Links for July 2021

The New York Times: Opinion | America Needs to Break Up Its Biggest States

I'd rather get rid of the electoral college and have a national, ranked choice vote but this is interesting.

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ITHCWY Newsletter for June 2021

Visualizing Coronavirus Deaths by Country (Daily Incremental)

Catfood Earth has been missing a detailed guide since I shut down the Catfood Software web site. That has been fixed with this somewhat epic post which covers every feature of the Windows and Android versions.

Two new timelapses: stars over Columbia State Historic Park and another sunset. I also started working on a longer term project, it will be a few weeks until I get to see if it's going to work.

Hike posts have been upgraded with route maps and a chart showing elevation profile.

Also, some egrets and a ship.

Previously:

Links for June 2021

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Links for June 2021

Updated on Thursday, June 24, 2021

ITHCWY Newsletter for May 2021

Summer Solstice 2020

Timelapse of three trains of Starlink satellites. It's getting crowded up there. Another timelapse of the super flower blood moon eclipse which wasn't Musk's fault.

The Guardian's long read on free will is a disaster, but possibly not their fault. Also my tips on doing news right.

Photos from Marshall's Beach in San Francisco. And some fog. And sand.

Lastly, a nice hike near the Carquinez Strait.

Previously:

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Doing news right with Feedly and Google News

Read all about it

Get rid of social

I want to be well informed and, to the greatest extent possible, free from any kind of filter bubble. Hard to do that on Facebook. So the first step is to delete Facebook and Twitter. Now you have some time to design your news consumption.

Feedly

To me the very best part of the web is RSS feeds so I can quickly skim through hundreds of sites with a consistent interface and no ads. I used to do this with Google Reader but since that was killed I've found Feedly to be an awesome tool and I happily pay for the Pro version. The Android app is great. The web version sometimes gets lost in the list but is fast to use with keyboard shortcuts for cruising through your list. I keep Feedly stocked with news sites, hobbies, work related niche publications and everything I know I want to keep an eye on. The only gap is those unknown unknowns.

Google News

Google News is my current fix for finding the stories and context that I don't get through RSS.

What works

As a learning system Google News pretty quickly figures out what you're interested in. It's not perfect so you have to spend some time training it. Once in a while it will decide you need every word written about Ina Garten, but you can easily tell it that it's wrong. A more subtle tip is to often click sources that you violently disagree with. Google News has some tendency to surface different angles but it definitely helps to signal that you are open to uncomfortable takes on a story. This is a powerful filter bubble burster.

Feed mechanics

Having escaped most social media (I still have LinkedIn which is the cockroach of platforms) I really hate the feed based approach that Google takes with News. I understand it but I hate it. Probably the worst usability crime is that it will often refresh without being asked. I'll be halfway down the list, spot an interesting article, get distracted, and then when I switch back I see that tempting story for a fraction of a second before the whole feed reloads. Often that story is then nowhere to be found. There is a feature to save for later, but I try to avoid this because future me isn't likely to have time either and it adds the burden of yet another to-do list to keep track of.

Don't make me read it twice

Related to the feed is the tendency to show me the same story again, and again, and again. Other than ignoring a topic or publication there is no mechanism to just dismiss a story. I know that the algorithm has worked really really hard to find it but I don't need to see it every day for a week or more. It's OK, in fact desirable, to be done with the news. As with the feed I know that it's someone's job at Google to work on engagement and my time is an externality to their optimization algorithm. It's a big irritation all the same.

Podcasts

Lastly for me I also get a lot of context from podcasts. I use Podkicker Pro on Android (also worth paying for). We live in peak podcast times and I don't have enough time to listen to everything that I want to.

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Was there ever any doubt that I would eventually write this post?

CHOOSE

Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian: A growing chorus of scientists and philosophers argue that free will does not exist. Could they be right?

This is an interesting and profound question. Do we live in a block universe where every action we take is predetermined or are we actually capable of making choices. It certainly feels like choices are possible, but reality doesn't care about feelings and it could be the case that free will is an illusion. Unfortunately Burkeman repeatedly makes this mistake:

""For the free will sceptic," writes Gregg Caruso in his new book Just Deserts, a collection of dialogues with his fellow philosopher Daniel Dennett, "it is never fair to treat anyone as morally responsible." Were we to accept the full implications of that idea, the way we treat each other – and especially the way we treat criminals – might change beyond recognition."

The presence or absence of free will is presumably a global phenomenon. If the criminal has no choice then we also have no choice in how we treat criminals. It gets worse:

"Smilansky is an advocate of what he calls "illusionism", the idea that although free will as conventionally defined is unreal, it’s crucial people go on believing otherwise – from which it follows that an article like this one might be actively dangerous."

This might be a dangerous article, but not for this reason. If there is no free will then people are going to believe what they were always going to believe. The risky proposition that could actually lead to bad consequences is that people believe that there is no free will when there actually is. Even if we prove conclusively that reality is completely deterministic then nothing changes (that wasn't always going to change that way in the first place - see my (somewhat) tongue in cheek solution to the Fermi Paradox).

So what should we believe? I think it's important to consider that we don't understand enough biology and we don't understand enough physics.

On biology:

"And from the 1980s onwards, various specific neuroscientific findings have offered troubling clues that our so-called free choices might actually originate in our brains several milliseconds, or even much longer, before we’re first aware of even thinking of them."

