Testing the Limits of Google Translate

Google Translate is an amazing thing.  You can take a chunk of text in just about any language, paste it into Google Translate, and it is instantaneously (if imperfectly) translated.

Since I can’t speak anything other than English, I’m not in a great position to say how good or bad the translations are, but my multi-lingual friends generally turn their noses up at Google Translate, saying it doesn’t do that great a job.

My response is that compared to any other alternative I know (like trying to track down someone who speaks Croatian, or going word by word through a Croatian-English dictionary), it seems like a miracle.  I love it.

But even Google Translate has its limits.

The Economic Value of 3D Printing?

On a visit to the London Science Museum, my oldest grandson explained to me how 3D printing works.  I expressed doubt about its economic value, but he pointed out this sign.  "Aha," I said, "here is a clear-cut case of a technological change that should reduce long-run average cost (by saving on materials)."

And despite the last sentence of the picture, this saving will eventually be passed onto consumers in the form of lower ticket prices, but probably not fully in the oligopolistic aircraft manufacturing industry.


What Does the Mt. Gox Meltdown Mean for Bitcoin? Maybe Not Much

Due to popular demand, we are working on a podcast about Bitcoin. Last night, I interviewed Marc Andreessen on the subject. His v.c. firm has invested roughly $50 million in Bitcoin-related companies, including CoinBase, and they are looking for more. It was a fascinating interview, in part because Andreessen has been personally involved in so many major digital events of the past 20 years. 

In light of today's news about the meltdown of Mt. Gox, the most prominent Bitcoin exchange to date, here is a preview of a section of last night's interview with Andreessen. His view is vigorously contra the notion that the end of Mt. Gox would mean the end of Bitcoin; in fact, he would take that as a sign of progress:

A Safe Hitchhiking Model?

Our podcast called "Where Have All the Hitchhikers Gone?" got a listener named Jenny O'Brien thinking. Here's what she wrote us:

Here's the back story: I live in a rural area in Northeast Kansas, where there is no bus, so I am forced to drive all the time.  After I heard your podcast, I started thinking about how to make hitchhiking safe, easy and reliable so I and other rural residents can use it as a public transportation option. I figured that all the hitchhiker really needed was a credential, way to signal her destination, and a system to record who she is riding with for safety.

O'Brien is now in the process of founding a ride-sharing service called Lawrence OnBoard:

3D Printers for Everyone?

We've blogged before about the potential of 3D food printers, but at the moment such printers seem out of reach for the average consumer.  Perhaps not for long -- a new paper by B.T. Wittbrodt, A.G. Glover, J. Laureto, G.C. Anzalone, D. Oppliger, J.L. Irwin, and J.M. Pearce conducts a cost-benefit analysis of 3D printers for the average household:

This study reports on the life-cycle economic analysis (LCEA) of RepRap technology for an average U.S. household.  A new low-cost RepRap is described and the costs of materials and time to construct it are quantified.  The economic costs of a selection of twenty open-source printable designs (representing less than 0.04% of those available), are typical of products that a household might purchase, are quantified for print time, energy, and filament consumption and compared to low and high Internet market prices for similar products without shipping costs.  The results show that even making the extremely conservative assumption that the household would only use the printer to make the selected twenty products a year the avoided purchase cost savings would range from about $300 to $2,000/year.  Assuming the 25 hours of necessary printing for the selected products is evenly distributed throughout the year these savings provide a simple payback time for the RepRap in 4 months to 2 years and provide an ROI between>200% and >40%.  As both upgrades and the components that are most likely to wear out in the RepRap can be printed and thus the lifetime of the distributing manufacturing can be substantially increased the unavoidable conclusion from this study is that the RepRap is an economically attractive investment for the average U.S. household already. It appears clear that as RepRaps improve in reliability, continue to decline in cost and both the number and assumed utility of open-source designs continues growing exponentially, open-source 3-D printers will become a mass-market mechatronic device.

(HT: Marginal Revolution)

Can Connectivity Kill?

The standard narrative around technology in the developing world usually focuses on the positive: cell phones make it easier to check crop prices, transfer money, and understand violence.  But a new study, summarized in Foreign Policy, finds that all this connectivity can also increase political violence in violence-prone regions and countries:

new study by Jan Pierskalla of the German Institute of Global and Area Studies and Florian Hollenbach of Duke University looks at the relationship between mobile phones and political violence in Africa. They found that from 2007 to 2009, areas with 2G network coverage were 50 percent more likely to have experienced incidents of armed conflict than those without. The clearest overlaps between cell coverage and violence were observed in Algeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.

