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Gretchen Wagner
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Gretchen Wagner

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"It is possible that I may have set up that entire year-long plot arc just so I could use that line."

Good on you, Yony.  I am impressed.
 
In 2007, I encountered an unusual news story: the Chinese government had decreed that it would be illegal for Buddhist lamas to reincarnate without government permission. Having already encountered news stories about the Dongzhou Buddha Council, officially described as "a superstitious organization in charge of divine activities in Dongzhou," I started to imagine a special unit of the People's Liberation Army, trained in doctrine and religion, then killed so that they could infiltrate the Celestial Bureaucracy and ensure that nobody reincarnated without authorization.*

This week, postmortem tensions rose again, as the Dalai Lama suggested that he may decide not to reincarnate at all. The Chinese government is apparently quite unhappy with this, and says that this is not up to him: "Decision-making power over the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, and over the end or survival of this lineage, resides in the central government of China," according to Party official Zhu Weiqun. 

If you ever thought that government gets too involved in your affairs, you ain't got nothing on the Dalai Lama.


In case it isn't clear, what Zhu is really saying is that the Dalai Lama should have no choice in whether he has a successor; he will have a successor, and that successor will be chosen by Beijing, and that successor will support Chinese official policy in Tibet. There are two things the Chinese government is perpetually terrified of: that regions which it considers "its own" (such as Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the South China Sea, and for all I can tell also Japan, Australia, and Poland) might openly reject its rule, making its inability to control everyone it wants to manifest and exposing it to collapse; and that a religious or political movement within the country would lead to revolution. Religious movements are particularly worrisome because historically, many of China's biggest revolutions have been driven by the rise of sects like the Yellow Turbans; political movements tend to be driven by dissatisfied high officials with strong regional ties. For similar reasons, they work hard to suppress any notion of regional identity, suppressing local languages and festivals, and moving around populations to create new facts on the ground; this is why there has been a huge (government-sponsored) Han migration into Xinjiang, previously ethnically Uighur, in the past several years.

This is also why you will make enemies by referring to Chinese "languages;" officially, everything from Mandarin to Cantonese to Hakka is a single language, despite being mutually incomprehensible. The official argument is that they share a writing system, but as any linguist will explain to you, written languages are simply additional languages which people speak, not an intrinsic part of a spoken language; written and spoken English differ far more than you might guess. But suggesting that there is not a single Chinese language might imply that there is not a single Chinese people, and so perhaps there should not be a single Chinese state.

To be fair, there is some good reason behind this beyond a simple will to power: when Chinese governments fall, it historically leads to spectacularly bloody civil wars. The Communist takeover (including its various "cleanups" like the Great Leap Forward) cost between 30 and 70 million lives, by most estimates;** the previous uprising, the Taiping Rebellion of 1850-64, killed nearly 20 million, a figure all the more alarming when you realize that it was done mostly with farm implements. It was (by far) the deadliest war in human history at the time, and only the World Wars have surpassed it.

Of course, that's a fancy way of saying that by guaranteeing that any succession to you will have to be incredibly violent, you create a certain kind of incentive to let you stay in power. The overall logic of this, and how it might be applied elsewhere in life, is left as an exercise for the reader. 

* Several years later, this turned into a major plot point of an RPG I was running. The lama which the PC's were looking for turned out to have gone into hiding; he had died, and while an "official" reincarnation had been installed in his place, it quickly became clear that this wasn't the real deal; in fact, this special unit was still looking for the real incarnation, hoping to extract key information from him. The players ultimately found him in the countryside, having reincarnated as a Bactrian camel. When pressed as to why he chose this unusual hiding place, he replied in English: "Camel is sort of like lama, no?"

It is possible that I may have set up that entire year-long plot arc just so I could use that line.

** See e.g. http://necrometrics.com/20c5m.htm#Mao for a collection of estimates by different authors.
A comment by the Tibetan spiritual leader that he might not reincarnate has run afoul of the Communist Party.
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Proper engineer speak.
 
A conversation I had today (slightly paraphrased):

"Hey Kaj, can you [do favor X]? It's okay if you can't, Tell Culture."
"Okay, Tell Culture. I have a mild to moderate preference towards saying no, because [inconvenience Y]; however if you have more than a mild to moderate preference towards avoiding the inconvenience resulting from me saying no, then I'm cool with [doing favor X]."
"Well I have a pretty strong preference towards respecting your preferences, so I'll ask if someone else could do it for me and ask you again if nobody else says yes."
"Okay, sounds good. :) "
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Success!
Every launch is as emotionally fraught for me as the Challenger, so every success is so deeply encouraging to that 10 year old part of me.
 
