A Taste of Honey

A Beekeeper’s Perspective on Risk

Here’s another lesson by analogy: No queen bee is under pressure for quarterly pollen and nectar targets. The hive is only beholden to the long term. Indeed, beehives appear to underperform at times because they could collect more. But they are not designed to maximize current returns; they are designed to prevent cycles of feast and famine (a death sentence in the natural world). They concentrate their foraging on the most lucrative patches but keep an exploratory force in the field that will ensure future revenue sources when the current ones run dry. This exploratory force (call it an R&D expenditure) increases as conditions worsen.

Interesting perspective. Quite the opposite of what many businesses are doing these days.

This Does Not Constitute a Recommendation to Buy

Electricity generated from water: BlackLight Power announces validation of its scientific breakthrough in energy production

The “validation” here is that they got some money for further development, and this is reported on a business site. Getting backers does not preclude them being, as Bob Park has put it, “investors with deep pockets and shallow brains”. The purported mechanism is the formation of Hydrinos, which is a state in Hydrogen below the ground state. Which is, needless to say, at odds with basic quantum mechanics.

BlackLight’s continuously operating, power-producing system converts ubiquitous H2O (water) vapor directly into electricity, oxygen, and a new, more stable form of Hydrogen called Hydrino, which releases 200 times more energy than directly burning hydrogen

If it’s “more stable” than regular Hydrogen, one has to wonder why we don’t see it everywhere. Oh, wait, we apparently do:

The identity of the dark matter of the universe as Hydrinos is supported by BlackLight’s spectroscopic and analytical results as well as astrophysical observations.

Except, of course, that spectroscopy means photons, and dark matter doesn’t interact electromagnetically, because if it did, we’d see it. If you can get to this Hydrino state electromagnetically, why doesn’t it happen spontaneously? We should be up to our armpits in Hydrinos.

Dilbert is a Documentary

How to completely, utterly destroy an employee’s work life

Step 4: Kill the messengers. Finally, if you do get wind of problems in the trenches, deny, deny, deny. And if possible, strike back. Here’s a great example from our research. In an open Q&A with one company’s chief operating officer, an employee asked about the morale problem and got this answer: “There is no morale problem in this company. And, for anybody who thinks there is, we have a nice big bus waiting outside to take you wherever you want to look for work.”

Death Star Economics Redux

The Death Star Is a Surprisingly Cost-Effective Weapons System

[H]ow big is the Republic/Empire? There’s probably a canonical figure somewhere, but I don’t know where. So I’ll just pull a number out of my ass based on the apparent size of the Old Senate, and figure a bare minimum of 10,000 planets. That means the Death Star requires .03 percent of the GDP of each planet in the Republic/Empire annually. By comparison, this is the equivalent of about $5 billion per year in the current-day United States.

Went there first, I did, but not in as much detail.

You Will Not Win This Bid

How Much Would it Cost to build the Death Star?

We began by looking at how big the Death Star is. The first one is reported to be 140km in diameter and it sure looks like it’s made of steel. But how much steel? We decided to model the Death Star as having a similar density in steel as a modern warship. After all, they’re both essentially floating weapons platforms so that seems reasonable.

What? A battleship has to support its own weight and float in the water. That puts an upper an lower bound on its average density. A Death Star is assembled in space. The only thing it has to support itself against is gravitational collapse, and you have sci-fi technologies like tractor beams and force fields and hyperspace travel.

[A]t today’s rate of steel production (1.3 billion tonnes annually), it would take 833,315 years to produce enough steel to begin work. So once someone notices what you’re up to, you have to fend them off for 800 millennia before you have a chance to fight back.

This is the Galactic Republic/Empire, not one planet! I don’t know if there’s a definitive source, but indications are that there are more than a million member worlds with many times that number of colonies.

Oh, and the cost of the steel alone? At 2012 prices, about $852,000,000,000,000,000. Or roughly 13,000 times the world’s GDP

But, as we see, less steel and many, many planets from which to draw resources.

Failure is Not an Option

Neal Stephenson: Innovation Starvation

Innovation can’t happen without accepting the risk that it might fail. The vast and radical innovations of the mid-20th century took place in a world that, in retrospect, looks insanely dangerous and unstable. Possible outcomes that the modern mind identifies as serious risks might not have been taken seriously—supposing they were noticed at all—by people habituated to the Depression, the World Wars, and the Cold War, in times when seat belts, antibiotics, and many vaccines did not exist. Competition between the Western democracies and the communist powers obliged the former to push their scientists and engineers to the limits of what they could imagine and supplied a sort of safety net in the event that their initial efforts did not pay off. A grizzled NASA veteran once told me that the Apollo moon landings were communism’s greatest achievement.

