23 December 2009

Pride and Prejudice ... and Zombies

So today I walked into my local HMV looking out for potential Christmas presents. Didn't find anything that would make good presents for my parents, but I did stumble upon something that picked my curiosity.

I saw a book titled Pride and Prejudice, which I though was pretty weird for HMV to carry. But upon closer inspection, turns out that the full title is Pride and Prejudice and Zombies! Being a zombie aficionado, I just had to buy this (especially since it was 25% off, so retailing at 15$ including taxes).

Here's the first page:
IT IS A TRUTH universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains. Never was this truth more plain than during the recent attacks at Netherfield Park, in which a household of eighteen was slaughtered and consumed by a horde of the living dead.

     "My dear Mr. Bennet," said his lady to him one day, "have you heard that Netherfield Park is occupied again?"
     Mr Bennet replied that he head not and went about his morning business of dagger sharpening and musket polishing—for attacks by the unmentionables had grown alarmingly frequent in recent weeks.
     "But it is," returned she.
     Mr Bennet made no answer.
     "Do you not want to know who has taken it?" cried his wife impatiently.
     "Woman, I am attending to my musket. Prattle on if you must, but leave me to the defense of my estate!"
     This was invitation enough.
     "Why, my dear, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune; that he escaped London in a chaise and four just as the strange plague broke through the Manchester line."
     "What is his name?"
     "Bingley. A single man of four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!"
     "How so? Can he train them in the ways of swordsmanship and musketry?"
     "How can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them."


Anyway, I never read the original, but to have a zombie novel taking place in early 19th-century England, with aristocrats as protagonists... Well that's just fucking brilliant.

And so I begin my read of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I'll post another blog after I finish reading it.

05 December 2009

New ''book-class'' released, WikiProject Wikipedia-Books looking for volunteers

Here's something I wrote for this week's issue of The Wikipedia Signpost. I trimmed some technical sections for brevity.

By Headbomb, 30 November 2009

Wikipedia books can be downloaded electronically in PDF or ODT formats, or ordered in print.

On 23 October 2009, WikiProject Wikipedia-Books, PediaPress, and the Version 1.0 Editorial Team discussed the best way to monitor Wikipedia-Books (collections of articles that can be downloaded electronically or ordered in print, not to be confused with Wikibooks; see previous story). As a result, a new WP 1.0 assessment class was created: the book-class.

This book-class would permit individual WikiProjects to monitor the various books that fall in their scope, and thus oversee merges, renaming, deletions, and so on, by tagging the talk page of individual books with the projects banner (with |class=book). WikiProjects that are interested in adopting the book-class can do so by [...] contacting Headbomb.

WikiProject Wikipedia-Books is also looking for volunteers to join the WikiProject and help convert Good topics and Featured topics into books, as well as participate and create discussions about all things related to Wikipedia-Books.

For more about Wikipedia-Books, see Wikipedia:Books and Help:Books. For pages that need to be tagged by WikiProjects, see Category:Wikipedia Books. To create a Wikipedia-Books, click on "create a book" in the print/export box on the left side of your screen [when editing wikipedia as a logged-in user].


• Headbomb (30 November 2009). "News and notes: New book-class released, WikiProject Wikipedia-Books looking for volunteers", The Wikipedia Signpost, 5 (48). Accessed 2009-12-05.

23 November 2009

Follow the LHC progress as it all develops

...or at least, what the CMS [Compact Muon Solenoid] team are doing,[1] with some pictures of stuff going on in the detectors. New stuff is added at the top so read from the bottom if you want to start from the beginning. (See also their 23 November 2009 press release, which also has some purty pictures.[2])

I'll look up for additional feeds from the other teams, so check out this page every now and then.


[1] CMS team. CMS e-commentary for 2009 LHC beams. CERN. Accessed 23 November 2009.
[2] CERN (23 November 2009). Two circulating beams bring first collisions in the LHC. Accessed 23 November 2009.

13 November 2009

LHC back on track!

Finally! After roughly a year of wait (the LHC broke in mid-September of 2008), CERN announced on that the LHC now has protons committing suicide one again![1][2][3]


[1] "Particles are back in the LHC!", CERN Bulletin 45 (2009). Accessed 13 November 2009.
[2] CERN (30 October 2009). Particles are back in the LHC!. Accessed 13 November 2009.
[3] CERN (9 November 2009). Particles have gone half way round the LHC. Accessed 13 November 2009.

11 November 2009

How to shoot yourself in the foot in three easy steps

1) Have a bad idea. Or if you aren't a Wikipedia editor, go here.
2) Ignore community input. Repeatedly.
3) Do said bad idea.

