Idiocracy 2015

Trump supporters explain to pollsters why they love The Donald:

Trump’s the first person that came out and voiced exactly what everybody’s been saying all along,” one man said. “When he talks, deep down somewhere you’re going, ‘Holy crap, someone is thinking the same way I am.’”

“We know his goal is to make America great again,” a woman said. “It’s on his hat. And we see it every time it’s on TV. Everything that he’s doing, there’s no doubt why he’s doing it: it’s to make America great again.”


A life on the ocean waves

The man bobbing in the sea raises his arms in a seeming sign of surrender before he is shot in the head. He floats face down as his blood stains the blue water.

A slow-motion slaughter unfolds over the next 6 minutes and 58 seconds. Three other men floating in the ocean, some clinging to what looks like the wreckage of an overturned wooden boat, are surrounded by several large white tuna longliners. The sky above is clear and blue; the sea below, dark and choppy. As the ships’ engines idle loudly, at least 40 rounds are fired as the unarmed men are methodically picked off. […]

Despite dozens of witnesses on at least four ships, those killings remain a mystery.


AI and EA

Effective Altruism started out as an evidence-based approach to charity. The idea was simple enough: focus charitable spending on things that are measured to work. For instance, it turns out that a very good way of easing poverty is to give people money, and a great way to reduce homelessness is to give people homes.

If that sounds like a joke, it’s not. While authoritarians and the popular media portray poor people as irresponsible layabouts who would spend your money on crack, it turns out that in reality most poor people have a pretty good idea what they need to do to improve their situation. Some are irresponsible, but not enough to make it worthwhile to spend money on means testing, complicated voucher schemes, and supervised temporary housing.

But unfortunately, the Effective Altruism community is mostly made up of white male computer scientists, and increasing numbers of them have used sleight of mathematics and poor logic to convince themselves that what we really need to be doing is spending money on computer science research to prevent Skynet


A number so complex no math can ever describe it

Gregory Chaitin has been fascinated by [Gödel’s incompleteness] theorem ever since he was a child, and now, in time for the centenary of Gödel’s birth in 2006, he has published his own book, called Meta Math! on the subject (you can read a review in this issue of Plus). It describes his journey, which, from the work of Gödel via that of Leibniz and Turing, led him to the number Omega, which is so complex that no mathematical theory can ever describe it. In this article he explains what Omega is all about, why maths can have no Theory of Everything, and what this means for mathematicians.

Designing for telephobia

Everybody has a phone with them all the time, but they rarely use it for voice calls. For people who’ve always hated telephone calls but wanted a pocket computer, like me, it’s great news. For people who enjoyed (comparatively) high fidelity voice calls, it’s not so great.

The best phone I ever owned, from a physical design point of view, was a variation on the Bell Trimline, a classic designed by Henry Dreyfuss in the early 1960s. Mine was from Southwestern Bell, based on a design from 1968 but with an extra blue programmable button that allowed me to use a different long distance provider and get cheap calls to the USA.


The cradle could be wall-mounted, and held the handset securely even if you bumped it. When you held the handset to your ear, it was sculpted in such a way that it curved around your face perfectly:


Furthermore, the back of the phone was perfectly smooth, with rounded edges that made it comfortable to hold even for long calls. The warm organic shape made it actively invite touch: it may sound strange, but sometimes I would run my hand over the back of the resting handset just to touch the polished curved surface. Someone spent a lot of time carving and sanding chunks of wood in order to get that design exactly right.

While I never really enjoyed phone calls, the design of the trimline made them as intimate and pleasurable as I think it’s possible for them to be. So it is that the physical design of our phones influences what they are used for. If people make fewer and fewer voice calls, part of that is because of the physical awkwardness of holding an increasingly large plate of glass to their ears.

For a while, Bluetooth headsets solved the problem, but then those became socially unacceptable and we had to go back to holding phones to our ears. While LG have been making gradually more curved smartphones, we’re still a long way behind the ergonomics of the 1960s — at least, if you want to make a voice call.