Briefly Noted

Shorter than a post. Longer than a Tweet.

It’s hard to get a handle on stupid, and what it actually is. Fortunately, an economics history professor outlined the affliction way back in 1976. The problem is most of us weren’t listening.


Stupid people, Carlo M. Cipolla explained, share several identifying traits: they are abundant, they are irrational, and they cause problems for others without apparent benefit to themselves, thereby lowering society’s total well-being. There are no defenses against stupidity, argued the Italian-born professor, who died in 2000. The only way a society can avoid being crushed by the burden of its idiots is if the non-stupid work even harder to offset the losses of their stupid brethren.

The UC Berkeley professor developed five universal laws of stupidity. Important for those of us who’ve been trying to put our finger on what, exactly, makes a stupid person stupid have the The Third (and Golden) Law:

A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.

Read more at QUARTZ, or learn more about Cipolla and his work.

Don’t call it a dog robot. Instead, its makers refer to it as a Quadrupedal Unmanned Ground Vehicles, or ground drone if you want something that rolls a bit easier off the tongue. This particular model is called the Vision 60.

Vision 60 robots via Ghost Robotics on Twitter

Ghost’s Vision 60 robots will soon patrol Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida. While the company says they don’t intend to arm these robots, other robots have been for years now:

“Robots were first utilized in ground combat during the war in Afghanistan, starting in 2002. Hermes was a 20-kilogram robot kitted out with cameras and, where needed, a grenade launcher and a 12-gauge shotgun.”

It all captures the imagination with images of a not so future dystopia floating through the head. The question isn’t whether armed robots will patrol land, sea and sky, it’s when they’ll become autonomous. The Army is working on autonomous tanks, the Navy is developing weapons capable autonomous ships, and the Air Force Skyborg program is doling out cash to develop autonomous combat drones.

Our current generation of “dumb” robots is already changing power dynamics on the battlefield.

For example, Azerbaijan just leveraged its drone force to defeat its stronger neighbor Armenia in their border war:

In a matter of months… [the conflict became] perhaps the most powerful example of how small and relatively inexpensive attack drones can change the dimensions of conflicts once dominated by ground battles and traditional air power.

It also highlighted the vulnerabilities of even sophisticated weapons systems, tanks, radars and surface-to-air missiles without specific drone defenses. And it has raised debate on whether the era of the traditional tank could be coming to an end.

The sci-fi future is very present. Iran’s media is leveraging the not so farfetched idea that one of their top scientists was killed by a machine gun controlled via satellite.

Of course, they have their reasons. Namely, putting the assassination in the realm of supernatural technology deflects citizen anger that foreign elements (read: Mossad) wander the country unimpeded.1

Still, why not? The technology the Iranians refer to exists. With the amount of money being poured into weaponizing machine learning and artificial intelligence, remote autonomous assassination systems can’t be far behind.

Somewhat related: A French military ethics committee says the country can develop “augmented soldiers”.

  • When Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was assassinated in November, Iran’s media reported he was killed in an ambush. A few weeks later they changed their story to say artificial intelligence, facial recognition and a satellite controlled machine gun shot him down.

Earlier this year a meme made the rounds on the state of America, circa 2020. Unlike funny dances or songs or some sort of cancel culture takedown, those posting reflected on their life and times.

The conversation was tied to the Democratic primaries. Specifically, if primary voters would push Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren to the nomination; how far left was too far left for the general voting public; and why, curious beltway pundits wanted to know, were voters open to democratic socialism in the first place. In particular, they wanted to know why so many millennials supported these ideas.

To which a typical response looked a bit like this:

Bump up a generation to Gen-X and you had responses like this:

Life is not good and America is not great, economically speaking.

Which brings me to the Michelle Odden’s quote to the New York Times in their recent coronavirus epidemiologist survey.

Listen: “I did not think this level of failure in a federal response was possible in the United States.”

I don’t disagree with the sentiment, I do, however, with the degree. We’re missing a word. As in: I did not think this level of failure in a federal response was possible in the United States again.

So far this century we’ve had the dot-com crash, 9/11, the chaos and mismanagement of the Iraq war, an inept response to Hurricane Katrina, the financial crash, and now an incompetent COVID response that’s pushing us toward 300,000 deaths.

