Monday, December 29, 2014

Links for December

Many people (myself included) tend to do charitable giving at the end of the year.  If you're ever wondered "Gosh, I want do to as much good as possible with my money but how do I figure out which cause gives the best result?" then I have some good news for you. The good folks at Givewell have recently re-analyzed this very topic with a good amount of rigor and I'll be going with their recommendations this year.  Except I'm trying to be a bit more clever tax-wise this year so I'll be donating January 1st and December 31st of 2015, then those same dates on 2017, etc.  That should interact better with the US tax system since there's a standard deduction and I don't have a mortgage or anything like that.  Oh, and I took the Giving What We Can pledge to donate 10% of my income to charity each year.  You could too!

Scott Alexander wrote a very good post on why outrage feeds on itself so well in online discussions.  Earlier this year I was pretty optimistic about criminal justice reform (see this Givewell report) but given how divisive the politics around it have turned recently I wouldn't expect much to happen besides a much faster deployment of police body cameras.  I suppose my theory of political protest has been that they burn popular support to produce political salience and that seems to have happened here.

Serious things out of the way, Ra is a story that's been coming out chapter by chapter online for a while now and it just finished.  Well worth reading.

Someone made a nifty program to automatically generate Earth-like planets.

35 years ago this month, on December 9th 1979, we figured out that we'd eradicated smallpox.  I think I agree with the idea of celebrating it as a holiday.

Remember how a little while ago I said we had to come up with a better way of regulating drones?  Well NASA is on the case and (unsurprisingly) has a more workable system than mine.

We found interesting concentrations of methane on Mars!  What does it actually mean?  I have no idea but it seems to contradict our current assumptions so there's gotta be something out there that we haven't guessed yet.

It's been a while since Deep Blue triumphed in the chess world but computer have had a much harder time of it in Go due to that game's high branching factor.  Some people have tried creating Go programs that use more pattern recognition and less searching and this seems to be working well for them.

Newspapers and magazines have to issue corrections from time to time and sometimes they're pretty amusing.  Here are the best from this year.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Drones and licence plates

It occurred to a little while ago that a lot of the problems some people have with drones would more or less go away if drones were less anonymous.  Like perhaps the FAA wouldn't be so restrictive if it were easier to determine who the owner or operator of a drone was.  It's hard to imagine how our traffic systems would work if it weren't for licence plates.  I'm not sure, as a practical matter, what form identification for drones would take.  A drone already has to have a wireless connection to it's operator so some sort of challenge/response could be workable if there were some way to direct the request easily.  Nothing says that a drone would necessarily answer, but nothing says that a car has to have a licence plate either.

Is this really practical?  I can't say but it seems like drones are going to be accepted more slowly if it isn't.

Rockets VII: Staging

See also parts  I ,   II ,  III ,  IV ,  V , and  VI . Space is sort of hard to get to.  You've got one of the Space Shuttle Main Engi...