Category Archives: technology

Improving the Star Wars Holiday Special

The year was 1978. Americans were suffering under the weak leadership of an ineffective president. Inflation was running hot and about to get much worse. And then, as if to put an exclamation point on just how bad things were getting, one of the three broadcast television networks that existed at the time aired The Star Wars Holiday Special.

It's difficult to describe just how crushingly bad this entertainment event was. The year before, the movie Star Wars (as it was popularly known at the time, today it goes by "Star Wars: Epsiode IV - A New Hope") had been a spectacular success, providing a beacon of light in the gathering gloom of the era's popular entertainment. By contrast, The Star Wars Holiday Special has been described as a "cosmic catastrophe" and "infamously terrible". No wonder Star Wars producer George Lucas and the stars of the movies worked hard to bury the memory of the special in the decades since.

But some Star Wars fans, being who they are, couldn't let it go. Not only did they remember it existed, some have worked to improve it in a campaign to bring it back. One fan has even gone so far as to create a two minute 4K video trailer for The Star Wars Holiday Special, employing AI and machine learning to improve a portion of the viewing experience.

The trailer only hints at the badness to which Americans were subjected in 1978. To get the full experience, we need to turn another effort to improve the watchability of The Star Wars Holiday Special, put together by Rifftrax.

If you don't think the jokes in the added soundtrack are an improvement, try watching the special without them. You'll soon see why President Jimmy Carter was sermonizing about malaise to Americans just a matter of months later.

We'll agree with CNet's Gael Fashingbauer Cooper that the best part of the improved viewing experience are the vintage ads.

Previously on Political Calculations

Since we're on the verge of the holiday season, here's a sampling of how we've celebrated the time of year in years past.

And for Star Wars fans, do have a happy Life Day!

Using Game Theory to Find Extraterrestrials Less Wastefully

Is Anybody Out There? - Source: Lanma the Shark via Unsplash -

SETI, the Search for Extraterrestial Intelligence, has its roots in late 1959 and early 1960, when astronomer Frank Drake began reviewing data from radio telescopes to see if he could locate intelligent alien life by detecting their transmissions.

Over sixty years later, a privately funded SETI project, Breakthrough Listen, promises to spend some $10 million per year for the next 10 years, or $100 million altogether. The project aims to buy time on radio telescopes in West Virginia and in Australia to survey the one million stars nearest Earth as well as 100 nearby galaxies for signs of life.

But according to game theory, virtually all of that time and money will be wasted. Here's why:

If advanced alien civilisations exist in our galaxy and are trying to communicate with us, what's the best way to find them? This is the grand challenge for astronomers engaged in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). A new paper published in The Astronomical Journal by Jodrell Bank astrophysicist, Dr. Eamonn Kerins, proposes a new strategy based on game theory that could tip the odds of finding them more in our favor.

SETI programs tend to use one of two approaches. One is to conduct a survey that sweeps large areas of sky in the hope of seeing a signal from somewhere. This survey approach can quickly generate huge volumes of data that can be very hard to search through comprehensively. An alternative approach is targeted SETI, where the search focuses more intensively on specific star systems where life might exist. This provides more comprehensive data on those systems, but maybe there's nobody there?

Dr. Kerins proposes the use game theory: "In game theory there are a class of games known as coordination games involving two players who have to cooperate to win but who cannot communicate with each other. When we engage in SETI we, and any civilisation out there trying to find us, are playing exactly this kind of game. So, if both we and they want to make contact, both of us can look to game theory to develop the best strategy."

Dr. Kerins dubs his idea "Mutual Detectability." It states that the best places to look for signals are planets from which we would be capable of determining that Earth itself may be inhabited.

Kerins describes which of those systems would be the best for SETI searches to concentrate their resources in his paper's abstract:

Surveys of the Earth Transit Zone for Earth-analog transiting planets around subsolar luminosity hosts would facilitate targeted SETI programs for civilizations who have game-theory incentive to transmit signals to us.

Translating from Astronomerese to English, Kerins recommends focusing on places where Earth-like planets could be found orbiting stars that are dimmer than the Sun. In focusing on this subset of the millions of stars that would otherwise be searched, the probability that we could successfully detect alien scientists seeking to contact other intelligent life in the universe would be greatly increased over that resulting from the approach planned for the Breakthrough Listen project.

Whether seeking intelligent extraterrestrial life might carry high risks remains to be determined. In any case, we think that anyone going out looking for extraterrestrials ought to do it with the least amount of wasted effort and money.