Go back in time to our post World War II glory years and we have what: civil unrest and assassinations in the sixties; the Vietnam War and the economic malaise in the seventies; escalating drug wars, mass incarceration and growing economic inequality in the eighties and nineties; decades long wage stagnation for the majority of Americans and a health care system that creaks along unable to care for vast populations in the Most Powerful and Prosperous Nation the World Has Ever Known™.1

This country is like a storied sports team resting on long past laurels. We were champions once, we swagger, before muddling through another period of mediocrity.

So no, the level of failure doesn’t surprise because it happens over and over again. Instead, it just leaves me frustrated that we can’t at least be competent. Unfortunately, we’re lead by a shameless Machiavellian conspiracy cult on one side and a group of incompetents on the other.

Somewhat Related: Mark Becker, former Chairman of Wisconsin’s Brown County Republican Party, writes about a conversation he had with Ron Johnson, that state’s Republican senator. The article is ostensibly about Johnson’s inability to publicly acknowledge Joe Biden’s victory (political suicide, he says) but an aside caught my attention.

Democrats don’t love our country, says Johnson, because they want to change it. “[Y]ou can’t love something you want to fundamentally change,” Johnson tells Becker.

I’m not a Democrat but I can flip this ignorance on its head: you can’t change something unless you truly love it.

  • I don’t mean to imply that the forties or fifties were halcyon golden days (see, race, gender). Instead, with some exceptions, it was a period where the country seemed to be able to come together for a prolonged period to achieve common goals.

Back in the early aughts, two astronomers color-sampled 200,000 galaxies and discovered that the epic majesty that is space averages out to… beige.

Specifically, #fff8e7 on your HEX color picker.

Cosmic Latte
Inspired? This is the color of space.

As Wired explained at the time, “To find this average color, Glazebrook and Baldry gathered light from galaxies out to several billion light years. They processed the light to break it into the various colors similar to how a prism turns sunlight into a rainbow. They averaged the color values for all the light and converted it to the primary color scale seen by the human eye.”

The beige eventually got a name that sounds like something to order from a new age cafe: Cosmic Latte.

The actual study that lead to the discovery was an attempt by Karl Glazebrook and Ivan Baldry to explore the history of star formation. By looking at light values emitting from the cosmos, the two could infer the age of stars in different galaxies. Basically, old stars and young stars emit and absorb elements at different rates. This is then reflected in the corresponding light spectrum surrounding them.

Here’s how the two illustrate it in a brief write-up.

The cosmic spectrum shows what elements are emitted or absorbed.
Oxygen, Hydrogen, Sodium and Sulphur all have different lightprints.

What the filter giveth, the filter taketh away.

Via The BBC:

Fans of a popular Chinese video blogger who called herself “Your Highness Qiao Biluo” have been left stunned after a technical glitch during one of her live-streams revealed her to be a middle-aged woman and not the young glamorous girl they thought her to be.

The revelation has led to discussions about standards of beauty across the country’s social media platforms.

The blogger, who initially boasted a follower count of more than 100,000 on Douyu, is believed to have used a filter on her face during her appearances, and had been renowned for her “sweet and healing voice”.

China’s Global Times said she had been “worshipped” as a “cute goddess” by some members of her loyal audience with some fans even giving her more than 100,000 yuan ($14,533, £11,950).

However, live-streaming platform Lychee News says the incident happened on 25 July, during a joint live-stream with another user, Qingzi on the Douyu platform…

… [A]t some point, it seems the filter being used by the vlogger stopped working and her real face became visible to her viewers.

More: Chinese vlogger who used filter to look younger caught in live-stream glitch, via The BBC.

Two professors created a seesaw on the border fence between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico to demonstrate that “the actions that take place on one side have a direct consequence on the other side,” according to their post on Instagram.

Via The Guardian:

[T]he seesaws are the invention of Ronald Rael, a professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and Virginia San Fratello, an associate professor of design at San José State University, who first came up with the concept 10 years ago.

In an Instagram post that has received tens of thousands of likes, children and adults can be seen playing and interacting on both sides of the fence using the seesaws, which provide “a literal fulcrum” between the countries, according to Rael. He said the event was about bringing “joy, excitement and togetherness at the border wall”.

More: Pink seesaws reach across the divide at US-Mexico border, via The Guardian.