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Archive for November 24th, 2015

The big problem with electric cars: They’re too reliable.

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Perverse incentives abound when a company makes decision using profit as a metric. Kevin Drum blogs at Mother Jones:

Matt Richtel has an intriguing article today in the New York Times about electric cars. The question is: why aren’t they selling better? Is it because they have weak performance? Because they can only go a hundred miles on a charge? Because they’re expensive?

Those are all issues.1 But it turns out that people who want to buy an electric car anyway have a hard time getting dealerships to sell them one:

Kyle Gray, a BMW salesman, said he was personally enthusiastic about the technology, but…the sales process takes more time because the technology is new, cutting into commissions…. Marc Detsch, Nissan’s business development manager for electric vehicles said some salespeople just can’t rationalize the time it takes to sell the cars. A salesperson “can sell two gas burners in less than it takes to sell a Leaf,” he said. “It’s a lot of work for a little pay.”

He also pointed to the potential loss of service revenue. “There’s nothing much to go wrong,” Mr. Deutsch said of electric cars. “There’s no transmission to go bad.”….Jared Allen, a spokesman for the National Automobile Dealers Association, said there wasn’t sufficient data to prove that electric cars would require less maintenance. But he acknowledged that service was crucial to dealer profits and that dealers didn’t want to push consumers into electric cars that might make them less inclined to return for service.

I suppose this makes sense. And to all this, you can add the fact that none of these cars can fly. There are so many hurdles to overcome before we make it into the Jetson’s future we were all promised.

1We are, of course, talking about the non-Tesla market here.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 November 2015 at 2:32 pm

Posted in Business, Technology

‘Outsiders’ Crack 50-Year-Old Math Problem

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Fascinating article, even though I don’t know some of the things they’re talking about—but it’s interesting to see how the same problem occurs in many fields and in many guises. Erica Klarreich writes in Quanta:

In 2008, Daniel Spielman told his Yale University colleague Gil Kalai about a computer science problem he was working on, concerning how to “sparsify” a network so that it has fewer connections between nodes but still preserves the essential features of the original network.

Network sparsification has applications in data compression and efficient computation, but Spielman’s particular problem suggested something different to Kalai. It seemed connected to the famous Kadison-Singer problem, a question about the foundations of quantum physics that had remained unsolved for almost 50 years.

Over the decades, the Kadison-Singer problem had wormed its way into a dozen distant areas of mathematics and engineering, but no one seemed to be able to crack it. The question “defied the best efforts of some of the most talented mathematicians of the last 50 years,” wrote Peter Casazza and Janet Tremain of the University of Missouri in Columbia, in a 2014 survey article.

As a computer scientist, Spielman knew little of quantum mechanics or the Kadison-Singer problem’s allied mathematical field, called C*-algebras. But when Kalai, whose main institution is the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, described one of the problem’s many equivalent formulations, Spielman realized that he himself might be in the perfect position to solve it. “It seemed so natural, so central to the kinds of things I think about,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to be able to prove that.’” He guessed that the problem might take him a few weeks.

Instead, it took him five years. In 2013, working with his postdoc Adam Marcus, now at Princeton University, and his graduate student Nikhil Srivastava, now at the University of California, Berkeley, Spielman finally succeeded. Word spread quickly through the mathematics community that one of the paramount problems in C*-algebras and a host of other fields had been solved by three outsiders — computer scientists who had barely a nodding acquaintance with the disciplines at the heart of the problem.

Mathematicians in these disciplines greeted the news with a combination of delight and hand-wringing. The solution, which Casazza and Tremain called “a major achievement of our time,” defied expectations about how the problem would be solved and seemed bafflingly foreign. Over the past two years, the experts in the Kadison-Singer problem have had to work hard to assimilate the ideas of the proof. Spielman, Marcus and Srivastava “brought a bunch of tools into this problem that none of us had ever heard of,” Casazza said. “A lot of us loved this problem and were dying to see it solved, and we had a lot of trouble understanding how they solved it.”

“The people who have the deep intuition about why these methods work are not the people who have been working on these problems for a long time,” said Terence Tao, of the University of California, Los Angeles, who has been following these developments. Mathematicians have held several workshops to unite these disparate camps, but the proof may take several more years to digest, Tao said. “We don’t have the manual for this magic tool yet.”

