Fly the Airplane

Earlier this year, I highlighted a fascinating account of what happened to Air France Flight 447, which crashed in the Atlantic Ocean on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris.

In the December issue of Popular Mechanics, we get an extended perspective of what went horribly wrong during that flight. Through an extensive transcript, we learn that the flight crashed due to human error. Here’s the conclusion from the Popular Mechanics piece:

Today the Air France 447 transcripts yield information that may ensure that no airline pilot will ever again make the same mistakes. From now on, every airline pilot will no doubt think immediately of AF447 the instant a stall-warning alarm sounds at cruise altitude. Airlines around the world will change their training programs to enforce habits that might have saved the doomed airliner: paying closer attention to the weather and to what the planes around you are doing; explicitly clarifying who’s in charge when two co-pilots are alone in the cockpit; understanding the parameters of alternate law; and practicing hand-flying the airplane during all phases of flight. 

But the crash raises the disturbing possibility that aviation may well long be plagued by a subtler menace, one that ironically springs from the never-ending quest to make flying safer. Over the decades, airliners have been built with increasingly automated flight-control functions. These have the potential to remove a great deal of uncertainty and danger from aviation. But they also remove important information from the attention of the flight crew. While the airplane’s avionics track crucial parameters such as location, speed, and heading, the human beings can pay attention to something else. But when trouble suddenly springs up and the computer decides that it can no longer cope—on a dark night, perhaps, in turbulence, far from land—the humans might find themselves with a very incomplete notion of what’s going on. They’ll wonder: What instruments are reliable, and which can’t be trusted? What’s the most pressing threat? What’s going on? Unfortunately, the vast majority of pilots will have little experience in finding the answers. 

I also want to highlight one blogger’s perspective about this crash. Dustin Curtis writes:

Every time I read about or experience one of these situations, I am reminded of a story I read in The Checklist Manifesto about the emergency checklist for engine failure in a single engine Cessna airplane. The checklist has just six vitally important steps, including things like making sure the fuel valves are open and ensuring the backup fuel pump is turned on. But the first step is fascinating. It is simply FLY THE AIRPLANE. In the confusion of losing an engine, pilots often panic and forget the most obvious things they should be doing. It seems completely unnecessary, but this step ensures the best chance for survival.

The human body’s physical “fight or flight” response evolved to help it evade a dangerous situation, which historically involved extreme physical exertion. The rush of steroids into the bloodstream essentially turns off unnecessary systems, including some higher thinking processes, to aid in escape. Unfortunately, as we’ve evolved into more intelligent beings, that response hasn’t evolved along with us. The stress response is still optimized to prepare for a short period of extreme physical exertion, not for increased mental clarity. The result is painfully obvious with Air France 447: the co-pilot made an absurd error that no pilot in his right mind would make.

This is a superb reminder of how we let our guard down, panic, and act irrationally (or outside of our normal habits) in intense situations.

Readings: Isolated Man, Straddling Bus, Truthful Airline Magazine

Here are the three most interesting articles I’ve read over the weekend:

1) “The Most Isolated Man on the Planet” [Slate] – we don’t know his name, or whether he even has one. He is the most isolated man in the world and happens to live in the Amazonian jungle. Slate has an excellent piece profiling his existence:

He eats mostly wild game, which he either hunts with his bow-and-arrow or traps in spiked-bottom pitfalls. He grows a few crops around his huts, including corn and manioc, and often collects honey from hives that stingless bees construct in the hollows of tree trunks. Some of the markings he makes on trees have suggested to indigenous experts that he maintains a spiritual life, which they’ve speculated might help him survive the psychological toil of being, to a certain extent, the last man standing in a world of one.

2) “A ‘Straddling Bus’ Traffic Solution in China” [New York Times] – a novel idea about a bus which takes up no road space. It’s a fascinating look at what one company in the southern Chinese town of Shenzhen has proposed:

Though it is called the “straddling bus,” Huashi’s invention resembles a train in many respects — but it requires neither elevated tracks nor extensive tunneling. Its passenger compartment spans the width of two traffic lanes and sits high above the road surface, on a pair of fencelike stilts that leave the road clear for ordinary cars to pass underneath. It runs along a fixed route.

