Pledge Drive Ends. Office 365 Problems. Grandmaster Larry Niven. When did we begin to see blue? and more.

Chaos Manor View, Monday, March 02, 2015

It has been a long day. The Internet sort of went down – it was very slow – and that played hell with my programs. Office – including Outlook and Word – wouldn’t work on the Surface Pro 3 because Microsoft couldn’t authenticate Office 365;  this because we weren’t connected to the Net. Well, we sort of were, but apparently not well enough. If Office – Word, Excel, Outlook, – is at all critical to your operation this would be a good time to consider alternatives. They intend to stop selling it one day, and they will only rent it, and if you cannot get on the Internet to authenticate you are dead. I have my own copies of Office on the Mac and my big machine, but doubtless they will die off as this trend continues.

Office worked once I got the Internet back, although I had to authenticate each program I had attempted to open.  Apparently once a program learns .  If you have the program running and lose networking capability nothing happens other than you access to the cloud; you Office 365 works, at least those programs that have authenticated; but new ones don’t.

I think that’s going to cost Microsoft a lot of money, but perhaps they will reconsider.


I fell down on the stairs trying to go up and reset the cable modem and router, but all’s well. Later Eric was over and by then things worked after reset upstairs (which I didn’t do; Roberta won’t let me go up there)

It’s dinner time. Back later.

OK, back. Also watched the season finale of Downton Abbey.

It is now public that Larry Niven will receive the Grandmaster Award at the next Nebula Awards ceremony.  It’s long overdue in my judgment. I have not vigorously argued in favor – Past Presidents have a part in choosing who gets it – for obvious reasons. I won’t say it’s about time because there are other deserving candidates, but wasn’t designed to be a competition but rather an honor deserved. Robert Heinlein won the first one.


No one could see the color blue until modern times  (BI)

Paulo Philippidis / flickr

This isn’t another story about that dress, or at least, not really.

It’s about the way that humans see the world, and how until we have a way to describe something, even something so fundamental as a color, we may not even notice that it’s there.

Until relatively recently in human history, “blue” didn’t exist, not in the way we think of it.

As the delightful Radiolab episode “Colors” describes, ancient languages didn’t have a word for blue — not Greek, not Chinese, not Japanese, not Hebrew. And without a word for the color, there’s evidence that they may not have seen it at all.

How we realized blue was missing

In the Odyssey, Homer famously describes the “wine-dark sea.” But why “wine-dark” and not deep blue or green?

In 1858, a scholar named William Gladstone, who later became the Prime Minister of Great Britain, noticed that this wasn’t the only strange color description. Though the poet spends page after page describing the intricate details of clothing, armor, weaponry, facial features, animals, and more, his references to color are strange. Iron and sheep are violet, honey is green.

So Gladstone decided to count the color references in the book. And while black is mentioned almost 200 times and white around 100, other colors are rare. Red is mentioned fewer than 15 times, and yellow and green fewer than 10. Gladstone started looking at other ancient Greek texts, and noticed the same thing — there was never anything described as “blue.” The word didn’t even exist.

It seemed the Greeks lived in murky and muddy world, devoid of color, mostly black and white and metallic, with occasional flashes of red or yellow.

Gladstone thought this was perhaps something unique to the Greeks, but a philologist named Lazarus Geiger followed up on his work and noticed this was true across cultures.

He studied Icelandic sagas, the Koran, ancient Chinese stories, and an ancient Hebrew version of the Bible. Of Hindu Vedic hymns, he wrote: “These hymns, of more than ten thousand lines, are brimming with descriptions of the heavens. Scarcely any subject is evoked more frequently. The sun and reddening dawn’s play of color, day and night, cloud and lightning, the air and ether, all these are unfolded before us, again and again… but there is one thing no one would ever learn from these ancient songs… and that is that the sky is blue.”

There was no blue, not in the way that we know the color — it wasn’t distinguished from green or darker shades.

Geiger looked to see when “blue” started to appear in languages and found an odd pattern all over the world.

Every language first had a word for black and for white, or dark and light. The next word for a color to come into existence — in every language studied around the world — was red, the color of blood and wine.

After red, historically, yellow appears, and later, green (though in a couple of languages, yellow and green switch places). The last of these colors to appear in every language is blue.

The only ancient culture to develop a word for blue was the Egyptians — and as it happens, they were also the only culture that had a way to produce a blue dye.

If you think about it, blue doesn’t appear much in nature — there are almost no blue animals, blue eyes are rare, and blue flowers are mostly human creations. There is, of course, the sky, but is that really blue? As we’ve seen from Geiger’s work, even scriptures that contemplate the heavens continuously still don’t necessarily see it as “blue.”

Russell Mondy/FlickrIs the sky really blue? What does that mean?

In fact, one researcher that Radiolab spoke with — Guy Deutscher, author of “Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages,” tried a casual experiment with that. In theory, one of children’s first questions is “why is the sky blue?” So he raised his daughter while being careful to never describe the color of the sky to her, and then one day asked her what color she saw when she looked up.

Alma, Deutscher’s daughter, had no idea. The sky was colorless. Eventually, she decided it was white, and later on, eventually blue. But it wasn’t the first thing she saw or gravitated towards, though it is where she settled in the end.

So before we had a word for it, did people not naturally see blue?

This part gets a little complicated, because we don’t exactly what was going through Homer’s brain when he described the wine-dark sea and the violet sheep — but we do know that ancient Greeks and others in the ancient world had the same biology and therefore, same capability to see color that we do.

