Amateur drone operators as the new ambulance chasers

In at least five fires over the last month, including one over the weekend, fire aircraft dispatched to drop chemicals or water had to pull back after crews on the ground spotted drones, fearing a collision. On Friday, officials said, five drones hovering in the area delayed firefighters from dropping water buckets from helicopters onto a fast-moving wildfire that crossed a freeway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
Two California lawmakers are pushing legislation that would increase fines and allow for criminal prosecutions of people caught using a drone during a fire, and federal officials are considering new rules that would require all drones to be marked with registration numbers, which could help the authorities track down their owners.

This seemed inevitable, but more and more seems to happen as soon as you think of it these days. When they make a sequel to Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal will have transitioned to a fleet of drones for his tabloid footage empire.

Airports have drone no-fly zones that the drone software is programmed to respect. I imagine they will quickly begin selling tech to throw up similar digital no-fly zones around fires and other accidents in the future. To deal with those who hack their way around these digital fences, some sort of anti-drone tech seems inevitable. Fly a hacked DJI Phantom over a fire in the future and prepare for a weaponized drone to knock it out of the sky.

Small talk

Small talk falls on the other end of the continuum; it is speech that prioritizes social function. Think of this exchange: "How's it going?" "Oh, pretty good." There's not zerosemantic content in there — presumably "pretty good" excludes "dying at this exact moment," so that's some information. But the primary function of those speech acts is social, not to say something but to do something, i.e., make contact, reaffirm shared membership in a common tribe (whatever it may be), express positive feelings (and thus lack of threat), show concern, and so forth. These are not unimportant things, not "small" at all, really, but they are different from communicating semantic content.
Small talk — particularly in its purest form, phatic communion — is a context in which language has an almost ritualistic quality. The communication of ideas or information is secondary, almost incidental; the speech is mainly meant to serve the purpose of social bonding. It asks and answers familiar questions, dwells of topics of reliable comity, and stresses fellow feeling rather than sources of disagreement.
This helps explain the ubiquity of sports in small talk, especially male small talk. Sporting events are a simulation of conflict with no serious consequences, yet they generate enormous amounts of specific information. They are a content generator for small talk, easing the work of communion.

David Roberts on why he finds small talk so excruciating.

There is friction anytime there is a mismatch between how two people use a communications medium (in this case, face-to-face conversation). It's strange to me when people use Twitter to post photos of their family, but that's largely because I use Facebook or Instagram for that.

My issue with small talk is its information scarcity. Brian Christian's brilliant book The Most Human Human helped me realize the critical role of conversational entropy in the human experience. Small talk rates very low on entropy, so not surprisingly, it's the type of conversation A.I. can most easily imitate.

Still, in the ebb and flow of a conversation, chasing after too much entropy or novelty, pursuing an unbroken line of odd or probing questions and thoughts, can be its own faux pas. Your conversation partner may feel they're being assaulted. Managing that delicate balance, knowing when to push, when to pull back, that is the art of social grace and charisma.


Prosopagnosia is an impairment of one's ability to recognize faces. This interview with one person with face-blindness is fascinating top to bottom.

What problems does it cause?
The issue is how I remember faces. It doesn’t matter if I know the person: I’ve walked right past my husband, my own mother, my daughter, my son, without being able to recognize them.
It can be very embarrassing, and it can offend people. I once had to drop a sociology class, because I told the professor, to her face, that she was a horrible lecturer. I thought I was complaining to a fellow student! It’s as if I have a missing chip — you feel like you’re just not trying hard enough. Faces are so important to humans that we have a special part of our brain dedicated to recognizing them. Most people remember them as a whole piece, but I don’t.
To tell people apart I have to find a distinguishing feature. And context is huge. If I’m expecting to see somebody, I’ll figure out who they are by observing their body language, listening to their voice. Good-looking people are the most difficult to recognize.
Is that because their faces are symmetrical?
Yes! Straight teeth, noses within regular limits … everything is so … normal! It’s like a flock of chickens. So what I do is look for specific features. I have one friend who’s average height, middle aged, and white, and she works in an office full of average middle-aged white ladies. And even worse, it’s a doctor’s office, so they are all wearing scrubs. If I meet her at work, I can only recognize her if she smiles — it’s very specific. But these are the things I look for: Some people have a distinctive nose; some people have two different-colored eyes.

I had no idea Chuck Close suffered from prosopagnosia, and now I see so much of his work in a new light.