But don't worry, a bunch of us are working on slapping back some sense in the Wikimedia Foundation. Hopefully these awful (and can you say arrogant and self-absorbed!) messages will be gone soon.

Update: The banners are now down due to technical problems. Hopefully since there's a technical delay and a huge backlash, the WMF will consider the several alternatives proposed by volunteers. More as it develops.

See also

• Phoebe, Ragesoss, Pretzels (11 November 2009). "Controversial 'Wikipedia Forever' fundraiser to start 10 November", Wikipedia Signpost, 5(45). Accessed 11 November 2009.

17 October 2009

The Dirty Window

Here's something I wrote a while ago (2006 or so).

What is science?

Science is starting with dirty window and washing it so you can see through it. At first it's a bit blurry and you can see something that looks like a truck engine. You say, "Well there's a truck out there." Then as you clean up more spots, you see more of the engine and some pipes. You think, "Oh, those must be part of the exhaust system."

Finally after a good portion of the window has been cleaned up, you can see that what you thought was a truck (based on what you thought was a truck engine and an exhaust system) really is a generator with cooling pipes. Joy fills you as you realize that you've been wrong and get excited at the possibilities, "Ha-ha! Maybe this is a refrigerator!" You clean up the window a bit more and see transformers and power stations. You revise yourself, "Oh, it's a power plant." Sure, you don't see all the connections and all the wiring, but it's definitely a power plant.

After some more work, you cleaned most of the window and figured out how the transformers and powers station work. You also see what looks like cables going between the transformers and power station. You hypothesize, "Well it would make a lot of sense if those were transmission lines because current has to flow between the two." Then you think a bit more, "Hmm, if this is a power station there ought to be stuff like gas tanks around if it's a thermal plant... Unless it's a hydroelectric power plant and there's a dam outside. Let's check for gas emission to see if it releases CO2!" So you measure CO2 levels and upon seeing the data, you think, "Hmm... there's definitely CO2 around so that could mean that it's a thermal plant... but there's also radiation present... maybe it's a nuclear plant... CO2 levels could be from a secondary system if it's a nuclear plant... or maybe it's a thermal plant and there's something that is radioactive around?"

This is how science works.

What is religion?

Religion is starting with a window with truck decals over it. You say, "Look there's a truck out there!" You run to the window to take a closer look, and you see some places in the decals where there are holes. You look through them and see a truck engine where the truck engine is on the decals. You think to yourself, "Cool, there's really a truck engine behind this, the decals are accurate." Then some guy throws a rock at the window and breaks the part where the exhaust pipes were. Everyone is shocked, "Someone dared to throw a rock in the window! It had a beautiful truck on it that made everyone happy."

You happen to be the guy in charge of patching things. As you get to the window, you look through the bigger hole left by the rock. You see something that looks like an exhaust pipe, but not really the way it was portrayed on the decal. You think, "Ah, well the decals were mostly accurate at least." And then the same guy as before throws another rock in the window because he wants to see what's behind the window. Oh boy, this time he broke a good chunk of it.

Everyone is shocked! Throwing rocks in windows! And the window with a truck on it at that! More shocking even is that you can now see that it's not a truck engine you were seeing but a generator with cooling pipes. Some people think, "Well this just means that trucks run on generators with cooling pipes." Other people claim it's the truck as depicted on the original decal and that those who see something else have hallucinations from the exhaust pipes of the truck. Other people say, "It's not a truck, it's a power plant, but that doesn't mean there can't be a truck in the power plant."

Then the scientist comes in and says, "Look we cleaned our window and look it's a power plant! You've got transformers, transmission lines, power stations, generators and all that jazz. We even figured out how they work for the most part. The window is still dirty in some parts but we'll get it cleaned up eventually." The religionist replies, "No, no, it's a truck. Look through my window!" The scientist takes a look and is puzzled for a while. Eventually, he realizes "Hmm that is weird... My window clearly shows a power plant... Ah I see the problem! You have decals over your window. That's why it looks like a truck. Let's take it off and you'll see the power plant." The religionist take offense, "No! My beautiful window, don't you touch it! It's a truck, you've just inhaled too much exhaust fumes!" and refuses to peek through your cleaned window out of fear of inhaling the same fumes you did.

The moderate religionist peaks through your window and say, "Well all those transformers and thingies ... I don't really understand them, but I guess it's just how truck works!" The agnostic takes a look and says, "Well your window is not fully cleaned yet, so we can't really say there isn't a truck out there. And even if it was completely cleaned, there could always be a truck hiding behind that big generator over there so we can't really say there is no truck there."

