2013...mewhat-popular - %2

How the Media Would Have Covered the Birth of Jesus

| Tue Dec. 24, 2013 2:19 PM EST

Dan Amira:

The arrival of the messiah would have been a huge media event at the time had there actually been any media aside from the guy who announced the king's royal proclamations from a balcony. Consequently, we are forced to make educated guesses about how today's media would have covered the story, if it were around back then.

This takes about 20 seconds to read, and is funnier than I expected. Go ahead and click.

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Quote of the Day: I Will Defend to the Death Your Right to....Um....

| Tue Dec. 24, 2013 1:45 PM EST

From Sarah Palin, five days after defending Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson for his anti-gay statements in a GQ interview:

I haven’t read the article. I don’t know exactly how he said it.

That's a shocker, isn't it? But no matter. For Palin, this is basically affinity marketing. It doesn't really matter what Robertson said, only that he represents the kind of right-thinking real Americans that Palin fancies herself a spokesman for.

And as long as I've now broken my vow not to comment on this idiocy (or Pajama Boy or Justine Sacco), here's something I've been idly wondering about. Since I'm not a real American, I don't watch Duck Dynasty, but I've seen a few episodes here and there while channel surfing. And even from just a few minutes' viewing it was pretty obvious that it was very heavily edited. These guys clearly have a lot of seriously un-PC views, and A&E is pretty careful to make sure that none of them end up on the air. They prefer lovable old coots to a bunch of backwoods culture warriors.

In other words, the lack of anything even remotely political on the show seems pretty plainly artificial. Right? So it surely wasn't a surprise to A&E that Phil Robertson has the views he has. I'll bet they have miles of tape that ended up on the cutting room floor because it was likely to offend someone.

Anyway, I'm curious: Am I off base about this? It was practically the first thing that crossed my mind when I first saw an episode of the show. Is it really as obvious as I think, or did I jump to a conclusion I shouldn't have?

UPDATE: Actually, it sounds like I might have been off base about this. It turns out that the whole Duck Dynasty redneck schtick is much more an invention than I realized, and the show is tightly scripted (not just edited) before the season even begins. That said, it's still a virtual certainty that A&E knew Phil Robertson's views on hot button cultural issues perfectly well. In fact it seems more likely than not that this entire controversy was deliberately engineered by A&E to generate publicity. It certainly wouldn't surprise me, anyway.

Festivus Grievance Airing: I Want More Windows Tablets

| Tue Dec. 24, 2013 1:16 PM EST

What do you want for Christmas this year?

What I want is a nice Windows tablet. I already have an iPad and an Android tab, and a Windows device would round out my collection nicely. And although Windows haters are gonna hate, I'd personally find it pretty handy to have a tablet that can do tablet stuff but can also do real computer stuff when I need it to. In fact, even for tablet-type stuff, it would be really nice to have a full-featured web browser instead of the junky cut-down stuff that's designed for mobile phones and then hastily modified for tablet use.

But the tablet manufacturers of the world have disappointed me. After years of promising that their next generation of processors would really and for suresies be great for tablets, Intel has finally delivered. I've played with several tablets using Intel's new Atom 3770 SOC, and they're great. Performance is snappy, web pages load as fast as they do on my desktop, and if the specs are to be believed, its power consumption is miserly enough to produce 9-10 hours of battery life. And by all accounts, Windows 8.1 is finally pretty usable too.

So the technology is finally in good shape. But where are all the tablets? Microsoft screwed up its Surface 2 Pro by opting for Intel's top-of-the-line Haswell processors, which are overkill for anyone but a serious gamer or Photoshop fanatic and make the S2P thick, heavy, and short-lived. The ordinary Surface, which uses an ARM processor, is Windows RT only, which is a joke. By my estimate, the Surface 2 line is just about the most ill-conceived collection of product design decisions since New Coke.