But do you really see something if you don’t have a word for it?

A researcher named Jules Davidoff traveled to Namibia to investigate this, where he conducted an experiment with the Himba tribe, who speak a language that has no word for blue or distinction between blue and green.

Vidipedia/Himba color experimentNamibian tribe member participates in a research project.

When shown a circle with 11 green squares and one blue, they couldn’t pick out which one was different from the others — or those who could see a difference took much longer and made more mistakes than would make sense to us, who can clearly spot the blue square.

But the Himba have more words for types of green than we do in English.

When looking at a circle of green squares with only one slightly different shade, they could immediately spot the different one. Can you?

Vidipedia/Himba Colour ExperimentWhich square is the outlier?

For most of us, that’s harder.

This was the unique square:

Vidipedia/Himba Colour Experiment

Davidoff says that without a word for a color, without a way of identifying it as different, it’s much harder for us to notice what’s unique about it — even though our eyes are physically seeing the blocks it in the same way.

So before blue became a common concept, maybe humans saw it. But it seems they didn’t know they were seeing it.

If you see something yet can’t see it, does it exist? Did colors come into existence over time? Not technically, but our ability to notice them may have…

For more fascinating information about colors, including information on how some “super-seeing” women may see colors in the sky that most of us have never dreamed of, check out the full Radiolab episode.

I think I would never have thought this possible, but having thought about it, the argument is reasonable, perhaps compelling.


SanDisk Squeezes 200GB Into a Tiny microSD Card (BT)

Stop for a second and take a look at the fingernail on your baby finger. That’s roughly the size of a microSD card that can now hold a whopping 200GB of data thanks to SanDisk. Remember when USB flash drives with a full gigabyte of storage were mind-blowing? We were so foolish back then.

Available sometime in the second quarter of 2015, the new microSDXC card uses the same technology that SanDisk developed for the 128GB microSDXC card it introduced last year, but with an improved design allowing the company to increase storage capacity by 56 percent. The new card also boasts transfer speeds of up to 90MB/sec, but once available its $400 price tag might be a little hard to swallow—even if the card itself isn’t.

Too bad there’s no slot for it in the new Galaxy S6. [SanDisk]


Google AI Now Self Learning (gizmodo)

Google scientists and engineers have created the first ever computer program that is capable of learning a wide variety of tasks completely independently, in what is a giant leap towards true general artificial intelligence.

The AI, or as Google refers to it the“agent”, has learnt to play almost 50 different retro computer games, and came up with its own strategies for winning completely without human input. The same approach could be used to control self-driving cars or personal assistants in smartphones.

This research was conducted at a British company the Google acquired a few years ago called DeepMind

Demis Hassabis, who founded DeepMind said:

“This is the first significant rung of the ladder towards proving a general learning system can work. It can work on a challenging task that even humans find difficult. It’s the very first baby step towards that grander goal … but an important one.”

And continued to draw comparisons with IBM’s DeepBlue chess computer.

“With Deep Blue, it was team of programmers and grand masters that distilled the knowledge into a program. We’ve built algorithms that learn from the ground up.”

Google have provided a video (below) that shows DeepMind learning to play a classic Atari game

(source Guardian)


Wonderful to see you fit and in full voice on TWiT Sunday evening (tis on late – 23:00 here in the UK). Do hope Leo has you on again in the near future. You two both agree and disagree on many things and Leo doesn’t often get called out so you’re a refreshing guest on the network.
I note the extensive Q&A here on Iran, Israel, Saudi, etc. and thought I’d add my 2pence.
Having just returned from a 12 month long technology consulting job in Kuwait, and before that spent two years in the Magic Kingdom and traveled all across the region I can say that things look different from the inside than they perhaps do from the outside.

The struggle had long been painted as a Israeli v Palestinian conflict and now is pitched as a very complex hydra headed Sunni v Shia conflict. I see it as a simpler situation. It now boils down to an old fashioned regional battle – a Riyadh v Tehran power play – with each side employing proxies of various stripes to fight their battles. All these troubles in a post-Saddam world are due to the main two protagonists in the region. It’s not about religion. It’s about regional dominance.

Rather than ‘NATO boots on the ground’ we should be using all our soft power to knock heads together in the two respective power centers and force them to smoke the peace pipe and to call off their dogs. And if that fails, we should at least be talking up the conflict in public to make it clear where the problems actually lie.

The furor over Bibi’s speech to Congress is one big distraction and has nothing to do with the real issue at hand.

Again, great to see you’re well again.
Best regards,
Jeff Wolfers

Thanks for the kind words.


Net Neutrality, Feb 27, 2015

What if the normal mode of business competition in public utilities is sabotage? I am attaching a contemporary picture of the Battle of Havant, a right-of-way dispute between two English railroad companies in the year 1858.

Source: [Cuthbert] Hamilton Ellis [1909-1987, Fellow of the Royal Society of Art, Associate of the Institute of Locomotive Engineers], _The Pictoral History of Railways_, 1968, p. 17

A utility company’s plant, like that of a railroad, is inherent extensive, in the sense of being distributed over the landscape, and being practically impossible to guard. They already have problems with metal theft, ie. druggies (meth-heads) stealing things like manhole covers and selling them for scrap. Fierce competition might very well translate into paying the Bloods and the Crips to put the rival network out of action.

Andrew D. Todd


The pledge drive is over, but you can still subscribe.  I won’t be bugging you about that for a while


Freedom is not free. Free men are not equal. Equal men are not free.




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