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Archive for October 10th, 2019

Helsinki Bus Station Theory of Finding Your Voice/Vision

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Oliver Burkeman writes in the Guardian:

I‘ve never visited Finland. Actually, I probably never should, since it’s a place I love so much on paper – dazzling, snow-blanketed landscapes, best education in the world, first country to give full suffrage to women, home of the Moomins – that reality could only disappoint. Even the staunchest Finnophile, though, might be sceptical on encountering the Helsinki Bus Station Theory. First outlined in a 2004 graduation speech by Finnish-American photographer Arno Minkkinen, the theory claims, in short, that the secret to a creatively fulfilling career lies in understanding the operations of Helsinki’s main bus station. It has circulated among photographers for years, but it deserves (pardon the pun) greater exposure. So I invite you to imagine the scene. It’s a bus station like any big bus station – except, presumably, cleaner, and with environmentally-friendly buses driven by strikingly attractive blond(e)s.

There are two dozen platforms, Minkkinen explains, from each of which several different bus lines depart. Thereafter, for a kilometre or more, all the lines leaving from any one platform take the same route out of the city, making identical stops. “Each bus stop represents one year in the life of a photographer,” Minkkinen says. You pick a career direction – maybe you focus on making platinum prints of nudes – and set off. Three stops later, you’ve got a nascent body of work. “You take those three years of work on the nude to [a gallery], and the curator asks if you are familiar with the nudes of Irving Penn.” Penn’s bus, it turns out, was on the same route. Annoyed to have been following someone else’s path, “you hop off the bus, grab a cab… and head straight back to the bus station, looking for another platform”. Three years later, something similar happens. “This goes on all your creative life: always showing new work, always being compared to others.” What’s the answer? “It’s simple. Stay on the bus. Stay on the fucking bus.”

A little way farther on, the way Minkkinen tells it, Helsinki’s bus routes diverge, plunging off on idiosyncratic journeys to very different destinations. That’s when the photographer finds a unique “vision”, or – if you’d rather skip the mystificatory art talk – the satisfying sense that he or she is doing their own thing.

There are two reasons this metaphor is so compelling – apart from the sheer fact that it’s Finland-related, I mean. One is how vividly it illustrates a critical insight about persistence: that in the first weeks or years of any worthwhile project, feedback – whether from your own emotions, or from other people – isn’t a reliable indication of how you’re doing. (This shouldn’t be confused with the dodgy dictum that triggering hostile reactions means you must be doing the right thing; it just doesn’t prove you’re doing the wrong one.) The second point concerns the perils of a world that fetishises originality. A hundred self-help books urge you to have the guts to be “different”: the kid who drops out of university to launch a crazy-sounding startup becomes a cultural hero… yet the Helsinki theory suggests that if you pursue originality too vigorously, you’ll never reach it. Sometimes it takes more guts to keep trudging down a pre-trodden path, to the originality beyond. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

10 October 2019 at 6:56 pm

Posted in Art, Daily life

Prime spirals and rays

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Written by LeisureGuy

10 October 2019 at 6:44 pm

Posted in Math

Why You Might Buy Electricity From Elon Musk Some Day

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I imagine that sales of solar panels and large-capacity batteries are going to skyrocket now that Pacific Gas & Electric is discontinuing distribution of electricity to hundreds of thousands of homes because of fire hazards, with the electricity being out for up to days at a time. See, for example, “For the Most Vulnerable, California Blackouts ‘Can Be Life or Death’” in the NY Times.

Todd Woody writes in the Atlantic:

At first glance, there’s nothing particularly Jetsons-like about Marco Krapels’ 1940s-era home in a prosperous suburb that lies in the shadow of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, California. Open the garage door, though, and it’s Tomorrowland.

Attached to the wall is a charging station for Krapels’ Tesla Motors Model S electric sports sedan. And next to the charger are two metal boxes that effectively render Pacific Gas & Electric, the 108-year-old utility that serves Northern California, irrelevant. One box channels electricity generated by the SolarCity photovoltaic panels on the house’s roof. The other, a 10-kilowatt-hourTesla lithium-ion battery pack, can store up to three days’ worth of carbon-free electricity generated by Krapels’ solar array.

In other words, during the sunniest part of the day, when no one is at home and power demand is low, the Tesla battery pack can store the excess electricity for use in the late afternoon and evening when power prices spike. No dirty and expensive utility electrons needed.  “I should technically be able to function with solar and just the battery indefinitely as long as the sun shines,” says Krapels, a renewable energy financer.

