Strong opinions, weakly held

Month: March 2011 (page 2 of 3)

More on the unfolding nuclear situation in Japan

Needless to say, the situation with the nuclear plants in Japan seems to be degrading by the day. I was one of the many people who linked to the letter by Dr. Josef Oehmen explaining how the containment systems for the nuclear plants in Japan work and that we needn’t worry about radiation releases from those plants. What we know now is that there is cause to worry. This has prompted Justin Elliott at Salon to publish a piece “debunking” Oehmen’s letter.

I don’t really think that’s fair. Oehman’s piece was published on Monday in the middle of a rapidly changing situation, and it appears as though things were significantly worse on Monday than was reported. Oehmen should perhaps have been more skeptical of the news out of Japan, but his letter provided a very useful framework for understanding subsequent news reports on the severity of the situation. Had I not read it, I’d still be having trouble making sense of the news from Japan.

I would strongly encourage people to follow the All Things Nuclear blog from the Union of Concerned Scientists for up to date news on developments with Japan’s nuclear disaster. MIT has also created MIT NSE Nuclear Information Hub to report on developments at the Fukushima plant. If you’re interested in this issue, I’d encourage you to stay up to date. The situation continues to change rapidly and the news keeps getting worse, and news stories and blog posts that are even a day or two old are no longer useful, except as background.

Is Apple intentionally crippling Web applications on iOS?

Today, everyone is linking to a provocative article from The Register with the headline Apple handcuffs ‘open’ web apps on iPhone home screen. There are three separate issues, all of which cause Web applications that are launched from the home screen to work more poorly than they do if you run them in Safari. The biggest issue is that Applications run from the home screen are not making use of the new JavaScript interpreter in iOS 4.3.

A friend who’s a software developer boils down that issue as follows:

  • Nitro is a JIT engine and requires that an executable using it be able to mark data memory pages as executable. Safari is a system app so it gets to do that (there’s a signed entitlement in the app that allows this).
  • Third-party apps using UIWebView (e.g. PhoneGap apps) do not get that capability so they do not get Nitro and I wouldn’t expect them to, since permitting marking data as executable makes app store review kind of pointless.
  • Web apps running from home screen but not in full-screen mode (which launch inside Safari) run Nitro fine.
  • Web apps running from home screen in full-screen mode launch inside Web.app, which is a system app and in theory should be able to run Nitro but it’s not because it lacks the entitlement.

Sounds like a bug to me.

For the discussion behind those points, see this thread at Hacker News.

On donating to Japan

Felix Salmon makes a logical argument that you shouldn’t donate to Japan. He argues that earmarking funds for specific disasters prevents them from being used most efficiently, and that Japan is better equipped to deal with this disaster than most countries that suffer a major disaster. Tyler Cowen disagrees, arguing that donating to Japan affirms our friendship with that country, and that you probably won’t make a donation to someone else instead, anyway, and that donating to Japan is better than the non-donation you’ll probably make. I’d argue that the best compromise is to donate to a charity that provides disaster relief, like the Red Cross, Red Cross, but not restrict the donation to disaster relief for Japan. (That’s what Felix Salmon recommends as well.) So if you are moved to donate by this disaster, please do so, but donate wisely.

Why Japan’s nuclear disaster is not going to irradiate everything

Dr. Josef Oehmen explains the nuclear accident in Japan:

I am writing this text (Mar 12) to give you some peace of mind regarding some of the troubles in Japan, that is the safety of Japan’s nuclear reactors. Up front, the situation is serious, but under control. And this text is long! But you will know more about nuclear power plants after reading it than all journalists on this planet put together.

A regular reader forwarded me this link, which explains not only what’s happening at the Fukushima plant in Japan, but also, in concise terms, how the reactor works in the first place.

Once you’ve read that piece, you can totally understand what’s going on with the Unit 3 reactor, which subsequently suffered a cooling failure.

