Thursday, January 30, 2014

Reading Review: Week 3

Racing with Machines: The Rise of Technological Unemployment

There have been many articles written in the last couple of years about automation replacing too many jobs to achieve full employment.  This article is a good representative, as the author kept it short and didn't insert a lot of politics into the discussion.  Of course, automation has been replacing manual labor for centuries, and yet in the boom times, there's still enough work for everyone in developed countries.  There has been a resurgence of this view in the last year or two, however, as we reach certain technological milestones.  But I have to say that I don't share this negative view.  Humans will always dream of new things and experiences, invent them, and others will desire to have them.  Even if most jobs around us today will eventually be automated, I believe an entirely new set of jobs will be created by this endless cycle.

Richard Preston: The Mysterious Lives of Giant Trees

This TED talk discusses the canopy of coastal redwood trees.  It's an interesting and understudied ecosystem with many surprises.  (There are crustaceans in redwood canopies?  Really?)  I was also happy to see that Richard Preston, who sold more than 2.5 million copies of The Hot Zone twenty years ago, was still learning and exploring, and not just playing golf after all that money and success.  It's also awesome that he takes his kids along and let's them camp out in the canopy.  (Don't worry; they are tethered to a harness.)

Watch the Amazing Flight Patterns of Birds

This article is fun to read and watch, and also shows how we can miss the obvious until we look at a common thing in a new way.

Calling the Shots: Realistic Commentary Heightens Video Games

I'm not really into video games at all, but one thing that's always fascinated me is how realistic the announcing seems to be in many sports video games.  This article discusses how modern games have audio libraries of a quarter million phrases which are dynamically chosen by the game play.  Thus, the play-by-play announcer speaks with more excitement when the score is close or the clock is running out.  Crowd noises are also changed based on these factors.  Additionally, the color commentator discusses a whole range of facts and trivia about the players and the teams in between plays.  The end result is a very realistic final product.

Confessions of a Recovering Op-Ed Columnist

This was a pretty unremarkable piece except for one paragraph that really struck me:
"After 17 years I didn’t like what the relentless production of a newspaper column was doing to my writing. That routine can push you to have stronger opinions than you actually have, or contrived opinions about subjects you may not care deeply about, or to run roughshod over nuance to reach an unambiguous conclusion."
I hope that us bloggers will also take this point to heart.  The pressure of schedule and the desire for readership is indeed pushing many bloggers in this direction.  Because a balanced and carefully written article does not always draw immediate readership, many resort to contrived opinions at one end of the teeter totter.  Titles like "Anyone Who Doesn't Budget Is A Loser" and "Budgeting Is A Complete Waste Of Time" unfortunately draw a lot of readers, but it that really what we believe?

Friday, January 17, 2014

Reading Review: Week 2

How Nils Bohlin Invented the Three-Point Safety Belt

I was astonished to find out that Volvo made the patent for the three-point safety belt available to all the other car manufacturers as a benevolent act.  I guess if they had the vision to realize that it would ultimately save over one million lives, they would not want to put a price tag on it.  Still, corporate altruism of this size is relatively unusual.

Tips for Personal Financial Success

It's rare to see such a short article correctly hit all the major points in personal finance, and so I want to call attention to this piece.  If you're looking for "how to do personal finance" summarized on one page, I highly recommend this article as a starting point.

Higher Indoor Humidity Inactivates Flu Virus Particles

Why is the flu so seasonal in temperate regions of the world?  Until recently, the standard answer was that people congregate indoors more in the winter.  This answer struck many people (including myself) as a relatively weak argument.  Around 2007, scientists began to notice a link between flu transmission and humidity.  At first the data looked inconclusive, mainly because the right things were not being measured yet.  But in the last two years, there has been a steady stream of evidence at both the micro and macro level that flu transmission is strongly linked to humidity.  On a more practical note, this article suggests that increasing the humidity in your home during the dry winter months may decrease your likelihood of contracting the flu from other family members.

Hydrothermal Vent Creatures

In 1977, an entirely new kind of ecosystem was discovered - one that was not ultimately based on photosynthesis.  This short video from the Smithsonian conveys the drama of finding something utterly unexpected on the deep ocean floor.

