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Yonatan Zunger
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Yonatan Zunger

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There has been some talk of late about Starbucks' joint venture with Arizona State University to help its employees get college degrees. What's very interesting about this venture isn't the financial aspect, though, but the thinking that's gone into what actually prevents people from finishing, not just starting, degrees, and the methods they are using to counter those. (And not merely one-off thinking: Starbucks has apparently just made considerable revisions to the program based on feedback from the first round)

There's some really interesting stuff going on here, around rethinking the process of getting an education, especially for returning students -- something which is likely to become more and more important over the next several years.

If you're at all interested in this, this article is a fascinating read, not because of what it tells us about this one particular program, but for its rather detailed look at the space of the problem and the solutions that people are trying. Ignore its slightly asinine subhead, and the extremely asinine headline it got in the print edition ("Can Starbucks Save the Middle Class?") (Answer: No, of course not. What would make you think that?); the article is about education, not about "reaching the middle class."
Starbucks and Arizona State University are collaborating to help cafe workers get college degrees. Is this a model for helping more Americans reach the middle class?

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+Kris Thomas - aha, yes, I see.
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The Russians, and before them, the Soviets, have been keeping Lenin's body in an extraordinary state of preservation for the better part of a century. Setting aside the question of whether this is really wise (and the obvious potential risk of a Zombie Lenin rising from his crypt to lead a new Vanguard of the Red Undead, which should totally be the title of a movie about this), it's led to some fascinating advances in the science of preservation. Unlike Pharaohs, Lenin has been on public display almost the entire time since his death, and so requires entirely novel techniques. Slowly, he is being replaced with artificial parts, even as the bulk of his body remains factory original.

It's like taxidermy for people.

This has been your slightly ghoulish science for the evening.
Vintage Red , anyone? ;)

Apparently, Wine isn't the only thing that gets better, as it ages...

Lenin's corpse does, too...

Appellation d'origine contrôlér?

Russian scientists have developed experimental embalming methods to maintain the look, feel and flexibility of the Soviet Union's founder’s body, which is 145 years old today ;
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On our holiday we had no internet in the cottage but we had satellite TV.  One afternoon when Corran took Peo for a hike and I was in the cottage with Robin having her nap, I was desperate for something on TV to knit to, so I ended up watching a really old Michael Palin travelogue about the USSR.  He started off meeting a Lenin impersonator which was a big deal because apparently that had only recently been made legal.  The impersonator wandered around public in Leningrad and let people yell at him.

In the narration, Palin then made a joke about wondering if the Lenin impersonator thought he was a Michael Palin impersonator, and he kept repeating the gag throughout the episode.

Then at the end when he got on a boat and sailed away, he said in the narration that two days later the coup began that would result in the dissolution of the USSR.

It was very surreal sitting in a very old British cottage and watching an early-90s documentary on film (as opposed to video) about the USSR with no internet to look up anything about it. O.o
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It occurs to me that I have never watched a snail eat from up close before. They seem curiously expressive as they do so.

h/t +Jasminka Suhic.
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Gross dude, but cute in a way!
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Today, I’d like to talk a bit about economics. In particular, I want to look at why capitalism can both work amazingly well and fail amazingly badly, often at the same time, and is such a great factory for “best of times, worst of times” conditions. The seven-word summary is: “Free markets work, except when they don’t.”

I won’t spend too much time on the first part of the sentence, because presumably you’re familiar with the ways in which free markets can work well. Basically, if two people freely engage in a trade, by definition it makes both parties happier; if it didn’t, they wouldn’t have engaged in that trade in the first place. The more trade is possible, the more people can accumulate things that make them happy – e.g., more free time to spend with their families while getting the same amount of food. There are all sorts of mechanisms which amplify that; probably the most important is “comparative advantage,” which shows how if there are enough people around so that everyone can specialize in what they’re best at, everyone comes out ahead. (See if you want to learn more about it; Ricardo’s example is a good place to start)

However, if you’ve paid any attention at all to the world in the past few centuries, you’ve probably already got an objection to what I just said: “You think they wouldn’t have engaged in that trade if it didn’t make them happier? What if they didn’t have a choice?” And you would be perfectly right, and that part is the heart of “except when they don’t.” There are a few ways in which free markets can fail, but most of them are obscure and relatively easy to fix (e.g., limited money supply). The big one, which represents the overwhelming majority of all the problems, is coercion: the argument that a free trade makes both parties happier doesn't apply to trades which are not free.