Eamonn Kerins. Mutual Detectability: A Targeted SETI Strategy That Avoids the SETI Paradox, The Astronomical Journal (2020). DOI: 10.3847/1538-3881/abcc5f.

Image Credit: Photo by Lamna The Shark on Unsplash.

Inventions in Everything: The Santa Claus Detector

We're once again approaching that time of year when children will soon be nestled all smug in their beds with the proverbial visions of sugar-plums dancing in their heads. When that happens, can a visit from St. Nicholas, a.k.a. "Santa Claus", be far behind?

And if so, what can you do to detect the right jolly old elf's presence if he's about to make an appearance by bounding down the chimney? With gift deliveries on hold until all household children comply with Christmas bed occupancy regulations, wouldn't it be a good idea to know when Santa has arrived so you know when you need to send them off to sleep?

That's where U.S. Patent 5,523,741 could be really helpful. Invented by Thomas Cane, the 1996 invention of the Santa Claus Detector was specifically developed to alert residents to the presence of St. Nicholas. Cane's innovation is to conceal a light source within a stocking that might be hung beside the chimney to signal the arrival of the "plump, white-bearded and red-suited gentleman" bearing gifts. He describes his sugar-plummy vision in the patent's section for the background of the invention, where he points out an obvious omission requiring a patented invention to resolve:

According to modern folklore, if a child has behaved during the previous year, Santa Claus will reward the child by placing one or more Christmas presents under the Christmas tree while the child is asleep. To prepare for the arrival of Santa Claus, most households recognizing the Christmas holidays will decorate and prominently display the Christmas tree and hang (or display) various decorations, including Christmas stockings. The stockings are hung by the fireplace (i.e., where Santa enters) and are also filled with small presents and/or treats by Santa upon his arrival.

Thus, in the minds of young children, Santa Claus' arrival is denoted by the presence of Christmas presents under the tree and/or Christmas stockings filled with treats. However, none of these customary practices, nor any prior art arrangements known to applicant, provides a Christmas stocking which is capable of being selectively illuminated to signal the arrival of Santa Claus. Furthermore, there are no such prior art arrangements known to applicant which includes a light transmissive three dimensional hollow recognizable character rendition which is capable of being illuminated to signal the arrival of Santa Claus.

It is therefore an object of the present invention to provide a children's device capable of providing selective illumination to signal the arrival of Santa Claus. This is particularly important to young children, providing reassurance that the child's good behavior has in fact been rewarded by Santa Claus.

Figure 1 of the patent illustrates how the invention might be cleverly incorporated into festive decorations beside the fireplace:

U.S. Patent 5,523,741 Figure 1

In the figure, the ribbon (40) is an elongated flexible pull cord that, when pulled, will activate the battery-powered light emitting diodes (18) and optional music generator (not shown, 50). This configuration allows parents to trigger the Santa Claus Detector when they are ready to clear the way for St. Nicholas by alerting children it is time to go to bed.

But as configured in the diagram, we can't help but note the configuration would also alert household residents should Santa Claus come bounding out of the fireplace without prior warning, where his movements would trigger the stocking LEDs and musical alert to activate. Even if sound asleep at and well through the time of activation, household residents would know that St. Nicholas had visited when they check the detector status.

With that all said, the Inventions in Everything team wishes you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. This is our final edition of the year - we'll be back sometime in January 2022 with our next edition!

From the Inventions in Everything Archives

The IIE team has previously mined through the U.S. Patent Office's records to find out how Santa's sleigh has changed over time!

Ramanujan Machines: AI and the Future of Mathematics

Artificial Intelligence is starting to make its mark on many fields, but the first that will face true transformation because of it is mathematics.

That's because AI is making inroads at both generating and proving mathematical conjectures. In February 2021, researchers at Technion announced they developed an AI-based program to automate the generation of mathematical conjectures that appear in the form of formulas for mathematical constants.

They named their innovative system after Srinivasa Ramanujan, an early 20th century self-taught mathematician from India who possessed an exceptionally rare talent for proposing viable mathematical conjectures. The AI-based system opens up the opportunity of mathematical discoveries to a much wider pool of talent:

The research study started out as an undergraduate project in the Rothschild Scholars Technion Program for Excellence with the participation of Gal Raayoni and George Pisha, and continued as part of the research projects conducted in the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Faculty of Electrical Engineering with the participation of Shahar Gottlieb, Yoav Harris, and Doron Haviv. This is also where the most significant breakthrough was made—by an algorithm developed by Shahar Gottlieb—which led to the article's publication in Nature. Prof. Kaminer adds that the most interesting mathematical discovery made by the Ramanujan Machine's algorithms to date relates to a new algebraic structure concealed within a Catalan constant.

