20111231

2011 in Review

Everybody else is doing it, so why not me?

First the big stuff. A year ago, professional intelligence analysts thought that Belgium was more likely to experience political turmoil than Egypt. Then the Arab Spring happened, and ordinary people rose up and overthrew governments across the region. In Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, dictators fell like dominoes. In Bahrain, protesters were crushed with overwhelming force, and in Syria the battle rages on. Just compare Foreign Policy's top 100 global thinkers in 2011 and 2009, and you can see the kind of change that nobody foresaw. The Arab Spring was echoed by protests worldwide, most notably the Occupy movement in the United States, anti-austerity riots in Greece, and the first mass protests in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. This is the kind of people power that hasn't been seen since 1968, and possible even since 1848, years which shook the old order.

If networks and bottom-up ideas had a banner year in 2011, centralized institutions managed not to fall apart completely. Congress's brinkmanship over raising the debt ceiling dropped America's credit rating from AAA to AA, not that financial markets have appeared to notice. The European Union could't come to a decision on the Greek debt crisis, casting the very future of the EU into doubt. And in Durban, the IPCC agreed to come to an agreement about global carbon emissions in 2015, with binding limits coming into effect in 2020. It's been a lousy year for experts and elites, and if you know of any centralized decision-making bodies that haven't made complete fools of themselves recently, I'd love to hear about them.

The only group that came out worse than experts were authoritarian leaders. Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt were forced out of office by popular revolutions. Qaddafi was shot by rebel forces. Kim Jong Il died. And after 3 terms, Silvo Berluscion was forced to resign under a cloud of corruption and scandal. If I were a colorful authoritarian leader, I'd be watching my back.

As for what happens next in the world, who knows? The Arab Spring could quite possibly lead to another round of dictators or theocrats. Some vital cog in the global economic system could come undone, with catastrophic results. But personally, I'm hopeful. The refrain of the self-proclaimed Masters of the Universe, whether economic wizards or brutal dictators, has always been "There is no alternative." If there's one lesson that we've learned from 2011, it's that there are lots of alternatives. 2011 was a year to dream and deconstruct. 2012 will be a year to learn and grow.

And since this is also my personal blog, I'd like to take a moment to review the year personally, since so much happened that I almost didn't have time to realize how much it totally rocked! I'm starting to come into my own in grad school. I took some amazing classes (Crow and Sarewitz science policy, 2 history of medicine classes with Ben Hurlbut), ~30 lectures at ASU, and learned a lot over the summer as at the Breakthrough Institute. We're still totally screwed on energy, but I'm glad I put my time in the trenches. On the input side, I read 112 books, about 300 academic articles, and thousands of news pieces of various levels of seriousness. On the output side, I wrote 100 pages of academic papers, some of which might eventually see the light of day (hah), ~40 blog posts for We Alone on Earth, and 3 for Science Progress. The Prevail Project launched, and it might come to something. I actually finished a D&D campaign, Emerald Island with the epically quotable #ASUDND, and started another iteration of my perennial campaign, Under No Banners. And finally, (and I can't put enough emphasis on this one), I met a truly wonderful girl, who's smart, sexy, sharp as a tack, has great taste in music, and could totally smoke me on her bike. I love you, Marci!

Okay, sappiness over. Here's to an even awesomer next year!


20111220

D&D: Negotiating for Fun

D&D designer Monte Cook has been posting some interesting, if somewhat incomplete articles about the game design process about running the game, mostly focusing on the opposition between complete rules—a kind of fantasy physics—and DM adjudication. Working off of his ideas, I would like to develop my own theory of what pen-and-paper RPGs are actually about, and how we might go about improving gaming. But first, Monte Cook:


What's the Dungeon Master's real role? I've asked people that before, and to my dismay, I sometimes get back answers like, "He rolls for the monsters." I say "dismay" because the DM is so much more than that.

Others would argue that the DM's role is to act as a sort of mechanic, tending to the machinery of the game. The game system codifies and systematizes so much that there is little need for adjudication on the DM's part, only the occasional interpretation. This has been true for so long that the D&D culture has changed slightly, to the point where many think of DM arbitration as a bad thing. If the DM needs to make a judgment call, either something has gone terribly wrong with the game or the DM is overstepping his bounds.

Still others might claim that the DM is a storyteller. While being a Dungeon Master is a wildly creative enterprise, the idea of "DM as storyteller" gives me pause because, in truth, the entire group is the storyteller. The DM creates a world and characters and plots, but the story doesn't get told until everyone at the table gets involved.

I've always liked to look at the DM as the conduit between the players and the fantasy world. He is their eyes and ears, describing what they see, and he is the arbiter of what they can and cannot do to affect the (unreal) world around them.

Maybe the DM is all of these things.


I share Monte’s dismay that the idea the DM simply “rolls for the monsters”, or that RPGs are about story-telling. Neither of those conceptions fit my experiences of what RPGs are. It’s true that the DM rolls for the monsters and maintains the mechanics of the game, but this doesn’t begin to approach the creativity of everything a DM actually does: from building the history of the world, to deciding what NPCs will say and do, or even selecting the monsters and obstacles ahead. Only the most rigorous, by-the-word-of-the-module DM could be considered a ‘game mechanic’ in the sense that Monte means.

Storytelling has also seemed to me a partial definition of what an RPG is. Yes, there are stories in RPGs, but compared to traditional literature, their plots and language aren’t particularly compelling or well developed. There’s a reason why hell is being trapped next to a nerd who won’t stop telling you about his D&D campaign. People do shared storytelling all the time; look at campers telling ghost stories around a campfire, or just a group of friends sharing anecdotes. But compare that to how action and narrative (who’s talking, what are they talking about) work at a campfire and at a game table, and there’s very little overlap. The biggest difference is that RPGs have rules. Even “Narrative” games, like Sorcerer and Dogs in the Vineyard, include a conflict resolution system based on the nature of the characters, and what is important in the story.