The scientist intervenes, "Hold your horses people. This is not a truck, it's a power plant! We didn't see any truck parts, skid marks, or oil leaks that can't be explained by a piece of equipment from the power plant. There's oil on the floor over there, and we don't know where it comes from yet from but we know it's not from a truck or a moving vehicle." The religionist retorts "Well how do YOU know! You thought it was a fridge before after all. What's to say that you're not again wrong this time? You can't say for sure that it's a power plant because that bit in the corner that's not cleaned could be a tire and the other part here could be a carburetor! You can't prove it's not a truck because you don't know everything!"

The agnostic chips in, "The religionist has a point. How can we really know there are no trucks out there, there could be one in the turbines?" The scientist admits, "Yeah well... Yeah I guess there could be one in the turbines since we haven't looked there. When turbine runs, none of our instruments works because of the interference." The atheist then replies, "Why the hell would there be a truck in the turbines? That doesn't make any damned sense!"

And then the philosopher comes in and busts everyone's balls by saying, "Well it's not because it's a power plant today that it won't be a truck tomorrow!"

See also

* Carl Sagan (1995 ). "The Dragon In My Garage", The Demon Haunted World. ISBN 0-345-40946-9
* "Russell's Teapot", Wikipedia. Accessed 17 October 2009.
* "Invisible Pink Unicorn", Wikipedia. Accessed 17 October 2009.

15 October 2009

Artificial black holes!

Two Chinese researchers, Qiang Cheng and Tie Jun Cui, from the State Key Laboratory of Millimeter Waves at the Southeast University in Nanjing, China, have apparently created artificial black holes![1,2]

Bending light

Now everyone has heard of black holes (picture). Dense regions of matter, which are so dense that light cannot escape from them. Yadda yadda yadda. Booooooring! (Okay, not really. Black holes are pretty cool.)

Now if you want to bend light, there are two ways to do it. The one that comes to mind when thinking of black holes is gravitational lensing (picture), that is when a chunk of mass bends light because of its gravity. However there's a much simpler way to do so. Simply take something like a chunk of glass and witness Snell's Law (picture). Ta-dah!

If you have a dense enough chunk of mass, the lensing effect will be so big that light will start "bending inwards" (for lack of a better way to describe this), and light will not be able to escape. And that's your Grandma's black hole. An astute reader with a keen sense of inquiry (such as yourself) would at this point suspect that since this happens for mass, perhaps it also happens for optical materials as well.


Now these you might not have heard of. Metamaterials are essentially optical materials (glass is an optical material for example) that are specifically engineered to have uncommon properties (such as negative refractive indices). What a negative refractive index means is that a ray of light will bend inwards, as if the ray came from the opposite angle (picture) instead of bending in the usual way. What this means is that you can create a a material where light keeps "bending inwards", thus will never be able to get out, just like in Grandma's black hole.

The mathematical properties of these artificial black holes are exactly the same (as far as light is concerned) than for the "normal" black holes. So we now have black holes that we can build in labs, move around, experimentally study, and fits in your pocket. The really cool thing about them is since the mathematics are the same for the "artificial" or the "normal" black holes, then whatever knowledge we gain by studying the artificial ones yields knowledge about the normal ones.


[1] 14 October 2009. "Artificial Black Hole Created in Chinese Lab", Technology Review. Accessed 15 October 2009.
[2] Qiang Cheng, Tie Jun Cui (2009). "An electromagnetic black hole made of metamaterials", arXiv:0910.2159 [physic.optics]. (Lots of pretty pictures at the end.)

12 October 2009

PediaPress, part 2

In my last blog entry, I mentioned that I was now working for PediaPress as a "community assistant" or whatever the title I'm supposed to use. I also wanted to give a preview of how to create books and how the printed thing comes out, but the interface was being overhauled, so it didn't make much sense in giving details about something that was going to be obsolete in just a few days. Now that the overhauled has been performed, I can tell you all about it and you won't end up confused if you come back in one week.

Creating a book

Essential you enable the book tool, then browse Wikipedia and select relevant pages. Once you're done with that, you pick a title (and subtitle if you feel like it), arrange the pages by chapters and presentation order. Once you're done, you can order the books in print or download them electronically.

See the documentation of the book creator tool for further details, or alternatively this blog post at PediaPress.

Book covers

Here's some pictures as promised earlier:

Pretty damned sexy book covers if you ask me. Even without considering the Body Modification one...

External links

Book creator tool

02 October 2009

Got a job at PediaPress

You can read all about it here.

Basically, I'll coordinate the behind-the-scenes stuff to make sure that book creation is well-documented, and that both editors and WikiProjects are aware that books exist, and that they have the tools to monitor, improve, and create them.

