Public Feelings on Nuclear Power Make Me Sad :(

I sometimes get frustrated with the mass opposition to Nuclear power in favor of green energy.


Nuclear power is the greenest type of energy. 

Nuclear power is the safest type of energy (yes, even including indirect deaths of Chernobyl and Fukushima).

There are even possible innovations that would make it very difficult to use the fissile material to make bombs.

Nuclear power can be economical if given a level playing field.

Nuclear power does not have the intermediacy problems of wind and solar.

Nuclear is good all around.

Driverless Cars Available in Pittsburgh

As early as next month Uber will begin experimenting with commercially available driverless cars in Pittsburgh. Passengers will not know ahead of time whether they have summoned a driverless car and Uber has not revealed what percentage of the Pittsburgh fleet is driverless.

In fact, the term “driverless” is a bit of a misnomer because an Uber staff member will also be in the car to act as co-pilot should the car need assistance. While this is an endorsement of the technology it is perhaps a bigger step forward in regulatory allowances for self-driving cars (even if they’re technically only semi-self-driving). If things go well more cities may follow suit, but if things go poorly it seems regulation of self-driving cars could be stymied, at least until new generations of technology help assuage fears.

There is more here.

Surprisingly, the most interesting part of the article to me wasn’t about self-driving cars, but rather this paragraph:

Rajkumar says the Uber cars will have a lot to learn about local roads and quirky customs like the so-called Pittsburgh left turn: When cars are at a traffic light, the light turns green, and you are the first car in line that wants to turn left, he explains, “you basically get to [go] first, before vehicles going straight from the opposite direction.” It’s only the first left-turning car — not the others, just the first. [Emphasis added]

This practice is apparently common throughout the northeast. How have I not heard of this before?

The Mundanity of Excellence

That is the title of a 1989 article in Sociological Theory by Daniel Chambliss (which I found through this blog post titled “Does one have to be a genius to do maths?” written by the famous mathematician Terence Tao).

The paper is excellent and inspiring. Chambliss follows swimmers of various levels and finds that what sets Olympic-caliber swimmers apart is not that they do more of something, but that they concentrate on very small and very specific parts of their swim over months and often years. They don’t swim, say, two times longer than club-level swimmers, but instead might spend several months concentrating on the mechanics of a flip-turn and all its components, whereas a lower level swimmer may focus only passingly on the flip turn, or not focus enough on all its individual elements. The paper has many examples both in swimming and in other endeavors.

The paper concludes with this:

…there is no secret; there is only the doing of all those little things, each one done correctly, time and again, until excellence in every detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit, an ordinary part of one’s everyday life.

See also this Michael Phelps commercial:

See also Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and David Epstein’s The Sports Gene, which add points of view. There is also of course my recent post on athletic performance.

Judith Butler on Gangsta Rap

Judith Butler’s thoughts on gangsta rap from a June, 1995 letter to the editor in the NYT:

To the Editor:

William J. Bennett and C. DeLores Tucker are unwise to cite Plato to support their case against gangsta rappers (Op-Ed, June 2). Whereas they object to the lyrics of such artists as “offensive and obscene,” Plato, in the passage they cite, is concerned only with the power of “rhythm and harmony” to “fasten on” the soul: he makes no reference to the verbal communication of ideas.

Surely, Mr. Bennett and Ms. Tucker do not mean to oppose the musical aspects of harmony and rhythm on the basis of their putative influence on the soul. If they do, are they arguing that music ought not to have the power to move us as it does?

Where Plato does concern himself with the debasing power of the lyric, the culprit is Greek tragedy. Surely, Mr. Bennett, who elsewhere calls for a return to a restricted view of the Western canon as the bedrock of education, would be hard pressed to accept Plato’s questionable condemnation of classical Greek poetry for its disordering effect on the soul.

Whether it’s Sophocles or Snoop Doggy Dogg, the social distress they represent will not be eliminated by condemning the representation. If gangsta rappers represent a disturbing image of who we have become, more important than condemning or censoring the representation is the jarring chance it presents to address the conditions of that disturbance.