In the pre-net era, managers were forced to make decisions based on what they knew to be limited information. Today, by contrast, data flows to managers in real time from countless sources that could not even be imagined a couple of generations ago, and powerful computers process, organize, and display the data in ways that are as far beyond the hand-drawn graph-paper plots of my youth as modern video games are to tic-tac-toe. In a world where decision-makers are so close to being omniscient, it’s easy to see risk as a quaint artifact of a primitive and dangerous past.

James Bond Never Needed This

But I could totally see Mission:Impossible doing it. Spy vs. Spy: Casinos Can’t See The Cameras Hidden Up Gamblers’ Sleeves

In January, at the newly opened $4-billion Cosmopolitan casino in Las Vegas, a gang called the Cutters cheated at baccarat. Before play began, the dealer offered one member of the group a stack of eight decks of cards for a pre-game cut. The player probably rubbed the stack for good luck, at the same instant riffling some of the corners of the cards underneath with his index finger. A small camera, hidden under his forearm, recorded the order.
After a few hands, the cutter left the floor and entered a bathroom stall, where he most likely passed the camera to a confederate in an adjoining stall. The runner carried the camera to a gaming analyst in a nearby hotel room, where the analyst transferred the video to a computer, watching it in slow motion to determine the order of the cards. Not quite half an hour had passed since the cut. Baccarat play averages less than six cards a minute, so there were still at least 160 cards left to play through. Back at the table, other members of the gang were delaying the action, glancing at their cellphones and waiting for the analyst to send them the card order.

Grad School Gloom and Doom, Part Whatever in a Neverending Series

Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education

You’re going to be in school for at least seven years, probably more like nine, and there’s a very good chance that you won’t get a job at the end of it.
At Yale, we were overjoyed if half our graduating students found positions. That’s right—half. Imagine running a medical school on that basis. As Christopher Newfield points out in Unmaking the Public University (2008), that’s the kind of unemployment rate you’d expect to find among inner-city high school dropouts.

I’m guessing that if you framed the statistics as doctors who end up working in hospitals you might have a dire employment rate to cite. A fake statistic, but a dramatic one to prove a point. And that’s the problem with most of these “graduate school is broken” articles — the idea that the only career for which you’d go to graduate school is to become a professor. If you aren’t smart enough to realize that a professor churning out more than a few students over the course of his/her career is unsustainable as a closed system, you probably shouldn’t go to grad school. But that’s based on intelligence, not the job market.

That’s not to say that the graduate education system isn’t broken, or at least exploitative, so don’t take away the message that I disagree with the whole article. But let’s be honest in terms of the state of affairs, employment prospects and the goals of graduate school. I think it weakens the argument when you distort the facts. So present some of the real problems, and acknowledge that we’re being misled at some level about what the role of grad school and research is: You can’t simultaneously have a shortage and a glut of scientifically qualified people, and you can’t simultaneously demand (as the article rightly points out) that academia do a lot of research and also not have a lot of grad students around — especially if being a professor requires you spend more time filling out grant applications than doing research. Someone is deceiving us about what’s going on.

Case in point regarding the employment prospects: In FY2009, more than 27,000 H-1B visas were granted to people holding doctorates (pdf alert; a summary exists, too) along with 85,000 Master’s degrees, out of a total of about 214,000 visas. This covers a wider spectrum of occupations than STEM subjects, and unfortunately there is no breakdown of education level correlated to occupation, but if the rough proportion holds then of the tens of thousands of STEM jobs on these visas, about half went to people with graduate degrees of some sort. That’s hard to reconcile with the notion that we have too many graduate students for the economy to absorb. One obvious possible answer is that the system is being abused and we’re importing cheap labor, and I think that’s going on; it’s simply a matter of determining the extent to which it is going on.

But the other issues raised in the article need to be investigated, as well as the solutions. It’s true that the large industrial labs have either evaporated or at least shed their role of basic research, and the government hasn’t stepped in to fill that void. The author also takes on issues of college-level education, which also need solving.