And the cost? Thanks to California incentives that subsidize 60 percent of the cost of energy storage, Krapels is paying less than $40 a month for the battery pack as part of a lease deal with SolarCity, the Silicon Valley company that installed the solar battery system.

“To be able to make my own power and store my own power and use it when I want to is liberating,” says Krapels as he stands in his garage. “I don’t want to have to buy power from PG&E at peak rates, I want to use my own power. You see this power line going from the street to my house? I look forward to the day when I cut that wire.”But that day has not quite arrived. The Tesla energy storage unit – it’s is a smaller version of the battery pack that powers the Model S – has sat unused since it was installed in Krapels’ garage last spring. PG&E, like other big California utilities,  has refused to connect residential solar-battery storage systems to the grid unless homeowners pay a fee that can run $800 or more.

That fee fight is a fig leaf for a much bigger struggle that is unfolding over who will control the production and distribution of energy in the US – old-line monopoly utilities or a new generation of green tech companies like SolarCity and Tesla that put that power in the hands of their customers.

“Utilities are not a massive fan of people being able to disconnect from the grid,” Peter Rive, SolarCity’s co-founder and chief operations officer told The Atlantic. “But just trying to fight energy storage and kill it is going to backfire on them.”

The trend in so-called distributed generation is being driven by the plummeting price of solar panels, the growing production of advanced batteries for electric cars and government regulators who have imposed mandates on utilities to buy an increasingly percentage of the electricity they distribute from renewable sources. In October, California regulators ordered the state’s three big utilities to obtain technology to store 1,325 megawatts of electricity generated from wind, solar and other renewable but intermittent sources of energy.

That’s spawning innovation in an industry that has long seemed stuck in a technological time warp. Stem, a Silicon Valley startup, for instance, is installing $100,000 54-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery systems in hotels and other businesses to allow the storage of electricity when prices are low to avoid high rates utilities charge commercial customers when demand spikes. NRG Energy, meanwhile, is testing a device that will let homeowners generate their own electricity from natural gas.

But the biggest existential threat to utility hegemony may well lie with SolarCity and Tesla. (The two companies have a combined market cap of $18.8 billion; PG&E’s is $18.3 billion.) In 2010, the California Energy Commission awarded SolarCity $1.8 million to study the feasibility of integrating its solar panels with batteries made by Tesla. (Elon Musk, Tesla’s chief executive, serves as SolarCity’s chairman and is the cousin of the company’s founders.)

SolarCity spent three years developing the software that controls the interaction between a photovoltaic array, the Tesla battery and the grid. Rive says the company has offerered the solar storage system to select customers – more than 300 so far – who either want backup power in the event of an electricity outage, or who like Krapels, want to pull the plug on their utility. According to the California Public Utilities Commission, as of July 1, there were 319 applications to hook up rooftop solar arrays with storage systems that could a total of 10 megawatts of electricity.

PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric – California three big utilities – however, have argued to regulators that such subsidized storage systems would saddle other customers with the cost of maintaining the power grid and thus they should be charged connection fees. In California, homeowners already receive a credit for the solar electricity they send to the grid that is used to pay for the power they use when the sun isn’t shining. If homeowners can hook up batteries to their solar arrays, the utilities asked, what’s to stop them gaming the grid by storing electricity from the transmission system when rates are low and then selling it back to the utilities when rates are high?

The California Public Utilities Commission is debating those issues now and in a preliminary ruling in October, it said utilities should allow homeowners to connect energy storage systems to solar arrays at no extra cost for the time being. But in a nod to the utilities’ concerns that some homeowners would arbitrage the grid, the commission said homeowners would have to pay connection fees if their energy storage systems can store more electricity than their solar panels generate. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

10 October 2019 at 6:41 pm

How Not to Die from Kidney Disease

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writes an interesting blog post:

Kidney failure may be both prevented and treated with a plant-based diet, and it’s no wonder: Kidneys are highly vascular organs, packed with blood vessels. Harvard researchers found three significant dietary risk factors for declining kidney function: “animal protein, animal fat, and cholesterol.” Animal fat can alter the actual structure of our kidneys. In my video How Not to Die from Kidney Disease, you can see plugs of fat literally clogging up the works in autopsied human kidneys from a study published in The American Journal of Pathology.

Animal protein can have a “profound effect” on normal kidney function, inducing “hyperfiltration,” increasing the workload of the kidney. Not plant protein, though. After eating a meal of tuna fish, the increased pressure on the kidneys goes up within only a few hours. We aren’t talking about adverse effects decades down the road, but literally within hours of it going into our mouths. What happens if, instead of having a tuna salad sandwich, you had a tofu salad sandwich with the exact same amount of protein? No effect on your kidneys. Our kidneys have no problem dealing with plant protein is no problem.

