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Yonatan Zunger
Distinguished Engineer on Privacy at Google
Distinguished Engineer on Privacy at Google

Yonatan's posts

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And I can't quite believe this, but there's yet another positive story to share today. This is about a paper that came out recently on particle physics. Like an awful lot of papers in particle physics, it proposes an extension to the Standard Model (our best current understanding of the field, which has done remarkably well in predicting an awful lot of things) which can explain a lot of currently open questions about the universe.

However, this paper has some nice features which most papers of this sort don't. There's a sort-of tradition in particle physics (which I'm embarrassed to admit I've participated in) of publishing "pissing on trees" papers: you come up with some theory, show that it's not inconsistent with what we've observed so far about the universe (and it turns out there are an awful lot of things you can do which aren't inconsistent, even once you take the full scientific rigor of professional physicists into account), and publish it as "maybe." This is called "pissing on trees" because if it turns out later that this theory was right, then you've published one of the original papers on it, and a great deal of credit will follow; that is, you're staking out your claim ahead of time, but not really producing anything that valuable, because most of these "maybes" are pretty far-out.

This "SMASH" paper (short for "Standard Model + Axion + Seesaw + Higgs," a short description of the three kinds of extension to the SM it provides) does considerably better, though. With a fairly minimal extension to existing physics (proposing three new families of particle, each of which is considered not-outrageous) they manage to explain a bunch of difficult open problems in physics at once. And rather nicely, the SMASH hypothesis is straightforwardly testable – to the extent that several planned experiments already in the works should be able to say a definitive "yes" or "no" to it within the next decade.

I won't try to give a full explanation of the things it explains, since this gets really technical really fast. The short list is inflation (what force caused the universe to expand really rapidly in its early history, so that its current size is "really big" rather than "about the size of a grapefruit"), reheating (how inflation stops and that energy of expansion somehow gets converted into matter instead of a big, empty universe), dark matter (what is this mysterious substance which appears to form a quarter of the mass of the universe, yet be transparent to light?), baryogenesis (in particular, why is there so much more matter than antimatter in the universe? It's handy for the "not going boom all the time" business, but it's far from obvious why it should be true), and stability (why at daily-life energy scales, certain high-energy properties of physics don't cause Higgs bosons to suddenly become infinitely heavy and attractive or similar weird things which many theories fall victim to).

There are plenty of theories which explain these individually, but SMASH is nice in giving systematic answers to all of them – which makes me far more interested in it than in most papers of this sort.

Of course, it'll take a lot of experiment to see if this goes anywhere, but for once, we actually have an existing experimental roadmap which will answer that. :)

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Even more promising news for the day: Trump has somehow convinced LGEN McMaster to take on the role of National Security Advisor. As the article below goes into, McMaster has a reputation for being a competent, intelligent grown-up. He is also bald, white, tall, and muscular, which means that he looks enough like Trump's idea of a military / intelligence leader that Trump may actually listen to him.

Given that it's been made clear that the NSA will not have full authority over staffing at the NSC, and eg does not have the power to kick Bannon off his council, it's been expected that it would be very hard to hire anyone good for this role - the first candidate mooted, Harward (also known as as a grown-up) basically said Hell No. But apparently McMaster will take that risk. So best of luck to him, and hopefully he'll manage to achieve something useful!

(The NSA is the President's chief advisor on natsec issues, and chairs NSC meetings which the President doesn't attend. This has nothing to do with the other NSA, the National Security Agency, which is the agency that does signals intelligence and crypto and the like.) 

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And in yet more amusing news for the day, apparently there is still one line in polite society that you can get in trouble for crossing. Milo Minderbinder Yiannoupolos' defense of pedophilia (how "inter-generational relationships" are often crucial to the development of young people, especially among gay men, and it just goes on from there into a sort of NAMBLA manifesto) has gotten him disinvited from CPAC and his book deal cancelled.

Twitter is currently a mass of people saying "I was fine with him before, but this is too much!," of people replying on the lines of "wait, you were fine with the doxxing of trans students, and the abuse campaigns against game developers, and all the racist and violent speech, but this you're not OK with?," and a lot of other people (myself included) just shaking our heads and saying "OK, apparently this is what it takes for people to notice that he is not a nice guy."

But let's not dwell on that! Let's instead enjoy a seasonally appropriate recipe from +John Scalzi​. Mmm, Schadenfreude Pie...

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Something else interesting: having an independent judiciary does, indeed, appear to strengthen democracies, even when they are facing turmoil. This is true even though judges don't have many enforcement powers of their own - it's more about how this legitimizes the rule of law itself, and makes attempts to damage it seem illegitimate to the public itself. 

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It's really nice to be able to share good news for once. A new study in JAMA Pediatrics studied the effect of same-sex marriage laws on teen suicide rates. They looked at 32 different US states which changed their laws at different times, as a way of disentangling this effect from other effects.

The net result? Legalizing same-sex marriage leads to a 7% overall drop in teen suicide attempts, and a 14% drop among LGBT teens.