Which is pretty great since I love doing this sort of thing, and I wanted to work in the publishing world. w00t! For the full job description, see here.

External links

Wikipedia > Help:Books

28 August 2009

And the most cited journal of Wikipedia is...

...the Journal of Biological Chemistry (cited 22227 times), followed by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (14628), Nature (11127), Genome Research (10208) and Science (5803).[a][1]

Some context and history

A while ago, I got the idea of building a compilation of all the journals cited by Wikipedia based on the "|journal=" parameters found in citation templates,[b] and organized them alphabetically and by popularity.[2] This would help to identify the most popular journals that didn't have an article on Wikipedia, potential redirects (for example Phys. Rev. Lett. and Physical Review Letters are the same journals, so someone searching for the former should be automatically be taken to the later).

This allowed us (WikiProject Academic Journals) to create redirects and new articles for a bunch of journals. Before the compilation was built, the most-cited "journal" (see note [a]) without an article (or redirect) was cited 10190 times (Genome Res. which was redirected to Genome Research).[3] After a bit more than two months, the most-cited journal without an article was cited 328 times (Malacologia).[4,5] A pretty good improvement I would argue, although this was the "easy" part. It mostly involved creating redirects rather than entirely new articles, and there is also the fact that highly-cited journals are rarer than the not-so-highly-cited journals. A reasonable goal for the next months would be to push the threshold down to 150.

Wish us luck.


[a] Some caution about these numbers. These are the number of times for a particular spelling used in the "|journal=" parameter. For example the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences can be written Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. (14628), Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (393), Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (378), Proc Natl Acad Sci USA (350), PNAS (302), Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U. S. A. (151), Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A (121), and so on. These also exclude references that are "manually formatted", which form a significant portion of citations on Wikipedia, and I would not be surprised if they formed a vast majority. For more details, see Journals cited by Wikipedia: Reading the data.
[b] Wikipedia articles can be referenced in many ways. Usually it simply involves writing placing something like
[ref]Author (Date). "Title", ''Journal'', '''Volume''' (issue): pages.[/ref]"
after the sentence in need of a reference. However, it can be annoying to remember the exact way to format a reference. To facilitate this, reference templates can be used instead; these will automatically make your references pretty. What you instead add after the sentence is something like this:
{{cite journal
|author=Jimmy Longpants
|title=I like pirates
|journal=Journal of Pirates
|volume=3 |issue=2 |pages=34-36
which will display as
Jimmy Longpants (2009). "I like pirates", Journal of Pirates, 3(2): 34-36.
The bot retrieves all the "|journal=" parameters of all the citations templates used on all the articles of Wikipedia.


[1] ThaddeusB (28 August 2009) "Journals cited by Wikipedia (22 August 2009 dump)", Wikipedia:WikiProject Academic Journals. Consulted 28 August 2009.
[2] Headbomb (30 May 2009). "Journal Compilation", Wikipedia:Bot Requests. Consulted 28 August 2009.
[3] Wikipedia:WikiProject Academic Journals/Journals cited by Wikipedia/Missing1 (30 May 2009 dump). Consulted 28 August 2009.
[4] Wikipedia:WikiProject Academic Journals/Journals cited by Wikipedia/Missing1 (22 August 2009 dump). Consulted 28 August 2009.
[5] ThaddeusB (28 August 2009). "New Upload in Progress", Wikipedia:Wikiproject Academic Journal. Consulted 28 August 2009.

External links

WikiProject Academic Journals

13 August 2009


In their efforts to oppose the American health care reform, the Investor's Business Daily claimed that the notorious disabled physicist Stephen Hawkins wouldn't be alive were he British since the British have socialized health care.[1,2] Don't have much to say about this other than they really shot themselves in the foot there. Hahaha!


[1] C. Metz (12 August 2009). Stephen Hawkings Both British and Not Dead, The Register. Consulted 13 August 2009.
[2] Investor's Business Daily (31 July 2009). How House Bill Runs Over Grandma. Consulted 13 August 2009
[3] P.Z. Myers (13 August 2009). Our Health Care Opponents Are Shamelessly Stupid, Pharyngula. Consulted 13 August 2009.

19 July 2009

A gem of musical history

A some of you may know, I am somewhat of a Gustav Mahler fan.[a] I particularly enjoy his 5th and 7th symphonies, which are in my opinion, the pinnacle of modern symphonic compositions, although I have not yet heard his 9th which is supposed to be his best work. However, as enthralling as modern playings are, I am always saddened when I cannot hear a piece directed by its original composer. And considering that Mahler died in the early 1900s, long before the advent of half-decent recording technologies, I pretty much had no hopes of hearing the "original".