(And note, by the way, that coercion harms free markets both locally – in that the individuals being coerced lose out, often by a lot – and globally, in that coercion is essentially a “tax” levied by one person on another. Those of you familiar with economics will recognize that whenever the price of something is pushed away from its natural equilibrium, overall value goes down. So when I talk about failures of capitalism, I mean failures that are simultaneously moral and financial failures.)

As far as I can tell, the large majority of coercion comes in three forms, which I’ll call externalization, capture, and inelasticity. These three overlap and most real situations combine them, but what they have in common is that they’re ways in which one person can force someone else to accept a trade that they would normally never take.

Externalization, also known as “negative externalities,” is when I can make everyone else pay my costs. The most common forms which don't overlap heavily with capture (the next item) are when I can take my costs from a poorly-policed commons (e.g., dump waste into an air supply that nobody is monitoring), or when I can spread the costs out so widely that every individual's cost of recovery would exceed the damages to them. (Playing games with individuals less able to individually recover is part of capture and inelasticity)

Capture is the classic positive-feedback problem of any system of human power: you can use your power to get more of it. Pure capture (as opposed to inelasticity) happens when there are central methods of regulation or other power-amplifying systems which you bring under your control via bribery, coercion, etc., and suddenly rather than regulating you they amplify you. That can be anything from regulation of pollution of commons to having the police keep Those People "under control" for you. 

Inelasticity is the result of the fact that the value of money isn't linear. If you have $100,000, then $1 means a lot less to you than if you have $10,000. In particular, people's needs up to a certain wealth level are dominated by constant overheads such as food and housing; so long as your total resource access is of the same scale as those overheads, your financial life is dominated by the severe consequences of falling below any one threshold. Once you're far from those overheads, the value of resources becomes far more linear. Often, a good way to measure this is in terms of "being one <event> away from disaster;" if the event is as small as a flat tire, versus if it's as big as inoperable cancer, it's a huge difference in life.

If two people are about to engage in a deal, and one of them is near-threshold while the other isn't, the one who isn't has huge negotiating leverage. For example, you can give someone a shitty job like mining coal that they would never accept if they had some option other than starvation. 

(Economists will note that in “inelasticity,” I’ve abused a term which actually represents something very natural, which is that the price of some goods isn’t very sensitive to supply or demand. The problem I’m describing here is really the problem of extreme inelasticity: specifically, when a person’s net resources are low enough that the costs of white-pill [“you need this in order to live,” nearly infinitely inelastic] goods become a dominant part of their financial calculus. Better terms for any of these would be welcome.)

There are methods to deal with all of these problems, and they work to varying extents.

The way you solve the first kind of externality is to not have poorly-policed commons. That doesn't necessarily mean enclosure, i.e. giving ownership of those commons to private individuals: in fact, enclosure is extremely susceptible to capture effects, as we saw with the original enclosures in 18th-century England. Methods like cap-and-trade, or simply either (a) requiring people to pay their own damned cleanup costs or (b) being up-front about the fact that we’ve decided to pay those costs as a community in exchange for the net benefits of whatever it is those people do, can be quite effective.

The second kind of externality, where people spread costs around widely – e.g., stealing $5 from every household in a city – can be solved by mechanisms like class-action suits, central regulators and law enforcement. In each case, the idea is to create some kind of entity (be it an ad-hoc collective of individuals or a dedicated set of professionals) which is strong enough, and incented properly, to pursue recovery whenever someone tries to steal from the community. 

There’s a hybrid kind of externality which also uses inelasticity: if you steal from the poor, they’re less likely to have the resources to go after you. This is based on the fact that recovery of any sort tends to have fixed overhead costs, e.g. the time, money, and knowledge required to sue someone. When people’s total spare budget of any of these is tiny because of their basic cost of survival – e.g., when someone is working hourly and can’t afford the time to engage in a lawsuit – it becomes a lot easier to steal with impunity. This is just a nastier variation of the second kind of externality, and is often best solved with a swift kick to a tender area of the anatomy.