Computer scientists, however, have been quick to exploit the new techniques. Last year, for instance, two researchers parlayed these tools into a major leap forward in understanding the famously difficult traveling salesman problem. There are certain to be more such advances, said Assaf Naor, a mathematician at Princeton who works in areas related to the Kadison-Singer problem. “This is too profound to not have many more applications.”

A Common Problem

The question Richard Kadison and Isadore Singer posed in 1959 asks how much it is possible to learn about a “state” of a quantum system if you have complete information about that state in a special subsystem. Inspired by an informally worded comment by the legendary physicist Paul Dirac, their question builds on Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which says that certain pairs of attributes, like the position and the momentum of a particle, cannot simultaneously be measured to arbitrary precision.

Kadison and Singer wondered about subsystems that contain as many different attributes (or “observables”) as can compatibly be measured at the same time. If you have complete knowledge of the state of such a subsystem, they asked, can you deduce the state of the entire system?

In the case where the system you’re measuring is a particle that can move along a continuous line, Kadison and Singer showed that the answer is no: There can be many different quantum states that all look the same from the point of view of the observables you can simultaneously measure. “It is as if many different particles have exactly the same location simultaneously — in a sense, they are in parallel universes,” Kadison wrote by email, although he cautioned that it’s not yet clear whether such states can be realized physically.

Kadison and Singer’s result didn’t say what would happen if the space in which the particle lives is not a continuous line, but is instead some choppier version of the line — if space is “granular,” as Kadison put it. This is the question that came to be known as the Kadison-Singer problem.

Based on their work in the continuous setting, Kadison and Singer guessed that in this new setting the answer would again be that there are parallel universes. But they didn’t go so far as to state their guess as a conjecture — a wise move, in hindsight, since their gut instinct turned out to be wrong. “I’m happy I’ve been careful,” Kadison said.

Kadison and Singer — now at the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (emeritus), respectively — posed their question at a moment when interest in the philosophical foundations of quantum mechanics was entering a renaissance. Although some physicists were promoting a “shut up and calculate” approach to the discipline, other, more mathematically inclined physicists pounced on the Kadison-Singer problem, which they understood as a question about C*-algebras, abstract structures that capture the algebraic properties not just of quantum systems but also of the random variables used in probability theory, the blocks of numbers called matrices, and regular numbers.

C*-algebras are an esoteric subject — “the most abstract nonsense that exists in mathematics,” in Casazza’s words. “Nobody outside the area knows much about it.” For the first two decades of the Kadison-Singer problem’s existence, it remained ensconced in this impenetrable realm.

Then in 1979, Joel Anderson, now an emeritus professor at Pennsylvania State University, popularized the problem by proving that it is equivalent to an easily stated question about when matrices can be broken down into simpler chunks. Matrices are the core objects in linear algebra, which is used to study mathematical phenomena whose behavior can be captured by lines, planes and higher-dimensional spaces. So suddenly, the Kadison-Singer problem was everywhere. Over the decades that followed, it emerged as the key problem in one field after another.

Because there tended to be scant interaction between these disparate fields, no one realized just how ubiquitous the Kadison-Singer problem had become until Casazza found that it was equivalent to the most important problem in his own area of signal processing. The problem concerned whether the processing of a signal can be broken down into smaller, simpler parts. Casazza dived into the Kadison-Singer problem, and in 2005, he, Tremain and two co-authors wrote a paper demonstrating that it was equivalent to the biggest unsolved problems in a dozen areas of math and engineering. A solution to any one of these problems, the authors showed, would solve them all.

One of the many equivalent formulations they wrote about had been devised just a few years earlier by Nik Weaver, of Washington University in St. Louis. Weaver’s version distilled the problem down to a natural-sounding question about when it is possible to divide a collection of vectors into two groups that each point in roughly the same set of directions as the original collection. “It’s a beautiful problem that brought out the core combinatorial problem” at the heart of the Kadison-Singer question, Weaver said.

So Weaver was surprised when — apart from the mention in Casazza’s survey and one other paper that expressed skepticism about his approach — his formulation seemed to meet with radio silence. He thought no one had noticed his paper, but in fact it had attracted the attention of just the right people to solve it.