Read the article for more or watch the video below:

3) “An Airline Magazine That Makes Travelers Want to Pull the Rip Cord” [Wall Street Journal] – this isn’t your ordinary in-flight magazine. The in-flight magazine for Safi Airways tells the whole truth and nothing but the truth:

One recent edition featured a long, approving piece headlined, “Live Entertainment in Kabul: Dog Fighting.” The writer says dogs in Afghanistan don’t fight to the death, just until one proves dominant. “They are usually pulled apart before they can inflict serious damage on each other,” the article assures passengers, despite the photo of two worried Afghans carrying away a limp black-and-white behemoth from the fight.

And who would be interested in advertising in such a magazine?

The magazine’s audience attracts advertisers as specialized as its content. There are an Australian firm that offers medical services in scary places; a Middle Eastern satellite-communications company whose gear works in the phoneless hinterlands; and a war-zone car-repair service with outlets in Kabul, Baghdad and Monrovia. The ad for Alpha Armouring Panzerung, a Munich company, shows an armored Mercedes SUV cruising through the flames of a roadside bomb.

In a world where in-flight magazines only taut the beautiful and the flashy, this magazine certainly sets itself apart from the competition. No word on whether the magazine is planning a SkyMall expansion.

Editor’s note: more posts are coming this week. In the meantime, feel free to subscribe by email using the box on the right.

Readings: Fourth of July Edition

Today is Independence Day in America, so here are some interesting reads related to the Fourth of July holiday in America:

1) “Star-Spangled Skepticism” [New York Times] – a wonderful photo essay in the New York Times Lens blog on Misha Erwitt’s fascination with the American flag:

The collection, “Stars and Stripes,” is a meditation on Americans and their unusually intimate relationship with their flag, an intimacy that struck him even as a boy, standing with his hand over his heart as he recited the Pledge of Allegiance at school. In the years since, Mr. Erwitt’s fascination has grown, establishing itself as an exploration of the fanfare that shadows the flag.

2) “Jefferson Changed ‘Subjects’ to ‘Citizens’ in Declaration of Independence” [The Washington Post] – a very interesting article about a certain “smear” found on The Declaration of Independence:

Scholars of the revolution have long speculated about the “citizens” smear — wondering whether the erased word was “patriots” or “residents” — but now the Library of Congress has determined that the change was far more dramatic.

Using a modified version of the kind of spectral imaging technology developed for the military and for monitoring agriculture, research scientists teased apart the mystery and reconstructed the word that Jefferson banished in 1776.

Fascinating how The Library of Congress made this discovery:

The library deciphered the hidden “subjects” several months ago, the first major finding attributed to its new high-tech instruments. By studying the document at different wavelengths of light, including infrared and ultraviolet, researchers detected slightly different chemical signatures in the remnant ink of the erased word than in “citizens.” Those differences allowed the team to bring the erased word back to life.

But the task was made more difficult by the way Jefferson sought to match the lines and curves of the underlying smudged letters with the new letters he wrote on top of them. It took research scientist Fenella France weeks to pull out each letter until the full word became apparent.

3) “The Mystery of the Declaration of Independence” [Art Lebedev blog] – this fascinating article is featured in a blog, but it was too good to pass up after I chanced upon it today researching about the Declaration of Independence for my photoblog entry. The central premise is why the document of such importance was titled as so:

United States of "Жmerinca"

Granted, the document was found in Kiev, but how did this error happen? The story revolves around Timothy Matlack, born as Tomislav Matlakowski:

In all likelihood, the nostalgic Matlakowski wrote the title in mixed alphabets, while Congress members didn’t notice anything wrong on the day when the Declaration was signed. But it was apparently discovered the next day by Charles Thomson, the discovery leading him to order immediately that the original be hidden from the public eye, and Matlack be demoted from the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to the Congress Delegate from the same state.

To fill in the gaps, you should read the entire fascinating story. Do you believe it?

William Deresiewicz: On Solitude and Leadership

The best piece of writing/advice I have read this week comes courtesy of The American Scholar; it is a lecture delivered by William Deresiewicz (formerly a professor of English at Yale University) to a plebe class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October 2009.

The lecture explores a number of ideas: how we think, what it takes to be a leader, and even the influence of Twitter/Facebook in our lives. A few of my favorite passages are below (keep in mind that I always recommend reading articles in their entirety, but if you want the general idea, see below).

What does it take to be a leader?