The authors think that improved cell-phone coverage helps insurgent leaders overcome what's called the "collective-action problem" -- that people are reluctant to join group endeavors when there's a high level of personal risk. But better communication helps leaders recruit reluctant followers, whether they're demonstrating for higher wages or killing people in the next town.

NASA to Print Pizzas; Free Delivery Unlikely

In our podcast "Waiter, There’s a Physicist in My Soup!," we talked to  Pablos Holman at Intellectual Ventures about food printers (we've also blogged about organ printers and meat printers). Now NASA is funding an Austin, Tex., company that is working on a pizza printer. From CNET:

Systems and Materials Research recently received a $125,000 grant from NASA to make a pizza. OK, it's a little more complicated than that. Contractor already created a proof-of-concept printer that can print chocolate onto a cookie. His next goal is to print out dough and cook it while printing out sauce and toppings.

How to Solve the "Reply-All" Problem?

E-mail has been around long enough for most of us to fall in love and hate and love with it at least a few times. Problems arise and are quashed, or dealt with. Innovations come along; customs evolve. But one grisly bad habit won't go away: the "reply-all" dilemma. You know what I'm talking about. Someone sends you a group e-mail. Maybe it's your company's marketing boss, or the head of your bowling league, or the parent-teacher liaison in your kid's school. And even if that e-mail was meant to be simply explanatory, or to garner responses only to the sender, inevitably a few of the people on the receiving end simply hit "reply all" and suddenly your in-box starts to fill up with a chattering storm of crap. Sure, you could mark all those senders as spam but then you might miss something important later. Sure, you could politely tell people not to use "reply-all" when it's unnecessary but plainly they don't think it's unnecessary, and you'll come off sounding like a jerk. Sure, you could just deal with it and chalk it up to a downside of a great invention. But does anyone have any better ideas?

Why Cell Phone Networks Crash During an Emergency

Maggie Koerth-Baker of BoingBoing interviews Brough Turner, a phone system expert, about why it's hard to make cell phone calls during an emergency. Turner addresses the mechanics and limitations of cell phone networks and points out that, nostalgia notwithstanding, the pre-cell phone era faced its own technical problems:

Well, say you'd have an earthquake in California. This was for the old Bell system. The national long distance routing has a set of standard, predefined routes and it had network control centers in New Jersey and other places. Things would get overloaded and they would manually intervene by putting access restrictions on new calls coming into the area that was congested. In the 60s, 70s, and 80s they would let through one out of every five call attempts. They were doing that manually and just arbitrarily to reduce congestion.

(HT: The Big Picture)

When Hacking Is the Smaller Crime

Here's a fascinating article in the Yale Journal of International Affairs, by Paul Rexton Kan of the U.S. Army War College, about cyberwar between non-state agents -- in this case, Anonymous versus Los Zetas, the Mexican drug cartel. Read the whole thing; here's the first paragraph:

In the fall of 2011, two clandestine non-state groups—a hacktivist collective and a Mexican drug cartel—stared each other down in the digital domain, with potentially fatal real world consequences for both sides. Los Zetas, a Mexican drug trafficking organization composed of former members of Mexico’s Special Forces, kidnapped a member of Anonymous, the global hacking group, in Veracruz on October 6th. In retaliation, Anonymous threatened to publicize online the personal information of Los Zetas and their associates, from taxi drivers to high-ranking politicians, unless Los Zetas freed their abductee by November 5th. The release of this information on the Internet would have exposed members of Los Zetas to not only possible arrest by Mexican authorities, but also to assassination by rival cartels. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Los Zetas then attempted to “reverse hack” Anonymous to uncover some of its members and to threaten them with death. As a consequence, a few members of Anonymous sought to call off the operation and disavowed those members who wanted to go forward. With time running out and locked in a stalemate, Los Zetas released their kidnap victim on November 4th with an online warning that they would kill ten innocent people for each name that Anonymous might subsequently publicize. Anonymous called off its operation; each side appeared to step back from the brink.

(HT: LTC Scott Kelly)