Why does animal protein cause the overload reaction, but plant protein doesn’t? It appears to be due to the inflammation triggered by the consumption of animal products. Indeed, taking a powerful, anti-inflammatory drug along with that tuna fish sandwich can abolish the hyperfiltration, protein-leakage response to meat ingestion.

There’s also the acid load. Animal foods, such as meat, eggs, and dairy, induce the formation of acid within the kidneys, which may lead to “tubular toxicity,” damage to the tiny, delicate, urine-making tubes in the kidney. Animal foods tend to be acid-forming—especially fish, which is the worst, followed by pork and poultry—whereas plant foods tend to be relatively neutral, or actually alkaline or base-forming to counteract the acid, especialy green leafy vegetables. So, “[t]he key to halting progression of CKD [chronic kidney disease] might be in the produce market, not in the pharmacy.”

It’s no wonder plant-based diets have been used to treat kidney disease for decades. In my video, you can see a remarkable graph that follows the protein leakage of subjects first on a conventional, low-sodium diet, which is what physicians would typically put someone with declining kidney function on, then switched to a supplemented vegan diet, back to the conventional diet, once more on the plant-based diet, and back and forth again. The chart is filled with zig-zags, showing kidney dysfunction was effectively turned on and off like a light switch, based on what was going into their mouths. . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

10 October 2019 at 6:32 pm

Trump’s Trillion-Dollar Hit to Homeowners

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Allan Sloan reports in ProPublica:

By reducing deductions for real estate taxes, Trump’s 2017 tax plan has harmed millions — and helped give corporations a $680 billion gift.

In recent weeks, President Donald Trump has been talking about plans for, as he put it, a “very substantial tax cut for middle income folks who work so hard.” But before Congress embarks on a new tax measure, people should consider one of the largely unexamined effects of the last tax bill, which Trump promised would help the middle class: Would you believe it has inflicted a trillion dollars of damage on homeowners — many of them middle class — throughout the country?

That massive number is the reduction in home values caused by the 2017 tax law that capped federal deductions for state and local real estate and income taxes at $10,000 a year and also eliminated some mortgage interest deductions. The impact varies widely across different areas. Counties with high home prices and high real estate taxes and where homeowners have big mortgages are suffering the biggest hit, as you’d expect, given the larger value of the lost tax deductions. But as we’ll see, homeowners all over the country are feeling the effects.

I’m basing my analysis on numbers from two well-respected people: Mark Zandi, the chief economist of Moody’s Analytics; and Hugh Lamle, the retired president of M.D. Sass, a Wall Street investment management company.

Zandi’s numbers are broad — macro-math, as it were. Lamle (pronounced LAM-lee) is a master of micro-math. It was Lamle who first got me thinking about home value losses by sending me an economic model that he created to show the damage inflicted on high-end, high-bracket taxpayers in high-tax areas who paid seven digits or more for their homes.

Lamle starts with the premise that homebuyers have typically figured out how much house they can afford by calculating how much they can spend on a down payment and monthly mortgage payment, adjusting the latter by the amount they’d save via the tax deduction for mortgage interest and real estate taxes. His model figures out how much prices would have to drop for the same monthly payment to cover a given house now that this notional buyer can’t take advantage of the real estate tax deduction and might not be able to take full advantage of the mortgage interest deduction.

After I showed Lamle’s model to my ProPublica research partner, Doris Burke, she steered me to Zandi’s research, which I realized could be used to calculate national value-loss numbers.

Ready? Here we go. The broad picture first, then the specific. This gets a little complicated, so please bear with me.

Zandi says that because of the 2017 tax law, U.S. house prices overall are about 4% lower than they’d otherwise be. The next question is how many dollars of lost home value that 4% translates into. That isn’t so hard to figure out if you get your hands on the right numbers.

Let me show you.

The Federal Reserve Board says that as of March 31, U.S. home values totaled about $26.1 trillion. Apply Zandi’s 4% number to that, and you end up with a $1.04 trillion setback for the nation’s home owners. That’s right — a trillion, with a T.

Please note that Zandi isn’t saying that house prices have fallen by an average of 4%. That hasn’t happened. What he’s saying is that on average, house prices are about 4% lower than they’d otherwise be.

