Friday 5 January, 2024

Van Gogh inverted

This lovely photograph by Natalya Saprunova in yesterday’s Washington Post stopped me in my tracks. It shows bubbles of carbon dioxide and methane — released by permafrost melting — floating to the surface of a stream in Siberia. What it instantly reminded me of was paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, and if you turn it upside down you can perhaps see why.

Quote of the Day

One of my grandfathers was a bombardier in the European theater of World War 2. He came back uninjured, but the stress of so many near-death experiences, and so many dead friends, drove him to lifelong alcoholism. Once, in the 1990s, I heard a conservative pundit claim that young Americans had become soft and weak because they had never had to face adversity like the World War 2 generation did. I asked my grandfather what he thought of that. After uttering something unprintable, he said: “I did that [stuff] so you wouldn’t have to.”

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Ye Vagabonds | Whistling Wind


Thanks to Celine Naughton for suggesting it.

Long Read of the Day

Does Capitalism Beat Charity?

Scott Alexander is IMHO one of the most interesting writers on the Web. This essay indicates why. Even when I disagree with him, I admire the way he approaches complicated questions. As in this case.

This question comes up whenever I discuss philanthropy.

It would seem that capitalism is better than charity. The countries that became permanently rich, like America and Japan, did it with capitalism. This seems better than temporarily alleviating poverty by donating food or clothing. So (say proponents), good people who want to help others should stop giving to charity and start giving to capitalism. These proponents differ on exactly what “giving to capitalism” means – you can’t write a check to capitalism directly. But it’s usually one of three things:

  1. Spend the money on whatever you personally want, since that’s the normal engine of capitalism, and encourages companies to provide desirable things.

  2. Invest the money in whatever company produces the highest rate of return, since that’s another capitalist imperative, and creates more companies.

  3. Do something like donating to charity, but the donation should go to charities that promote capitalism somehow, or be an investment in companies doing charitable things (impact investing)

I agree that overall capitalism has produced more good things than charity. But when I try to think at the margin, in Near Mode, I can’t make this argument hang together. Here’s my basic objection…

Read on and enjoy the ride. With Alexander, the journey, not the destination, sometimes matters most.

Books, etc.

I’ve come late to Cade Metz’s book, and regret that fact. It’s interesting, readable and very illuminating about the origins of the current AI frenzy.

Niklaus Wirth RIP

He was a great computer scientist, inventor of several programming languages, two of which — Algol and Pascal — I used during my student days. I particularly liked Turbo Pascal, the development system Borland created for programming in Pascal, which included a fast compiler and a useful front-end for writing code, and which ran on the first IBM PC I owned. I used it to write software what kind-of worked, and which therefore qualified for Roger Needham’s astringent evaluation of being “good enough for government work”.


Something I noticed, while drinking from the Internet firehose.

James Fallows: Updates on the Haneda Airport Collision

Fallows is a great journalist and also a practising pilot who writes insightfully about aviation. This is his update on the horrendous accident at Tokyo airport the other day.

What the pilots and controllers knew.

On current evidence, the Japan Air Lines plane had been properly cleared to land on Runway 34R. It is possible the pilots in that Airbus cockpit did not see the small Coast Guard plane sitting on the runway until the very last instant, or perhaps at all.

How could this be? The runway lights were bright, at night, and could make it hard to see wingtip lights in unexpected locations; the Coast Guard plane was relatively small, in a runway environment packed with other blinking lights; the Airbus windshield would have been showing a “heads up display” of the landing path, which could obscure weak lights on the runway; the controller appears not to have cautioned the crew about previously departing traffic or other complications; etc.

Latest evidence suggests that controllers had intended the Coast Guard plane to taxi to the entry point for Runway 34R, but not onto the runway. This is a fundamental life-and-death distinction in aviation, with lots of language and procedures designed to underscore the difference. “Hold short” when you’re not supposed to enter the runway; “line up and wait” when you are cleared to enter the runway but not to take off; “cleared for takeoff” when it’s time to go.

At all airports I’ve ever seen, there are bright red signs to alert you that you’re about to turn onto a runway…

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