Unfortunately, as a nation we are defunding many of the programs that seek to address those conditions and targeting instead those artists who make the distress of violence most vivid to us.



Athletic Performance

Several related articles on athletic performance have come out this week.

1. We Are Nowhere Close to the Limits of Athletic Performance (Nautilus)

…Mike Israetel, a professor of exercise science at Temple University, has estimated that doping increases weightlifting scores by about 5 to 10 percent. Compare that to the progression in world record bench press weights: 361 pounds in 1898, 363 pounds in 1916, 500 pounds in 1953, 600 pounds in 1967, 667 pounds in 1984, and 730 pounds in 2015. Doping is enough to win any given competition, but it does not stand up against the long-term trend of improving performance that is driven, in part, by genetic outliers.

And this:

If CRISPR-related technologies develop as anticipated, designer humans are at most a few decades away…Because complex traits are controlled by so many variants, we know that there is a huge pool of untapped potential that no human—not Shaq, Bolt, or anyone else—has come close to exhausting…The nature of athletes, and the sports they compete in, are going to change due to new genomic technology. Will ordinary people lose interest? History suggests that they won’t: We love to marvel at exceptional, unimaginable ability. Lebron and Kobe and Shaq and Bolt all stimulated interest in their sports. The most popular spectator sport of 2100 might be cage fights between 8-foot-tall titans capable of balletic spinning head kicks and intricate jiu-jitsu moves. Or, just a really, really fast 100m sprint. No doping required.

2. Magic Blood and Carbon-Fiber Legs at the Brave New Olympics (Scientific American)

So, as the rules stand: having an incredibly rare gene mutation that boosts red blood cells—okay; training at altitude to boost red blood cells—okay; shelling out thousands of dollars to sleep in a tent that simulates altitude—okay; injecting a drug, one approved for other medical uses that causes your body to act as if it’s at altitude—you’re a disgrace. How should we draw the line? Where does a fair advantage end and cheating begin?

…These judgments must be grounded in which of the voluntarily accepted obstacles we deem critical to the meaning of a given sport. We’re in for a lot of arbitrary decisions about fairness. Yes, altitude tents; no, low-friction, full-body swimsuits. The best we can do is start an earnest conversation about what it is we hope to get out of each sport. I hope that is what we are doing right here.

3. Caster Semenya And The Logic Of Olympic Competition (The New Yorker)

Great discussion, hard to excerpt, but for starters:

N.T.: Caster Semenya, the South African middle-distance star, who has what are called “intersex conditions.” She has always identified as a woman, but she has many of the physiological features of a man, including internal testes and an exceptionally high testosterone level. Do you think she should be allowed to compete as a woman?

M.G.: Of course not! And why do I say of course not? Because not a single track-and-field fan that I’m aware of disagrees with me. I cannot tell you how many arguments I’ve gotten into over the past two weeks about this, and I’ve been astonished at how many people fail to appreciate the athletic significance of this. Remember, this is a competitive issue, not a human-rights issue. No one is saying that Semenya isn’t a woman, a human being, and an individual deserving of our full respect.

And this:

N.T.: Right now, women’s middle-distance running is about as doped up as the Tour de France was in the nineteen-nineties.

M.G.: The women’s fifteen hundred in the 2012 Olympics was worse! As of right now, about half the field has been investigated for doping schemes since then. It’s a mess!

4. The Caster Semenya debate (The Science of Sport)

We have a separate category for women because without it, no women would even make the Olympic Games (with the exception of equestrian). Most of the women’s world records, even doped, lie outside the top 5000 times run by men. Radcliffe’s marathon WR, for instance, is beaten by between 250 and 300 men per year. Without a women’s category, elite sport would be exclusively male.

That premise hopefully agreed, we then see that the presence of the Y-chromosome is THE single greatest genetic “advantage” a person can have. That doesn’t mean that all men outperform all women, but it means that for elite sport discussion, that Y-chromosome, and specifically the SRY gene on it, which directs the formation of testes and the production of Testosterone, is a key criteria on which to separate people into categories.

