Monday, November 19, 2018

November 19th Links

  • Cities are fractal. You can always go a layer deeper and there's just as much complexity. Following this principle, I sometimes think it might make sense to just stay in San Francisco my whole life and explore the infinite levels of that fractal. It's cheaper than interstate or international travel anyway, and according to this framework you get the same amount of interestingness no matter how many levels deep you go. The catch is that when you stay in one place it's too easy to accidentally fall into a rut and not actual get the most out of the levels available to you. So while it may be theoretically possible to see a wide variety of things and learn things at different levels by staying within the limits of a single city, you're much less likely to surface those experiences because it's easy to build up habits, a pattern of behavior that cut off interesting discoveries. This is an obstacle rather than a theoretical limit. The other possible takeaway from viewing cities as fractals is that it doesn't matter how much time you spend in one. There'll always been an infinite amount of people, places, subcultures, foods, and more that you didn't get to experience. In other words, the one-day-per-city approach was fine for my recent trip to Asia. The limit on it is less how much you can see in a day (per its scale-free nature) and more how exhausting it can be to go from place to place. [DZ]
  • Newell and Simon's Turing award cited them for their work on "symbol systems." Newell once told me that this was just names, and then he explained his understanding of names: "They provide distal access." That is, a name is a local piece of data that stands for some other piece of data, which is presumably large and remote. You can now use that small, convenient, local datum instead of the large, remote thing for which it stands. The key act you perform with a name (that is, a symbol) is ship it to that remote location, and get back the chunk of data it named. Newell said the career-making, fundamental "aha" experience of his entire life was realising that computers were not, as was typically held in the 1960's, "number crunchers." They were symbol processors—something much more general. They processed names. [link]
  • If we think of the variables in the system as forming a space, then a concrete representation corresponds to a point in this space. (If we have interactive control over the variables, we can steer this point around.) An abstraction over a variable can be thought of as a line in this space. (Specifically, our trajectory here is the image of this line.) An abstraction over two variables spans a plane, and so on. "Stepping down" from this abstraction corresponds to choosing a line within this plane. [link]
  • Different size investors operate at different levels of abstraction. An enormous institutional investor might say "small caps seem cheap, let's give a billion to small cap value managers." While we say "Conrad is the cheapest, best small cap that we can find, let's buy that." One reason for different levels of abstraction is that if you are big you need to ignore certain smaller details in order for your work to be manageable. Someone interested in finding rare coins can get rolls of them from the bank at face value and sort them. On average, he may find enough rare pennies that are worth 1000x face value to make the activity worthwhile. But, a bank is just concerned about keeping the cash drawers stocked. To them, a penny is a penny and they don't care if they accidentally let some rare ones go. It's because the bank is operating at a different level of abstraction than the coin collector. [CBS]
  • To a newly arrived undergraduate, all university departments look much the same. The professors all seem forbiddingly intellectual and publish papers unintelligible to outsiders. But while in some fields the papers are unintelligible because they're full of hard ideas, in others they're deliberately written in an obscure way to seem as if they're saying something important. [Paul Graham]
  • We conveniently classify animals with backbones into five groups: fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. This is misleading because it fails to represent the profound distinctions among fishes. The bony fishes are at least as evolutionarily distinct from the cartilaginous fishes as mammals are from birds. A tuna is actually more closely related to a human than to a shark, and the coelacanth—a "living fossil" first discovered in 1937—sprouted closer to us than to a tuna on the tree of life. [Phil G]
  • And to sail a condemned vessel east from Europe is to adjust the financials of a demolition substantially. A secondhand vessel is currently worth about $190 per tonne to a shipbreaking yard in Turkey, a price established by the local market in reclaimed steel. Sail on to China and a different market, and the same metal is worth $210 per tonne. At breakers' yards in Alang in India, Chittagong in Bangladesh and Gadani in Pakistan, they will pay around $280 per tonne. Meanwhile, at the EU-approved shipbreaking sites, which are bound to conform to continental waste laws, and where vessels are dismantled in closed-off quays or dry docks, rates are less competitive: European yards offer zero dollars per tonne, and, in fact, tend to ask a fee to take a shipowners' junk. Of the 864 vessels that were dismantled around the world last year, nine were dismantled in Europe. [Guardian]
  • Let's say you were living in the Soviet Union back in 1989-ish just before all of Russia's institutions dissolved and the economy collapsed. Would it have been a good use of people's time and energy to go to city council meetings to try and bring about structural change? [Granola Shotgun]
  • The topographic isolation of a summit is the minimum great-circle distance to a point of equal elevation, representing a radius of dominance in which the peak is the highest point. It can be calculated for small hills and islands as well as for major mountain peaks, and can even be calculated for submarine summits. [Wiki]