No real surprise there, I suppose. But what about the rest of the tablet world? It turns out there are surprisingly few 3770-based devices. Asus has one, but it's cheap and has crappy resolution. HP's Omni 10 looks fairly decent, but it has limited memory and an uncertain future. The Dell Venue 11 had me drooling a bit when I first read about it (11-inch screen! Full-size USB port!), but they cheaped out just a little too much on the screen, which has only OK resolution. (I'm a bug on pixel density. As far as I'm concerned, the first real tablet in the world was the iPad 3, with its Retina display. I won't use anything with much less resolution than that.) Sharp has a super high-res Mebius device for sale in Japan, but it's not likely to be available in the US anytime soon, if ever.

And that's pretty much it. Here in America, there are a grand total of four devices to choose from. I want more! Santa's elves have badly let me down this year.

POSTSCRIPT: Sophisticated readers will understand that the real point of this post is to prompt hundreds of comments telling me why I'm an idiot for wanting a Windows tablet, since there can be no possible legitimate reason for wanting one. So have at it! This is my Christmas gift to you.

Santa Claus Points the Way to Our Robot-Filled Future

| Tue Dec. 24, 2013 12:21 PM EST

Dean Baker writes today that the Washington Post should be less worried. Their writers seem to think that eventually robots will take away all our jobs, but their editorial page is worried about bankrupting the country via spending on Social Security and Medicare. But you really can't have both. If robots are beavering away producing everything we could possibly desire, then national bankruptcy is hardly a worry. Except, of course, for this:

There can of course be issues of distribution. If the one percent are able to write laws that allow them to claim everything the robots produce then they can make most of us very poor. But this is still a story of society of plenty. We can have all the food, shelter, health care, clean energy, etc. that we need; the robots can do it for us.

Yep. This is the issue. For all practical purposes, you can think of the elves in Santa's workshop as a bunch of robots. As near as I can tell, they work for free, they're insanely productive, and they produce as much stuff as Santa wants them to. So how is all this bounty distributed? Santa is smart enough to have figured out that capitalism won't really work in a situation like this, so he's adopted what's basically a centrally-planned Marxist system: he decides who's been naughty and who's been nice, and then distributes gifts accordingly.

That might not quite work for our robot-filled future, but something like it will. Distribution, as John Stuart Mill pointed out more than a century ago, is really the most important question in economics. In the future, it will only get even more important.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for December 24, 2013

Tue Dec. 24, 2013 12:10 PM EST

Marines from 1st Marine Special Operations Brigade file into a CH-46 Sea Knight before conducting parachute operations aboard Camp Pendleton, Calif., Dec. 12, 2013. Marines with 1st Air Delivery Platoon, Landing Support Company, Combat Logistics Regiment 17, 1st Marine Logistics Group, conducted day and night jumps with 3rd Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company and 1st Marine Special Operations Brigade to maintain proficiency and transition to a new parachute system. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Timothy Childers)

Nine Gifts the NSA Will Hate

| Tue Dec. 24, 2013 7:00 AM EST

In the wake of the Edward Snowden-enabled revelations about the reach of the surveillance state, your more privacy-sensitive loved ones may have spent the year discovering TOR, making the jump to mesh networks or encrypted email, or mumbling about converting their nest egg to Bitcoin.

But now that gift-giving season is well upon us, what's left to get the security-obsessed person who already has it all? Tin foil hats have a timeless appeal, but here's a short list of slightly more practical devices:

Camera-Detecting Armor

Surveillance Spaulder Demonstration
stml/Vimeo

London artist James Bridle has thought up a wearable device known as a "surveillance spaulder," which—through infrared detection—would alert the wearer to surveillance cameras by triggering a small muscle reaction. While not "currently a functioning device," he claims the device is more than possible given the correct components, power supply, and a little bit of tinkering.

Anti-Facial Recognition Hats

 

NSA Hat
The Perfect Anti-Surveillance Hat?

Concerned about having your face detected in photos or by security cameras? If Anonymous' advice of wearing a mask or continuously tilting your head more than 15 degrees seems a little cumbersome, try the hactivists' suggested DIY project of making an infrared LED-fitted hat to tuck under the Christmas tree.

Camera-Confusing Eyewear

Anti-Facial Recognition Glasses
Anti-Facial Recognition Glasses
Isao Echizen/National Institute of Informatics

Not the DIY type? Professor Isao Echizen at Japan’s National Institute of Informatics may have the answer: eyewear that transmits near-infrared rays to render the wearer's face undetectable to cameras. Not only will this give someone on your list that cool cyberpunk look, but by keeping their image from being captured it will be harder to track their movements.