However, I've stumbled upon something amazing today. Apparently, Mahler recorded many of his work using piano rolls. And not the shitty "mechanical" rolls, he went all out and used the fancy pants piano rolls which reproduces dynamics (aka volume, speed, and all that stuff which makes a playing "human"). I am completely flabbergasted by how amazing this sounds given how crude the technology is. I am in complete and utter awe before this.

So without further ado, from Youtube, I give you Mahler!


Interpretations (First parts of 1st movements for now, the rest of the symphony can be found easily from the given links):

I will update these lists as I find other recordings.


[a] In exactly the same way punching a judge in the face is "somewhat" of a procedural faux-pas when it comes to appealing a ruling.

27 May 2009

I'm so pumped...

I've been working on something for the last year or so, and I switched my master's thesis to this topic because that's where my passion was. So I've jumped head first in that project, essentially being in Limbo since last January as far as my master's degree is concerned. It's been an uphill fight to convince people that I knew what I was talking about, and that I've got original and pertinent material for my thesis.

In a nutshell, I'm proposing a new scheme to classify subatomic particles. The current scheme (adopted in 1986)[1] is so weird that it literally takes weeks to teach at the grad-level, is so complex that it's de facto impossible to memorize it, and is based on a fundamentally meaningless concept called isospin (we know this since 1964),[2] and which needs us to bend over backwards to accommodate it since 1974.[3]

I am (as I'm writing this) preparing an upcoming talk on the topic, which will be presented at CAPC2009 (Canadian Association of Physics Congress) in two weeks. Until tonight, I really only had a solution for half the scheme, and "ideas" (which were not all that elegant) to fix the other half. That talk will also be reviewed by my department this Friday and will essentially decide if I can keep doing my master's or not. I was fiddling with some tentative new rules and I came up with something so stunningly simple, so elegant, so physical, so natural... At first I was expecting my idea be published and read with a reaction similar to "Yeah that'd be nice, but it's not worth undoing 50 years of tradition", with the adoption of my idea as being nothing more than a fantasy. But what I've come up with is so damned simple I've now allowed myself to wonder if there is any way it won't be adopted.

So now I'm pumped, and I've got no doubts that I'll be able to finish my master's (of course, I could be wrong here, but that's my feeling right now). And while I'm still holding myself back from any preemptive celebrations of my master's success, or of the adoption of my idea (cause let's face it, I would be shit-canning 50+ years of tradition in a very conservative area of science, and such paradigm shift is rarely met with open-arms by the old coots who developed and grew up with the old one), it suddenly doesn't seem all that ludicrous anymore.

Notes & References

[1] M. Aguilar-Benítez et al. (Particle Data Group) (1986). "Review of Particle Properties". Physics Letters B 170 1
[2] The quark model shows that isospin looking meaningful is simply a consequence of the mass of up and down quarks being so similar.
[3] The discovery of the charm quark forces us to move away from isospin as a sound basis of nomenclature, the reasons are rather technical, but essentially it comes down to a unnatural choice of a linear combination of quarks as the basis of nomenclature rather than the natural choice of the individual quarks themselves.

27 March 2009

Patents are evil, part 2

My previous blog on patents triggered some interesting discussions. A particular idea came from D. Hamel.[a] who suggested that instead of a complete ban of 1-2 years (or whatever time period is appropriate), a system of gradually decreasing royalties could be implemented instead.[1]

Hamel's original idea

In that conversation, Hamel suggested to give patent holders the exclusive rights to commercialization of the patented product for a "buffer period" of 5 years,[b] after which a system of gradually decreasing royalties would be used to restore competition. I personally find 5 years to be excessive, but since this is only to illustrate what is meant, let's roll with Hamel's tentative suggestion that after 5 years the patented idea would be accessible to other companies. For example, in the 6th "post-patent" year, the patent holder would received royalties amounting to 60% of the competitor's income generated, 40% in the 7th year, 20% in the 8th year and the patent would expire at the end of the 8th years.[c]

Alternative idea

I find the idea of a system of gradually decreasing royalties very appealing, much more than giving the exclusive rights of commercialization for any periods of time, especially those greater than two years. And I also like that there is a transition period; the original business can adapt to changes in the market and cannot be instantly undercut by competitors. So instead of having an outright ban on competition, I'd would propose an initial period where 100% of income (or more) has to be paid in royalties.

This way, if someone believes they have a long-term advantage if they get in the game very early on, they can do so with the handicap that every sell they make translates in an incredible bonus for the patent holder. This would also help some patent holders to raise capital, and might actually create/sustain/expand businesses that wouldn't otherwise be created/remain in operations/be expanded. Which in turn would result in an increase of competition in both the short and long-term.