Given that the Fed statistics show . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

10 October 2019 at 4:45 pm

With Category Theory, Mathematics Escapes From Equality

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One of the things I would do over if I lived my life again would be to dive deep into category theory when I was studying math in graduate school. I was on the threshold and turned back. Kevin Hartnett writes in Quanta:

The equal sign is the bedrock of mathematics. It seems to make an entirely fundamental and uncontroversial statement: These things are exactly the same.

But there is a growing community of mathematicians who regard the equal sign as math’s original error. They see it as a veneer that hides important complexities in the way quantities are related — complexities that could unlock solutions to an enormous number of problems. They want to reformulate mathematics in the looser language of equivalence.

“We came up with this notion of equality,” said Jonathan Campbell of Duke University. “It should have been equivalence all along.”

The most prominent figure in this community is Jacob Lurie. In July, Lurie, 41, left his tenured post at Harvard University for a faculty position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, home to many of the most revered mathematicians in the world.

Lurie’s ideas are sweeping on a scale rarely seen in any field. Through his books, which span thousands of dense, technical pages, he has constructed a strikingly different way to understand some of the most essential concepts in math by moving beyond the equal sign. “I just think he felt this was the correct way to think about mathematics,” said Michael Hopkins, a mathematician at Harvard and Lurie’s graduate school adviser.

Lurie published his first book, Higher Topos Theory, in 2009. The 944-page volume serves as a manual for how to interpret established areas of mathematics in the new language of “infinity categories.” In the years since, Lurie’s ideas have moved into an increasingly wide range of mathematical disciplines. Many mathematicians view them as indispensable to the future of the field. “No one goes back once they’ve learned infinity categories,” said John Francis of Northwestern University.

Yet the spread of infinity categories has also revealed the growing pains that a venerable field like mathematics undergoes whenever it tries to absorb a big new idea, especially an idea that challenges the meaning of its most important concept. “There’s an appropriate level of conservativity in the mathematics community,” said Clark Barwick of the University of Edinburgh. “I just don’t think you can expect any population of mathematicians to accept any tool from anywhere very quickly without giving them convincing reasons to think about it.”

Although many mathematicians have embraced infinity categories, relatively few have read Lurie’s long, highly abstract texts in their entirety. As a result, some of the work based on his ideas is less rigorous than is typical in mathematics.

“I’ve had people say, ‘It’s in Lurie somewhere,’” said Inna Zakharevich, a mathematician at Cornell University. “And I say, ‘Really? You’re referencing 8,000 pages of text.’ That’s not a reference, it’s an appeal to authority.”

Mathematicians are still grappling with both the magnitude of Lurie’s ideas and the unique way in which they were introduced. They’re distilling and repackaging his presentation of infinity categories to make them accessible to more mathematicians. They are performing, in a sense, the essential work of governance that must follow any revolution, translating a transformative text into day-to-day law. In doing so, they are building a future for mathematics founded not on equality, but on equivalence.

Infinite Towers of Equivalence

Mathematical equality might seem to be the least controversial possible idea. Two beads plus one bead equals three beads. What more is there to say about that? But the simplest ideas can be the most treacherous.

Since the late 19th century, the foundation of mathematics has been built from collections of objects, which are called sets. Set theory specifies rules, or axioms, for constructing and manipulating these sets. One of these axioms, for example, says that you can add a set with two elements to a set with one element to produce a new set with three elements: 2 + 1 = 3.

On a formal level, the way to show that two quantities are equal is to pair them off: Match one bead on the right side of the equal sign with one bead on the left side. Observe that after all the pairing is done, there are no beads left over.

Set theory recognizes that two sets with three objects each pair exactly, but it doesn’t easily perceive all the different ways to do the pairing. You could pair the first bead on the right with the first on the left, or the first on the right with the second on the left, and so on (there are six possible pairings in all). To say that two plus one equals three and leave it at that is to overlook all the different ways in which they’re equal. “The problem is, there are many ways to pair up,” Campbell said. “We’ve forgotten them when we say equals.”

This is where equivalence creeps in. While equality is a strict relationship — either two things are equal or they’re not — equivalence comes in different forms.

When you can exactly match each element of one set with an element in the other, that’s a strong form of equivalence. But in an area of mathematics called homotopy theory, for example, two shapes (or geometric spaces) are equivalent if you can stretch or compress one into the other without cutting or tearing it.

From the perspective of homotopy theory, a flat disk and a single point in space are equivalent — you can compress the disk down to the point. Yet it’s impossible to pair points in the disk with points in the point. After all, there’s an infinite number of points in the disk, while the point is just one point.