You can solve inelasticity by reducing the overhead costs to zero. There are many different overhead costs -- food, shelter, transport, child care, etc., etc. -- and each can be analyzed separately and each creates value in its reduction. One way to reduce those is to literally reduce the cost of the items; e.g., the real cost of clothing has plummeted over the past few centuries, and now lacking clothing is only a major factor for people near the absolute bottom of the resource curve, where clothing is really being used as a substitute for shelter. Another way is to reduce need for the items, e.g. by having housing close enough to work and so on that people don't need lots of transport. A third way is to socialize the costs of these items, e.g. by having functional public transit or health care. That doesn't reduce their intrinsic costs, but it eliminates the inelasticity effect on individuals by averaging their cost over the entire population.

Capture is harder to solve. The best solution proposed so far has been democracy, but as we're well aware, that's more like "the worst solution except for all the other ones that have been proposed." There are some fields in which it can be solved by things like direct competition among regulators, but that has strange failure modes: consider, e.g., the competition among bond rating agencies which was supposed to ensure that bond ratings were meaningful. Unfortunately, all three of them were funded by bond sellers, not buyers, and so had the same incentives; a lot of the mortgage crisis was a consequence of that. (Specifically, that the various CDO's being traded had been AAA-rated based on completely nonsensical models, which any rater that had an incentive to actually think through would have known)

Importantly, though, I think that the first part of that original sentence about free trade is at least as important as the second: capitalism works well when coercion is brought under control. Communism was a recipe for making everybody miserable – and ultimately proved even more vulnerable to capture than capitalism. Feudalism and so on are even worse. Even more significantly, capitalism works better by its own metrics when coercion is eliminated: in fact, economists tend to model these things as a kind of tax on the system.

However, benefit to the system as a whole doesn't translate to benefit as individuals. In particular, if you're making a lot of money off (say) inelasticity, by having a large pool of desperate and subservient workers, then even though the aggregate wealth of society would go up a lot if they weren't so desperate, your own wealth (especially your effective wealth, divided by the cost of converting it to goods) would go down. That creates one hell of an incentive for capture, in forms ranging from direct regulatory capture by bribes, to funding astroturf organizations, to creating entire media and social panics, all the way out to creating social institutions – e.g., feudalism or slavery.

So while solving externalization and inelasticity are extremely important, capture is often the key to the whole deal.

Fortunately, it isn't always the key to the deal: sometimes, for example, someone figures out a way to knock the price of some key good down through the floor so quickly that existing groups can't figure out how to capture it in time. The expansion of Europeans through North America was an interesting example of that case (where the price of land became cheap because anyone could just kill people and take it -- or, once the cost of killing people got socialized into an army, just take it); their expansion through South America much less so, because there expansion was effectively captured as an industry by entrenched nobles. The rise of new technologies is a somewhat less bloodthirsty example: e.g., when companies like FedEx cratered the price of small-scale many-to-many shipping logistics, thousands of new businesses suddenly emerged.

Technology, wisely applied, can knock the pillars of inelasticity out from under people. That creates a sudden chance to rapidly equalize wealth distributions, which in turn has a strong negative effect on capture. The question of whether you can maintain that negative effect after the initial pulse, or whether wealth will inevitably end up re-aggregating through a combination of capture and externalization even in a zero-inelasticity world, is one of the major hard questions we're likely to face in the next few decades.

But it’s one of my major interests, and it’s why I spend my time working on technologies which I think can alter the basic cost calculus of the world, by making something previously necessary and expensive (be it knowledge, or communication, or data storage) nearly free.

Illustrative cartoon by Ape Lad (, CC-NC-ND. Thanks as well to +Xenophrenia​​​ for the initial conversation which sparked this post, and for many other such arguments about the nature of capitalism.
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Sorry, It was not fair to ask someone else to do my work.

Boy I am glad that I did.!!!