So now that I’ve laid out what RPGs aren’t, what are they? Anthropologist Annemarie Mol suggests that we should look at what actually happens at the game table to determine what games are. “It is possible to say that in practices objects are enacted. This suggests that activities take place—but leaves actors vague. It also suggests that in the act, and only then and there, something is—being enacted” (Mol, 2002, The Body Multiple). What follows is a fictional, but representative, transcription of a game session. (a better scholar would have actual data, but I’m several hundred miles from my game group.)


DM: The cavern path ends suddenly at a crevasse. The pit crosses the entire cave, plunging down into the inky depths below. You think you hear water running at the bottom, but it might just be echoes from the deep. What do you do?

Rogue: Can I jump across?

DM: The distance is a bit over 15’. You could probably make this long-jump, if you got a running start on a level field, weren’t carrying anything, and had a good night’s rest before. As it stands, with the uneven footing and the way your muscles ache after a day of exploring, it’s rather chancy. ((The GM privately knows that the Rogue needs to roll a 12 or above to succeed)).

Rogue: No thanks, I’m not jumping over a bottomless bit on anything other than a certainty.

Wizard: Can I use the Levitate Spell to float across?

DM: Did you prepare it?

Wizard: No, but you’ve let me use rare utility spells before without preparing them.

DM: True, but without that Water Breathing spell, you would’ve had to wait all day to check out the sunken wreck. Besides, you could have bought a scroll of Levitate back in town. The Mage’s Guild is there for a reason.

Wizard: Okay, fine.

Fighter: What do the stones on either side of the crevasse look like?

DM: They’re the eroded limestone of most of this cave, rough, and somewhat slick with moisture and
slime.

Fighter: So, lots of little holes and bits jutting out?

DM: Yes.

Fighter: Well, before I became an adventurer, I was a dwarf miner, so I know a lot about carpentry and bracing underground. That goblin outpost we took out back there had some bunk beds, so can we take the beds apart and use the plants to build a bridge?

DM: Hmm, I guess so, but that’ll take a few hours and make a lot of noise, do you want to risk it?

Cleric: I still have plenty of healing left, so we can handle a wandering encounter or two.

Group: Let’s do it!



So, what is going on here? You see a back and forth between the GM and the players, requests for information, various plans proposed, deemed unacceptable, and finally, a plan that succeeds. In essence, the shape of what is being enacted here is not a story, but a negotiation.

RPGs are a leisure activity, they’re supposed to be fun. Negotiating is often fun and exciting, but it can also be dull or frustrating. Negotiations fail when one or more of the parties are being unreasonable, and refuse to come to a compromise, and situations become boring when they are repeated ad nausea. The points of the rules in a RPG are to constrain negotiations, such that the parties are forced to be reasonable, and to provide a way to resolve common negotiations quickly.

Consider a standard RPG scenario, a hero trying to kill a monster with his or her sword. In a purely negotiated mode, the options of “you miss” and “you kill it” are not very exciting, and it’s easy for both parties to get deadlocked. The requests for further information (what kind of armor is the monster wearing), and bringing in further details to justify their position (I carry the legendary blade of my ancestors, this monster has many hearts and does not die easily) are up to the judgment calls of possibly unreasonable GMs or players, and for something that comes up frequently, reiterating all the details is time consuming, and rewards people who can spend five minutes describing how “my flashing riposte from en quarte shatters the foe’s guard, as I drive home with the ensorcelled point of my elf-crafted rapier etc. etc.” The rules condense this whole negotiation into “roll dice, compare to target number, succeed or fail.” It is fast and it gives fair and consistent results.

Now, return to what makes a game fun. This is ultimately highly subjective, but pretty much every RPG is based around a number (hitpoints), and the idea that the game is over when that number reaches zero. In every encounter, you’re wagering your character against the chance of death and the rewards of victory. It’s like roulette, or poker, but with your character as the stakes. Good games you plenty of options for changing the stakes, for deciding how much you’re willing to wager on this spin of the dice, and whether the resources you’re using now might be better saved for later. For example, in D&D 4e any given attack can be a standard At-Will, a more significant Encounter power, or an awesome Daily. The amount of offensive firepower a party uses is balanced against their willingness to take damage, and their endurance in hit points and healing surges. Yet, many powers reset at the end of the encounter or the end of the day, meaning that losing a wager doesn’t permanently weaken your character, as say, single use magic-items might. Good rules make this process of wagering resources to achieve outcomes exciting and decision-provoking.

A strong set of rules also supports negotiations outside the narrow framework of a combat encounter, by differentiating characters, and giving them narrative resources to draw upon (like our dwarf ex-miner). This kind of negotiation is often what people mean when they talk about “real roleplaying”, and what it means is the mutual enactment of a negotiation about a set of characters, their histories and personalities, and the world that they inhabit. The common GMing adage to never say no, but rather say “Yes, but…” is another facet of a negotiated world. Saying “No” closes down the negotiation, saying “Yes, but…” continues the game. Good rules allow for fun and interesting negotiations, bad rules foreclose them.

From a more distant level, the story of a given campaign is also a negotiation—defined as “the navigation of a series of obstacles” as opposed to a “dialog between two or more parties.” This is the nature of the game, of what is actually enacted at the table. Traditional games are very much about a series of victories and set-backs, indie games might have a broader set of outcomes, but a problem-solving orientation is at the core of RPGs.

And finally, there is the meta-negotiation about what a given game contains, what it is about, and what goes on at the table. Players bring their characters, with some number of ‘hooks’ to link into the game. The GM creates a world, and a plot that hopefully engages the players. Everybody must come to an agreement about what counts as acceptable table behavior, or else the game will fail.

In short, the rules of the game serve as the fulcrum between negotiating and wagering activities. The art of playing RPGs is the art of being a good negotiator; both by achieving your own ends and helping others achieve theirs. The art of game design is to create a fun system of wagering that does not infringe upon negotiation.


