Sunday, May 31, 2015

May Links

Someone made a map of all the languages of Europe arranged by lexical distance.  Looking at it you might wonder why English is considered Germanic but apparently our grammar is distinctly Germanic despite the number of French words we've absorbed.

A lot of the time I tend to just look at the income tax when thinking about progressive or regressive taxation but this blog post reminded me that there are a lot of good and services that have specific taxes attached to them and they tend to disproportionately be things consumed by poor people.  A lot of other good stuff there too.

Some Italian scientists basically just sprayed some spiders with water that had carbon nanotubes in it and found that they made silk stronger than any known material.  That's mad science for you.

Remember those bright spots on Ceres?  As Dawn gets closer we're getting better pictures.  It's looking for like ice.

Our robot made the news!

There's this thing called the Broken Window Theory that basically says that if people can see small pieces of evidence of disorder they'll be more likely to commit crimes.  But people have experimented on the theory itself from a bunch of angles and it's super well confirmed.  Whether the approach New York took to trying to take advantage of it is a good idea is another question.

It's nearly summer so I figured I'd share this post on what drowning actually looks like.  It's not what you'd expect from watching Hollywood movies!

Los Angeles voted to gradually phase in a $15 dollar minimum wage.  This will probably help economists better understand when raising the minimum wage causes more unemployment but there seems to be an emerging consensus anyways.  The unions that fought for the minimum wage increase seem to not want it to apply to them but don't read too much into that.  Unions are usually all about trading wages for more health insurance and working conditions and so forth.  I could write a whole long thing about how in theory taxing the rich to subsidize the poor is much better than increasing the minimum wage.  I probably will at some point.  But the current alternative, the Earned Income Tax Credit has some problems.

Some speculation on mining asteroids, mineral deposit locations as trade secrets, and how to get around that via maritime salvage.  This would make a great basis for a novel.

As most residents know rents around Boston are rising and the number of unfilled units continues to shrink.   Cambridge is looking to reach its 2030 housing goal by 2030 but it seems that most of the municipalities around the Boston area aren't doing that.  Still, it looks like the amount that Cambridge is building is only barely keeping pace with Cambridge population growth.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Divestment doesn't work

I noticed The Tech, MIT's student newspaper has a front page article on a call for MIT to divest from fossil fuel companies and various faculty members weighing in.  There was some back and forth in it but the thing that I think is most important about divestment wasn't mentioned by any of the participants.  To put it baldly: divestment doesn't accomplish anything.

Now, US universities have about $415 billion dollars in investments between them.  The ten biggest oil companies have a market capitalization of 1,800 billion between them.  So you might think that all universities divesting could lower the stocks of the gas companies by 20% or so.  Except the denominator you want is actually all the money everyone is investing in all stocks, or about $65 trillion.  So without the investments of the universities you'd only expect their stocks to go down by half a percent.

In economics there's something called the efficient market hypothesis which is sort of badly named and also a bit confusing since it comes in three forms.  None of the three forms is perfectly true but some are more true than others.  But the idea here is that if you manage to lower the price of a firm's stock in a way that doesn't lower the stream of dividends that the stock will produce then if people notice they'll swoop in and bid the price of the stock back up.

That process is far from perfect.  For decades the general level of the stock market went down on Friday and up on Monday before someone noticed and made a huge amount of money in the process of causing the effect to disappear.  If you managed to get all the US universities to divest from oil companies without Wallstreet hearing about it you would be able to get your half a percent share price reduction until they heard about it.  But of course this whole divestment movement is intrinsically public so keeping it secret isn't going to happen.

Normally when someone is going about doing something good in an inefficient way I won't complain.  Yes, I care about efficient charity but apathy is worse problem than inefficiency.  In this case, though, activists are going to accomplish literally nothing even if they succeed so I feel justified in saying "Don't do that, do this instead."

What can you do?  The collective action problems that it's so hard to solve by yourself are easy for a government to solve so call your representatives and tell them you'd like to see them act on climate change.  Have a smaller home or apartment than you might otherwise live in and don't run the heat and AC so hard.  Live closer to where you work and drive a smaller car.  There's lots of things to be done that will actually be effective in proportion to how many people do them.  So do those.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Links for March/April

The most exciting stuff over the last month has probably been everything that's happened in genetic engineering via a tool called CRISPR, described in detail here.  This technique has apparently only been around for a couple of years but it's making big waves.  In the blog post where I heard about this some scientists in the comments were predicting that we'd see this used on humans soon and sure enough it seems that the rumors were right and some scientists had altered non-viable embryos.

In other genetic engineering news, some scientists have altered rice to preform photosynthesis in the more efficient way that corn does

Oh, and some people are hoping to use CRISPR to turn elephant embryos into Woolly Mammoths too.

In Mars news there are apparently belts of glaciers running around the planet.  Also this is a really pretty mineral vein formation.

And elsewhere in space, this person did a very good job of putting all the various things in the solar system to scale.

Oh, and a bunch of companies have cool videos of rockets.  Blue Origin was created by the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, and they've finally put out their first video of the space tourism rocket they've been working on.  The capsule made it nearly to space then back to Earth safely but the booster they'd designed to be reusable had a hydraulic problem and crashed, much like SpaceX's first barge landing attempt.  More recently SpaceX's second barge landing attempt was much closer but too much lateral speed broke one of the legs and though you can see the RCS thruster trying valiantly to keep the rocket upright it was not to be.  Back to Blue Origin, they seem to be a ways from their first orbital launch but they're nearly finished with an engine, the BE-4, that the ULA is hoping to use to replace some Russian engines they've been using.

When you think of a normal car the most complicated part of it is the engine.  But for electric cards it's the batteries that are really the part that's hard to get right and that has a bunch of implications for Telsa Moters.

Hitherby Dragons is a fiction blog by Jenna Moran that I've enjoyed reading.  After a long hiatus it's started to update again.

People talk about peak oil but what we really have to worry about is peak energy because there's a straightforward way to turn water and the CO2 in air into hydrocarbons if you've got enough energy to do it.  Lets hope the price of solar panels keeps dropping.  Audi seems to be betting on that because they've been working on getting some decent diesel fuel from this process, much more useful than the methane you get is you do things the simplest possible way.

One of the cool bits of the the trailer for the new star wars movie was the little droid named BB-8 that was essentially a rolling ball with another ball balanced on it.  It's interesting because it's an actual device rather than CG, as you can see when it rolls out on stage here.  Someone put together their ideas about how they would build it.

We're trying to make our SARS-2 tests better than we should

Ok, that's a somewhat provocative title but I think it's basically accurate.  During this pandemic the US in particular has had a pr...