Electrical Properties

When Spielman learned about Weaver’s conjecture in 2008, he knew it was his kind of problem. There’s a natural way to switch between networks and collections of vectors, and Spielman had spent the preceding several years building up a powerful new approach to networks by viewing them as physical objects. If a network is thought of as an electrical circuit, for example, then the amount of current that runs through a given edge (instead of finding alternate routes) provides a natural way to measure that edge’s importance in the network.

Spielman discovered Weaver’s conjecture after Kalai introduced him to another form of the Kadison-Singer problem, and he realized that it was nearly identical to a simple question about networks: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 November 2015 at 12:48 pm

Posted in Math, Science

When police immunity goes too far: Those who framed Donald Gates will get no punishment

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From Josie Duffy at DailyKos:

In 1981, DC police framed Donald Gates for rape and murder. He spent 27 years in prison. On Wednesday, a federal jury ruled that the city will have to pay up. From the Washington Post:

Jurors found that two D.C. homicide detectives fabricated all or part of a confession purportedly made by the wrongly accused Donald E. Gates to a police informant. The detectives also withheld other evidence from Gates before he was convicted in the fatal attack on a 21-year-old Georgetown University student in Rock Creek Park, jurors found. […]

Jurors deliberated less than seven hours before finding that Taylor, the lead detective, had violated Gates’s right to a fair trial by feeding Gates’s name and other details to the informant, and that both detectives had conspired and withheld information.

Gates is now 64. He was exonerated in 2009 after DNA evidence proved his innocence. Federal prosecutors refused to comment on whether the detectives will be held criminally liable.

This is a disturbing example of how sovereign immunity can go horribly wrong. The two cops who framed a guy for murder are retired, faithfully spending their monthly pension. They still work in security, one for the Fed and one in entertainment. They purposefully put an innocent man in jail. As of now, they face no charges and are subject to no punishment.

Jurors will now decide how much Gates should receive in damages. No matter the sum, it can’t make up for the fact that he lost 27 years of his life. Still, he certainly deserves a significant amount of monetary compensation. But the two cops won’t have to pay a dime. Instead, the well-deserved money will come out of taxpayer’s pockets.

Taxpayers paid the cops salaries. All the planning, lying, and coercion necessary to frame Gates? All on the taxpayers tab. They paid for twenty-seven years of an innocent man’s incarceration. They will pay compensation for law enforcement’s criminal acts. And they will continue to pay the two cops’ pension every month.

Exoneration was critical, but not enough. Compensation was necessary, but not enough. There can only be true justice when the cops are held criminally and civilly liable for their crimes.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 November 2015 at 12:20 pm

Posted in Law, Law Enforcement

Is the US government becoming a subsidiary of major corporations?

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Rebecca Gordon reports at

A top government official with energy industry holdings huddles in secret with oil company executives to work out the details of a potentially lucrative “national energy policy.” Later, that same official steers billions of government dollars to his former oil-field services company. Well-paid elected representatives act with impunity, routinely trading government contracts and other favors for millions of dollars. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens live in fear of venal police forces that suck them dry by charging feesfor services, throwing them in jail when they can’t pay arbitrary fines orselling their court “debts” to private companies. Sometimes the police just take people’s life savings leaving them with no recourse whatsoever. Sometimes they steal and deal drugs on the side. Meanwhile, the country’s infrastructure crumbles. Bridges collapse, or take a quarter-century to fix after a natural disaster, or (despite millions spent) turn out not to be fixed at all. Many citizens regard their government at all levels with a weary combination of cynicism and contempt. Fundamentalist groups respond by calling for a return to religious values and the imposition of religious law.

What country is this? Could it be Nigeria or some other kleptocraticdeveloping state? Or post-invasion Afghanistan where Ahmed Wali Karzai, CIA asset and brother of the U.S.-installed president Hamid Karzai, made many millions on the opium trade (which the U.S. was ostensibly trying to suppress), while his brother Mahmoud raked in millions more from the fraud-ridden Bank of Kabul? Or could it be Mexico, where the actions of both the government and drug cartels have created perhaps the world’s first narco-terrorist state?