I found a fascinating resource on all groups of patents granted by date. (I used my most favourite tool in the universe... Google search) This is a must see if you are interested in "what is hot" and where companies are spending money.

Seriously, visit this link

(or search for:  what is number of software patents each year at USPTO)

I have pulled out a few (10%) for those who don't like links.

The 3 numbers under each classified group are # of patents added in 2012, 2013, 2014

For fun let's start with +Yonatan Zunger 's example of car engines which was a surprisingly high number for a dead industry that is 50 years old. In 2014 there were 1,514 patents issued/granted.

I am not going to add them all up but a quick glance shows 17,395 for just computer graphics over the last 3 years.

In the surgery groups combined there were 27,114 over the last 3 years

In data processing and security there were 70,323 new patents over the last 3 years.

So how many have you heard about in the news that are offensive

10? 20? 100?
out of about 100,000?
= 0.1%

-- 10% of the table from the link  --
(cat # -- category name)
(2012 -- 2013 -- 2014 new patents)

123 Internal-Combustion Engines
1263 1356 1514

345 Computer Graphics Processing and Selective Visual Display Systems
4854 5858 6683

348 Television
4330 4281 5192

365 Static Information Storage and Retrieval
2667 2732 2930

379 Telephonic Communications
1408 1540 1527

455 Telecommunications
7615 8260 8294

375 Pulse or Digital Communications
4369 4501 4647

370 Multiplex Communications
8401 9288 11411

382 Image Analysis
5145 5149 4980

398 Optical Communications
899 939 1125

700 Data Processing: Generic Control Systems or Specific Applications
1601 1907 2017

701 Data Processing: Vehicles, Navigation, and Relative Location
3221 4177 4735

705 Data Processing: Financial, Business Practice, Management, or Cost/Price Determination
4862 5901 4851

706 Data Processing: Artificial Intelligence
815 961 1037

709 Electrical Computers and Digital Processing Systems: Multicomputer Data Transferring
5313 5381 7040

715 Data Processing: Presentation Processing of Document, Operator Interface Processing, and Screen Saver Display Processing
1959 2240 2961

726 Information Security
2246 3094 4004

438 Semiconductor Device Manufacturing: Process
5176 5572 6221

257 Active Solid-State Devices (e.g., Transistors, Solid-State Diodes)
6884 8528 9991

600 Surgery
2941 3534 3764

604 Surgery
2209 2552 2483

606 Surgery
2896 3321 3414

514 Drug, Bio-Affecting and Body Treating Compositions
5367 6333 6556

424 Drug, Bio-Affecting and Body Treating Compositions
3847 4668 5550

434 Education and Demonstration
281 424 450

362 Illumination
1784 2264 2399

166 Wells
1074 1197 1423

D30 Animal Husbandry
276 250 255
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This is an amazingly well-done "how it's made" video, all about the process by which aluminum beverage cans get built. These cans are so common that we rarely look at them, but they're a marvel of engineering: to save material (important, when you're making hundreds of billions a year!) they're made almost as thin as paper, and when they're empty, they easily crumple to save space while recycling. Yet when full, they can support 6 atmospheres of pressure inside and are sturdy enough to stand on -- and it only takes a single pull of a tab to change one into the other.

+engineerguy does a fantastic job of explaining the whole story, with everything from example parts to animations that show exactly how the subtle steps work.

h/t +Jordan Peacock for finding this!
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I never realized that it pulls up the rivet and then switches lever types, but of course it's obvious once it's pointed out.  It would be way too hard to force the tab down into a pressurized can.
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+Thomas Crouzier is a postdoc at MIT who studies "biological hydrogels" with an eye towards using our understanding of them to design new materials. 

In other words, he studies snot, in the hope of engineering snot-like substances for a wide range of uses. Which is not at all a crazy thing, because as this picture explains, snot is actually pretty amazing. And artificial snot could be very useful.

Science: it's kind of awesome. And lets you be three forever.
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That has to be the cutest gross infographic I've ever seen.

Self: teach Sweetpea about the awesomeness of boogers before she decides they're "icky".
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Yonatan Zunger

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There's an interview here with a tattoo artist named Xoïl (aka Loïc) from the south of France. The interview itself is almost free of content; but the pictures of his work! I honestly can't guess which of these, or the other pictures of his work I can find online, I like the best. He's an artist of the highest caliber.