The structure was discovered by high school student Yahel Manor, who participated in the project as part of the Alpha Program for science-oriented youth. Prof. Kaminer added that, "Industry colleagues Uri Mendlovic and Yaron Hadad also participated in the study, and contributed greatly to the mathematical and algorithmic concepts that form the foundation for the Ramanujan Machine. It is important to emphasize that the entire project was executed on a voluntary basis, received no funding, and participants joined the team out of pure scientific curiosity."

The Ramanujan Machine has also already made some other very noteworthy achievements:

The conjectures generated by the Technion's Ramanujan Machine have delivered new formulas for well-known mathematical constants such as pi, Euler's number (e), Apéry's constant (which is related to the Riemann zeta function), and the Catalan constant. Surprisingly, the algorithms developed by the Technion researchers succeeded not only in creating known formulas for these famous constants, but in discovering several conjectures that were heretofore unknown. The researchers estimate this algorithm will be able to significantly expedite the generation of mathematical conjectures on fundamental constants and help to identify new relationships between these constants.

As mentioned, until now, these conjectures were based on rare genius. This is why in hundreds of years of research, only a few dozens of formulas were found. It took the Technion's Ramanujan Machine just a few hours to discover all the formulas for pi discovered by Gauss, the "Prince of Mathematics," during a lifetime of work, along with dozens of new formulas that were unknown to Gauss.

Having developed the conjectures, the next step for mathematicians will be to transform them into full mathematical theorems with proofs.

But that's not the only AI-based math story to make the news this year!

Just last week, a different set of maths researchers at the University of Sydney announced they had developed an AI system to both generate and prove conjectures in representation theory and in knot theory. The following excerpt describes how the AI program known as DeepMind helped Geordie Williamson prove a 40-year old conjecture in his field of representation theory:

Professor Williamson used DeepMind's AI to bring him close to proving an old conjecture about Kazhdan-Lusztig polynomials, which has been unsolved for 40 years. The conjectures concern deep symmetry in higher dimensional algebra.

But the full capability of the DeepMind AI system came in producing both a conjecture and a proof in knot theory:

Co-authors Professor Marc Lackeby and Professor András Juhász from the University of Oxford have taken the process a step further. They discovered a surprising connection between algebraic and geometric invariants of knots, establishing a completely new theorem in mathematics.

In knot theory, invariants are used to address the problem of distinguishing knots from each other. They also help mathematicians understand properties of knots and how this relates to other branches of mathematics.

The paper revealing their AI-system assisted accomplishments provides the following diagram showing how they foresee the interaction between AI systems and mathematicians will develop:

Davies et al, Advancing mathematics by guiding human intuition with AI, Figure 1: Flowchart of the framework.

It's an exciting time in maths with the arrival of the Ramanujan machines. All the same, we think these developments give short shrift to Ramanujan's genius, which is why we've featured Mathologer's 45-minute video discussing how Ramanujan solved a difficult puzzle that appeared in a 1914 edition of Strand magazine at the top of this piece, just to give a hint of the kind of intuitions and insights these AI systems are being built to reproduce.


Gal Raayoni et al. Generating conjectures on fundamental constants with the Ramanujan Machine, Nature (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-03229-4. 3 February 2021.

Alex Davies, Advancing mathematics by guiding human intuition with AI, Nature (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-04086-x. [Online Article]. 1 December 2021.

The Birth of the Martian Economy

A little over three months ago, a momentous event passed with little notice. The economy of the planet Mars came into existence.

The occasion was marked in Nature, though neither the author of the report nor those directly involved in the achievement were fully aware of the significance of what they achieved on 6 September 2021. Here's the basic story of the accomplishment as they understood it:

After a failed attempt last month, NASA’s Perseverance rover has successfully drilled, extracted and stored a sample of Martian rock — the first ever Mars sample destined to be flown back to Earth for study.

“This is a momentous achievement,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson in a statement.

When the rover first attempted the manoeuvre, on 6 August, the rock it was trying to sample crumbled into powder before making it into a sample tube. The second attempt, on 1 September at a different location several hundred metres away, went smoothly: the drill bit pulled a slim cylinder out of a 70-centimetre-long rock named Rochette. Engineers then paused the process so that they could photograph the core in its sample tube, to ensure it was intact, before sealing the specimen inside days later, on 6 September.

The core from Rochette now rests in Perseverance’s belly, hermetically sealed and ready to wait many years until future spacecraft can retrieve it and any other cores the rover manages to collect. The goal is to gather about 35 cores representing the geological history of Jezero Crater, Perseverance’s landing site — which was home to a river delta billions of years ago and might contain evidence of ancient Martian life.