This is one area where some technology like Google Glasses could really help.

I have problems watching a lot of films and TV shows because everyone looks so perfect I can’t follow the plot. I have a face-blind friend who used to work at the Beverly Hills Whole Foods. His employers loved him because he never recognized the famous customers.
Can you recognize yourself?
Not always. I’ve had to say to friends of mine, “Is that a picture of me? Who is that?” If I unexpectedly see myself in a mirror, I might think it's somebody else. It's like, Why is that woman staring at me? Those times, I’ve been struck by how serious I look.

One of the many interesting ideas to come from this piece is that prosopagnosia can also be seen as a positive, as immunity against our obsession with symmetry as an indicator of attractiveness, or to unconscious racism.

What attracts you to people?
I have a thing for voices and intelligence. While I can appreciate that someone is attractive on an aesthetic level, I don't feel it on that visceral, "Whoa! They're hot!" way. At least not when I first meet them. I really only become sexually interested when I have talked to someone long enough to know them. I would be hard work to date. I met my husband at the university science fiction club. He has an incredible voice — he’s a public speaker, his grandfather was a radio announcer, and his father works in television. And he’s the smartest person I know — he used to teach English literature.

Payroll matters in MLB

FiveThirtyEight notes that despite some small budget successes in MLB like the Houston Astros or Kansas City Royals, money correlates as strongly to winning as ever.

J.C. Bradbury, an economics professor at Kennesaw State University, found that winning more increases revenue exponentially. “Going from 85 wins to 90 is worth more than 80 wins to 85,” he says. As a result, while it might cost more per win for a team that wins 90 games than 85, it makes financial sense because the revenue reward will be higher as well. This leads to a self-perpetuating cycle. Additionally, fans of teams that win frequently expect them to continue winning, and management pays more to do so. For a team like the New York Yankees, paying 10 percent more than anyone else for a second baseman who is only 5 percent better than his closest peer is worth the money (and they can afford it).
Perhaps one reason for the renewed focus on the success of small-budget teams is the importance of playoff success versus the regular season. Postseasons in American sports offer a smaller sample size than, say, soccer’s English Premier League, where the winner is determined by 38 games. In baseball, the better team (the one with the higher payroll) is less likely to prevail over the course of a short playoff series than they would be over an entire season. That, combined with the expansion of the playoffs, means it’s easier for a small-budget team to reach the World Series, as the Kansas City Royals did in 2014, losing to the San Francisco Giants in Game 7. Winning a playoff series can come down to a few factors — a couple of good pitchers and luck — that are less important during the regular season. “The formula seems to be: limp through regular season, get into playoffs, then win,” said Rodney Fort, professor of sport management in the School of Kinesiology at the University of Michigan.

That's the compromise at the design of MLB. It's harder for a small-budget team to make the playoffs, but once they're there, the odds of them winning it all are better than they are in, say, the NBA. Much of the design of sports is arbitrary, you can have set things up to increase or decrease the role of randomness for your own narrative goals. If you're uncomfortable with the idea that you can just buy wins, you're not going to root for teams like the Dodgers, Yankees, or Red Sox.

I'm not a huge soccer fan, but it seems there are no salary caps for UEFA teams in Europe. Do fans there feel similar reservations about the effective monopoly on success for those with deep pockets?

I'm of mixed emotions on the topic. On the one hand, a salary cap that puts all teams on on equal footing seems equitable. On the other hand, its larger effect is to suppress player salaries, shifting those dollars into owners' pockets. Oddly, most sports fans I know seem more sympathetic to owners than players, not what you'd expect from people who are themselves laborers. That is, if their team gets a bargain on a star player, they're happy.

I generally side with players, even if their salaries are already high, because I like seeing people achieve fair market value for their contributions. I wonder if the prevalence of fantasy sports has made more fans more sympathetic to ownership than players since such games generally put fans in the position of being a general manager.

For profit schools

These 20 schools are responsible for a fifth of all graduate school debt. Can you guess any of them? I only guessed one, Devry University, and I've never even heard of the top school on the list.

I'd be curious what degrees students would pursue if they were given a report their first week in school showing the job prospects of graduates: employment rates, mean and median salaries, years to pay off school debt, etc.