Another feature of a system of the gradually decreasing royalties is that it allows for a more dynamic free market. For example, let's say the "economic value" of an idea is $5M. In terms of "when to go in", this might translate into going in the market on the 7th year, with 40% royalties. But now everyone can join in. In the current system, you would have to wait for the patent's value to diminish as the expiry date draws closer, and then someone would buy it at $5M. But this does not drive competition, as you've only transfered the monopoly from one business to another.

What do you think?

Is the current patent system (exclusive rights of commercialization for 20 years) broken? Is the solution simply flat out getting rid of patents? Drastically slash the duration of patents? Introduction a system of royalties? Leave your comments below.


[a] Full name withheld
[b] A tentative suggestion by Hamel, made with the provision that the actual amount of years should be carefully determined after studying potential impacts
[c] A tentative scheme by yours truly, also made with the provision that the actual scheme should be carefully determined after studying potential impacts


[1] D. Hamel (15 March 2009). Private conversation. Translated and slightly edited [grammar, flow] from the French by yours truly.
I believe that a better solution would be to regulate how much you need to compensate someone for a patent. You develop something, sure you get the patent. However, if another company wants to commercialize the patented idea, you must let them. In return, they must give you x% of the generated income (not profits, as business would sell at lost to kill small businesses). The x% could be a function of elapsed time since the patent has been issued. For example, you could have a five year period where no one could use your patent. But after this period, other companies could commercialize your patented product, provided they pay you gradually decreasing royalties.

17 March 2009

Mosquito death ray

No, this is not the newest indie pop band. This is literally about shooting mosquitos with laser beams in order to send 'em straight to mosquito hell.

The laser, which has been dubbed a "weapon of mosquito destruction" fires at mosquitoes once it detects the audio frequency created by the beating of its wings.

The laser beam then destroys the mosquito, burning it on the spot.

Developed by some of the astrophysicists involved in what was known as the "Star Wars" anti-missile programs during the Cold War, the project is meant to prevent the spread of malaria.

Lead scientist on the project, Dr. Jordin Kare, told CNN that the laser would be able to sweep an area and "toast millions of mosquitoes in a few minutes."

Now if this ain't badass, I don't know what is.

14 March 2009

Watchmen: Stewart vs. Cramer

Recently, many people are talking about the Jon Stewart (from Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) vs Jim Cramer (from CNBC's Mad Money) feud, which culminated on 12 March 2009 (which you can watch here).[1] However, the post-interview comments I see are more oriented to how Stewart "owned" Cramer, rather than to tackle the substance of the interview.


On 5 March 2009, Stewart ranted against the quality of CNBC's coverage of the financial crisis and the quality of their financial advice.[2] In one of the many clips showed, Stewart showed a clip from Mad Moeny where Cramer looked like he was recommending that people buy Bear Stearns (whose stock famously collapsed to abysmal levels soon after the clip originally aired). CNBC ignored Stewart's rant, but Cramer defended himself in a piece he wrote for Mainstreet.com, saying he was taken out of context.[3] Stewart retorted, conceded that when taken in context, this particular clip did not show that Cramer was recommending to buy Bear Stearns; rather Cramer was actually saying that if Bear Stearns was your broker, that your money would not disappear, as the value of your stock portfolio doesn't depend on who manages it. But he then went on showing other clips from 5 days earlier, showing Cramer expressing incredible confidence in Bear Stearns, and one from 7 weeks before the collapse who showed Cramer explicitly asking viewers to buy Bear Stearns.[4] Which ultimately lead to Cramer's appearance on The Daily Show.

The interview[1]

After the intros and the initial laughs, Stewart clarified that his intent is not to sully Cramer personally, but that the situation has unfortunately elected Cramer as the scapegoat of CNBC's less-than-optimal coverage and advice. Cramer started by saying that he was one of the good guys, protecting investors from gimmicks and insider tricks (henceforth referred to as "shenanigans", to parrot the term used by both Cramer and Stewart). Cue Stewart showing Cramer explicitly admitting that he not only knew about the shenanigans as early as 2006, but that he too was guilty of "shenaniganning". You got him on tape saying that he did ethically questionable things with his hedge funds (I have no idea what these are and won't pretend I do) and so on.

The interview then evolves into Cramer knee-jerking against Stewart, but upon Stewart quickly pointing out that it's not a personal thing, Cramer just as quickly agrees to debate the implications of these sort of actions (including his own) on the stock industry/economy, and admits that he's at fault and he failed to live up to expectations by both not calling the shenaniganners and being a shenaniganner himself. Cramer then "strikes a deal" with Stewart, saying he'll clean up and will do better in the future.