Update: Patrick McKenzie on the incredible success of Japan’s disaster response.

Who benefits from our culture of lawlessness

Jim Henley on pervasive lawlessness and the role Barack Obama has played in it:

Abandoning the rule of law certainly provides, as it were, the ruling class with “security.” They can get away with enormities themselves, and get away with ever more blatantly high-handed measures against anyone less powerful who opposes them or is simply inconvenient. It’s a nice racket. As for what Barack Obama has to do with all of this, which is what John’s post speculates on, the answer appears to be, nothing consequential. His first and possibly last consequential act was to leave the real centers of American government power – Defense, Treasury and the Chair of the Federal Reserve – in the hands of the supposed opposition party. Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and a Democratic White House allowed Republicans to destroy the effectiveness of key components of the liberal base – ACORN; the SEIU; etc. – with a succession of fake scandals, never lifting a finger to defend the people and organizations who did the actual work to get them elected.

I have a hard time arguing with that.

In related news, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley has resigned after he criticized the deplorable treatment of Bradley Manning in military custody.

In defense of Corexit

I happened to pick up a dead trees copy of the New Yorker this week and found in it a massive article on the BP oil spill written by Raffi Khatchadourian. I wouldn’t be surprised if he were working on a book on the same subject. In it, he brings the perspective that only the passage of time can give to a situation that was very hard to judge at the time.

Not only did the public not really understand the full scope of what was going on, but neither did anyone who was actively involved in the response to the spill. Khatchadourian’s article is what you might call the first revisionist history of the spill response.

As a liberal and an environmentalist, I found the article really valuable because it caused me to take a hard look at some of my biases and the role they played in my reaction to the response to the spill. A huge portion of the article is devoted to the role dispersants (like Corexit) played in the spill response.

Heavy use of the dispersants was highly controversial for a number of reasons, some good and some bad. The bad reason was that many people reported that Corexit was highly toxic and worse for the environment than the oil itself. That turns out not to have been true — Corexit is the most widely tested chemical dispersant available, and in the aftermath the EPA has found that it is less toxic than the oil being spilled. Fears (mostly unfounded) about the toxicity of the Corexit prevented it from being used as widely as it could have been.

The spill response team also started using Corexit at the wellhead to break up the oil as it was emerging from the blowout in addition to applying it using sprayers from the air. This had never been tried before and thus caused a lot of worry about what would result.

And also, nobody has used dispersants in the amount that they were used in the BP spill response. These last two fears were better founded. It’s important to look at the risks when you’re trying something new.

Ultimately, the dispersants were the most effective measure used by the spill response team, and the disinformation that was passed around about the dispersants probably reduced the effectiveness of the spill response.

Fundamentally, a lot of the negative impression of the use of dispersants resulted from people seeing the use of them as something that BP was for and the EPA was against. In truth, the spill response was coordinated by the most experienced and knowledgeable oil spill experts in the world, and the scientists working on the response ultimately agreed that using the dispersants made more sense than not using them.

That’s just one example of how people’s realtime impression of who was calling the shots affected public opinion, in turn making it more difficult to clean up the spill.

The article covers only one aspect of the spill — cleanup of the oil that spewed into the Gulf of Mexico. It didn’t cover the events leading up to the spill or the efforts to contain the blowout. It makes a powerful argument that in the end, technocrats and experts are our best bet at getting the job done, and that public opinion and politicians mostly tend to make things worse.

Why the Internet hasn’t grown the economy

Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation argues that economic growth in advanced nations is slowing because we haven’t seen any innovations in the past few decades that encourage economic growth. Ezra Klein’s review provides a solid synopsis of Cowen’s argument.