20111129


20111121

The Vaccine Controvery

This past Friday I had the chance to meet Mark Largent, a historian of science at Michigan State University, who after writing an excellent history of American eugenics, is working on a history of the anti-vaccination movement. The anti-vaccination movement is one of the more contentious flashpoints in popular culture, with views on vaccines ranging from the deliberate poisoning of children by doctors, to anti-science nonsense that threatens to reverse a century of healthcare gains. Largent’s methodology is to look at the people involved and try to see the world as they believe it, without doing violence. The question of whether vaccines cause autism is scientifically and socially irrelevant. But it is a proxy for a wider and more important spectrum of beliefs about personal responsibility and biomedical interventions, the interface between personal liberty and public goods, and the political consequences of these beliefs.

Some numbers: Currently, 40% of American parents have delayed one or more recommend vaccines, and 11.5% have refused a state mandated vaccine. 23 states containing more than half the population allow “philosophical exemptions” to mandatory vaccination, which are trivial to obtain. The number of inoculations given to children has increased from 9 in the mid 1980s, to 26 today. As a single father, Largent understands the anti-vaccines movement on a basic level: babies hate shots, and doctors administer dozens of them from seconds after birth to two years old.

The details of “vaccines-cause-autism” are too complex to go into here, but Largent is an expert on Andrew Wakefield, the now-discredited British physician who authored the withdrawn Lancet study which suggest a link between the MMR vaccines and autism, and Jenny McCarthy, who campaigned against the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal in the US. Now, as for the scientific issue, it is settled: vaccines do not cause autism. Denmark, which keeps comprehensive health records, shows no difference in autism cases between the vaccinated, partially vaccinated, and un-vaccinated. We don’t know what causes autism, or why cases of autism are increasing, but it probably is related to more rigorous screening and older mothers, as opposed to any external cause. Certainly, the epidemiological cause-and-effect for vaccines and autism is about as a strong as the link between cellphones and radiation, namely non-existent.

But parents, looking for absolute safety and certainty for their children, aren’t convinced by scientific studies, simply because it is effectively impossible to prove a negative to their standards. A variety of pro-vaccine advocates, Seth Mnookin and Paul Offit among them, have cast this narrative as the standard science denialism story, with deluded and dangerous parents threatening to return us to the bad old days of polio. This “all-or-nothing” demonization is unhelpful, and serves merely to alienate the parents doctors are trying to reach. Rather, Largent proposed that we need to have a wider social debate on the number and purpose of vaccines, and the relationship between doctors, parents, and the teachers and daycare workers who are the first line of vaccine compliance.

Now, thinking about this in the context of my studies, this looks like a classic issue of biopolitics and competing epistemologies, and is tied directly into the consumerization of the American healthcare system. According to Foucault, modernity was marked by the rise of biopolitics. “One might say that the ancient right to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death.” While the sovereign state—literally a man in a shiny hat with a sword—killed his enemies to maintain order, the modern state tends to the population like a garden, keeping careful statistics and intervening to maintain population health.

From a bureaucratic rationalist point of view, vaccines are an ideal tool, requiring a minimal intervention, and with massive and observable effects on the rolls of births and deaths, and the frequency and severity of epidemics. Parents don’t see these facts, particularly when vaccines have been successful. What they do see is that babies hate vaccines. I’m not being flip when I say that the suffering of children is of no account to the bureaucratic perspective, the official CDC claim is that 1/3 of babies are “fretful” after receiving vaccines. This epistemology justifies an unlimited expansion of the vaccination program, since any conceivable amount of fretfulness is offset by even a single prevented death. For parents and pediatricians, who must deal with the expense, inconvenience, and suffering of each shoot, the facts appear very different. These mutually incompatible epistemologies mean that pro and anti-vaccine advocates are talking past each other.

The second side of the story is how responsibility for maintaining health has been increasingly shifted onto patients. From the women’s health movement of the 1970s, with Our Bodies, Ourselves, to the 1997 Consumer Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, to Medicare Advantage plans, ordinary people are increasingly expected to take part in healthcare decisions that were previously the sole province of doctors. The anti-vaccine movement has members from the Granola Left and the Libertarian Right, but it is overwhelming composed of upper-middle class women, precisely the people who have seen the greatest increase in medical knowledge and choice over the past few decades. Representatives of the healthcare system should not be surprised that after empowering patients to make their own decisions, they sometimes make decisions against medical advice.

So how to resolve this dilemma? The pro-vaccine advocates suggest we either force people to get vaccinated, a major intrusion of coercive power into a much more liberalized medical system, or we somehow change the epistemology of parents. Both of these approaches are unworkable. Likewise, anti-vaccine advocates should lay off vaccines-cause-autism. They may have valid complaints, but at this point, the science is in, and continuing to push that line really pisses scientists off. Advocates need to understand the standards of scientific knowledge, and what playing in a scientific arena entails.

In the vaccine controversy, as in so many others, what we need is forum that balances both scientific and non-scientific knowledge, so that anti-vaccine advocates can speak their case without mangling science in the process. I don’t know what that forum would look like, who would attend, or how it would achieve this balance, but the need for better institutional engagement between science and society is clear.


20111101

Visual Analogue of a Shepard Tone

A Shepard tone is an auditory illusion which appears to indefinitely ascend or descend in pitch without actually changing pitch at all.

Shepard tones work because they actually contain multiple tones, separated by octaves. As tones get higher in pitch, they fade out. New tones fade in at the lower pitches. The net effect is that it sounds like all the constituent tones are continually increasing in pitch -- and they are, but pitches fade in and out so that, on average, the pitch composition is constant.

Since 2D quasicrystals can be rendered as a sum of plane-waves, it is possible to form the analogue of a Shepard tone with these visual objects. Each plane wave is replaced with a collection of plane waves, at 2,4,8,16... etc times the spatial frequency of the original plane wave. The relative amplitudes of the plane waves are set so that the spatial frequency stays approximately the same even as the underlying waves are scaled. The result is a quasicrystal that appears to zoom in or out indefinitely, without fundamentally changing in structure. There is no reason to demonstrate this effect using quasicrystals, as it would be evident even with a single plane wave. However, I find the interplay between the infinite scaling and the emergent patterns of quasicrystals to be particularly appealing.