Now everyone's reaction seems to be "Lol, Stewart pwn'd Cramer". And it's indeed true, if you think of it in terms of a debate, Stewart clearly won and Cramer didn't land even one punch. However, this wasn't a debate in the sense of "Position 1" vs. "Position 2". It was an interview where Stewart asked pretty hard-hitting questions to Cramer about his own behaviour, CNBC's behaviour and financial analysts' behaviour as a whole. And if you look at the interview from the point of view that it wasn't a debate, that this wasn't a clash of viewpoints, then you can see the real impact this interview will/could have.

An appropriate comparison point would be Stewart's appearance on Crossfire, where he exposed Crossfire as being two guys (Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson) pitting the politicians' spin against each other rather than actually debating the merits of the politician's position.[5] Stewart's appearance on the show is credited as being "one of many reasons" for Crossfire's being pulled off air.[6]

However there are differences between Crossfire and Mad Money. Begala and Carlson were unapologetic about their behaviour, and thought they were doing their jobs well. Cramer conceded that he didn't live up to what is expected of him, and is willing to take due blame. At the end of the interview, Cramer didn't pull a Carlson and told Jon to go to hell (I'm paraphrasing), he struck a deal with Jon (and implicitly the public). He wants to clean himself up and make up for the wrong he's done. And he said it with a sincerity you rarely see in people. For this reason alone, Cramer should not be publicly hanged. Jon single handedly (well with the help of his team who help him doing the research I'm sure) took Cramer and his shenanigans and bitchslapped him back onto the righteous path (or at least that's what it seemed to be to me). Cramer stopped being one of "them" (aka evil financial shenaniganners of doom), and became someone with insider information who is now willing to spill the beans.

Many people are now calling for Cramer to resign, others even for CNBC to shut down as a whole.[7] Others, like Alessandra Stanly from the New York Times, simply don't get it. She wrote "Part of Mr. Stewart's frustration may stem from the fact that while he clearly won the debate, Mr. Cramer and CNBC stood to profit from the encounter."[8] What? Stewart's frustration is completely unrelated to whatever the potential benefits for CNBC and Cramer were. His frustration is that they were not doing their jobs of watchmen, but doing the exact opposite by being platforms of financial spin used for market manipulation.

Hopefully Cramer and CNBC will cleanup. Cramer seems to show goodwill, but the NBC conglomerate seems unwilling to even discuss the issue in a straightforward manner. They've asked of their anchors to ignore the story.[9] And their anchors complied (so much for your journalistic integrity Mr. Olbermann). Some even flat-out lied about it, like Joe Scarborough who, when asked about the absence of Cramer on his morning show (Cramer was supposed to show up on his show for post-interview comments), replied "No Cramer. Perhaps another example of oversleeping. Guess he had a late night."[9]

I guess the ball lies in Cramer's court now.


[1] The Daily Show (12 March 2009). "12 March 2009 episode", Comedy Central. Accessed 14 March 2009.
[2] The Daily Show (4 March 2009). "4 March 2009 episode (Clip 1 of 4)", Comedy Central. Accessed 14 March 2009.
[3] Jim Cramer (10 March 2009). "Cramer Takes on the White House, Frank Rich and Jon Stewart", Mainstream. Accessed 14 March 2009.
[4] The Daily Show (9 March 2009). "9 March 2009 episode (Clip 1 of 4)", Comedy Central. Accessed 14 March 2009.
[5] Crossfire (15 October 2004). "15 October 2004 episode", CNN. Accessed 14 March 2009.
[6] Ken Fisher (6 January 2005). "Jon Stewart wins, CNN cancels Crossfire", Ars Technica. Accessed 14 March 2009.
[7] Personal conversations with friends and acquaintances.
[8] Alessandra Stanley (14 March 2009). "High Noon on the Set: Cramer vs. Stewart ", New York Times. Accessed 14 March 2009.
[9] Steve Krakauer (13 March 2009). "MSNBC Producers Asked Not To Highlight Cramer/Stewart", Mediabistro. Accessed 14 March 2009.

Patents are evil

Wikipedia writes "A patent is a set of exclusive rights granted by a state to an inventor or his assignee for a limited period of time in exchange for a disclosure of an invention".[1] That, in and of itself, is not evil. What is evil is that patents prevent society from using good ideas because patent holders generally do no care to build and sell their inventions as much they hopes to be able to sue the crap out of anyone who makes something remotely similar.