Face-Disgusing Makeover

CV Dazzle Make-Up
CV Dazzle Make-Up
Adam Harvey/ahprojects.com

For the more fashion-conscious, consider a haircut and makeup using style advice derived from WWI and WWII camouflage techniques. The project, created by NY designer Adam Harvey and known as CV Dazzle, uses "cubist-inspired designs" to break up symmetry and tonal contours, creating an "anti-face" technique the designer claims will confuse the detection algorithms of most facial recognition software.

HMAS Yarris in Dazzle Camouflage
HMAS Yarris in Dazzle Camouflage, WWII

Drone-Proof Clothing

Adam Harvey's Stealth Wear
Adam Harvey's Stealth Wear
Adam Harvey/ahprojects.com

The stylish options don't stop at simple facial recognition. Harvey's more recent Stealth Wear project puts together a series of heat-reflecting burqas, scarfs, and hoodies purported to limit potential drone surveillance. Simply put the clothing on, and you're blacked out to most thermal imaging. According to the website's rather garbled recounting of Islamic tradition, the clothing reflects "the rationale behind the traditional hijab and burqa," acting as a veil to separate women from God—only in this case, "replacing God with drone."

Reflective Drone Survival Guide

A field guide to various Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and tactics for hiding from drones printed on an aluminum paper reflective enough to "interfere with the drone's sensors." While the price is cheap ($15 or €10), the information is also downloadable for free.

M-65 Jackets

Military Camouflage
Military Camouflage
SPC Gerald James/Wikimedia Commons

Does your giftee need a new coat? Some military-inspired jackets—already made with a camouflage pattern known as Disruptive Pattern Material—also have infrared reflective coatings that make them harder to spot in certain lights.

Bug Detectors and Noise Generators

Frequency Finder Bug Detector
All-in-One RF Bug Detector

For the slightly more gadget-oriented, noise generators, surveillance bug detectors, and virtually invisible bluetooth earpieces could all make great stocking stuffers—especially for those particularly concerned with being followed or having their conversations tracked. The downside? They all come with hefty price tags.

Abandoned Missile Silo

Minuteman III Silo
Department of Defense/Wikimedia Commons

Of course, if all else fails, you could buy a "luxury survival condo" in a converted Atlas missile silo for the strangely reasonable cost of $750,000 to $1.5 million. The company's press release promises "extended off-grid living" and walls "designed to withstand a nuclear blast." At this point, going inside a bunker and unplugging might be the only way to completely remove yourself from the NSA's all-seeing eye.

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Why Does the NYT Dialect Map Think I Come From Stockton?

| Mon Dec. 23, 2013 9:58 PM EST

Everyone's favorite timewaster of the past couple of days has been the New York Times' online dialect map. Answer 25 questions and it will tell you where you grew up. My results were disappointingly vague. Lots of people reported that the app practically located the city block they came from, but in my case it didn't even get the right part of the state. I've spent my entire life within a radius of about 20 miles centered on Orange County, but the app thinks I come from northern California:

I had trouble with several of the questions. The freeway/highway distinction had a couple of answers that seemed OK. I refer to large vehicles on highways as big rigs, trucks, and semis fairly interchangeably. I'm fairly agnostic between yard sale and garage sale, as well as between drinking fountain and water fountain. But I took the test several times to see if answering these few questions differently made a difference, and it didn't. I kept coming up as a northern Californian.

So I dug in further. Which question was IDing me wrong? After plowing through the test about a dozen times giving different answers to one or two questions at a time, I finally figured it out. It was this one: "What do you call the small road parallel to the highway?" I think of this as a frontage road, but when I switched to service road, the app pegged me with eerie precision:

So what's going on? The truth is that here in Orange County we don't really have roads like this, so I don't call them anything. The only time I see them is when I'm traveling, usually in a car going north on I-5. Once you get up into the San Joaquin Valley, there are signs for these roads all over the place, and they're always called frontage roads. Since that's the only exposure I have to them, I call them frontage roads and thus peg myself as a northern Californian.