More vaguely nauseating quasicrystal zoom GIFs can be found here. You can run and modify the code I used to generate these animation. Copy the following code into a file called QuasiZoom.java. Then, in a terminal, type "javac QuasiZoom.java" in the same directory, and then "java QuasiZoom". Various parameters to tune the output are noted in comments in the code. Then use Gimp to make an animated GIF.

import java.awt.Color;
import java.awt.image.BufferedImage;
import java.io.File;
import java.io.IOException;
import javax.imageio.ImageIO;
import static java.lang.Math.*;

public class QuasiZoom {

// Defines a gaussian function. We will use this to define the
// envelope of spatial frequencies
public static double gaussian(double x) {
return exp(-x*x/2)/sqrt(2*PI);
}

public static void main(String[] args) throws IOException {
int k = 5; //number of plane waves
int stripes = 3; //number of stripes per wave
int N = 500; //image size in pixels
int divisions=40; //number of frames to divide the animation into
int N2 = N/2;

BufferedImage it = new BufferedImage(N, N, BufferedImage.TYPE_INT_RGB);

//the range of different spatial frequencies
int [] M=new int[]{1,2,4,8,16,32,64,128,256};

//the main ( central ) spatial frequency
double mean=log(16);

//the spread of the spatial frequency envelope
double sigma=1;

//counts the frames
int ss=0;

//iterate over spatial scales, scaling geometrically
for (double sc=2.0; sc>1.0; sc/=pow(2,1./divisions))
{
System.out.println("frame = "+ss);

//adjust the wavelengths for the current spatial scale
double [] m=new double[M.length];
for (int l=0; l<M.length; l++)
m[l]=M[l]*sc;

//modulate each wavelength by a gaussian envelop in log
//frequency, centered around aforementioned mean with defined
//standard deviation
double sum=0;
double [] W=new double[M.length];
for (int l=0; l<M.length; l++) {
W[l]=gaussian((log(m[l])-mean)/sigma);
sum+=W[l];
}
sum*=k;

for (int i = 0; i < N; i++) {
for (int j = 0; j < N; j++) {

double x = j - N2, y = i - N2; //cartesian coordinates
double C = 0; // accumulator

// iterate over all k plane waves
for (double t = 0; t < PI; t += PI / k){
//compute the phase of the plane wave
double ph=(x*cos(t)+y*sin(t))*2*PI*stripes/N;
//take a weighted sum over the different spatial scales
for (int l=0; l<M.length; l++)
C += (cos(ph*m[l]))*W[l];
}
// convert the summed waves to a [0,1] interval
// and then convert to [0,255] greyscale color
C = min(1,max(0,(C*0.5+0.5)/sum));
int c = (int) (C * 255);
it.setRGB(i, j, c | (c << 8) | (c << 16));
}
}
ImageIO.write(it, "png", new File("out"+(ss++)+".png"));
}

}
}



The infinite zoom effects also creates a motion-fatigue optical illusion, which will cause illusory contraction of your visual field after staring at the above GIF for a while. This is caused by the neurons that encode motions "getting tired" or adapting to the continual motion. When you look away from the animation, there is a rebound effect where neurons end up encoding stationary inputs as moving in the direction opposite of the animation.


20111031

The Bookstore is Dead, Long Live the written word

I've seen an article bemoaning the end of the book about monthly for as long as I can remember. The most recent one is from Curtis Wright, who argues that the only players left standing in books are Google and Amazon, and that everybody else is just waiting to go out of business. Literature is dead, Oprah's book club just pushes endless waves of trash, etc etc. But why do we even need bookstores?

As far as I’m concerned, the book business deserves to die if for no other reason than that its business model is something out of the 1930s: send a bunch of loser Willy Lomans out as “reps,” people who don’t read and don’t understand the books they sell, and have them place the books on consignment, just as if they were old chairs that you were trying to unload at the local consignment store. As far as the bookstores were concerned, they were mostly purchasing decoration for their stores, so that it at least looked like a place to buy books. The few books that actually made money—celebrity memoirs, confessions of failed politicians, moronic self-help tomes, and jokey piss-jobs about not running with scissors—were profitably located on a few tables at the front of the store. Everything else was just ambience.


Certainly, the bookstore as a business model is imploding. Independent bookstores have been in a persistent vegetative state for decades. Borders went bankrupt this past summer, and I can't remember the last time I set foot in a Barnes & Noble. But bookstores, at least for Wright, are not just about moving paper from publishers to shelves, it's about centers for local literary discussion, for elevating the people above the tedium and banality of life.

Wait, bookstores are essential to literature? When I think of the great bursts of literature from the likes of The Lost Generation, the Beats, Golden Age Science-Fiction, I think about cafes, bars, 5th floor apartments, and odd little magazines, not bookstores. Writers write, they aren't hanging around in bookstores absorbing the ambiance and swapping sentences, they're off in the world engaged in the messy process of translating experience into the written word. Bookstores sites of distribution, not of production. Literature is not written in a bookstore, and does not need a store to survive.

Now, how about the production side? White bemoans the loss of the learned clerk who knew everything about what was in their store, and who could perfectly recommend a book, or the serendipitous find. Now, I've gotten some profoundly good advice from clerks (thanks, Borderlands-SF!), but I've also wandered lost through endless heaps of indistinguishable books, unable to tell which ones were good or bad, ultimately landing on a trusted name I already knew. And not to be blindly technologically optimistic, but at this point, computers are really good at being recommendation engines. Pandora Radio has better taste and more diversity than my 250 GB music library. Amazon recommendations are often pretty spot on, and come with a host of reviews and opinions that you can't get in a bookstores.

If literature is about starting a conversation, we might be right to feel that we've lost something, not being able to see what books other people are reading on the subway, or have on the shelves in their house. This public space is lost. But what do we really get from this most mass-market of shared experiences? What use is it knowing that everybody is reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? White might not like, but the public sphere is data-driven, and these days data is online. For the past year, I've put every book I've read on Goodreads, crossposting perhaps a third of those reviews to Facebook. This is far more exposure than sitting out by the cafe reading some embarrassingly illustrated scifi novel word ever get.