So I began to wonder…what leadership really consists of. My students, like you, were energetic, accomplished, smart, and often ferociously ambitious, but was that enough to make them leaders? Most of them, as much as I liked and even admired them, certainly didn’t seem to me like  leaders. Does being a leader, I wondered, just mean being accomplished, being successful? Does getting straight As make you a leader? I didn’t think so. Great heart surgeons or great novelists or great shortstops may be terrific at what they do, but that doesn’t mean they’re leaders. Leadership and aptitude, leadership and achievement, leadership and even ex­cellence have to be different things, otherwise the concept of leadership has no meaning. And it seemed to me that that had to be especially true of the kind of excellence I saw in the students around me.

I loved this paragraph on students described as “excellent sheep” (I saw quite a few of these in my high school and college years):

So what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world-class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colors. They were, as one of them put it herself, “excellent sheep.” I had no doubt that they would continue to jump through hoops and ace tests and go on to Harvard Business School, or Michigan Law School, or Johns Hopkins Medical School, or Goldman Sachs, or McKinsey consulting, or whatever. And this approach would indeed take them far in life. They would come back for their 25th reunion as a partner at White & Case, or an attending physician at Mass General, or an assistant secretary in the Department of State.

Why is there a crisis of leadership in America?

We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of exper­tise. What we don’t have are leaders.

What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army—a new way of doing things, a new way of looking at things. People, in other words, with vision. [emphases mine]

There’s a great case study in General David Petraeus in the lecture. On his leadership:

No, what makes him a thinker—and a leader—is precisely that he is able to think things through for himself. And because he can, he has the confidence, the courage, to argue for his ideas even when they aren’t popular. Even when they don’t please his superiors. Courage: there is physical courage, which you all possess in abundance, and then there is another kind of courage, moral courage, the courage to stand up for what you believe.

This is the paragraph that stuck with me. What exactly is meant by thinking? William Deresiewicz’s explanation:

Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.

An excellent point that the first thought isn’t one’s own:

I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.

William Deresiewicz take on Facebook, Twitter, and even The New York Times as distractions:

You can just as easily consider this lecture to be about concentration as about solitude. Think about what the word means. It means gathering yourself together into a single point rather than letting yourself be dispersed everywhere into a cloud of electronic and social input. It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube—and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers, too—are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself.

I’ve made this argument before in my previous post (does the Internet make us dumber or smarter? I claimed that it makes us more distracted). The question is: what can we do to get away from all this distraction in our lives? This is the importance of solitude:

So it’s perfectly natural to have doubts, or questions, or even just difficulties. The question is, what do you do with them? Do you suppress them, do you distract yourself from them, do you pretend they don’t exist? Or do you confront them directly, honestly, courageously? If you decide to do so, you will find that the answers to these dilemmas are not to be found on Twitter or Comedy Central or even in The New York Times. They can only be found within—without distractions, without peer pressure, in solitude.

There is one passage with which I disagree:

Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality. Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now—older people as well as younger people—you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself.

I think “marinating” in other people’s thoughts helps me develop my own: I probe what I already know, what I believe in, and what I question by examining what others have to offer. Of course, it is important to take what anyone says with an inquisitive (some would say skeptical) mind.

Finally, an excellent point on why it’s important to read books:

So why is reading books any better than reading tweets or wall posts? Well, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes, you need to put down your book, if only to think about what you’re reading, what you think about what you’re reading. But a book has two advantages over a tweet. First, the person who wrote it thought about it a lot more carefully. The book is the result of his solitude, his attempt to think for himself.

Second, most books are old. This is not a disadvantage: this is precisely what makes them valuable. They stand against the conventional wisdom of today simply because they’re not from today. Even if they merely reflect the conventional wisdom of their own day, they say something different from what you hear all the time. But the great books, the ones you find on a syllabus, the ones people have continued to read, don’t reflect the conventional wisdom of their day. They say things that have the permanent power to disrupt our habits of thought. They were revolutionary in their own time, and they are still revolutionary today.

The goal of this blog has been to profile the books I’ve read in 2010. Over the last few months, I’ve shifted more to profiling interesting articles I have found on the web. It seems to me people are less interested in reading book reviews compared to reading interesting articles on the web (at least, that’s my interpretation; let me know if you think otherwise). I absolutely hope you read the entire lecture. It’s one of the most lucid pieces of writing I have read in a while.

