And the media often compounds this problem by seeking a balance that (unintentionally) results in false equivalence.

I’m not sure what the solution to all of this is – or even if there is one – but surely it starts with more teaching and use of critical thinking and a better use of journalistic resources so that untrue and misleading claims can be quickly and effectively debunked.

Publishing Bias in Action

The AllTrials campaign is calling for all past and present clinical trials to be registered and their full methods and summary results to be reported. To demonstrate why this matters, they have a Clinical trial publishing game, from The Economist.

The results of around half of all clinical trials have never been published. Failing to publish results means the people who make decisions about medicines don’t have full information about the benefits and risks of treatments we use every day.

Go have a play. It’s amazing how much you can skew your results by not publishing the weaker results.