Friday Special 51

From Michael Ramirez's Pulitzer Prize Winning Cartoons

Panorama view from the Great Wall in China

The Ultimate Machine

This is brilliant:

[embedded video]

About 7 years ago I was reading an article on Claude Shannon and came across one of the funniest ideas I had ever heard. Claude, you see, was one of these incredibly brilliant engineers with an obviously great sense of humor. As I understand it, he, along with Marvin Minsky came up with an idea they called the "Ultimate Machine". Basically a plain box with a switch on the top. When you flip the switch, a hand comes out of the box and flips the switch off. Thats it.

Well, after reading the article, and laughing out loud, I decided that I HAD to build one of these boxes.

by datacharmer | Friday, April 25, 2008
  , | 1 comments | | The Ultimate Machine @bluematterblogtwitter

Wesley Snipes gets three years

Hollywood actor Wesley Snipes has received a three year prison sentence for tax offences.

A federal judge handed down the maximum term requested by prosecutors - one year for each of Snipes' convictions of wilfully failing to file a tax return.

United States District Judge William Terrell Hodges said the action star had shown a "history of contempt over a period of time" for US tax laws.

"In my mind these are serious crimes, albeit misdemeanours", he said.

Snipes apologised, saying: "I am an idealistic, naive, passionate, truth-seeking, spiritually motivated artist, unschooled in the science of law and finance."

That's one of the best quotes I've heard in a long time. BBC News has the story.

by datacharmer | Friday, April 25, 2008
  | 1 comments | | Wesley Snipes gets three years @bluematterblogtwitter

Markets in everything, funky coffins edition

When Mary Tomes dies, she doesn't want a plain wooden box.

"One brown box doesn't fit all. It doesn't show your personality or your sense of humour. My husband told me not to be so daft."

That was four years ago. Now Mary, a 62-year-old grandmother, not only has a sunshine-yellow coffin for when she meets her maker, but runs Colourful Coffins in Oxford, which prints customised paper wraps to stick onto caskets.

Here's more, including many pictures, and you can order your own by following the links on the right. It's a thriving industry too:

While Colourful Coffins - and another UK company, JC Atkinson - print what are effectively colour transfers for standard coffins, Nottinghamshire's Crazy Coffins makes caskets shaped like cars, cricket bags and ballet shoes.

Markets in everything, ultimate feel-good factor edition

If it came to judgment day, you could happily explain how you used your time wisely by spending summers in Saint Tropez, winters in Saint Moritz and Christmas time in Saint Barts. They are all holy places after all, right? But, would this be enough to grant you entry through the beaming pearly gates? Maybe not. You’ve got the jet-set part down to a T but we may need to work a little on polishing your halo…Enter “voluntourism” (a combination of volunteering and vacationing) the hottest trend in travel, which is sweeping the globe, with opportunities everywhere from gorgeous tropical islands to ancient tribal cities.

Dim Sum and Then Some has more, and many links.

How America banned marijuana

I'm watching Ron Mann's 1999 Grass, narrated by Woody Harrelson. Some of the propaganda films depicted are astonishing - did people really believe that stuff? I don't want to hear anyone ever say again that modern America is an immature society.

And here is something I didn't know - the artful way in which marijuana possession was made a federal crime:

The Marijuana Tax Act was signed into law by President Roosevelt in 1937. The act prohibited possession of marijuana anywhere in the United States without a special tax stamp from the Treasury Department, and the Treasury Department didn't give out any stamps, effectively making marijuana illegal.

Genius. It is also telling how that such an elaborate arrangement had to be dreamt up to achieve criminalisation of marijuana: the power to ban a product was a new-found one.

by datacharmer | Monday, April 21, 2008
  , , , | 3 comments | | How America banned marijuana @bluematterblogtwitter

Geeks on trial, mammals that lay eggs, and other strange occurences: The incredible story of Hans Reiser

The Duckbill Platypus is a mammal that lays eggs. It also plays a key role in the defence of Hans Reiser, an iconic programmer and software visionary on trial for murdering his wife.

[Reiser's defence attorney] for the second day likened his client to a duckbill platypus, a strange-looking mammal -- a "genetic mistake" -- that was projected to jurors on a large monitor.

"I just know this is one of the great screw jobs of what happened to Hans Reiser," DuBois said. "It's easy to screw a platypus."

It is a tragic story (detailed in one of the best pieces ever to appear on Wired - well worth dedicating 20 minutes to go through the whole thing) and one of the most followed and discussed across geekland. Here's another interesting excerpt from the proceedings:

[Hans Reiser explained] to jurors that, as nonscientists, they may not understand his social ineptness.