These results are fascinating but have never troubled me. It actually takes the brain a little while to process all the data from our senses but we live in a physical reality that doesn't hang around waiting for this latency. So of course we need to respond quickly to events, often before we're aware of them. This leaves plenty of room for free will in how we train ourselves to respond. The brain simulates likely situations and how it should react to them. This could be an inevitable consequence of the big bang, or it could be that free will has a meaningful influence. I don't believe that we have enough evidence to say either way.

We don't even understand the biological basis for consciousness. It's called the hard problem for a reason. Consciousness is (presumably) expensive and it seems odd that evolution would have selected for it if it has no purpose. Of course in the block universe it's possible that this doesn't matter. It's a mistake that was always going to be made. It could be that we decode the algorithm and can run it on a computer and that if we start with the same conditions we always get the same results. Consciousness is classical and we can prove that it is deterministic. Or it could be that it hinges on quantum effects that mean we can't understand the biology without understanding the physics.

On physics:

""This sort of free will is ruled out, simply and decisively, by the laws of physics," says one of the most strident of the free will sceptics, the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne."

Maybe, but doesn't that depend on what the laws of physics actually are?

There are different interpretations of the physical basis of quantum mechanics. Is decoherence truly random? If so this might be a basis for free will. Run the same starting conditions twice and you get a different outcome. Or is the many worlds interpretation correct? In this case we potentially still live in a block universe, just an unimaginably larger one where every permutation of every decoherence event exists at the same time. Every possible version of you is out there, but each one is trapped in their own predetermined path through the multiverse.

I can't wait to see further progress in both areas. Until we know more the free will question seems impossible to answer. If we prove it's a fiction then nothing matters and nothing can be changed. Absent proof it's probably best to assume that free will exists and that this post was written because I chose to.

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Kidlapse shutting down at the end of May 2021

Updated on Saturday, May 29, 2021

Kidlapse, the service I launched a little over a year ago to make timelapse movies of your child growing up, is shutting down on May 31, 2021. At that time all accounts, photos and movies will be deleted. If you use Kidlapse please make sure that you have downloaded anything you need by the end of May.

The main innovation in Kidlapse was generating a good looking movie from any photos of a person. The system used machine learning to recognize a face, and then zoom and rotate as needed so the face is in the same position in each photo. From there a timelapse movie was created with tween frames generated to cross-fade between each photo. While this was a lot easier than doing this work manually I think it was still too much time and effort for most people and so the product attracted few paying customers. It's too expensive for me to continue to run as a free service. I love the movies that the product creates, and I hope to release the underlying system as a downloadable software package at some point.

I learned a lot launching Kidlapse and I'm sad to put it in my own personal deadpool. When something isn't working though it's time to clear the space and time to launch something new. Subscribe to find out what.

(Previously: Kidlapse - Make a Movie of Your Child Growing Up)

Updates

Kidlapse - Make a Movie of Your Child Growing Up

Kidlapse - Make a Movie of Your Child Growing Up

Kidlapse is now live. This is a service I've been working on that uses machine learning to recognize faces and then rotate and zoom you so get pretty good alignment between each photo. You upload one photo per month and Kidlapse then creates a timelapse movie of your child growing up. If that sounds like something you'd be interested in sign up and give it a try.

Kidlapse

I'm working on a project to generate a timelapse of a kid growing up. I wasn't organized enough to shoot my kids in the same pose on the same background so it's quite a tough problem. To fix this I'm using machine learning to recognize faces in photos and then automatically rotate and align them so the face is in the same place in every shot. From there it's just a matter of generating frames that fade between the different photos and stitching them together into a video. If this sounds interesting check it out at kidlapse.com and sign up to get notified when the service launches.

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ITHCWY Newsletter for April 2021

Average Server Response Time in Azure Metrics

Some changes to the ITHCWY coronavirus visualization page.

For reasons that I'm struggling to understand California's cap and trade system adds a discount to my energy bill.

Catfood WebCamSaver 3.24 released.

Previously:

Links for April 2021

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Coronavirus Visualization Update

Coronavirus Visualization Update

I've just made a few changes to my daily Coronavirus Visualization post.

The daily version is now based on seven day moving averages. This helps with the rate at which different regions report statistics and makes the animation a but easier to follow. The shading is based on the difference between the average yesterday and the average for the previous day (i.e. today it's the increase from April 17 - 23 to April 18 - 24).

Population scaling is now different between the daily and cumulative versions. Daily frames are scaled to the worst recorded case and death increase for that region. Cumulative frames are scaled to the cumulative highest case and death levels, but each region is scaled by population so the highest level is on a per capita basis not an absolute total. For the US animation this uses 2019 estimates from the US Census Bureau. The global animation the figures are 2018 World Bank estimates.

Finally the frame rate for videos has increased to 24fps from 5fps.

The post Visualizing Coronavirus Cases and Deaths by Country and US County updates around 8:30am PST every day with images summarizing yesterday and videos that show the course of the pandemic so far.

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California Climate Credit

Cap & Fade

Once in a while I'm stupid enough to read my email. This month I'm getting a climate credit! Must have done something right? No:

"The California Climate Credit is part of California’s efforts to fight climate change. This credit is from a state program that requires power plants, natural gas providers, and other large industries that emit greenhouse gases to buy carbon pollution permits. The credit on your bill is your share of the payments from the State’s program."

So... apparently part of fighting climate change is making my energy bill randomly cheaper?

It's hard to think of anything less likely to help. Just as I'm starting to feel the pain of winter bills I'm paying slightly less and so I'm slightly less inclined to turn down the heating or finally do something about my beautiful but effectively absent front windows.

A problem with carbon taxation is that it's regressive. So why not use this money to make the first $xx cheaper, and maybe even charge more at the high end of usage?

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