Weekend Reading XXXII

by uber

How Chinese Ingenuity Destroyed Salad Bars in Pizza Hut

Humans are fickle, competitive creatures. I love to read about stories of unintended consequences, where simple restrictions create games, or when apparently straightforward measures cause an explosive rise. People will act in strangely irrational ways, if they can make a game of it. The funny thing is that it seems like the act of defiance and recreation is often far more important than the reward. The monetary rewards can be tiny or non-existent, but people will pursue them mercilessly.


You had one trip to the salad bar. So dammit, you had to make it count.

The Kopp-Etchells Effect

St. Elmo’s Fire for the 21st Century.


How Experts Think

Expertise is a funny thing. Does it take 10,000 hours to become good, and how much innate skill does it take?


No. Experts do not think less. They think more efficiently. The practiced brain eliminates poor solutions before they reach the conscious mind.

Ten Signs a Claimed Mathematical Breakthrough is Wrong

One possible future disadvantage of open publishing is that it’s already pretty hard to work out if a paper is honestly worthwhile. It can be very hard to tell, even when there is absolutely no fraud at all, if the technique is correct. Programmers talk about code smells, rules of thumb which just make you a little suspicious. They are never 100% hard and fast, but they should arouse suspicion. Some can be trivial or apparently flippant, like whether LaTEX was used, but they are actually surprisingly useful signals, when given proper weight.

This link posted with thanks to young Cola Bear, of this parish.


My purpose here is not to heap embarrassment on the author: he’s a serious mathematician who had a well-defined and interesting approach, and who (most importantly) retracted his claim as soon as a bug was discovered. (Would that everyone did the same!) Though the stakes are usually smaller, similar things have happened to most of us, including me.

Instead I want to explore the following metaquestion: suppose someone sends you a complicated solution to a famous decades-old math problem, like P vs. NP. How can you decide, in ten minutes or less, whether the solution is worth reading?

Was Caligula as bad as it seems?

Mary Beard (whose blog is excellent), posts an interesting article on whether the crimes of the Roman Emperors were based in fact. The challenge of distinguishing propaganda, reported speech and journalistic ‘license’ continue to this day, and there are countless examples from history, with perceptions greatly affected by a clever turn of phrase, or a seductive piece of ‘historical’ fiction.


But how many of their lurid stories are true is very hard to know. Did he really force men to watch the execution of their sons, then invite them to a jolly dinner, where they were expected to laugh and joke? Did he actually go into the Temple of the gods Castor and Pollux in the Roman Forum and wait for people to turn up and worship him?

Soviet Boardgames

Monopoly has a lurid political history. I am sure there is a complex social undertone to Snakes & Ladders, and Backgammons is surprisingly ancient in its origins.
These are particularly interesting given what must have been the complex challenge of pitching a board game in the context of a political system so sensitive to any symbolism or unintended messages, and so fickle in its tastes.


Luckily, there’s a new product available to help pass the time. A.V. Kuklin’s come out with a whole batch of revolutionary board-games, featuring such riveting titles as Electrification, Revolution, Reds vs. Whites, and Manoeuvres: A Game for Young Pioneers [Soviet Boy Scouts]. Games for the whole family, even though the family form of property-relations must eventually be abolished. Let the capitalists have their Monopoly; let the imperialists play their Risk. I’ll stick to Modern War or Air Struggle.

Undermining GPS

I’m pretty sure this is in a James Bond movie. The ship’s name seems appropriate for a super-villain’s yacht as well.
Anecdotally, the wide confidence in GPS has actually greatly increased the level of interest by sailors in more traditional navigational methods, because they have a reliable measure to check against. Out in the Ocean, it could be extremely hard to tell if you’ve gone astray. From what I have read, GPS is horribly complex to get working as a standard, so fixing this would be far from trivial.


In this case, Humphreys’ student sent out the spoofed signal from on-board the ship itself. All GPS signals are sent from satellites to Earth without any authentication or encryption. So Humphreys is using a small software radio device to essentially fool the on-board receiver into listening to his fake signal, rather than the authentic one. GPS, in its civilian form, is provided for free, globally, by the American military GPS Directorate.

Library infographics of the 30s and 40s

The handicraft nature of these is one of the things that makes them so charming



The masters of food porn in the British Isles have been M&S, who really created luxuriant, unctuous advertising. They have since moved away from presenting the food as indulgent treats, towards high-quality, every day food. Still, I think theirs was a definitive approach that you still see on so many restaurant menus and artisan shops, where telling the tale seems in part to try and justify the exhorbitant premium.

Story Telling to Connect with your Customers

We started making our organic energy bars for one simple reason: Our hate of the outside world. We were tired of people. Tired of their dented, damaged, and bereft spirit. Not all people, mind you. Not everyone is a bitter lonely blogger or Internet commenter stuck in their town and trying desperately to get attention and a ticket out by any means; the world hasn’t rendered us quite so bitter and exhausted as to believe that to be the case.