Chasing the Dream of Half-Price Gasoline from Natural Gas

You may know that various methods exist to convert one type of fuel to another.  Coal, natural gas, and even plants can be converted to oil.  The problem is that the conversions are very expensive, and while a lot of people have tried to cut those costs, thus far any practical solution has been elusive.  It's unclear whether startup company Siluria can overcome these obstacles, but even if they fail at a commercial method for gas-to-liquids, their approach to solving the problem is nothing short of revolutionary and could possibly yield results in other areas.  In a search to find the best catalyst, the company uses viruses to assemble atoms of inorganic materials into specific shapes!  This has allowed them to rapidly try out tens of thousands of possibilities.  Edison would have been proud.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Reading Review: Week 1

I'm a voracious reader of both printed books and online articles.  Since the time I first began blogging years ago, one of the things I've always wanted to do was to write one of those weekly reading summaries.  And so starting out the new year, I thought I would finally give it a try.

Now I'm not a fan of these blogging "carnivals", where essentially a group of blogs all agree to provide links to the latest article from all the other blogs on a rotating basis.  I suppose it's great for easy link building, but not so great for learning and reflecting.  I hope to do better.  I'll try to provide a short, weekly list of about five articles with some value added.  Some articles may be from blogs, but most probably won't be.  And many articles probably won't be from the past week, as I have a penchant for finding older articles with a long shelf life.

I hope someone out there will enjoy these reading reviews.

A Speck in the Sea

This is a beautifully written survival story about a man who fell off a boat in the North Atlantic.  He was alone with no gear, and as the fall occurred at night, no one even realized he was missing for several hours.  It's a wonderful story to read just for the thrill and excitement of the account, but there are also lessons to contemplate.  Even in the most dire of circumstances, we can act rationally, set goals, and even think of others. 

Are You an Asset Based or Franchise Value Investor?

I've seen many different categorizations of investors: active versus passive, growth versus value, short-term versus long-term, and many others.  However, "asset based" versus "franchise value" was a new taxonomy for me.  After reading the definition of the terms, I realized I had employed both approaches in the past, with some successes (and failures) for each style.  Thus, I could not initially decide which type of investor I am.  But the article goes on to establish how the different approaches mesh with different innate skills and personalities of an individual, and encouraged investors to focus on the style that most fits their strengths.  By the time I reached the end of the article, I realized how much better one style fit me than the other.  So what kind of investor am I?  It's an interesting question, but the more important question is: what kind of investor are you?

Bitcoin Is an Expensive Way to Pay for Stuff

Lately, my oldest child has begun to ask how certain businesses make money.  It's easy to see how Walmart makes money - they buy goods in bulk, mark them up in price, and sell them.  General Motors makes money by designing and building cars, selling the finished product for more than the sum of the parts.  But other business models are more opaque.  How does Visa make money?  How does Ebay make money?  How do banks make money?  How does EZ Pass make money?  When it comes to financial companies, kids and adults alike may have trouble deciphering just how money is made.  This article explains how the use of Bitcoin, like many financial products, does have a fee, even though the cost is not easily apparent.

How Google Converted Language Translation Into a Problem of Vector Space Mathematics

This article is short and not nearly as daunting as the title would seem to indicate.  It seems that the wizards at Google have shown that the similarities between human languages are perhaps greater than we previously realized - even between less related languages like English and Vietnamese.  Translation can now be more automated than ever before.

Eric Whitacre: A Virtual Choir 2,000 Voices Strong

Although this TED Talk video has been out for several years, I still find that relatively few people have seen it.  A few days ago, I watched it again and still found the same sense of wonder and amazement as when I first watched it a couple of years ago.  Please make sure you watch in HD with a good sound system.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

2013 Year-End Update

I don't anticipate much change in the handling of our finances for 2014.  We'll just keep doing what we've been doing.  Instead, I hope to spend more time in 2014 working on other aspects of my life.  Areas to focus on include maintaining a healthier lifestyle, being more disciplined in my reading, redefining my "career path", and finally pursuing a number of moneymaking ideas I've kicked around for years (hint: not this blog).  I'll share more about these items at a later date.

Best wishes for the new year to all.