Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

January 9 Links: Futures and Pasts of Things


The Upshot, when they're not putting out awesome data features, apparently publishes things like Obama's Community-College Plan: A Reading List, which is a useful read on (1) what is actually being proposed (2) how it compares to other similar proposals and programs (3) why any of this matters.

The odds of a Republican Congress passing an Obama proposal on any issue aren't very high... [But i]f nothing else, the Obama proposal seems likely to increase the profile of the universal-college movement. That movement echoes the universal-high-school movement of the early 20th century, as I mentioned in an article Thursday. (...)

And a short bit of opinion on the necessity of "universal college":

Yet we never stop to ask why 13 years of universal education has become the magic number -- and why it should permanently be so, given how much more complex our society and economy have become in the ensuing century. If nine years of free education was the sensible norm for the masses in the 19th century and 13 years was the sensible norm in the early 20th century, what is the right number in the 21st century?

Anyway, after spending a plane flight from SLC to Baltimore discussing universal-community-college with my mother, I've come around to the belief that this is by no means as simple as "just throw money at it" -- there are going to be lots of secondary market effects and unintended consequences -- but I think it's time we're having the conversation, at least. Maybe I'll try to write a thing later.


Also in politics: If you're familiar with the Net Neutrality debate, this headline will mean something to you: WaPo | The FCC has all but confirmed it'll side with Obama on Net Neutrality (in classifying broadband providers as Title II "common carriers"). If you're not familiar with the Net Neutrality debate, this video by the wonderful Vi Hart should help:

...and then you should be excited to hear that the FCC has all but confirmed it'll side with Obama on Net Neutrality in classifying broadband providers as Title II "common carriers".


Also in "some things about the Internet are broken, but might be less so in the future", a less-incendiary take on "Facebook's Year in Review is literally the devil", by way of anaogy, from Eric Meyer, who penned the article which set off the original firestorm:

I also wondered about the history of runaway ramps -- when they were first implemented, and how many runaway [trucks] crashed before the need was recognized and a solution found. After I got home, I looked it up and discovered that ramps didn't really exist until the 1970s or so. Even if we assume that no vehicles lost control in the U.S. until the Eisenhower Interstate System was established in the 1950s (just go with it), that’s still two decades of what were probably some pretty horrible crashes, before a solution was implemented.

I feel like web design is at the pre-ramp phase. We've created a huge, sprawling system that amplifies commerce and communication, but we haven't yet figured out how to build in some worst-case-scenario features that don't interfere with the main functioning of the system. We've laid down the paths and made some of them look pretty or even breathtaking, but we're still not dealing with the crashes that happen when an edge case comes onto our stretch of the road. (...)

More at MeyerWeb | Ramping Up.


Meanwhile, at the intersection of "future" and "up", here's Elon Musk's September 2014 interview on the future of Mars colonization:

"I think there is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multi-planetary," he told me, "in order to safeguard the existence of humanity in the event that something catastrophic were to happen, in which case being poor or having a disease would be irrelevant, because humanity would be extinct. It would be like, 'Good news, the problems of poverty and disease have been solved, but the bad news is there aren’t any humans left.'"

Musk has been pushing this line -- Mars colonisation as extinction insurance -- for more than a decade now, but not without pushback. "It's funny," he told me. "Not everyone loves humanity. Either explicitly or implicitly, some people seem to think that humans are a blight on the Earth’s surface. They say things like, 'Nature is so wonderful; things are always better in the countryside where there are no people around.' They imply that humanity and civilisation are less good than their absence. But I'm not in that school," he said. "I think we have a duty to maintain the light of consciousness, to make sure it continues into the future." (...)

Musk also did an AMA on Reddit recently.


Speaking of planetary science: has it ever bothered you that rock dating should, intuitively speaking, indicate the same age for all rocks on Earth, since, y'know, they've almost all been here since the beginning of the planet?

Well, Joshua Engel, answering on Quora, clarifies that Uranium/Lead radiometric dating measures (at least for Zircon crystals), the time since the crystal solidified:

As you observe, all of the U-238 has been on earth pretty much since the moment the earth formed, and it's been decaying into lead at a uniform rate. However, when a rock cools, crystals of zircon form. Zircon crystals have the interesting property that they can incorporate uranium, but reject lead. The chemical structure squeezes out any lead atoms as the crystal cools. That's a chemical property of zircon crystals.

The minute the zircon cools, there's no lead in it. If you find a zircon crystal containing lead, the only way it could be there is if it's formed by the decay of uranium. Since the uranium is decaying at a well-understood rate, you can look at the ratio of lead to remaining uranium, and calculate how long it has been [solid]. (...)


On the topic of old, natural things, here's a book of photographs of really old trees, by photographer Beth Moon: Amazon | Ancient Trees: Portraits of Time. A few not-so-great-res samples, from her online portfolio:

Rilke's BayonSentinels of St. EdwardsBristlecone Pine RelicThe Lovers
The Great Western Red Cedar

And, completely unrelatedly, web-service-pricing consultants (you really can't make this stuff up) Price Intelligently have an interesting, data-rich blog post about how the hipster market is driving up the price of Pabst Blue Ribbon, concluding:

However, while the price increases undoubtedly pad the profit margins of the company as well as the bars who sling the drink, continued hikes may threaten to undermine the brand image that Pabst helped develop with its grassroots marketing strategy. The optimal price band for the hipster market is much higher, but the range isn't infinite. As prices of PBR begin to rival those of Bud Light, the tattooed hipsters with black frame glasses who brought the beer back from the brink might look for an even cheaper, less-popular substitute (...)