I'm pretty sure there's more to it than just this, but since the test rotates questions it's hard to consistently hold every variable constant but one in order to get clean results. As near as I can tell, frontage road reliably places me north of Bakersfield, but service road occasionally does too depending on how I answer some of the other questions. Most of the time, though, service road plus my natural answers to everything else places me solidly in Southern California.

Why Don't Germans Tweet?

| Mon Dec. 23, 2013 4:12 PM EST

Why are Germans so resistant to using Twitter? My first guess would be that they're just smarter than the rest of us and have better things to do, but I suppose that's not it. The Economist proposes a couple of other possibilities:

Some have suggested the German language makes tweeting tricky. Germans like to make a point clear, experts say, though this seems often to call for protracted, convoluted sentences with multiple subordinate clauses that are inimical to microblogging.

....A more likely reason is Germans' preoccupation with privacy. Many recall the Stasi, communist East Germany's prying secret police which had at one point recruited or coerced 173,000 people to be its informants. This explains Germans'—and the Merkel government's—outcry over allegations of America's widespread electronic snooping.

Hmmm. The former West Germany accounts for about 80 percent of Germany's population, and there's no reason that any of them would have any deep-seated fears of Stasi surveillance. So I think the Stasi is in the clear on this one. That leaves only a more general distaste for public yammering. Does that sound right? Are Germans really more tightlipped than other folks? I wouldn't have guessed that, but maybe.

On the other hand, the structure of the language itself really does seem like it might be a problem. Learning to write in 140-character chunks is tricky enough in English. Still, I'd normally figure that the obvious response to this would be a more vibrant culture of abbreviation. But maybe Germans don't like abbreviations either. It's a mystery.

"Unruly Passengers" Increased 12x in Four Years. I Wonder Why?

| Mon Dec. 23, 2013 1:49 PM EST

Speaking of airlines, two stories crossed my radar by chance today. Here's the first:

The number of incidents of unruly passengers jumped from less than 500 in 2007 to more than 6,000 in 2011, according to the International Air Transport Assn., the trade group for world airlines, which has been keeping track of the incidents....A meeting has been scheduled for March by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a branch of the United Nations, to discuss new rules on how to deal with unruly passengers. A location for the meeting has not been set.

And here's the second:

On Jammed Jets, Sardines Turn on One Another

With air travelers increasingly feeling like packed sardines, flying has become a contact sport, nowhere more than over the reclined seat.

Now, it is only getting worse, as airlines re-examine every millimeter of the cabin. Over the last two decades, the space between seats — hardly roomy before — has fallen about 10 percent, from 34 inches to somewhere between 30 and 32 inches. Today, some airlines are pushing it even further, leaving only a knee-crunching 28 inches.

....Southwest, the nation’s largest domestic carrier, is installing seats with less cushion and thinner materials — a svelte model known in the business as “slim-line.” It also is reducing the maximum recline to two inches from three. These new seats allow Southwest to add another row, or six seats, to every flight — and add $200 million a year in newfound revenue.

I wonder if these could possibly be related in any way?

Chart of the Day: When Southwest Comes Calling, On-Time Performance Goes South

| Mon Dec. 23, 2013 1:20 PM EST

Here's an interesting, unintuitive tidbit about the airline market. When Southwest enters a market, it forces incumbent carriers to lower their fares. No surprise there. But according to a recent study, it does more than that. It also reduces everyone's on-time performance:

All three conventional measures of arrival delay indicate that airlines begin responding to the threat of entry before Southwest even threatens the route; incumbents' on-time performance begins to worsen before Southwest actually enters the second endpoint airport, and it continues to do so following Southwest threatening the route, and following entry, as well.

As the chart on the right shows, average travel time for flights starts to increase sharply about four quarters before Southwest begins service in a new market, eventually rising by two minutes three quarters after service begins. The number of flights more than 15 minutes late rises from 18 percent to about 21 percent. Why? The authors find the same effect when other airlines enter a new market, but only if the new competitor is a low-cost carrier. Their guess? Pretty much what you'd expect: "Incumbents worsen [on-time performance] in an effort to cut costs in order to compete against Southwest's low costs."