It turns out that being publicly told that you're an accepted member of society and not a pariah does make a difference in people's lives, especially teenagers. Who woulda thunk?

But the upshot of this is: All of you who worked on this, in one way or another? You just saved some lives. Well done.

The article itself is available online:

(NB: For clarity, that's a 7% drop in the rate, not a seven percentage point drop drop. We should be so lucky as to have any one thing eliminate seven percentage points. As a baseline, a weighted 8.6% of all high school students, and 28.5% of LGBT high school students, attempted suicide in the year before same-sex marriage legalization. Suicide is the second most common cause of death among people aged 15-24 in the US.

For those who want technical notes: The paper seems to have done a very careful job on statistics, testing a wide variety of alternate hypotheses and ruling them out from the data. One test worth calling out: the two-year leading indicator (suicide rates two years prior to law changes) was not correlated to suicide rates, indicating that this was not triggered by general changes in the state which were also leading to this; the two-year trailing indicator (two years after), however, was correlated, with the same correlation as the immediate future, indicating a lasting effect rather than a one-off.)

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We've had nothing but political news for a while; let's talk about something more fun. Those of you who have been reading here for a while will remember this – how the secret of why barns are painted red lies in the hearts of dying stars.

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Something random and cool: the graphic design of W. E. B. DuBois. I particularly like "Conjugal Condition of American Negroes according to age periods" for its visual clarity, and "The Amalgamation of the White and Black elements of the population in the United States" for a subtle but important use of color: he has black and white, but the central "Mulattoes" section shades from one color into the other, so that it's made clear that the lines which bound it are somewhat arbitrary, and these shade smoothly into the white population.

A rather pointed political statement, that. :)

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Something which may surprise people: I'm not fundamentally opposed to Gorsuch's nomination to the Supreme Court. While I certainly disagree with him on a number of issues, I also have the sense that he is someone I could respect and take seriously. In particular, he seems to have a long history of listening to all sides with complete seriousness and respect, taking their arguments seriously, and ruling fairly.

There have been a lot of comparisons between him and Justice Scalia, but I increasingly suspect that they miss the mark. While they may both be personally conservative, and have similar legal approaches with regards to things like textualism, I am getting the sense that they differ as people as much as any two people possibly could.

In particular, Scalia was known for loving to be clever, and letting that cleverness expose a mean streak. He had a particular fondness for rulings where consistency of the law would lead to a perverse outcome in a particular case, or for decisions and dissents where he could skewer people and advocate some particular line of reasoning. When he was urging meanness in his decisions, I always got the sense that he profoundly enjoyed it – and that was the heart of everything I never trusted about him.

I don't see anyone who knows Gorsuch suggesting anything similar of him. Instead, his record suggests he's much the opposite: that while he's personally conservative, he listens to (and is friends with) liberals as well, and can have serious discussions of issues which are not marred by an obsessive wanting to be right. His rulings seem to reflect this, taking a wide range of arguments seriously.

So while I don't expect that Gorsuch would rule the way I hope he would on a variety of cases, and while I deeply question the way we seem to be reifying this idea of "conservative seats" and "liberal seats" on the Court which need to be restocked from people of similar political affiliation, I think he could prove to be a reasonable and capable justice.

Of course, by saying this I've pretty much jinxed it, and will now be presented with all sorts of information (or worse, with future rulings) that prove the contrary, because the universe is perverse that way. But I'm at least tentatively hopeful, in much the same way I was (and has been borne out) when Chief Justice Roberts was nominated.

Knocking on wood, here.

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This is amazing, beautiful and terrifying in a way which is hard to describe. A glacier the size of lower Manhattan calved off Greenland, and by chance, it was caught on film. It's hard for the human mind to process the scale of what's happening; there are no obvious visual references, and at first it looks like a Michael Bay-sized explosion. It's only when they superimpose some markings on the film for scale that you realize how much bigger it is than that; those things that looked the size of houses are really the size of mountains.

You will very rarely get to see the effects of climate change on the timescale of minutes; this is one of them.

h/t +Kee Hinckley
Man points camera at ice – seconds later he captures the impossible on film as a piece of glacier the size of the Lower Manhattan falls into the ocean.

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I find this news oddly pleasing: even as fin fish and shellfish populations plummet, the cephalopods are booming. It's not quite clear why, except that perhaps they're better-suited to adapting to these rapid changes.

Part of this is no doubt due to their fairly rapid life-cycle; something I'm quite curious about is whether this has pushed a further adaptation towards sophisticated intelligence. Octopodes already have spectacularly complex minds, but likely for different reasons than we do. Social hunting and scavenging are things that have driven a lot of intelligence development in terrestrial species -- think of crows, and raccoons, and humans. Octopodes, on the other hand, have this wonderful advantage of being able to get into any sort of place, but the associated disadvantage of not having any armor or protection. They've had to use their brains to survive, as well as to get their hands on food.

I'd be quite curious to see if we're finding evidence of new foraging or sheltering techniques showing up among our tentacled neighbors, or whether they're simply spreading into ecological niches being vacated by overfishing and acidification.

h/t +Kitty Stryker
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