April 7, 2016

Aeon - The new astrology 5-15min

Unlike engineers and chemists, economists cannot point to concrete objects – cell phones, plastic – to justify the high valuation of their discipline. Nor, in the case of financial economics and macroeconomics, can they point to the predictive power of their theories. ... In the hypothetical worlds of rational markets, where much of economic theory is set, perhaps. But real-world history tells a different story, of mathematical models masquerading as science and a public eager to buy them, mistaking elegant equations for empirical accuracy. ... take the extraordinary success of Evangeline Adams, a turn-of-the-20th-century astrologer whose clients included the president of Prudential Insurance, two presidents of the New York Stock Exchange, the steel magnate Charles M Schwab, and the banker J P Morgan. To understand why titans of finance would consult Adams about the market, it is essential to recall that astrology used to be a technical discipline, requiring reams of astronomical data and mastery of specialised mathematical formulas. ... ‘An astrologer’ is, in fact, the Oxford English Dictionary’s second definition of ‘mathematician’. For centuries, mapping stars was the job of mathematicians, a job motivated and funded by the widespread belief that star-maps were good guides to earthly affairs. The best astrology required the best astronomy, and the best astronomy was done by mathematicians – exactly the kind of person whose authority might appeal to bankers and financiers. ... Romer believes that macroeconomics, plagued by mathiness, is failing to progress as a true science should, and compares debates among economists to those between 16th-century advocates of heliocentrism and geocentrism. Mathematics, he acknowledges, can help economists to clarify their thinking and reasoning. But the ubiquity of mathematical theory in economics also has serious downsides: it creates a high barrier to entry for those who want to participate in the professional dialogue, and makes checking someone’s work excessively laborious. Worst of all, it imbues economic theory with unearned empirical authority.

Texas Monthly - Two Sams and Their Six-Shooter 5-15min

The standard frontier gun at the time was the mountain or plains rifle, a more compact version of the Pennsylvania-Kentucky flintlock muzzle loader, accurate to about two hundred yards. Dependable and powerful, it had one drawback: it took time to properly load—a full minute or close to it, and even longer on a horse, in a fight. Indians knew this and adjusted their tactics accordingly. They would send a few warriors to draw fire; then the entire band would swoop down onto the furiously reloading Anglos. Carrying a pistol or two or three helped, but these single-shot flintlocks were inaccurate at anything but the closest range, and they often snapped, or refused to fire, because of wet powder. And since an Indian could shoot ten to twelve arrows in the time it took to reload, the Anglos were at a serious disadvantage. Until now. ... A Connecticut Yankee who had been raised in a family of some privilege—at least before his father lost the bulk of his fortune—Colt had been fascinated with explosives and firearms since childhood. He’d come up with the idea for his revolver while still in his teens, but he didn’t have the funds for such an undertaking, so he’d hit the road for a few years as the Celebrated Dr. Coult, putting on stage shows demonstrating the wonders of laughing gas. Besides being smart and mechanically curious, Colt was a born huckster, and these shows were popular and lucrative. ... Much later, Colt would write that he burned with a desire to do “what never before has been accomplished by man.” Toward that end, in 1836, at the age of 22, after he’d saved enough money and acquired several investors, and after years of experimenting, he patented a five-shot revolver. ... Firing five shots in less time than one man could reload a flintlock weapon should have guaranteed large orders from the government. But the Paterson, as Colt’s first revolver became known, was fragile and fired a small-caliber ball, and it had to be half-disassembled to reload, so military tests were unimpressive, as were sales. When his company went bankrupt in 1842, Colt had turned to other pursuits, such as underwater mines and waterproof cables.

Bloomberg - How to Hack an Election 5-15min

For eight years, Sepúlveda, now 31, says he traveled the continent rigging major political campaigns. With a budget of $600,000, the Peña Nieto job was by far his most complex. He led a team of hackers that stole campaign strategies, manipulated social media to create false waves of enthusiasm and derision, and installed spyware in opposition offices, all to help Peña Nieto, a right-of-center candidate, eke out a victory. ... Sepúlveda’s career began in 2005, and his first jobs were small—mostly defacing campaign websites and breaking into opponents’ donor databases. Within a few years he was assembling teams that spied, stole, and smeared on behalf of presidential campaigns across Latin America. He wasn’t cheap, but his services were extensive. For $12,000 a month, a customer hired a crew that could hack smartphones, spoof and clone Web pages, and send mass e-mails and texts. The premium package, at $20,000 a month, also included a full range of digital interception, attack, decryption, and defense. The jobs were carefully laundered through layers of middlemen and consultants. Sepúlveda says many of the candidates he helped might not even have known about his role; he says he met only a few. ... His teams worked on presidential elections in Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Venezuela. ... He’s serving 10 years in prison for charges including use of malicious software, conspiracy to commit crime, violation of personal data, and espionage, related to hacking during Colombia’s 2014 presidential election.

Nature - The nanolight revolution is coming 5-15min

Just a few tens of nanometres across, they are among a growing array of 'nanolights' that researchers are tailoring to specific types of fluorescence: the ability to absorb light at one wavelength and re-emit it at another. ... Many naturally occurring compounds can do this, from jellyfish proteins to some rare-earth compounds. But nanolights tend to be much more stable, versatile and easier to prepare — which makes them attractive for users in both industry and academia. ... Nanolights have already begun to find application in areas ranging from flat-screen displays to biochemical tests. And researchers are working towards even more ambitious uses in fields such as solar energy, DNA mapping, motion sensing and even surgery. ... Light is emitted when electrons are kicked up to higher energy levels by some outside source, such as ultraviolet light, then fall back down to lower levels.

Financial Times - The fight against food fraud 5-15min

Thanks to a process involving rapid evaporative ionisation mass spectrometry (Reims), developed at Imperial College London, the computer can identify the smoke’s unique “molecular fingerprint”. This £500,000 machine, together with another £5m-worth of equipment in the Belfast-based Institute for Global Food Security, have inspired the lab’s nickname “Star Trek”, as it boldly pushes technological frontiers in the battle against food crime. The only other Reims machine in the UK is at Charing Cross Hospital, London, where it is used by the oncology department to distinguish between healthy and malign tissue. Here, the machine is being asked to make a formal identification of the fish fillet: is it cod? Or is it something else? ... food analysis is inching ever closer to forensic investigation. Fraud, adulteration and contamination can happen to almost any edible commodity that you care to think of. Or, more likely, that you care not to think of — not just beef burgers with a hidden equine component but staples such as fish, spices and fruit juices. ... “What we eat and where it comes from, generally, we don’t know any more. It’s a very complex web. Every time you have a transaction [in the supply chain], there’s another opportunity to cheat.” And every week his lab picks up several cases of food fraud happening somewhere in the world. ... The institute is monitored by 24-hour security — with food fraud as yet hard to bring to successful conviction, any refinement in methods of detection is a potential threat to organised crime.