Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Bush Budget Would Cut Domestic Discretionary Programs by $20 Billion in 2009

The Center on Budget Policy and Priorities does an excellent job of analyzing Federal spending.
The President’s 2009 budget would provide some $20.5 billion[1] less for domestic discretionary programs outside of homeland security — a broad category of programs that includes everything from child care to environmental protection to medical research — than the 2008 level, adjusted for inflation.[2]

The budget calls for reductions in a broad range of services, including some areas that have seen sizable cuts in recent years. For example, the budget would cut child care, environmental protection, and job training — all areas for which funding in 2008 is well below funding earlier in the decade, after adjusting for inflation. …

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Revealed: Secrets of the Camouflage Masters - New York Times

From the New York Times
Cuttlefish can also use camouflage to deceive other cuttlefish, Dr. Hanlon and his colleagues have found. A male cuttlefish will typically guard several females from other challengers. He does not often have physical fights. It is enough for him to put on a powerful visual display.

But if another male disguises its skin to look female, he can sneak up to the guarded female and mate. The sneaky male’s disguise may be so good that the other male may try to guard him as part of his harem. …

To use disruptive patterning, cuttlefish need to make sure that their color blocks are on the same scale as the objects around them. Dr. Hanlon has yet to figure out how they measure that.

“They’re doing it in some magical way we don’t yet understand,” he said.

Dr. Hanlon and his colleagues are also puzzled by the many camouflage colors of the cuttlefish, which have a single type of pigment in their eyes. Humans have three.

Experiments in Dr. Hanlon’s lab have shown that they are color blind. They see a world without color, but their skin changes rapidly to any hue in the rainbow. How is that possible?

“That’s a vexing question,” he said. “We don’t know how it works.”

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Support Senate Patent Reform and the EFF Patent Busting Project!

Send an email here.
The Senate is now deciding whether or not to take up S.1145, the Patent Reform Act of 2007. Among other things, the bill aims to reduce certain excessive patent infringement damages, allow third parties to file patent defeating documents before patents are issued, and create a new system for challenging bad patents. While not perfect, it is an important step in the right direction.

Editing tools that make images more subjectively real

From New York Times
Mr. Cohen said his tool would produce photos that were closer to the reality that we perceive than a photograph.

“We’re assembling what’s really there — just not from one-hundredth of a second, but longer,” he said.

“Think of an axis from the purely objective to the purely subjective,” he said. “At one end is a photograph, a recording of what really took place. At the other end is our internal experience of an external event. There’s some place that is a little bit subjective. It’s not quite real. But if you and I looked at it, we would agree on it.”

This story is about tools that let users edit images to make them look more like we remember them. For example, one tool will combine multiple pictures of a group of people so that no one is blinking—even though in each individual picture at least one person is blinking. An effect I've noticed is that telephone and electric wires seem much more prominent in pictures than they do in reality. When we look at a scene, we tend to ignore foreground telephone wires. But when those wires appear on a photograph, they're a lot harder to ignore. these tools attempt to make pictures more like we see them subjectively.

The top picture is the original. The second one stretches the scene to fill a larger area, e.g., for use as a screen saver, but it doesn't stretch the dog's face. You'll notice that the trees behind the dog look the same in the two pictures, but the trees to the left and the right are wider in the second picture. The point is that the subject of interest, the dog's face, is retained as we remember it. The other parts of the image are stretched but in ways we don't notice or don't care about.

The way the stretching works is by finding a path of pixels from the top to the bottom where adjacent pixels are the same, or as closest to the same as any other path. Then that line is replicated, adding a pixel width to the picture. This is repeated until the picture is stretched as much as one likes. Presumably the software checks to ensure that it doesn't repeatedly insert pixels in the same places over and over.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

A consciousness widget

This tracks mention of these words in news stories. I don't know which ones.

It's produced by Daylife Labs, where you can make your own. It's a nice idea, but the links generated don't seem to work.

"Extending" Bush's tax cuts

Bush is proposing that his tax cuts be extended or made permanent. I sure hope the Democrats manage to frame the issue properly. Instead of debating whether to extend Bush's tax cuts the debate should be on whether Bush's free ride for the wealthy should be extended. For the past 5+ years, Bush has given the richest Americans a free ride. They have had their taxes reduced while everyone else continued to pay their normal share. The question now is whether we should continue to give Bush's rich friends that free ride or whether they should pay their fair share to support the country.

Bush's position is that giving the rich a free ride helps the economy. His temporary tax cuts were an experiment to see if that's he case — and it was his proposal to make them temporary. Well, we've seen how that experiment has worked out. Only the rich have seen significant improvements in their earnings; the federal government has run massive deficits.; and the economy is on the brink (or is already into) what looks like it will be the worst recession in years. Clearly this has been a failed experiment. It's time to stop it now — or at least to let it die when it runs out as Bush originally proposed. We certainly shouldn't make things worse by continuing something that has failed so dramatically.