The Future of News: Google

One of the most interesting pieces I’ve read recently is James Fallows’ “How To Save the News” in The Atlantic. It’s a fantastic piece of long-form journalism, and if you’re into journalism and the way news is delivered online, it’s definitely a must-read. The article explores Google’s delivery of news, whether customers would (or in what circumstances) pay for news, the customization of news tailored to specific users, how Google and traditional media companies rely on advertising, and quite a bit more. If you think the nearly 10,000 word piece isn’t worth your time, I want to point out the most interesting passages below:

The premise of the article is that there is “a larger vision for news coming out of Google” — that the world’s largest search engine company is more than that; according to Fallows, Google is the world’s most important media organization.

Who’s behind Google News? Interesting to learn that it was someone from Georgia Tech, my alma mater:

It was Krishna Bharat who identified a more profound form of inefficiency [in news delivery]. As a student at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, Bharat had written for the campus newspaper while taking his computer-science degree. “In a second life, I would be a journalist,” he once told an Indian newspaper. (When the Indian newspaper asks me, I will say: In a second life, I would be a successful Google executive.) He got his Ph.D. at Georgia Tech and was an early Google hire, in 1999. After the 9/11 attacks two years later, he grew worried about the narrowness of news he was receiving through the U.S. media. “I felt that we really had to catch up with the world’s news,” he told me. “To get a broad understanding, you had to visit sites in Europe and Asia and the Middle East. I was wondering if Google could do something to make the world’s news information available.”

There are some people who claim that Google aggregating the news is bad for the news industry (because viewers wouldn’t click through the articles, occasionally). However, a rebuttal with which I strongly agree:

Google’s rebuttal to the claim of stealing is that it doesn’t sell ads on the Google News site, and moreover provides hardly any of the newspapers’ original content. Indeed, in this practice it is the opposite of “aggregators” like the Huffington Post, which often “excerpt” enough of someone else’s story that readers don’t bother to click through to the source. Google News gives only a set of headlines and two-line links meant to steer traffic (and therefore ad potential) to the news organization that first ran the story.

What grabbed my attention is how a piece of news could get thousands of “hits” on Google’s page. Is it a case of news organizations choosing to write on the same topic because it’s important, or is it a copycat effect at work?

The Google News front page is a kind of air-traffic-control center for the movement of stories across the world’s media, in real time. “Usually, you see essentially the same approach taken by a thousand publications at the same time,” he told me. “Once something has been observed, nearly everyone says approximately the same thing.” He didn’t mean that the publications were linking to one another or syndicating their stories. Rather, their conventions and instincts made them all emphasize the same things. This could be reassuring, in indicating some consensus on what the “important” stories were. But Bharat said it also indicated a faddishness of coverage—when Michael Jackson dies, other things cease to matter—and a redundancy that journalism could no longer afford. “It makes you wonder, is there a better way?” he asked. “Why is it that a thousand people come up with approximately the same reading of matters? Why couldn’t there be five readings? And meanwhile use that energy to observe something else, equally important, that is currently being neglected.”

On the three pillars of the new online business mode (distribution, engagement, and monetization):

[G]etting news to more people, and more people to news-oriented sites; making the presentation of news more interesting, varied, and involving; and converting these larger and more strongly committed audiences into revenue, through both subscription fees and ads. Conveniently, each calls on areas of Google’s expertise.

But the most insightful part of the article was my new understanding on how news can be incremental. What does that mean? For example, if you’ve never read The Wall Street Journal before, and you started reading it today, it might be a significant challenge to get into it. Why? Because some stories are built on what was reported yesterday, and the day before, and so on for quite some time. Here’s Fallows describing this incrementation:

News reporting is usually incremental. Something happens in Kabul today. It’s related to what happened there yesterday, plus 20 years ago, and further back. It has a bearing on what will happen a year from now. High-end news organizations reflect this continuous reality in hiring reporters and editors who (ideally) know the background of today’s news and in the way they present it, usually with modest additions to the sum of established knowledge day by day.

And so, prior to reading the article, this important facet of journalism didn’t really cross my mind (in the scope of Google aggregating news). So why is this incremental news important? Because a well-done journalistic piece, which took days and days of research, collaboration, interviewing, writing, and editing, might not be deemed “worthy” in the eyes of Google search (i.e., careful, insightful journalism is punished, while “tabloid-style” reporting rises to the top of Google search). To me, this is the most important take-away from the piece:

The modest daily updating of the news—another vote in Congress, another debate among political candidates—matches the cycle of papers and broadcasts very well, but matches the Internet very poorly, in terms of both speed and popularity rankings. The Financial Times might have given readers better sustained coverage of European economic troubles than any other paper. But precisely because it has done so many incremental stories, no one of them might rise to the top of a Google Web search, compared with an occasional overview story somewhere else. By the standards that currently generate online revenue, better journalism gets a worse result.