So going back to the premise that women’s sport is the PROTECTED category, and that this protection must exist because of the insurmountable and powerful effects of testosterone, my opinion on this is that it is fair and correct to set an upper limit for that testosterone, which is what the sport had before CAS did away with it.

The advantage enjoyed by a Semenya is not the same as the one enjoyed by say, Usain Bolt, or LeBron James, or Michael Phelps, because we don’t compete in categories of fast-twitch fiber, or height, or foot size (pick your over simplification for performance here). So Semenya has a genetic advantage, by virtue of A) having a Y-chromosome and testes, and B) being unable to use that T and/or one of its derivatives enough to have developed fully male.


5. This Is Why There Are So Many Ties In Swimming (DeadSpin)

In a 50 meter Olympic pool, at the current men’s world record 50m pace, a thousandth-of-a-second constitutes 2.39 millimeters of travel. FINA pool dimension regulations allow a tolerance of 3 centimeters in each lane, more than ten times that amount. Could you time swimmers to a thousandth-of-a-second? Sure, but you couldn’t guarantee the winning swimmer didn’t have a thousandth-of-a-second-shorter course to swim.

Incidentally, American football has the opposite problem, the length of the field is (likely) quite accurate, but measurement — at least of where the ball is spotted after a play — is inaccurate:

Joey Faulkner — an Astronomy PhD student who we assume did not grow up watching American football because he’s British — collected a massive amount of NFL game data to prove that the official spotting of footballs is neither arbitrary nor accurate.

Surprisingly, this is by design:

If this is indeed the spot, then there should have been a measurement, but there wasn’t. So was the umpire’s spot a mistake? No. It was intentional. By moving back a half yard, the chain can now be placed exactly on the 21-yard line. Now the officials need only to see if the ball advances past the 11-yard line for the next first down. And with yard markers all over the field, this is easy for an official to see without needing the chain.

In other words, the Seahawks lost a half yard simply because the officials wanted to make it easier to know whether it will be a first down on the next set of downs.

6. This Kenyan Olympic Javelin Thrower Taught Himself with Youtube Videos, Now He’s a Champion (Atlanta BlackStar by way of Playground)

In the video by Playground Magazine, Julius Yego reveals that he taught himself how to throw a javelin by watching YouTube videos and through trial and error. The 28-year-old has earned five gold medals in his young career.

A Couple of Interesting Things I Recently Learned


Last week Uttar Pradesh planted 49 million trees…in a single day. Remarkably 800,000 citizens participated, which might be the most surprising aspect of the story. I’ve never heard of 800,000 citizens coming together for a single volunteer event on a single day. Jonah Busch calculates that roughly 100,000 tons of carbon will be offset as a result. Source here.


I’m reading The Master Algorithm and just read that in the year 2000 researchers rewired the brains of ferrets so the ears connected to the visual cortex and the eyes connected to the auditory cortex. But over time those parts of the brain learned to understand the new signals: the visual cortex learned to hear and the auditory cortex learned to see. I thought that was pretty amazing! Also curious how in the world you rewire a brain.

Human Echolocation

Also via the The Master Algorithm comes the story of Ben Underwood who uses human echolocation to “see” (yes, just like bats). This is almost too strange to imagine, but I’ve linked to the video below. Note that Ben has completely lost his eyes to cancer so there is no way he can be “faking.”

Noma’s Michelin Rating

I’m an extremely inchoate foodie that loves Top Chef. Currently making my way through Chef’s Table and doing some side research. Surprisingly, I learned that the restaurant Noma, run by chef Rene Redzepi and routinely ranked as the best restaurant in the world,  only has two Michelin stars (out of a possible three). The discrepancy comes from the fact that “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list is put together by Restaurant Magazine, while Michelin gives out the star ratings. Apparently, this is a well-known dispute in the high-end food world. The discrepancy is quantifiable. Noma is currently the 5th best restaurant on the 50 Best list (down after a number of years ranked as Number 1). However, receiving only two Michelin stars means Michelin believes there are 119 better restaurants in the world.

By the way, Noma serves live ants on its menu.