Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

December 16, 2011

"Humanity's first sin was faith, its first virtue doubt." The author of that quote is unknown, though today I'd like to think it was Hitchens.

He was an intellectual omnivore and a polemicist of the first order. In debate, he would utterly annihilate all comers, especially if the topics were at all concerned with religion or willful ignorance. There were few things I took more pleasure in watching.

His love affair with the English language was laid bare for all of us to enjoy, and his gifted way of cajoling it into making a razor-sharp point for him is something I'll forever endeavor to emulate, knowing full well that I'll forever fall short.

Wit, to me, is one of the most enviable creative traits, and Hitchens' was unmatched. It was biting, unforgiving and often irrebuttable. As Ian McEwan once said of his friend's aptitude for corralling knowledge and experience at will, "It all seems instantly, neurologically available: everything he's ever read, everyone he's ever met, every story he's ever heard." Indeed, it was a sight to behold.

Hitchens and I of course didn't agree on everything (probably most notably his unwavering defense of the Iraq war), but his opinions and insights always demanded attention besides. You knew that in his mind he was juggling pieces to a puzzle that most of us didn't even know existed. It always was a fun, if rigged game.

In his final, wonderful book (that wasn't a collection of essays), Hitch-22: A Memoir, he quotes Horace Mann: "Until you have done something for humanity, you should be ashamed to die."

Hitchens was not ashamed to die.

Inside the Secret Service#

It took me more than 18 months to persuade the service to let me be the first reporter to see the process from the inside in a real-world, real-time situation. I was allowed access to command posts, operation centers, and other secure areas. I agreed only to withhold some details about protective methodology that would imperil the service's ability to do its job.

MIT develops video camera that records 1,000,000,000,000 frames per second#

The image produced by the camera is ... two-dimensional, but only one of the dimensions -- the one corresponding to the direction of the slit -- is spatial. The other dimension, corresponding to the degree of deflection, is time. The image thus represents the time of arrival of photons passing through a one-dimensional slice of space.

Be sure to watch the video; the researchers (understandably) can barely keep the grins off their faces as they explain that they can record photons in motion. Einstein would be freaking out.

(Somewhat related, check out these rapatronic photos from the '40s that capture nuclear explosions--using ten nanosecond exposures--just one ten-millionths of a second after detonation.)

WordCount#

WordCount ... presents the 86,800 most frequently used English words, ranked in order of commonness. Each word is scaled to reflect its frequency relative to the words that precede and follow it, giving a visual barometer of relevance. The larger the word, the more we use it. The smaller the word, the more uncommon it is.

Type2Phone for iOS#

Type2Phone turns your Mac into a Bluetooth keyboard for your iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad.

Neat? Sure. But, it is 2011, and the fact that a $5 app is required for this sort of functionality is a bit nuts. I was doing this exact same thing in 2003--and natively (using iSync)--with a Sony Ericsson T68i.

(Via 512 Pixels.)

Science, religion and the cognitive distortion of the believing mind#

The human capacity for self-delusion is very well understood by post-modern psychology and when an entire group believes the same delusion, it does not make it any more true. When this delusion serves to prohibit the scientific advancement of a better, healthier and more tolerant society then it becomes counter-productive to the evolution of our species. The fact is that god only exists in the minds of those who need him to, and mass delusion exists because the same needs are shared by a multitude of people. Because of this, the existence of god is justified and explained even up to the university level where believers have the audacity to use the otherwise secular field of the sciences as fodder for their apologetics.

Mint.com's brilliant 404 page#

I've been browsing this web thing for almost two decades, and have seen some incredibly creative 404 pages along the way, but this one may just take the cake.

(Via @jerrybrito.)

GDGT makes your gadget lists accessible

December 05, 2011

I'm not quite sure when it happened, but GDGT has implemented something I asked for a couple of years ago, namely publicly-accessible (i.e., no GDGT account required), user-specific gadget lists.

They've long offered an embeddable widget to display your "wants," "has" and "had" lists1, but I wanted to be able to reference each list by URI (at the GDGT site). Co-founder Ryan Block responded to my aforelinked request, and kind of hinted such a thing was coming. Well, it's here.