There is so much more in the article which I didn’t cover in this short post. If you have some time (more like an hour or two), this is an article definitely worth bookmarking for a later read.

Readings: Apple’s iPad, Photography, Superstar Effect, Unpaid Internships

Here’s what I have been reading over the weekend:

(1) “Apple IPad’s Debut-Weekend Sales May Be Surpassing Estimates” [Business Week] – the numbers are in, and it looks like Apple had a spectacular weekend in terms of iPad sales.

The iPad’s initial sales may have reached 700,000 units, Piper Jaffray & Co.’s Gene Munster said in an interview today. The Minneapolis-based analyst previously predicted sales of 200,000 to 300,000, while Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.’s Toni Sacconaghi projected 300,000 to 400,000.

With the cheapest iPad selling for $499 and the top of the line model selling for $829, one can make an early estimate from retail sales of the iPad in just one weekend. If you assume that the average iPad sold for $600 (taking account three things: taxes, that Apple sold a significant number of 32GB and 64GB iPad models as well the 3G iPad models, and that shoppers probably bought accessories and other items from Apple in addition to the iPad), and the number is astonishing: at least $400 million of revenue this weekend.

(2) “Is Photography Over?” [San Francisco Museum of Fine Art] – a spectrum of answers from critics and photographers on the state of photography.

(3) “Tiger Woods and the Superstar Effect” [Wall Street Journal] – an excellent piece by Jonah Lehrer on this interesting effect observed in sports, schools, and businesses. This is an interesting discovery:

The same phenomenon seems to also affect students taking the SAT. In a paper released last year, researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of Haifa compared average SAT scores with the average number of students in test-taking venues in all 50 states, and found that students who took the SAT in larger groups did worse. They concluded that the mere knowledge of their competitors—the sight of all of those other students scratching in their answers in the same room—decreased motivation.

(4) “Growth of Unpaid Internships May Be Illegal, Officials Say” [New York Times] – a timely article about students trying to find jobs and sometimes choosing to work for free. I was surprised by this quote from an N.Y.U. student:

It would have been nice to be paid, but at this point, it’s so expected of me to do this for free…If you want to be in the music industry that’s the way it works. If you want to get your foot in the door somehow, this is the easiest way to do it. You suck it up.

It seems like such a resigned attitude. Can that possibly be true of the music industry?

Links of the Day (02/05/10)

Here’s what I’ve been reading over the last few days:

(1) “Who Dat Owns ‘Who Dat’? Dat’s Us, Sez da NFL” [Wall Street Journal] – an interesting scenario is unfolding on the streets of New Orleans. The NFL is telling vendors that they can’t sell t-shirts with the words “Who Dat” printed on them, presumably because the NFL owns the trademark on the phrase. It sounds like the NFL is trying to seize as much profit as this surge by the Saints leads to Super Bowl Sunday. Is this a case of a monopoly or something else?

(2) “The State of Molecular Cuisine” [Wall Street Journal] – an interesting look into the world of molecular gastronomy.

(3) “Why Twitter Will Endure” [New York Times] – David Carr explains why Twitter is here to stay. It’s a very insightful piece which has gained more traction recently, as another columnist named George Packer wrote a column in The New Yorker opposing the use of Twitter:

The truth is, I feel like yelling Stop quite a bit these days. Every time I hear about Twitter I want to yell Stop. The notion of sending and getting brief updates to and from dozens or thousands of people every few minutes is an image from information hell.

What’s interesting to me is that Mr. Packer hasn’t actually created a Twitter account and discovered Twitter for himself. He’s relying on hearsay. If you’re on Twitter, what’s your opinion of its usefulness? If you aren’t on Twitter, why not?

(4) “Hi There” [The Economist] – a very interesting piece on how different cultures address and treat politeness and/or respect. Did you know that the reigning prince of Liechtenstein, Hans Adam II, is the only person in the world who can seriously be addressed as Serenity? Definitely worth reading.