  • Street networks in Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo are highly connected. The streets are narrow, and the blocks are short, which feels more human-scale and creates more opportunity for diversity. Pedestrians feel comfortable in these dense networks, which encourages walking and biking. [DZ]
  • Bangalore's trees were my favorite part of the city. They were so lush and made the experience of walking in Bangalore quite enjoyable despite the heat and the otherwise crumbling pedestrian infrastructure. [DZ]
  • I had a general sense of "if you can't afford to arrive here by car, you’re not the kind of customer we're looking for". There were a many spots where the underlying street structure was amenable to pedestrians, but then small changes after the initial development were made to actively inconvenience pedestrians. Terrible pedestrian experience! Wandering Jakarta was the most exhausting and unwelcoming of the five cities, and that's saying quite a lot considering Beijing was in that mix. [DZ]
  • I'd read a lot about two of the cities (Beijing, Singapore), knew a bit about one (Saigon), and knew close to nothing about the others (Jakarta, Bangalore). Now, I feel quite confident that given a photo of a street from one of these places I could name the metropolitan region with a low error rate. My internalized representation of each of these places is certainly not complete, but it's much better than it was a week ago. [DZ]
  • How is having those under age 45, trying to buy a house, pay 50 percent of their income in debt service "good news?" Aren't later-born generations already disadvantaged and overburdened enough? If you are such a household, don't buy, whatever you do. Decide that no matter what it takes, Generation Greed is going to have to cut its price so low that lower mortgage payments as a percent of income make up for all the other disadvantages and burdens they are imposing. Better to rent for years, or decades, in a new apartment building – preferably one that is located in a place were you can bike things so you aren’t dependent the collapsing transit system and don't have to borrow to buy cars either. [link]
  • A figure/ground map shows much better than a typical street map the diversity of Boston's development. From the gridded row houses in the Back Bay and South End, meandering suburban streets to the south, gridded three-deckers in Cambridge and South Boston... this variety is in part a record of Boston's piecemeal land reclamation efforts. Notice how the scale of development has increased in the twentieth century — some of the largest building footprints are located on recently reclaimed land, in Fort Point Channel, Miller's Creek, and the South Bay. The high-res map also shows that Boston has its fair share of modernist housing developments scattered throughout the city. [Radical Cartography]
  • The map here shows all the streets on either side of the US—Canada border along the 49th parallel — the longest straight-line border in the world, by far. (West is up, with the U.S. to the left and Canada to the right.) Although there are still some data problems in both countries — suspicious splotches, unexpected edges, disconnected roads — there's a subtle change at the border that seems undeniable. In Canada the Great Plains are more consistently gridded, while the mountains are much less accessible. This isn't a difference in data quality; it's a difference in national priorities and public-land management practices (U.S. national forests are full of roads; Canada crown lands are not). And note that the border itself is visible as a thin white line where the local roads are all dead ends. Despite sharing such a long arbitrary border, most of which is open plains, there are only a handful of places where it can legally be crossed. [Radical Cartography]
  • Hot property markets tend to have railroads crossing them. Since railroads are entirely federally governed, no city building permits are required for adding new train cars, even live-aboard Palace Cars, onto the tracks. Federal law and federal zoning instead prevails. Local zoning is bypassed. Your train cars can have running hot/cold water, septic systems/bathrooms, electricity, heating, air conditioning, cell phone service, WiFi, satellite, desks, conference rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, metal 3D printers, etc. They can even receive postal mail and deliveries. [link]
  • For every point on earth, I've calculated the percent of all humans that live on the half of the globe centered on that point. (This is the same as calculating how many people live within 10,000 kilometers.*) On land, the values range from a high of 92.9% (the Human Hemisphere) to a low of 8.1% on the Antipodes Islands off the coast of New Zealand. [Radical Cartography]
  • Humans are an unmistakably low-altitude species. The basic S-curve here shouldn't be surprising, since most of the earth's land is low-lying plains and forests rather than mountains. But the human population is quite low even with this in mind. Half of all humans live below 165 meters, while only 28% of land is that low. The lowest 4% of the world's land is home to about 15% of humans. [Radical Cartography]
  • Olympus Mons is a very large shield volcano on the planet Mars. By one measure, it has a height of nearly 25 km (13.6 mi or 72,000 ft). Olympus Mons is about two and a half times Mount Everest's height above sea level. It is the largest volcano, the tallest planetary mountain, and the second tallest mountain in the Solar System compared to Rheasilvia on Vesta. [Wiki]
  • Hyperborea, Thule, and Ultima Thule are names of mythical utopian far-northern places from pre-modern geography or pseudo-geography. They have featured in a wide range of mythology and nonsense, from the ancient Greeks to recent esotericists and mystics, including theosophists such as Helena Blavatsky. Lately they have been adopted by the far-right as part of esoteric Nazism, a philosophy which considers some northern land to be the secret place of origin for the Aryan race. [link]

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