In fact, everything in this list happened (and much of it is still happening) in the United States, the world leader — or so we like to think — in clean government. These days, however, according to the Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International (TI), our country comes in only 17th in the least-corrupt sweepstakes, trailing European and Scandinavian countries as well as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. In fact, TI considers us on a par with Caribbean island nations like Barbados and the Bahamas. In the U.S., TI says, “from fraud and embezzlement charges to the failure to uphold ethical standards, there are multiple cases of corruption at the federal, state and local level.”

And here’s a reasonable bet: it’s not going to get better any time soon and it could get a lot worse. When it comes to the growth of American corruption, one of TI’s key concerns is the how the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision opened the pay-to-play floodgates of the political system, allowing Super PACs to pour billions of private and corporate money into it, sometimes in complete secrecy. Citizens United undammed the wealth of the super-rich and their enablers, allowing big donors like casino capitalist — a description that couldn’t be more literal — Sheldon Adelson to use their millions to influence government policy.

Kleptocracy USA?

Every now and then, a book changes the way you see the world. It’s like shaking a kaleidoscope and suddenly all the bits and pieces fall into a new pattern. Sarah Chayes’s Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security shook my kaleidoscope. Chayes traveled to Afghanistan in 2001 as a reporter for NPR. Moved by the land and people, she soon gave up reporting to devote herself to working with non-governmental organizations helping “Afghans rebuild their shattered but extraordinary country.”

In the process, she came to understand the central role government corruption plays in the collapse of nations and the rise of fundamentalist organizations like the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State. She also discovered just how unable (and often unwilling) American military and civilian officials were to put a stop to the thievery that characterized Afghanistan’s government at every level — from the skimming of billions in reconstruction funds at the top to the daily drumbeat of demands for bribes and “fees” from ordinary citizens seeking any kind of government service further down the chain of organized corruption. In general, writes Chayes, kleptocratic countries operate very much as pyramid schemes, with people at one level paying those at the next for the privilege of extracting money from those below.

Chayes suggests that “acute government corruption” may be a major factor “at the root” of the violent extremism now spreading across the Greater Middle East and Africa. When government robs ordinary people blind, in what she calls a “vertically integrated criminal enterprise,” the victims tend to look for justice elsewhere. When officials treat the law with criminal contempt, or when the law explicitly permits government extortion, they turn to what seem like uncorrupted systems of reprisal and redemption outside those laws. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 November 2015 at 11:14 am

Posted in Business, Government, Law

The Pfizer-Allergan merger is a tax-avoidance scheme

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John Cassidy reports in the New Yorker:

In  an announcement on Monday morning, Pfizer, the big drug company, whose headquarters are on East 42nd Street, in Manhattan, said that it is merging with one of its competitors, Allergan PLC. Ian Read, a Scottish-born accountant who is Pfizer’s chairman and chief executive, said that the proposed deal, which is valued at a hundred and sixty billion dollars, would “create a leading global pharmaceutical company with the strength to research, discover and deliver more medicines and therapies to more people around the world.”

On Wall Street and in the world of big pharma, that statement will raise chuckles. It is widely acknowledged that the primary impetus for the deal is a financial one. In merging with Allergan, which is based in Dublin, Pfizer intends to move its corporate residency to Ireland, where the corporate tax rate is just 12.5 per cent, compared to thirty-five per cent for a company of its size in the United States. Over the next few years, the merger could save Pfizer billions of dollars in taxes and deprive the U.S. Treasury of the same amount.
Tax-driven deals of this nature are known as “inversions,” and they are becoming increasingly common. Burger King, Liberty Global, and Medtronic are among the U.S. corporations to have carried out mergers that moved their headquarters abroad. Last year, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said that inversions were “wrong,” and that he would try and restrict them. Only last week, the Treasury Department issued some new administrative guidelines in this area. Without actual legislation, though, there isn’t very much the Obama Administration can do to prevent these exercises in corporate tax-dodging, and Republicans on Capitol Hill have displayed little eagerness to coöperate in a crackdown.
The Pfizer–Allergan deal will be the biggest inversion yet, and it is nothing short of a disgrace. Drug companies like Pfizer have long benefitted from taxpayer-funded research carried out under the auspices of organizations like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Now, Pfizer is seeking to avoid paying the taxes that are due on its profits, particularly profits generated by its overseas subsidiaries. Even though the Obama Administration doesn’t have the legal powers to block the Allergan transaction, it should seek to shame Pfizer and its board of directors into calling it off. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 November 2015 at 10:53 am

Posted in Business

Trudeau’s Government Believes In Climate Change, Wants to Do Something About It

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A very encouraging story in Motherboard by Jordan Pearson:

Canada’s new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with the country’s premiers and territorial leaders on Monday to talk about climate change, and the result was pleasantly surprising. After years of the Harper administration muzzling its climate scientists, cutting environmental research funding, and rarely discussing the issue publicly, everyone apparently agrees that climate change is real (whoa) and we’re not doing enough about it (double whoa).