White goes on to decry the potential of an Amazon information monopoly. But the idea that publishing can be monopolized in this day and age is absurd. A monkey can self-publish on Amazon, and get paid. Professional writers may have some valid concerns over the pricing structure, and their relative lack of power in this relationship, but then again, it would be hard for writers to become more destitute. And if you don't like Amazon, grab some web-hosting and throw up a pdf. Or just participate in the massive para-literatures around fanfiction. I'm not going to claim that fanfiction is art, but its certainly words, and more than that it is people engaging with a text, incorporating bits of it into themselves, and sharing stories in a shared universe. It is a literary conversation.

So perhaps literature is dying, if you define literature as something produced by writers, editors, publishers and critics for the good of the elite masses. But that incestuous cycle's artist failure is self-evident. How many books are both Nobel prize winners and best-sellers? Any guesses as to how many of these books will be read in 100 years?

The bookstore is dead. Fine, we don't need it. Literature is irrelevant, but it's okay because we have our own language and our own text. Long live the written word!


20111025

College, Jobs, and the Machine

Race Against the Machine, a recent report from two MIT professors, has gathered media attention by laying the blame for the Great Recession and weak recovery on advancing technology, particularly computers, which are replacing human beings. As the New York Times writes:

"Faster, cheaper computers and increasingly clever software, the authors say, are giving machines capabilities that were once thought to be distinctively human, like understanding speech, translating from one language to another and recognizing patterns. So automation is rapidly moving beyond factories to jobs in call centers, marketing and sales — parts of the services sector, which provides most jobs in the economy.

During the last recession, the authors write, one in 12 people in sales lost their jobs, for example. And the downturn prompted many businesses to look harder at substituting technology for people, if possible. Since the end of the recession in June 2009, they note, corporate spending on equipment and software has increased by 26 percent, while payrolls have been flat."


Digital technologies enables a "super-star" effect, concentrating wealth in the hands of the very best. Thanks to computers, "the best" can be replicated and sold, leading to highly concentrated markets like those for pop stars, major league athletes, or CEO salaries. This argument is more subtle and more powerful than the idea of ever more capable machines replacing humans, a trend which has been with us since the 1800s. It appears that intrinsically, computers might be associated with the immense concentration of wealth we've witnessed over the past 20th century. While everybody is better off now, the top 1% is much better off. The top 0.1% is unimaginably more well off.

What hasn't garnered as much attention are the report's recommendations to resolve this problem, starting with education, entrepreneurship, and regulations. There's something here to irritate everybody: the end of tenure for teachers, removing the mortage tax credit, public healthcare not tied to employment. But the goal is simple, reduce barriers to innovation, allow people to lead flexible yet secure lives, and help people race with machines, not against them.

Education is the first tier of reform, because without an educated population capable of taking advantage of opportunities, everything else is moot. Yet education, and in particular, higher education, appears to be failing. We still teach people with an antiquated lecture style that wastes students' and professors' time, and doesn't impart skills. Recent college graduates feel betrayed by a job market that doesn't need their skills, as this NYMag article illuminates. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) degrees are more valuable than ever, but aren't attracting sufficient students for a variety of reasons, including poor introductory courses, lower GPAs, and (apparently) tedious careers. Korea is requesting that fewer people go to college, a point which PayPal founder Peter Thiel has been making again and again, most recently in a debate in Chicago.

To quote Thiel opponent in the debate, Vivek Wadhwa:

"Your key issue was that education has become far too expensive — that, in the past, the cost may have been justified but is no longer. You compare this to the most recent housing market bubble, which was a leading contributor to the recession. Bienen didn’t agree. He argued that universities greatly subsidize education, offer significant discounts and subsidies for needy students, and provide far more value than what they charge. But I am willing to concede part of this point to you: We do need to improve the cost-effectiveness and productivity of education."

Wadhwa calls on Thiel to help revolutionize education, using the power of the interent to connect students to the best teachers and the best sources of knowledge. This is a worthy, necessary task is human beings are to prevail over the efficiency of ever better machines. With that, let me ask:

What kind of jobs will exist in the 21st century? What kind of skills are necessary for those jobs? How can people learn those skills? How can access to the opportunities of the future be spread as widely as possible?


20111024

Animated Quasicrystals

Inspired by this recent Nobel prize, we've been playing with two-dimensional quasi-crystal patterns again. We spoke briefly of quasicrystals previously : patterns that appear somewhat periodic but never actually repeat. Two-dimensional quasicrystals can be generated by summing together four or more plane waves. In collaboration with Keegan, we've explored ( for entertainment purposes entirely ), what happens when you make these plane waves travel, and also viewing the quasicrystals in log-transformed coordinates as shown in this earlier post. There are more animations over at the Imgur album.


The Java code below generated sequences of images for animation. Once you have a series of images, you can use Gimp to make an animated GIF. I converted to black-and-white and 8-color indexed mode before saving to cut down on file size, and used about 80ms/frame for animation speed.
 import java.awt.image.BufferedImage;  
import java.io.File;
import java.io.IOException;
import javax.imageio.ImageIO;
import static java.lang.Math.*;
public class QUASI1 {
public static void main(String [] args) throws IOException {
int k=4; //numer of plane waves
int stripes = 27; //number of stripes per wave
int N = 800; //image size in pixels
int N2 = N/2;
BufferedImage it = new BufferedImage(N,N,BufferedImage.TYPE_INT_RGB);
for (double phase=0; phase<2*PI; phase+=2*PI/30) {
for ( int i=0; i<N; i++ ) for ( int j=0; j<N; j++ ) {
double x = j-N2, y = i-N2; //cartesian coordinates
double theta = atan2(y,x); //log-polar coordinates
double r = log(sqrt(x*x+y*y));
double C=0; // accumulator
for (double t=0; t<PI; t+=PI/k)
C+=cos((theta*cos(t)-r*sin(t))*stripes+phase);
// use the following line for cartesian crystals:
//C+=cos((x*cos(t)+y*sin(t))*2*PI*stripes/N+phase);
int c=(int)((C+k)/(k*2)*255);
it.setRGB(i,j,c|(c<<8)|(c<<16));
}
ImageIO.write(it,"png",new File("Test"+(int)(180*phase/PI)+".png")) ;
}
}
}
To execute this code, copy it into a file names "QUASI1.java". Then, from the terminal, run "javac QUASI1.java", and finally "java QUASI1" to execute it. Or, paste it into your favorite Java IDE. Changing K will change the degree of symmetry in the crystal. Changing N sets the size of the output images. Changing stripes sets how many wave cycles fit in the rendered image, with larger numbers leading to finer structure. The image on the right was actually rendered using the equation "C+=cos(abs(x*cos(t)+y*sin(t))*2*PI*stripes/N+phase);", with the absolute value added to enforce flow outward from the center.