We are looking at a $400+ billion deficit for this year — not counting the cost of Iraq and Afghanistan. (Who let's them get away with not counting it?) And Bush wants to give his rich friends a tax cut? Is he serious? Will the Democrats let him clam that not doing so is raising taxes? I sure hope not.

100 Hardest Hit Zip Codes

CNN Money has a list. In southern California except for one in San Diego all the listed zip codes are either in the far suburbs of LA: Palmdale, Lancaster, San Bernardino, and Riverside. The San Diego zip code seems to be pretty far inland and not close to any of the high priced coastal communities. The list was compiled by totaling the default notices, auction notices and bank repossessions. So these are properties in trouble, presumably those financed with subprime mortgages.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Ensuring quality vs. ensuring visibility (or success)

In the CAS group Jochen Fromm, the group founder, raised the issue of how to ensure quality in Web 2.0 systems. I replied as follows.
Your question about how to increase the quality of user-generated content is a very good one. I was one of the original doubters that Wikipedia would be at all useful. I'm very pleased with what it has become. I'm a bit less enthusiastic about it than the general buzz, though. My experience is that many of the technical articles are not useful unless you already understand the subject. I tend to use it for two things: (a) to get a general sense of an area that I'm not sure about and (b) as a user-aided search site. (I never use, but I often use Wikipedia as a search aid.)

In both cases, I feel reasonably confident that the people who work on a page are committed enough to the subject matter to ensure (a) that its not way off the mark and (b) that it has a reasonably good list of current references. Of course that's not guaranteed, but it's generally the case.

This seems to be self-enforcing in that anyone who cares enough about some subject area to work on a Wikipedia page will want the page to be reasonably accurate and up-to-date. This doesn't guarantee that there won't be vandalism. The Wikipedia structure seems to handle that reasonably well. It also doesn't guarantee that the person creating the page is knowledgeable enough to do a good job. But at least it comes close to guaranteeing good intentions, which is a lot. (This is probably the case about most web sites.)

Of course there are always cases in which people want pages to make something look good as in the examples of corporations and politicians spinning Wikipedia pages. But that's a somewhat different kind of quality question. Commercial ads, for example, tend to be high quality in terms of production value as well as a certain kind of information content--even if they can also be misleading in that they may leave out important information. So that's like listening to an advocate rather than an objective observer. We have to learn how to deal with that.

You mentioned mechanisms to ensure quality. Many of them do more to identify quality than to ensure it. Reputation systems, for example, point to people who have produced quality. But they don't ensure that others won't produce low quality work. That seems to be what Google and BBs that rate posters rely on. The people with better reputations become more visible. So this is a mechanism for finding quality, which may be enough. In some sense that's what market mechanisms are supposed to do. Better products become successful and more visible. Of course there are lots of ways of gaming that as we all know. But I think that's the basic idea: build mechanisms so that quality will become more visible.

As you said, this is really quite different from Wikipedia, which wants to ensure that all pages have a certain level of quality and not just that the good ones are more visible. That seems like a much harder job.
What now strikes me as interesting is the difference between mechanisms (like evolution and market mechanisms) that encourage the establishment and visibility of successful variants and mechanisms that attempt to ensure an overall level of quality. The latter seems much harder. Evolution works because elements that do well in an environment are (by definition) more successful at establishing themselves in that environment.

An implication of this is that recommendation systems (and Google) work only because the recommenders actually favor quality. If recommenders favored cranks, that's what Google would serve us. So recommendation-based systems only reflect the tastes of the recommenders. I guess that's obvious. But it's worth noting how dependent we have all become on the fact that apparently the Internet favors quality overall. One can also point to this as a Wisdom of Crowds effect.

As I said above, recommender systems are very different from systems that attempt to ensure overall quality. The latter seems to be much more difficult. It strikes me that the latter in some ways reflects the dreams of centrally controlled economies. The fact that they don't work shows how difficult it is to ensure quality overall. Economies that are more market driven can allow poor quality because better quality products and services (in general) become more successful.

Friday, February 01, 2008

The New York Times on the web

This, Against the Machine - Lee Siegel - Book Review - New York Times,
is a book review pointed to from the Times weekly email book review message. It's not a particularly enthusiastic review. I was struck, though, by how well the Times is doing in web journalism.

I like the graphic. The Times so often has either an imaginative graphic or a compelling photograph to accompany its articles. They have a useful list of the most popular articles. It appears on its own page (as in the link above), and it also appears at the right on most pages. They have a catalog of videos that continue to grow. The have a nice list of right-click menu options. Even the Flash ads seem to have special class. Earlier I wrote that I believe the Times has decided that if it's going to survive they will have to master the web—and that they have apparently committed themselves to that end. I think they are doing very well.