You can find a better interview with him, where he talks much more about his work, style, and process, at . (Although the photos in that one aren't quite as clear)

h/t to @TheQuinnspiracy on Twitter for finding this.
Trust me when I say you’ll know if a tattoo was been done by Xoïl on sight. His work with the graphic style is distinct; there’s a reason he’s one of the first people to come to mind whenever I talk about a style that’s usually just referred to as ‘Photoshop’. Keeping with Tattoo Snob’s …
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+Yonatan Zunger I spent many years convinced I did not want a tattoo (happily experimenting with piercings the while).  Changed my mind while at a retreat; got the ink the next day.  Ten years down the line, I am still inordinately pleased with it.
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Some days, biology just makes you go "whoa, seriously?"
Betsy McCall originally shared:
During a surgery to remove an apparent brain tumor in a 26-year-old woman, doctors in Los Angeles were shocked to discover an embryonic twin instead.
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Apparently they've added an update to the article addressing that specific point. 
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Here's a way to look at movies that I never thought of: by averaging their frames. You would think that this would just produce noise, but it doesn't: patterns of color, shading, and shape start to stand out, and you can start to see structure you might never have expected.

In the image below, for example, look at John Ford's The Searchers -- leftmost column, fourth from the bottom. Even averaged over the entire film, credits included, you can see the structure of wide open spaces and blue sky.
I watched 50 westerns and compressed them into single frames of form and light.
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C'est super, Yonatan
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It looks like JJ Abrams may have succeeded in creating a fourth Star Wars movie. It's a bit too early to be sure, of course, and trailers are at their heart lies -- but this one is quite promising indeed.
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Sadly, it did happen.

At least Tom Hardy was pasty and scrawny enough in it that nobody knew it was him. :p
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Riddle: The Great Old Doctor is a physicist who invented the laws of physics. It's a set of a few elegant equations with a well-defined set of parameters to determine how the entire world will fold out. It's exercising this superpower by arbitrarily deciding the parameters and then running an experiment on the Wizard's Original Root Lagrangian Derivative machine. This means it's pretty much capable of anything, but it has one critical weakness. The machine works similar to a Markov Chain Monte Carlo experiment with a Pseudorandom Generator that was stolen by the Original Chaos Monkey. The Doctor can still tune the parameters, but the Monkey has the Random Seed. According to a legend part of it was leaked and is now onboard a starship.

What is the name of the starship and its engine?
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  • Google
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Mountain View, CA
Boulder, CO - Rehovot, IL
Chief Architect, Google+
Lots of people ask me what my job title means. I'm the senior engineer on the Google+ team, and my primary responsibility is to oversee and guide the technical design of Google+ and all of the things related to it. In practice, I'm also involved in lots of non-technical issues as well: my job is to make Google as fun, exciting, social, and pleasant a place to be as it can possibly be.

(I've been at Google since 2003, but you probably haven't seen me before this, because I worked deep in the back end: planet-scale storage, very large-scale search, ranking, and so on. Lots of teams whose unofficial motto is "if we told you, we'd have to kill you" -- as opposed to Google+, where we get to go out and talk and interact with our users.)

For those who just came here, welcome to the Google+ Project. It's something that we're all very passionate about, and which (as its name indicates) is going to continue to develop and improve at what we hope is an amazing rate. I'm avidly interested in hearing user feedback, and while I can't guarantee that I'll have time to respond to all of it, it will most certainly be listened to.

And the obligatory (very important!) disclaimer: I'm not on this system as an official representative. While I'm listening to user feedback and interacting about the system, I'm also here for perfectly ordinary social networking purposes. If I am saying something official on behalf of Google, I will make that explicitly clear; anything else that I say here is not the position of Google, or of anyone other than myself.

In fact, most of what I post about has nothing to do with CS at all. If you want a taste of it, take a look at my blog.
  • Stanford University
    Ph. D., Physics, 2003
  • University of Colorado, Boulder
    B. A., Mathematics, Physics, 1997
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