Since quasicrystals are not periodic, it is not possible to wrap them around the log-polar "tunnel" ( seen on the left above ) such that two edges of the image meet perfectly. However, for quasicrystals composed of only a few plane waves, you can sometimes get two regions to align well enough to be unnoticeable, especially in black and white. In the Imgur album, you can see that some crystals were lined up better than others. Brain massage.


Be sure to check out Keegan's implementation, which doubles as a nice introduction to coding in Haskell. Also, check out this in-browser JavaScript powered port.


I, Scientist Evangelist.

So I guess I should start with a confession. I'm not a scientist, I studied English literature at University and teaching the English language to Korean children is the way in which I feed myself from day to day. Since I lack a white coat, couldn't begin to interpret the mathematics of M-Theory and have never worn reading glasses in my life the public at large would perhaps assume I have no understanding of science whatsoever and am therefore not worth listening to. This is exactly the combustible mix of technology and ignorance that Carl Sagan alluded to before his death. CERN induced black hole paranoia, climate change denial, bizarre nuclear weapons policies, bamboozling allocation of public funds and of course the ability of creationism's lupine offspring intelligent design to hide itself snugly in the most absurd of sheep skins can all be attributed at least partially to the lack of scientific understanding held by the “general public”. This unquestioning belief that if one does not have the letters Sc somewhere after their name then the very idea of empirical thinking had better be left to someone more qualified.

For me the pertinent question is: How can a non-scientist like me go about improving the public understanding of science when I myself admit to being as qualified to lecture on Physics as I am to fly a plane? I believe the answer is in coming out of the closet as a non-scientist who is passionate about science. No one expects to see nothing but young, drunk, Juilliard undergrads stumbling out of the music venues and nightclubs of the world. You do not need a grade eight piano certificate to purchase an Ipod any more than I need to hold my university transcripts to read a book. What is there then to stop a history student or a telemarketing sales consultant from putting his friends hands on a cold beer at the end of a hard shift and explaining the second law of thermodynamics? Perhaps the not unfounded fear that the friend may raise an eyebrow or even walk away. This is possible but not beyond remedy. I believe a public aversion to science, and the belief that if it is 'difficult' it can't be fun exists merely through social conditioning. I don't think there is a gene that splits the human race down the line of Jersey Shore or Johannes Kepler.


See photographic evidence

I doubt I have to say the diagram is not to scale and if we could all overlook the questionable appearance of the comet’s tail I can say I presented this to a room of Korean elementary school students who are learning English as a second or third language. Some of them had never heard of the concept of orbit but by the end of the class I'm quite confident they all had a decent understanding. Not only that, but they were visibly excited by these new ideas. Who wouldn't be? This whiteboard diagram is where we live. Why wouldn't a person be curious about their place in the universe?

A future vision of a society that embraces science and is as literate in scientific ideas as it is in The Beatles discography is no doubt a long way off. However I believe we must all of us make some heavy sacrifices (not limited to appearing to be a 'geek' in front of sexually attractive members of the human race) and become evangelists of the joy of science. This isn't an endorsement of so called 'aggressive' atheism. I neither condemn nor condone what you might call the “Dawkins movement” but do believe it has more to say about religion than it does science. Instead the next time a friend admires the night sky, remind them that they are staring back through time. A piece of information which of course will be of no practical use in their day to day life but as Bertrand Russell tells us. “There is much pleasure to be gained from useless knowledge.” So go grab someone you love, buy them a drink and tell them how you know they've been drinking Isaac Newton's pee.


20111012

Occupy Wall Street

It's been a month since the start of Occupy Wall Street, and this hmbl blggr is still trying to wrap his head around What It All Means. Occupy has inspired over one hundred similar protests across the United States and the world, prompted some serious discussion of economic inequality, and made pundits say some very silly things (Greenwald has a pretty good summary).

First off, why is everybody so angry? The hippie communists over at Business Insider have produced a series of 40-odd charts showing how unemployment has become permanent, corporate profits and the concentration of wealth have soared, and general wages have stayed flat over decades. I think we were all subconsciously aware of this, that something had gone profoundly wrong with the American Dream, but the Occupy movement is bringing it to the foreground.

And what is it that the Occupy movement wants? They've been castigated as radicals and anarchists who want society to give them a free lunch, but why don't we look at the actual data. Rortybomb performed an analysis on common phrases found in the We Are the 99% (essentially a web equivalent of the Occupy movement), and found that the key phrases were jobs, debt, work, children. In his analysis:

The demands are broadly health care, education and not to feel exploited at the high-level, and the desire to not live month-to-month on bills, food and rent and under less of the burden of debt at the practical level.

The people in the tumblr aren’t demanding to bring democracy into the workplace via large-scale unionization, much less shorter work days and more pay. They aren’t talking the language of mid-twentieth century liberalism, where everyone puts on blindfolds and cuts slices of pie to share. The 99% looks too beaten down to demand anything as grand as “fairness” in their distribution of the economy. There’s no calls for some sort of post-industrial personal fulfillment in their labor – very few even invoke the idea that a job should “mean something.” It’s straight out of antiquity – free us from the bondage of our debts and give us a basic ability to survive.
How mundane, how depressing, but also how liberating. Once people realize where they stand in relation to the big institutions of power, banks and governments and the like, they might begin to think critically about how to free themselves. The 99% might be peasants, but they are peasants with smartphones. Compared to the masses of history, they are connected, informed, and possess political power.