The meeting was called to plan for the upcoming climate talks in Paris, to be held at the end of November. In a public briefing held Monday afternoon to discuss the government’s plans, new minister of science Kirstie Duncan kicked of the public event with a statement of purpose, saying that “climate change is one of the most serious threats we face. It is real, it is happening, and it is an issue of today and not of tomorrow.”

What followed was a schooling for any climate change doubters in the room—I mean, really basic Enviro 101-type stuff, from two of the country’s top climate change scientists (greenhouse gases like carbon monoxide trap heat inside the Earth’s atmosphere, in case you didn’t know). But mixed in with the “scientifically unequivocal” facts, as former Environment Canada climatologist Alain Bourque put it, were some hard messages.

For example, Canada’s rate of warming is about twice the global average, and in some parts of the Arctic, that number jumps to three times the average. The effects of climate change will persist “for centuries,” Bourque said, because greenhouse gases last for a long time, even if we do something right now. The effects of climate change are already being felt, Bourque added. For example, polar bears are becoming leanerand hungrier as the melting sea ice diminishes their access to food.

Moreover, Canada’s current climate commitments aren’t enough to change the tide. The Conservative government’s plan to reduce carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030 is “most consistent with warming of about three or three and a half degrees,” said Gregory Flato, a research scientist at Environment Canada, while we need a more aggressive plan that keeps us under two. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 November 2015 at 10:50 am

Overreaching in an effort to control customers: The Apple pentalobe

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In Motherboard Jordan Pearson notes the restrictions corporations regularly attempt to enforce on their customers:

It happened suddenly, like most of these stories do. My alarm went off. I kicked my leg out as I jolted awake, making solid contact with my new laptop, which was innocently lying at the foot of my hotel bed for some reason. It landed on a chair leg; the crash was loud. The aluminum next to the Apple logo was visibly, obviously dented. I flipped it open and was greeted with a large blob of dead pixels radiating outward from the dent.

My options were few. $600 for an LCD replacement at the Apple store. $500 to get an independent repairman to do it. On a whim, I searched eBay and was shocked to see that I could get a new LCD for $50, if I was willing to find out whatever the inside of a MacBook Pro looked like. I pressed buy.

And then I saw the screw.


If you’ve tried to open any iDevice—iPad, iPhone, iMac, any of them—within the last four years, you’ve come face-to-face with Apple’s very small, five-pointed Do Not Enter sign. It’s an overt declaration that your phone, or your computer, or your tablet is not really yours to tamper with, a public statement that you are not qualified to fix your own things.

If you’re reading this on your iPhone or have one nearby, look at either side of the charging port and you’ll seem them: two tiny, star-shaped screw heads that, outside of an obscure wheelchair manufacturer, do not otherwise exist in the wild.

There is a solution to this “pentalobe” screw, however. A screwdriver engineered by iFixit, a California startup that has been simultaneously antagonizing Apple and making sure that, as electronics get more and more complicated, the layperson will still be able to learn how to fix them. (Other companies have since begun offering pentalobe screwdrivers.)

I spent a few days with iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens and professional repair experts at the Electronics Reuse Conference in New Orleans earlier this month to learn more about how your right to open, tinker with, and repair devices that you own is under attack from the very companies that make them. . .

Continue reading.

Later in the article:

. . . The iPhone 4 shipped with standard, Phillips head screws. Sometime in late 2010, however, the company began ordering its Apple Store Geniuses to replace standard screws with pentalobe ones on any iPhone 4 devices that were brought in for repair.Reuters reported on January 20, 2011 that employees were instructed to not tell customers that they had made the switch. The switch should have, in theory, made it impossible for anyone except for Apple to open the device. . .

Written by LeisureGuy

24 November 2015 at 10:44 am

Posted in Business, Technology

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