In some good news for today, the Orion spacecraft had its first successful test flight today, taking off from Kennedy Space Center early this morning, doing one low orbit, one much higher orbit, and then successfully landing in the Pacific. You can check out a full video of the launch portion of its flight here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UEuOpxOrA_0

The launch honestly feels like mixed good news to me, since (being a NASA project) it's subject to incredibly long timelines and high vulnerability to ceasing halfway through due to budget cuts. The next major step for Orion -- an unmanned flight to circle the Moon -- isn't scheduled until 2018. (That's because the rocket which will take it there, the SLS, isn't built yet) A manned flight would happen as early as 2019 -- the proposed mission there would involve having an unmanned ship first fly out to capture an asteroid and put it in Lunar orbit, and then the Orion to fly out to the Moon and actually have people land on and study the asteroid. 

I have to admit that this would be pretty damned cool, but knowing how the past several administrations have tended to deal with NASA by setting very lofty goals and then underfunding them by just enough so that they never have any chance of happening, and then changing the goals on a regular basis to boot, I'll believe it when I see it.

That said, the Orion capsule itself seems well-designed, if not startlingly novel, and I could imagine it having a future powered by other kinds of rockets as well. 
NASA couldn't have asked for a better maiden voyage for the Orion spacecraft.
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Of the many things I love about this 1950s photo of my maternal family, I appreciate the burdened-enduring look of my grandmother, who had so much to handle with 7 (eventually 8) kids, and the contrast with my mother, who looks delighted to be precisely where she is.
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A friend of mine shared this with me recently.  It really strikes chords for me, clearly stating a number of pieces that are important for me as a recently-transitioned-from-engineering manager.
The biggest misconception engineers have when thinking about moving into management is they think it's a promotion. Management is not a promotion. It is a career change. If you want to do your leadership job effectively, you will be exercising a vastly different set of skills on a daily basis to ...
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Engineer to manager is definitely a career change. Still not sure I prefer it...
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"Critique drift is the phenomenon in which a particular critical political lens that correctly identifies a problem gets generalized and used less and less specifically over time. This in turn blunts the force of the critique and ultimately fuels a backlash against it. Critique drift is a way that good political arguments go bad."

I've observed this phenomena among my fellow smarty-pants liberal arts grads.  I would also call this "critique dilution":

"Political critique draws power from specificity, but the presumed social force of using certain terms inevitably leads to their watering down."
 
I was literally in the process of looking for a term for this phenomenon when tho linked post was posted.

http://fredrikdeboer.com/2015/03/10/critique-drift/
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Some unusual science for the day: Using modern computer science to understand just where Rock n' Roll came from. Normally, people who talk about the history of music break it down into genres which have a lot to do with marketing, country of origin, and so on, and talk about individual bands as historical influences on each other. But these boundaries can be quite arbitrary: for example, "gospel" and "rock" are considered very far apart, but if you go back to the 1950's, rock was so influenced by gospel that it was hard to tell them apart at times.

So these researchers tried something else. They analyzed the songs which topped the US charts from 1960 to 2010, about 17,000 in all. For each song, they examined features not of the marketing around the music, but of the music itself: instrumentation, chord changes, timbre, types of harmony. They then used a technique called "k-means" to find the natural clusters into which the songs fell by these measures, and found thirteen natural groupings. To understand these groupings better, they adapted a technique from molecular genetics which is used to understand the functions of genes: they took song tags from last.fm, and did a mathematical analysis to see which song tags were most strongly associated with each cluster. (For example, if one cluster had songs tagged "R&B" far more often than the other clusters did, it's a good sign that this tag describes the cluster) 

They came up with 13 clusters -- what you might call the "purely musical" genres of the music, since they're based entirely on the songs' musical qualities, not on the politics or marketing around them. These ranged from cluster #2 (hip hop / rap / gangsta rap / old school) to #9 (classic rock / country / rock / singer-songwriter) to #8 (dance / new wave / pop / electronic). 

The image you see a bit of below is the history of the popularity of these genres over time, with 1960 at the bottom of the graph and 2010 at the top. You can see the sudden rise of rap (leftmost column), the gradual vanishing of jazz and the blues from the charts (the dwindling figure center-right), and the coming and going of hard rock (the dark blue bubbly thing at the center).

Interestingly, they have answered one important historical question, about the significance of the British Invasion: apparently no, this was not the key catalyst of the revolution in American music; the revolution was already well underway before the Beatles arrived in 1964. (Which shouldn't really surprise people too much, given that this is where rock came from) 

If you look at the bottom of the image, you'll notice a tree structure which the summary on the arXiv blog doesn't talk about; you'll have to read the article itself (http://arxiv.org/pdf/1502.05417v1.pdf) for that. It's basically a genetic tree of these genres of music. This is constructed using the same techniques of "genetic relatedness" which are used to create modern evolutionary trees of species, only instead of being based on DNA snippets, they're based on those underlying musical features like chord changes which were the basis of the clustering. So you can see (for example) that hip-hop comes from a completely different ancestry than all the other observed genres, while pairs like country and classic rock are close relatives.