Here's a short one-minute video documenting the Perseverance probe's drilling operation:

To be sure, this is not the first drilling operation on Mars, nor it the first time a rock sample has been moved or examined by an automated rover or lander on Mars. What makes this remote, robotically-performed operation different is what was done with the rock sample that was collected. It was put into inventory where it will remain stored until it might be exported from Mars.

These actions differentiate Perseverance's activity from all the missions to Mars that preceded it. That difference is meaningful in an economic sense, because it marks the first change ever recorded in the amount of inventory of a good produced for future interplanetary trade on Mars. We would argue this production along with the intent to transact or trade the produced good now being stored qualifies the production of the rock sample as a genuine economic activity. Without the intent to trade, the rover's work would not be meaningfully different from the activities of say a squirrel storing nuts or a roving herd of buffalo disturbing rocks while grazing on the prairie, which we don't think anyone would classify as economic events.

Let's put an economic value on the rover's economic activity. In this case, the cylindrical rock sample that is approximately 13-mm in diameter and 60-mm long, or rather, 7,964 cubic millimeters in volume. On 23 February 2021, Christie's auctioned a Martian meteorite sample measuring 91 mm x 79 mm x 2 mm (a volume of 14,378 cubic millimeters) for $40,000. Assuming the meteorite's material has a similar density, that would give an estimated value of Perseverance's first Martian rock sample of $22,156.

That's a low end estimate. Christie's also auctioned a smaller sample, measuring 26 mm x 12 mm x 2 mm (a volume of 624 cubic millimeters), for $13,760. If that price is more reflective of the value of the first rock core sample currently held in inventory on Mars, its value would be $175,616.

Since then, the Perseverance rover has collected two more samples. Therefore, based on what we know today, the first estimate of Mars' GDP can be found by multiplying the estimated value of one of its rock samples by three. The product of that math has a huge error band, likely falling somewhere between $66,468 and $526,848 during the current Martian quarter!

The real question though is this the right way to go about estimating GDP on a faraway planet with a robotic population? What really does qualify as economic production in this case? Do any non-human actions qualify as economic activity?

If you can answer these questions, well, the sky is no longer the limit, is it?

Celebrating Political Calculations' Anniversary

Our anniversary posts typically represent the biggest ideas and celebration of the original work we develop here each year. Here are our landmark posts from previous years:

  • A Year's Worth of Tools (2005) - we celebrated our first anniversary by listing all the tools we created in our first year. There were just 48 back then. Today, there are over 300....
  • The S&P 500 At Your Fingertips (2006) - the most popular tool we've ever created, allowing users to calculate the rate of return for investments in the S&P 500, both with and without the effects of inflation, and with and without the reinvestment of dividends, between any two months since January 1871.
  • The Sun, In the Center (2007) - we identify the primary driver of stock prices and describe a whole new way to visualize where they're going (especially in periods of order!)
  • Acceleration, Amplification and Shifting Time (2008) - we apply elements of chaos theory to describe and predict how stock prices will change, even in periods of disorder.
  • The Trigger Point for Taxes (2009) - we work out both when, and by how much, U.S. politicians are likely to change the top U.S. income tax rate. Sadly, events in recent years have proven us right.
  • The Zero Deficit Line (2010) - a whole new way to find out how much federal government spending Americans can really afford and how much Americans cannot really afford!
  • Can Increasing the Minimum Wage Boost GDP? (2011) - using data for teens and young adults spanning 1994 and 2010, not only do we demonstrate that increasing the minimum wage fails to increase GDP, we demonstrate that it reduces employment and increases income inequality as well!
  • The Discovery of the Unseen (2012) - we go where so-called experts on income inequality fear to tread and reveal that U.S. household income inequality has increased over time mostly because more Americans live alone!

We marked our 2013 anniversary in three parts, since we were telling a story too big to be told in a single blog post! Here they are:

  • The Major Trends in U.S. Income Inequality Since 1947 (2013, Part 1) - we revisit the U.S. Census Bureau's income inequality data for American individuals, families and households to see what it really tells us.
  • The Widows Peak (2013, Part 2) - we identify when the dramatic increase in the number of Americans living alone really occurred and identify which Americans found themselves in that situation.
  • The Men Who Weren't There (2013, Part 3) - our final anniversary post installment explores the lasting impact of the men who died in the service of their country in World War 2 and the hole in society that they left behind, which was felt decades later as the dramatic increase in income inequality for U.S. families and households.

Resuming our list of anniversary posts....