"Scientists communicate by reference to data. I cannot communicate effectively. That's not how scientists talk. We cannot throw out assertions that cannot be supportive without data points," the 44-year-old defendant testified on his 10th day on the stand. "I have a compulsive tendency to say things that I know are true that people don't want to be true. I do this by reference to the data"

Friday Special 50

A simple coordination game for the coffee breaks that can easily break your nerves

Audio session of investor George Soros on the credit crisis of 2008 and what it means

Bear Stearns and the mob

How much is Bear Stearns worth? Last time I checked, JP Morgan was paying 10 dollars a share, but only after the Fed agreed to provide a number of taxpayer-funded goodies to make it worth for the good bankers at J to the P to take the plunge.

The value of these goodies easily runs to plenty of times 10$ a share, which places the social value of Bear Stearns in solid red territory. Yet it still makes sense for the taxpayer to fund this deal, and to compensate Bear shareholders for being such bloody fools. Bear Stearns can't fail, as it will take the entire banking system and the 'real economy' with it.

This would never (well, almost never) happen with, say, a steelmaker or software company of similar size. That's why banks are not, and cannot, be plc's in the same way that other companies are. The social value of a steelmaker can only fall as far down as zero, while the social value of a bank can be much, much lower than that.

Failing banks are in many ways similar to the mob: not offering anything useful to anyone other than themselves, but having such ability to cause trouble that it makes sense to give them money simply to avoid the worst.

With the mob, local businessmen and residents pay the price. With banks, this is the job of the taxpayer.

by datacharmer | Tuesday, April 15, 2008
  , | 0 comments | | Bear Stearns and the mob @bluematterblogtwitter

Friday Special 49

Global warming is by far an absolute truth as illustrated by a DailyTech article

The heart of the award-winning hybrid Toyota Prius: Power Split Device

Google's environmental efforts with their Solar Panel project

On the 53 major events in A Briefer History of Time (PDF)

Creepy girl from MotionPortrait

Radio silence

I'm away until Thursday; see you all then.

by datacharmer | Monday, April 07, 2008
| 0 comments | | Radio silence @bluematterblogtwitter

Friday Special 48

2008 Olympic Torch Relay Route

Enjoy speculating with technical stock analysis on Inspected

Ever wondered what Europe has ever done for us?

Watch the Frontline special series online: Bush's war

I hate seasonally adjusted series

To all data providers, wherever they may be:

Please, please stop seasonally adjusting the series you give me. I can run a regression with seasonal dummies myself, thank you very much. So can everyone else. The difficult thing is to get from the seasonally adjusted series to the original one, and I don't see why you should deprive me of the privilege.

Yes, I know I shouldn't want to in most cases, but let me be the judge of that, OK? What's your problem anyway, what is it to you? Please, just do me this favour.

Honey, I shrunk the sample covariance matrix

What a title! The paper starts:

The central message of this paper is that nobody should be using the sample covariance matrix for the purpose of portfolio optimization. you know whether it's worth reading it. Personally, I don't find that type of thing a turn-on.

The law of one price, demonstrated

Bravo! This is brilliant, it's bloody beautiful. I don't think I've ever seen a more hit-you-right-between-the-eyes dataset in my life. If you are teaching economics 101 (or for that matter, econometrics 101) this is the definitive demonstration.

Here, ladies and gentlemen, for your education and amusement, lie the benefits of the market plain and simple, to see with your own eyes and believe. There shall be no doubt in your minds. Watch closely, for ye shall see how functioning markets are no less powerful than magic.

Here's the story. In Kerala, a state in south India, fishing is very important. There are more than 1 million fishermen, and fish is consumed by 70% of the population on a daily basis. The catch varies daily between the different fishing regions, and so does the price: the poor folk can never tell if they'll be able to afford fish on any given day, as it is lady luck who decides. Waste and shortages are common, as sometimes the fish caught are simply too many, or too few.

But in 1997, a miracle happens. Mobile phones are introduced, and one of the key ingredients of functioning markets - information - is in place. What follows is, as promised, nothing short of magic.

Three different regions, three different mobile telephony adoption dates. On the y axis is the price, on the x axis time. Fish now make their way to where they are valued more, and prices are stable. Fishermen profits increase by 8%, and the average price falls by 4%. Before, six fish in every hundred were wasted, with fishermen unable to find someone to sell them to. Now, all fish find their way to a happy customer.

Here is the Robert Jensen paper (free access), and here is a presentation. Hat tip to the Yorkshire Ranter, via the ASI blog.