Why is this interesting? Apart from the obvious fun of studying music history using the methods of molecular biology, it shows the ways in which these techniques can be used to describe a whole host of things. To make this work, what you need is a large sample of items to classify (here, songs); for each item, a large collection of features to measure (a few hundred at least; in this case, things like chord changes and instrumentation); and if you want to be able to describe the function of these features, have functional labels (here, song tags) for at least a good collection of the items you want to classify. Then you can do a "genetic analysis," grouping them into families, observing family trees, and (if you have additional data, like the year of release in this case) understand things like the evolution of these groups over time or space.

What's marvelous is that you can do this sort of analysis with all sorts of things. Do it on news articles, with the features being words, and you'll discover that they cluster into stories, which in turn cluster into subjects. (Why? Because you'll see, say, a bunch of stories with the word "Brezhnev" which also include references to the USSR, and these come and go over time, and at later times start to also include stories about "Andropov," "Chernenko," and "Gorbachev." Depending on how finely you slice these, you can either see the life of a politician, or the history of the Soviet Union.) Do it on a city's road network, with features involving the number of cars on each chunk of the road at a given time, and you'll discover... well, I'm not sure what you'll discover. I don't know if anyone's ever done that analysis. But you could do it and find out.

This is the real magic of data analysis: it gives you new ways to stare at what seem like hopelessly complex piles of data, and see meaningful patterns.
And show that The Beatles didn’t start the American music revolution of 1964
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I love how my maternal grandfather has the same determined look as his mother.
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H/t to +Yonatan Zunger for sharing this.  Wonderful.
 
13.7 Billion years in the making - Feel reality clawing its way through the depths of time right up to this very moment.

Our reality is so utterly mindblowing in its beauty and complexity that we tend to bury our head in the sand and confine our view and thinking to the mundane drudgery of daily life. With the passing of time, we have constructed this glorious human reality of ours, layer upon layer, out of a shitload of different ideologies and technologies. Consumerism, religion, traditions, our own individualistic hopes and dreams about money, power and love, ... Lady Gaga and Ashton Kutcher, tv dinners and coca cola,... These have become our day to day reality, a reality that blinds us from nature.

"Society attacks early, when the individual is helpless." -B.F.Skinner

It's not just the stars that our cities and their lights obscure from our mind's eye. Sometimes I feel as if we are about to lose ourselves in the entertainment jungle that we have created. With so many Bells and whistles fighting for your attention, you have to really make time to think about something deeply. From rainbows to atoms and black holes, there are vast worlds worth exploring hiding behind such easy to use labels.

"Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it." -Confucius 

Put on some of your favorite inspiring and hopeful music, darken the room and then just kick back and enjoy this stunning collection of photos which I compiled with the specific reason to stimulate thinking about the bigger picture. These are imo 500+ of the most thought inducing pictures out there so it could take you quite a while to get through them but please take your time!

"The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives." -Albert Einstein 

Now and then, people could use a reality check. Something that allows you to momentarily break free from the shackles of modern popular thinking. Yes we live in houses but we also live as self organizing neural patterns in biologically evolved machines powered by a massive nuclear fusion engine on a tiny life rich planet on one of the outer arms of the milky way in our 13.7 billion year old universe. I want you to look at these pictures and forget that you are looking at pictures. This is the universe we are living in. How the hell does all this fit together? Think about deep time. How did all this come to be? What does all this accumulated knowledge mean for our future? We are truly privileged to be able to access this wealth of information. 

"The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched - they must be felt with the heart." -Helen Keller

I started collecting these pictures a long time ago but I never wrote down their source. In other words, I wish to thank the makers of these pictures and I want you to know that I love your work! If you would like your picture credited or removed, just send me a message and I will get right to it. 

Did I miss anything? Do you know of some other mindblowing picture that belongs here? Let me know!

"Beauty itself is but the sensible image of the Infinite. " -Francis Bacon 

#ScienceSunday  | +ScienceSunday   
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Google auto-awesomed this sunset shot from inside the Swan pub in Staines-upon-Thames.
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What a great looking place!
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Homeless global citizen, living and working abroad for the best tech company ever.
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In 1996, I hacked a Linux kernel to run on a SPARC. I still have a NeXTstep cube that still works from when I assembled it from parts in 1998. But it's in storage.
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