(h/t @kenwuesq)

Assembled in China

This study also confirms our earlier finding that trade statistics can mislead as much as inform. Earlier we found that for every $299 iPod sold in the U.S., the U.S. trade deficit with China increased by about $150. For the iPhone and the iPad, the increase is about $229 and $275 respectively. Yet the value captured from these products through assembly in China is around $10. Statistical agencies are developing tools to gain a more accurate breakdown of the origins of traded goods by value added, which will be attributed based on the location of processing, not on the location of ownership. This will eventually provide a clearer picture of who our trading partners really are, but, while this lengthy process unfolds, countries will still be arguing based on misleading data.
Those who decry the decline of U.S. manufacturing too often point at the offshoring of assembly for electronics goods like the iPhone. Our analysis here and elsewhere makes clear that there is simply little value in electronics assembly. The gradual concentration of electronics manufacturing in Asia over the past 30 years cannot be reversed in the short- to medium-term without undermining the relatively free flow of goods, capital, and people that provides the basis for the global economy. And even if high-volume assembly expands in North America, this will likely take place in Mexico where there is already a relatively low-cost electronics assembly infrastructure.

An interesting piece in AEI about how shifting assembly jobs back to the U.S. might not be the economic boost it's often made out to be.

It’s an important distinction that Apple products (and other electronic goods) are really only “Assembled in China,” and not actually “Made in China.” The value of the final assembly in China is pretty small compared to the value added in the U.S., and yet China gets credit for the majority of the value according to the way trade statistics are calculated.

GoPro at the 2015 Tour de France

The Tour de France made a great addition to its coverage this year. Velon, a joint venture of 11 of the world's top cycling teams, partnered with GoPro to mount GoPro cameras on some of the cyclists and crew in this year's race.

The footage has been spectacular. You can find it on Velon's Tour de France homepage, on GoPro's site, and of course on YouTube. If you want a quick 2 minute sampler, edited with music, here are highlights from Stages 1-7.

I'm partial to the footage that's edited but not scored with music. It has the feel of found footage, and the lens distortions of the extreme wide-angle GoPro lenses and the ambient soundtrack brings to mind one of my favorite documentaries of recent years, Leviathan.

This is one good example, highlights from Stage 4, the cobblestone stage, a recent addition to the Tour. You see cyclists pulling over to pee on the side of the road, spectators gawking as one cyclist stops to check his tire pressure, a crash in one wet righthand turn, and other moments that occur in most stages but may be skipped by regular television coverage. All of the footage is from a unique first person (first bicycle?) perspective. If you've ever wondered how computers see, for now the answer is probably through a stationary fisheye lens.

In Stage 3, a huge crash caused chaos in the peloton. This footage from a GoPro mounted on the chest of a team ORICA GreenEDGE mechanic gives a wholly original sense of the carnage. One can feel the occasional adrenaline rush of being a pro cycling mechanic in a stage race. It's thrilling ambient journalism.

I often cringe at the found footage Hollywood conceit because it depends on believing that someone would be holding a camcorder and filming every moment, even when being chased by giant lizards or witches. But the rise of the GoPro and other sports cams now gives a more believable scenario for such movies. We're not too far off from the first Hollywood movie shot (ostensibly) on a GoPro or other such action camera (that is, it could be shot on a higher end cinema camera but pose as a GoPro), or pieced together from snippets of iPhone videos. It's a whole new aesthetic, but one that's familiar to this generation raised on Snaps and Snapchat Stories.

More major sports should consider integrating such cameras into their broadcasts, or, as the Tour de France did, as supplemental footage on the internet. I'm not holding my breath, but it's not surprising that more peripheral sports have led the way here. Incumbents tend to be reliably sluggish.

Asym spacing

I've never heard of this typography concept: asym spacing.

But one tech company believes something as simple as increasing the size  of spacing between certain words could improve people’s reading comprehension. Research going back decades has found that “chunking,” a technique that separates text into meaningful units, provides visual cues that help readers better process information.
The image below shows  the before and after of Asym’s spacing on a paragraph  of text. Quartz  is also experimenting by manually adding Asym’s spaces  to this article. The effect  is subtle, but likely will irk keen-eyed copy editors (sorry!), especially those from the print world who are accustomed  to deleting extraneous spaces.

No idea if the science behind this is solid, but I have heard of chunking. When I took a speed-reading class in grade school, they taught us two key principles. One was not to read aloud “inside your head,” and the other was not to read linearly, one word at a time, but to look at chunks of words (which also makes it hard to read linearly).

Maybe because I already chunk groups of words in regularly spaced text, or maybe because the asym spacing bunched odd groups of words together, I found the regularly spaced text (on the left) easier to read.