If you've any interest in psycho-analyzing my gadget "problem," my "had" list might be a good place to start. (Note that this list is still missing a number of my early mobile phones, PDAs, headphones, etc.)


  1. Until just a few minutes ago, this widget had long been embedded at /gadgets, but that address now simply points to my GDGT profile. 

Do you suffer from decision fatigue?#

Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can't resist the dealer's offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can't make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It's different from ordinary physical fatigue -- you're not consciously aware of being tired -- but you're low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences... The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice.

I think this is something we're all aware of, at least to some extent. There are some fascinating studies in this article that go to show the huge aggregate affect this sort of fatigue can have on people, including, for example, parole board judges. It seems there's a huge disparity with respect to the probability of parole between those prisoners who go before the parole board in the morning and those who are assigned an afternoon slot, because the judges simply tire of making these tough decisions.

When I read this I immediately thought of law school. I studied computer engineering in undergrad, and on those exams you knew that if you came up with the right answer--and 99% of the time there was only one right answer--you'd get full marks for the problem. But, in law school, scoring often is done a bit differently, and usually takes a number of things into account (e.g., ability to spot the issues, reasoning skills, proper use of the facts, cogency, etc.).

The difference then is subjectivity--law professors simply have more latitude when grading than do engineering professors, and consequently, are required to make more decisions as they pore over exam answers. Knowing this, at least at an intuitive level, some of us struggled with when to turn in our completed exams. Will she grade them in order? Will she turn the stack of exams over before she starts? Will she grade them over a few days or in a single night? Will she be drinking while she grades them? Will she grade them on campus or at home where her kids will be fighting for her attention?

Of course no one lost sleep over this sort of thing, but I'd be lying if I said I never thought about it.

Another really interesting takeaway from the article is this bit about poverty:

Spears and other researchers argue that this sort of decision fatigue is a major -- and hitherto ignored -- factor in trapping people in poverty. Because their financial situation forces them to make so many trade-offs, they have less willpower to devote to school, work and other activities that might get them into the middle class.

Exquisite Tweets#

Paste in the URL from a single tweet in a conversation to get a one-page thread you can share or save.

Example.

William E. Clark, mercenary#

I'll promise you two things with respect to this article: 1) you won't be able to stop reading it once you start; and 2) it won't end the way you expect.

He had told me about everything. He had told me about Africa, about Afghanistan and Iraq. He'd also told me about the Philippines, about Indonesia, about Somalia, about Yemen, about Angola, about Nigeria, about Guatemala, about Haiti and El Salvador and Honduras. He had continued raising the stakes on his secrets until they all bled together. Indeed, he really had only one secret, because over the last twenty years he'd had only one job. He did not really work for Blackwater, and he did not really serve in the French Foreign Legion, and he wasn't a missionary for World Vision, and he wasn't a diplomatic observer for the State Department. Those jobs were just covers for his real job, which was something he called "direct sanction." No matter where he was, he worked for his handler, and his handler paid him to kill people. He was, in his words, "a national-security asset," "one of the best in the world at what I do" -- a one-man death squad.

Dark Sky#

Dark Sky is an app for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch that predicts the weather. Using your precise location, it tells you when it will precipitate and for how long. For example: It might tell you that it will start raining in 8 minutes, with the rain lasting for 15 minutes followed by a 25 minute break.

When I first came across this Kickstarter project a couple of weeks ago, I dismissed it out of hand. The last thing I thought I needed was another weather app, but its singular promise has been percolating through my brain and I can't seem to shake it.

A couple of times in the last two weeks I've gone shooting around downtown San Jose, despite looming storms. These photo jaunts lasted about an hour, and it started raining during one of them. Just before both of these trips it struck me that the information Dark Sky provides--precise weather predictions for the immediate future--is exactly what I'd need before setting out on these (and similar) outings in the future.

I've quickly gone from apathetic towards the project, to I-WANT-IT-NOW! Please consider backing it; they're just ~$1,500 shy of their $35,000 goal!

(Related: How Dark Sky works.)