31 October 2008

A conundrum

When the next iPhone comes out (the third-generation iPhone, and, I presume, the second-generation 3G iPhone) what will people call it?

iPhone 3G? iPhone 3G 2G? Something else entirely?

22 October 2008

Paul Krugman inspired by Asimov's "Foundation" series

When asked by Jim Lehrer why he became an economist, Paul Krugman replied:

[There's] a very old series by Isaac Asimov—the Foundation novels—in which the social scientists who understand the true dynamics save civilization. That's what I wanted to be; it doesn't exist, but economics is as close as you can get, so as a teenager I really got into it.

Indeed, economics is the closest thing we have to what I'd call "people engineering": studying or designing systems (institutions) with people as their components and identifying principles, mathematical in nature, that govern their behavior. It is humbling that this works and astonishing that it works well.

Update, 25 May 2009: Google economist Hal Varian cites the same inspiration! [Source: Wired Magazine, Secret of Googlenomics: Data-Fueled Recipe Brews Profitability]

Icarus at the Edge of Time

I recently heard Brian Greene (The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos) speak about his new book, Icarus at the Edge of Time. Unlike his previous books, this one is ("intentionally", he says) a work of fiction. It is also one of those cardboard books, and is 16 pages long.

This switch in genre is somewhat surprising. Professor Greene noted that many people who might never pick up one of his other books might pick up, and read, this one. They might even learn something: the plot of the story hinges on one detail of general relativity(!). This is impressive, really. It brings a narrative to this field of science where narrative is so rarely seen, and it makes a small piece of the subject accessible to laypeople. I know something about the "real" science behind this, and I do believe it is beautiful, but I'd be the first to admit that a narrative is appealing in a more visceral kind of way.

I think many advocates for science and technology could take a page (har, har) from Professor Greene. It's so easy to get lost in the details of what we do that we forget that, for better or for worse, people respond to stories much more effectively than they respond to even the most logical arguments.

17 October 2008

The Future of Driving

In the second installment of The Future of Driving, Timothy Lee explains how self-driving cars may someday transform society. When cars can drive themselves, we will of course be able to do actually enjoyable or productive things while our cars are driving us around. But the higher-order effects are much more interesting...

For starters, self-driving cars means renting car service (what you would call a taxi for, nowadays) will become cheaper and easier because you don't have to pay for a human driver. This will change the economics of buying vs. renting a car and the latter will become quite attractive for people who don't need 100% of a car. More renting of cars means better utilization of each car: the car that drove you to work today can drive away and take other people places all day. Better utilization of cars means much less space in cities needed for parking lots. Moreover, what parking space we do need will be used much more efficiently when intelligent cars can park very densely (park each other in, etc.) and automatically move out of the way when asked to.

This is really fascinating business. Read the article to find out why Lee thinks self-driving cars will change not only city planning, but the design of cars, and retail/commerce.

Election math and technology

Sampling and polls

Terence Tao posted about small sampling and polls, and the somewhat non-intuitive fact that the margin of error of a poll only depends on the size of the sample and not at all on the size of the population being sampled; even if the latter quantity is quite small (e.g. 1,000 polled out of a population of 200,000,000) the margin of error may be quite good. An analogy:

Suppose one is in front of a large body of water (e.g. a sea or ocean), and wants to determine whether it is a freshwater or saltwater body. This can be done very easily: dip one’s finger into the body of water and taste a single drop. This gives an extremely accurate result, even though the relative proportion of the sample size to the population size is, literally, a drop in the ocean; the quintillions of water molecules and salt molecules present in that drop are more than sufficient to give a good reading of the salinity of the water body.

Alternatively: it's easy to see that for polling purposes the only relevant parameter of a population is its average opinion (in particular, its size is not relevant). If all you have is a phone that connects you to a random person in a population when you pick it up, then it is impossible to tell whether the population consists of a billion people evenly split between candidates A and B, or a thousand people evenly split between candidates A and B, or even whether the population consists of one person who flips a coin to decide whether to say A or B every time you call him.

Voting protocols

Ron Rivest spoke on security in voting systems at a GBC-ACM function. There have been a couple of voting protocols proposed recently (Scantegrity II and Twin voting) which allow the integrity of an election to be independently verified by all (end-to-end verifiability), while simultaneously preventing any voter from proving how she voted. Importantly, software is only used for auxiliary purposes in these protocols and we need not trust the software at all. End-to-end verifiability would lend confidence to election results in a way which is simply impossible in current systems, and in a democracy we should demand no less than this degree of transparency.

15 October 2008

Space is not that big (anymore)

There are 1011 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers.

Richard Feynman (1918-1988)

07 October 2008

Truly, We Are Living In The Future, Part III

"Computer, please show me an exploded view of this part."

Automated Generation of Interactive 3D Exploded View Diagrams
Wilmot Li, Maneesh Agrawala, Brian Curless, David Salesin
SIGGRAPH 2008, August 2008. 101:1-101:7.