Links of the Day (02/01/10)

Here’s what caught my attention today:

(1) “But Who’s Counting?” [Los Angeles Times] – a great op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on the confusion that journalists make between the number million and the number billion. The author goes into some theories on why this mistake occurs so often (or, at least, more often than it should occur). According to the author:

I did some calculations and found that The [Los Angeles] Times’ mistakes totaled about $1.4 trillion, or about twice the amount the U.S. spent on the TARP bailout. Our brethren at the New York Times did even worse, making 38 million-billion mistakes in the same three years. Oddly, they were far more likely to overstate the case, doing so almost one time in four. The total of all their errors was $6.5 trillion, or more than half the amount of the national debt.

It’s a very interesting piece, and perhaps the most reasonable explanation for this error is that our brain can’t comprehend the sense of scale between one million and one billion. If I told you that I have a million paper clips vs. a billion paper clips, would you be able to tell the difference in the volume the two occupy? Probably not. Also, can you visualize one billion dollars? I found this infographic helpful. Also of note is how vastly different one billion dollars is from one trillion dollars; see this telling infographic, for instance. In any case, the author of the op-ed has a dismal conclusion:

More diligence would probably have prevented many of our million-billion slips, but after observing The Times newsroom for decades, I can’t avoid the conclusion that our collective numeric literacy — like that of most of America — is appallingly low.

(2) “News Photos, on the Move, Make News” [New York Times] – The Magnum photo collection (a massive archive of over 180,000 images) is moving to a permanent, public display at the University of Texas at Austin.

(3) “Risks Lurk for ETF Investors” [Wall Street Journal] – a short, informative piece which describes the risks (liquidity, pricing) inherent in investing in certain ETFs.

(4) “Timeline of the LOST Universe” [New York Times] – this isn’t an article, but a wonderful interactive graphic which lets you discover when the events in the LOST universe have occurred. It’s a must-see for any fan of the show.

Links of the Day (01/31/10)

Here are three articles which I’ve read over the last few days:

(1) “Steve Jobs and the Economics of Elitism” [New York Times] – A brief look into how Apple represents the “auteur model of innovation,” not to mention a model of restraint in product design.

(2) “The Lessons of Lady Gaga” [Wall Street Journal] – an interesting article that takes a glimpse into the business-savvy singer who opened the 2010 Grammy Awards. Lady Gaga affectionately dubs her fans “little monsters.”

(3) “In Tough Economic Times, Shoppers Take Haggling to New Heights” [Washington Post] – what average consumers are doing (or should be doing) in these tough economic times. Great read.

Link of the Day (01/25/10)

There is one article I want to highlight for today. It is so interesting that it deserves to stand on its own as the link of the day.

(1) “The Chess Master and the Computer” [New York Review of Books] – an incredibly well-written and thought-provoking piece by Garry Kasparov, perhaps the greatest chess player of all time. In the article, Garry Kasparov discusses his play against computers, from the 1980s to the showdown with Deep Blue in 1997 to playing against modern computer chess programs.

Most intriguing to me are Mr. Kasparov’s thoughts on the possibility of solving chess. Imagine this scenario: you make a move in chess, and the computer would be able to calculate the best move under the circumstances and predict the likelihood of achieving mate (and in how many moves it will occur). The concept of solving chess is something I have been thinking about for over ten years, so it’s refreshing to read a Grandmaster’s opinion:

Another group postulated that the game would be solved, i.e., a mathematically conclusive way for a computer to win from the start would be found. (Or perhaps it would prove that a game of chess played in the best possible way always ends in a draw.) Perhaps a real version of HAL 9000 would simply announce move 1.e4, with checkmate in, say, 38,484 moves. These gloomy predictions have not come true, nor will they ever come to pass. Chess is far too complex to be definitively solved with any technology we can conceive of today.

So Mr. Kasparov is not excluding the possibility of chess being solved one day; he simply argues that it is inconceivable to solve the game of chess with the hardware we have today. Mr. Kasparov goes on to explain:

The number of legal chess positions is 1040, the number of different possible games, 10120. Authors have attempted various ways to convey this immensity, usually based on one of the few fields to regularly employ such exponents, astronomy. In his book Chess Metaphors, Diego Rasskin-Gutman points out that a player looking eight moves ahead is already presented with as many possible games as there are stars in the galaxy. Another staple, a variation of which is also used by Rasskin-Gutman, is to say there are more possible chess games than the number of atoms in the universe. All of these comparisons impress upon the casual observer why brute-force computer calculation can’t solve this ancient board game.

If you are at all interested in chess, computer science, or algorithms, I highly encourage you to read the entire article.