In Slate, Annie Lowrey looks at a variety of explanations for why the Internet hasn’t proven to be a GDP-boosting invention. I tend to agree with the argument that economists aren’t very good at measuring the value of the Internet:

That brings us to a final explanation: Maybe it is not the growth that is deficient. Maybe it is the yardstick that is deficient. MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson explains the idea using the example of the music industry. “Because you and I stopped buying CDs, the music industry has shrunk, according to revenues and GDP. But we’re not listening to less music. There’s more music consumed than before.” The improved choice and variety and availability of music must be worth something to us—even if it is not easy to put into numbers. “On paper, the way GDP is calculated, the music industry is disappearing, but in reality it’s not disappearing. It is disappearing in revenue. It is not disappearing in terms of what you should care about, which is music.”

This is sort of the story of blogging as well. Or photography. Or anything else that can be delivered over the Internet at a minimal cost.

Where libertarians and liberals could find common ground

I’ve been reading the new Bleeding Heart Libertarian blog with interest. I’m not a libertarian by any stretch of the imagination, but I find myself in agreement with many of the principles that underpin it as a political philosophy. Jacob Levy gets at the heart of the differences between liberals and libertarians and then explains why, from a political perspective, they are not really very important:

So libertarianism as a doctrine in political philosophy had this distinctive contribution to make: it rejected state activity to increase the material well-being of the poor. I think by gradual drift, that came to seem like all libertarianism was concerned with.

But in the real world, state action to improve the material lot of the poor is not a very large portion of state action. This is politically predictable, almost trivially so. But that means that the focus on libertarianism’s apparent philosophical difference with Rawlsian liberalism gives us a very distorted sense of the work libertarians could do politically in the world. We don’t live in a Rawlsian world, separated from Nozick’s by the existence of poverty-alleviation programs. We live in a world characterized by massive state action of all sorts, most of which does nothing to alleviate poverty and a great deal of which is actively regressive or harmful to the worst-off.

If everyone in America understood those two paragraphs, this country would be a much better place.

The dangerous allure of one size fits all

It seems like almost everyone with a blog is captivated by the debate over Apple’s new policies related to in-app purchases. I read at least one good post on the subject every day. The money issues are important but not really interesting. Apple is leveraging its absolute control over which applications can be installed under iOS to pry away a big chunk of the revenue from application vendors.

The one rationale for the new policy I best understand is that application vendors will modify their pricing model so as to pay Apple the smallest amount possible. So if Apple charges 30% on direct purchases through iTunes and 15% for in-app purchases, many developers will distribute their application for free and then unlock the good features through an in-app purchase. If the percentage is different for subscriptions and for standalone in-app purchases, developers will try to switch to subscription-based pricing. In that sense, Apple has a strong incentive to charge the same price across the board.

What really interests me, though, is Apple’s false confidence in the idea that one payment system will actually work for everyone. Chris Adamson explains why this won’t work:

A client of a client of mine is likely to get caught up in this I-AP drama, and in a meeting this week, we laid out exactly how I-AP works, and what they have to do in order to implement it, including entering every product into the iTunes Connect web interface, a nightmarish prospect when you have thousands of SKUs. When we finished, there was a long silence on the phone, followed by a colleague saying “you can probably imagine the look on everyone’s faces here.”

I’m sure that the iOS team at Apple feels that they have designed an elegant and powerful payment system, maybe the best that anyone has ever created. But it’s apparent that not only is such a system insufficient for any application that might be conceived in the future for iOS, it’s also insufficient for many applications that already exist today.

It strikes me that the core error was when Apple allowed itself to be convinced that a one size fits all payment system would work for the full iOS ecosystem. I do wonder whether it was an executive decision that was passed on to engineers to implement, or the product team came up with a solution that the executives decided could work for everyone.

The history and future of information science

Freeman Dyson’s recent New York Review of Books article on information science is one of the most interesting things I’ve read lately. Where else are you going to read about the similarities between Wikipedia and Congolese drum language? These days, the ways that big data is changing how businesses operate is widely discussed. He explains how big data is changing how science is conducted and indeed how biological evolution is moving more toward big data. It’s a must read.

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