What patents are supposed to do

The reason why patents exists is because someone thought it was a good idea to protect inventors' intellectual right and to ensure that they could benefit from their ingenuity.[2] For example Jimmy who invents a fusion-propelled skateboard in his basement applies for a patent to ensure he can raise money and build a fusion-propelled skateboard factory without getting one-upped by someone who heard of the idea, but already has the money. Patents are meant to give those with less resources a fighting chance at success. Or so we're told.

What patents actually do

Patents are an idea which came from the 1400s or so (according to Wikipedia at least).[3] They guaranteed some people the exclusive rights to sell or trade certain commodities. Back then, the intentions behind issuing patents was not the noble "giving Jimmy a chance at success"; their purpose was to enforce cartels and monopolies. As monarchy fell, so did state-sanctioned monopolies. Capitalism and free market gradually spread, competition thrived, and everyone was happy. However, the definitions of patents haven't changed. Patents are still things that guarantee the exclusive right to sell or trade a commodity. They are not designed to help inventors protect their rights in a market, they are designed to help inventors hog the market for 10–20 years (if not more).[4-5] Or rather, patents define the rights of inventors to be those of monopoly.

Now there are two things at play here:
• Most patents are not filed by "Jimmy the neighbour". Most patents are filed by research corporations and already-established businesses.[6]
• Most patent-holders don't care about turning their patented idea into products, they simply want to be able to sue anyone who tries to, or to be able to sell their idea to someone who wishes to do it.

What these two factors accomplish is that it removes things from the "economic pool of ideas". Let's take two scenarios to illustrate this.

First scenario: Someone holds on to their patents to make money by selling it.

Let's say someone (or some business) holds a patent for a more energy-efficient lawnmower and doesn't do anything with it other than hold on to it in the hopes that someone will buy it from them. Now suppose these energy-efficient are worth quite a lot, say a profit of 20 million dollars per year could be made selling them. Because the potential profits are so high, the company asks 3 million for the patent. However, say the company that is actually interested in making these lawnmowers doesn't have that sort of money. Maybe a compromise can be reached, maybe not. The consequence is that you either pay a lot of money because some guy who doesn't give a damn about turning an idea into something real is hogging the idea, in the hopes that those who give a damn will pay him, or that nothing gets done.

Second scenario: Someone holds on to their patents to immunize themselves against competition.

Let's say you've found the cure for AIDS. This is obviously worth a lot of money, so you could sell the patent for a bundle. However, if you possess two cents' worth of intelligence, you'll hold on to your patent? Why? Because their are hundreds of millions of people whose lives depend on your product. If you have no competition, then you can basically decide at what price you're selling your pills, and you're guaranteed that people will buy them. So even if these pills cost 3 cents each to make, you'll still sell them at prohibitively expensive prices just because you can. Prices are unnaturally high, and consumers pay more than what they would otherwise. Plus the incentive for research is removed, as you have a working solution and no competition to force you to improve your product. Who cares if your pills work only 90% of the time instead of 95%? People will buy them just as much one way or the other.

The real problem, and the solution

The real negative impact of patents is that they prevent society from implementing ideas for very long periods of time, and allow some people to control the market for equally long periods of time. Meaning that inefficient designs and ideas stay in society a lot longer than they should or otherwise would. However outright banning patents would have some negative impact; Jimmy the neighbour not having time to raise money before someone else copies his idea.

The solution to these problems is to drastically slash the duration of patents. This works very well in science. For example, in astronomy, people make proposal to get observation times from telescope (point this telescope at this star for this amount of time for these reasons). If they get selected, then they are guaranteed exclusive access to the data for one year, as they came up with the ideas and thus deserve to have recognition for it.[7] After one year, the data become public domain, and anyone anywhere in the world may analyze it however they like. The advantage of the proposal makers is having a one-year of expertise headstart over other people.

Patents should be like this. Guaranteed exclusive rights for one to two years (depending on the complexity of implementing the idea), after which the idea becomes public domain. If you have an idea, you have one or two years of expertise headstart on your competition, you have your marketing advantage (original brand, inventors, more experience), and you've had time to raise money to turn an idea from concept to reality. People would stop hogging their patents and would stop asking ridiculous prices for them. Those interested in making better things now can, competition is now healthier and society benefits from better products at cheaper prices.


[1] Wikipedia: Patent
[2] World Intellectual Property Organisation. "Why are patents necessary?", FAQ. Accessed 14 March 2009
[3] Wikipedia: History of Patent Law
[4] World Intellectual Property Organisation. "What does a patent do?", FAQ. Accessed 14 March 2009
[5] Wikipedia:Canadian Patent Law
[6] World Intellectual Property Organisation. The International Patent System in 2007. Accessed 14 March 2009
[7] JPL/CALTECH. "Cassini-Huygens mission FAQ", Equinox mission. Accessed March 14 2009.