Since the mid-20th century mathematicians have tried to develop an alternative to set theory in which it would be more natural to do mathematics in terms of equivalence. In 1945 the mathematicians Samuel Eilenberg and Saunders Mac Lane introduced a new fundamental object that had equivalence baked right into it. They called it a category.

Categories can be filled with anything you want. You could have a category of mammals, which would collect all the world’s hairy, warm-blooded, lactating creatures. Or you could make categories of mathematical objects: sets, geometric spaces or number systems.

A category is a set with extra metadata: a description of all the ways that two objects are related to one another, which includes a description of all the ways two objects are equivalent. You can also think of categories as geometric objects in which each element in the category is represented by a point.

Imagine, for example, the surface of a globe. Every point on this surface could represent a different type of triangle. Paths between those points would express equivalence relationships between the objects. In the perspective of category theory, you forget about the explicit way in which any one object is described and focus instead on how an object is situated among all other objects of its type.

“There are lots of things we think of as things when they’re actually relationships between things,” Zakharevich said. “The phrase ‘my husband,’ we think of it as an object, but you can also think of it as a relationship to me. There is a certain part of him that’s defined by his relationship to me.”

Eilenberg and Mac Lane’s version of a category was well suited to keeping track of strong forms of equivalence. But in the second half of the 20th century, mathematicians increasingly began to do math in terms of weaker notions of equivalence such as homotopy. “As math gets more subtle, it’s inevitable that we have this progression towards these more subtle notions of sameness,” said Emily Riehl, a mathematician at Johns Hopkins University. In these subtler notions of equivalence, the amount of information about how two objects are related increases dramatically. Eilenberg and Mac Lane’s rudimentary categories were not designed to handle it.

To see how the amount of information increases, first remember our sphere that represents many triangles. Two triangles are homotopy equivalent if you can stretch or otherwise deform one into the other. Two points on the surface are homotopy equivalent if there’s a path linking one with the other. By studying homotopy paths between points on the surface, you’re really studying different ways in which the triangles represented by those points are related. . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

10 October 2019 at 1:31 pm

Posted in Math

Changing Your Diet Can Help Tamp Down Depression, Boost Mood

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Allison Aubrey and Rhitu Chatterjee report at NPR:

There’s fresh evidence that eating a healthy diet, one that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables and limits highly processed foods, can help reduce symptoms of depression.

randomized controlled trial published in the journal PLOS ONE finds that symptoms of depression dropped significantly among a group of young adults after they followed a Mediterranean-style pattern of eating for three weeks. Participants saw their depression “score” fall from the “moderate” range down to the “normal” range, and they reported lower levels of anxiety and stress too.

Alternatively, the depression scores among the control group of participants — who didn’t change their diets — didn’t budge. These participants continued to eat a diet higher in refined carbohydrates, processed foods and sugary foods and beverages. Their depression scores remained in the “moderate severity” range.

“We were quite surprised by the findings,” researcher Heather Francis, a lecturer in clinical neuropsychology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, told NPR via email. “I think the next step is to demonstrate the physiological mechanism underlying how diet can improve depression symptoms,” Francis said.

Scientists are learning more about how a poor diet can increase inflammation, and this can be one risk factor for depression. “Highly processed foods increase inflammation,” Francis said. What’s more, “if we don’t consume enough nutrient-dense foods, then this can lead to insufficiencies in nutrients, which also increases inflammation,” she said.

In this study, participants in the “healthy eating” arm of the study ate about six more servings of fruits and vegetables per week, compared with the control group. Participants “who had a greater increase in fruit and vegetable intake showed the greatest improvement in depression symptoms,” Francis said.

Participants were also instructed to increase consumption of whole grains to a recommended three servings per day, as well as three servings per day of protein from lean meats, poultry, eggs, tofu and beans. In addition, they were told to get three servings of fish per week.

As for dairy, the recommendation was three servings per day, unsweetened. Participants were also instructed to consume three tablespoons of nuts and seeds per day, as well as two tablespoons of olive oil per day, and were advised to add in spices, including turmeric and cinnamon.

One of the shortcomings of nutrition science is that it often relies on asking people to recall what they ate in the past. Given our flawed memories, these measures can be unreliable. But this study included a clever way to validate how many fruits and vegetables people consumed. Using a device called a spectrophotometer, the participants had their palms scanned. The device can detect the degree of yellowness in your skin, which correlates with your intake of carotenoids, which you get from eating fruits and vegetables.

The scientists used several research questionnaires to evaluate participants’ mental health, including one that asked them how often over the prior week they’d experienced symptoms of depression.

The new study adds to a growing body of research that supports the connection between diet and mental health. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 October 2019 at 9:35 am

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