Perhaps the single most impressive lesson of the Arab Spring is that power looks invincible until it no longer does, and once the hollowness at the core of power is revealed, the whole edifice can collapse with incredibly rapidity. Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia relied on brutal police repression and terror. The best that Wall Street can do is ruin our credit scores and empty out our 401Ks, and for the nearly 20% of Americans out of work, or the 45% of 16-29 year old unable to find a job, good credit and 401Ks were never in the offering. As with the Foreclosure Resistance Movement, it turns out that the system of debt has surprisingly little coercive power, and very little to offer to the 99%.

I do not have a crystal ball. The problems with the global economy are complex, systemic, and very difficult to resolve. There are no fast or easy solutions. Similarly, nobody knows what the end game of Occupy Wall Street is, or even if the protests will survive through the winter. But what I do know Occupy Wall Street is an opportunity for the 99% to figure out something new, some way of building social capital rather than financial capital.


20111010

Selling electronics kits to drunk folk on Saturday night

This Saturday we provided phosphene-hallucination visor kits at less than cost of production for sale at one of the VIA music festival events. It was an interesting experience, honestly somewhat stressful, and there are some things I would have done differently in retrospect. One person unfamiliar with electronics soldering and assembly was able to build a kit over the course of 3 hours, which is a good sign. I was able to build about five kits standing there. We also sold all the pre-assembled demo models.

What I learned:
  • Most people don't know how to solder and build things.
  • Some small fraction of technically experienced people will buy electronics kits at music shows
  • People who don't know how to solder will happily buy the assembled demo models, but then might not understand the physical limits of the device or how to repair it if it becomes damaged.
  • Selling for less than cost of production does not necessarily make people more likely to buy your stuff.
  • Its hard for people to pay in cash, and it costs money to take credit cards.
  • My salesperson skills could use some work.
What would I do differently :
  • Prepare business cards for people to contact me again later, and hand those out.
  • Run soldering workshops at hacker-spaces, so that people who don't know how to solder can use the kit under supervision to learn how to solder.
  • Learn how to take credit cards
  • Have someone else handle the actual sales pitch because I just don't have the heart for it.


20111003

Goggles Kits for VIA are Go !

Alright kids, as promised, flicker hallucination visor kits for VIA are packed and ready to go! We should have about 30 kits available at Assemble on Wednesday October 5, 4-7PM. There will also be drawdio kits and LED illuminated kites. The Visor kit is a sexy remix of the brain machine kit, which retails for $35. The Visor also cost that much to produce, but we're still looking for last minute sponsors to subsidize the Assemble workshop and bring that cost down a bit. The remainder of the kits ( about 50 in total ) will arrive by Saturday and will be available at the main event. Assembly instructions and additional information are hosted at www.treehovse.blogspot.com. If there are any extra kits, we've reserved a booth at the Pittsburgh Mini Maker Faire to make them available there. Let me know if you would like me to reserve you a kit. There also might be a very limited number of pre-built kits available, time permitting. By the way, this most excellent Visor cartoon has been brought to you by Austin Redwood.


20110930

Technologies of Unrest

Anybody who's paying attention will note that these are unsettled times, from the Arab spring, to youth demonstrations in Spain, Israel, and now Occupy Wallstreet. Via Kevin Kelly who cites the New York Times:

Yonatan Levi, 26, called the tent cities that sprang up in Israel “a beautiful anarchy.” There were leaderless discussion circles like Internet chat rooms, governed, he said, by “emoticon” hand gestures like crossed forearms to signal disagreement with the latest speaker, hands held up and wiggling in the air for agreement — the same hand signs used in public assemblies in Spain. There were free lessons and food, based on the Internet conviction that everything should be available without charge.

Now, youth protests movements and this kind of radically egalitarian anti-capitalism aren't exactly new. These themes can be traced back through the 60s counter-culture, early 20th century Anarchists like Kropotkin and Emma Goldman, the French Revolution, a bunch of 16th century Christian heresies that were bloodily crushed and on and on.

What's interesting is that the protesters are turning to explicitly technological metaphors for how their movement operates. These are the first generation of digital natives, and they don't much like how the "real world" works. But instead of retreating to their bedrooms and laptops, they're colonizing physical reality with internet interactions.

((Not that the internet is necessarily good: maybe it's turning us into selfish assholes.))


20110929

The Origin and Properties of Flicker-Induced Geometric Phosphenes

A Model for the Origin and Properties of Flicker-Induced Geometric Phosphenes (PDF).

Many people see geometric patterns when looking at flickering lights. The patterns depend on the frequency, color, and intensity of the flickering. People report seeing similar shapes, which care common in visual hallucinations and are called “form constants”. Flicker hallucinations are best induced using a Ganzfeld (German for “entire field”), a totally immersive and uniform visual stimulation. This effect is capitalized on by the numerous sound-and-light machines sold for entertainment purposes.*

How do flickering lights cause geometric visual hallucinations ?

Basically, flickering lights confuse the eye and the brain, causing them to misinterpret what they’re seeing. One hypothesis is that the flickering interacts with natural ongoing oscillations in visual cortex, exciting a specific frequency of brain waves. This increases the activity in visual cortex. Activity can increase enough to overload the circuitry the brain uses for interpreting what it sees, causing you to see things that aren’t really there. Our model of visual hallucinations suggests that flickering lights can cause visual cortex to behave like a ‘reaction diffusion system’, which is a type of system that spontaneously forms patterns. The most famous examples of biological reacti
on-diffusion systems are the patterns in animal fur, like leopard spots and zebra stripes. For more information, including the mathematical details of the model, head over and check out the paper.

Much thanks to coauthor Matt Stoffregen and advisor Bard Ermentrout for making this possible, as well as the CNBC undergraduate training program.

*( I know of no scientific evidence suggesting that it is possible to alter the frequencies of neural oscillations with flickering lights, as most such devices claim. Instead, you might increase the amplitude of intrinsic oscillations in resonance with a flickering stimulus, to the point where geometric visual hallucinations can occur. )


20110928

Republicans: Better for Science than Democrats?



According to Neil deGrasse Tyson circa 2009, republicans politicize science more, but also provide more funding overall. Democrats allocate less funding, but lack fundamentalist biases in how they allocate funding.

Which is worse: less funding overall, or overt irrational bias pulling funding from a few key fields? We'd have to look into the details, but if Neil deGrasse Tyson is to be believed, we might want a more subtle treatment of the politics of science. I, personally, am infuriated more by the Republican's political bias in funding more than I am by cuts, since funding biases feel like an attempt to manipulate the truth to me. However, is this a rational, or an emotional, reaction? Do historic trends in science funding still apply to what the republican party has become over the last few years?


20110927

The Lanier Effect

You're probably familiar with Jaron Lanier. VR pioneer, musician, author of You Are Not a Gadget and far too many articles to mention. He's also the inspiration for the Prevail Scenario in Radical Evolution, and the Prevail Project in general. And more recently, he has an hour long interview over at edge.org.

The interview and transcript is far too complex to be summarized here, but Jaron attempts to get at this very basic question: if the internet was supposed to connect people, get them access to information and the levers of power, and make the world better, why do people feel less secure and less wealthy today? It's because we're giving up our data, our decisions, and our integrity in the name of efficiency and internet fame, without asking if those are durable goods.

What you have now is a system in which the Internet user becomes the product that is being sold to others, and what the product is, is the ability to be manipulated. It's an anti-liberty system, and I know that the rhetoric around it is very contrary to that. "Oh, no, there are useful ads, and it's increasing your choice space", and all that, but if you look at the kinds of ads that make the most money, they are tawdry, and if you look at what's happening to wealth distribution, the middle is going away, and just empirically, these ideals haven't delivered in actuality. I think the darker interpretation is the one that has more empirical evidence behind it at this point...

And so when all you can expect is free stuff, you don't respect it, it doesn't offer you enough to give you a social contract. What you can seek on the Internet is you can seek some fine things, you can seek friendship and connection, you can seek reputation and all these things that are always talked about, you just can't seek cash. And it tends to create a lot of vandalism and mob-like behavior. That's what happens in the real world when people feel hopeless, and don't feel that they're getting enough from society. It happens online.


What does Jaron see as the way out? Well, you'll have to read the article to find out.


20110919

Soon : Goggles kits for VIA Pittsburgh


WeAlone has teamed up with members of ReplayMyPlay to produce a simplified soldering kit version of the trip visor, complete with professionally fabricated circuit boards and laser etched artwork. This kit is tentatively scheduled for distribution at the Assemble hackerspace in Pittsburgh, in association with the VIA-Pgh electronic arts festival, Saturday October 8, and at the Pittsburgh Mini-MakerFaire later in October. The kit design and part sourcing are nearly complete, stay tuned for more details.


20110911

Actually, it Does Matter What Politicians Believe About Science

Kevin Williams at the National Review had a rather controversial article where he posited that it didn't really matter what Rick Perry thinks about evolution, rather science is just another front in the culture war.

"The broader question, however, is: Why would anybody ask a politician about his views on a scientific question? Nobody ever asks what Sarah Palin thinks about dark matter, or what John Boehner thinks about quantum entanglement. (For that matter, I’ve never heard Keith Ellison pressed for his views on evolution.) There are lots of good reasons not to wonder what Rick Perry thinks about scientific questions, foremost amongst them that there are probably fewer than 10,000 people in the United States whose views on disputed questions regarding evolution are worth consulting, and they are not politicians; they are scientists. In reality, of course, the progressive types who want to know politicians’ views on evolution are not asking a scientific question; they are asking a religious and political question, demanding a profession of faith in a particular materialist-secularist worldview."

Of course, this article prompted a backlash from the usual suspects in the reality-base community, (David Roberts has a good overview), but it got me thinking. Why should we care about what politicians think about science? Scientific controversies (even totally artificial ones such as creationism and climate change denial) are outside the scope of what most people, including politicians need to know. They don't know anything, so why should their opinions matter?

It matters because having an opinion on something you know very little about is almost a perfect job description for a politician. From my time as Senate Intern #16, I saw that 60-70 major issues of national importance crossed the Senator's desk every week. There's no way for any human being to express and educated, sensible, let alone correct opinion on these issues, which is why in the real world politicians rely on staffers and outside advisers. Probably the most valuable, and most underrated skill for a politician to have, is knowing which experts to trust, and when to trust them.

So what do the opinions of the GOP candidates reveal about their ability to evaluate experts?

Michele Bachmann: "I think all these issues have to be settled on the base of real science, not manufactured science."

Mitt Romney: "Do I think the world's getting hotter? Yeah, I don't know that, but I think that it is. I don't know if it's mostly caused by humans ... What I'm not willing to do is spend trillions of dollars on something I don't know the answer to."

Rick Perry: "I hear your mom was asking about evolution. That's a theory that is out there, and it's got some gaps in it ... In Texas, we teach both creationism and evolution. I figure you're smart enough to figure out which one is right."

Now, the overwhelming scientific consensus is that A) anthopogenic climate change is happening and B) evolution explains the development of life on Earth, and C) both of these theories are supported by an overwhelming mass of evidence. Now, as an STS scholar, I am more aware of most of the flaws in the institution of science, in the ways that scientific paradigms define what problems are proper, in the ways that knowledge is socially constructed, and the hazards of making judgments at the limits of understanding. But for all its flaws, science works (bitches!) As a means of producing reliable, testable knowledge about the universe, it is unparalleled. For the Republican party to believe that all scientists and all scientific advice, is part of evil conspiracy, and that the truth is somewhere out there despite a complete lack of credible thought or expertise to the contrary, shows that they can't even manage this very simple part of what called the Principle-Agent problem.

It's not about the culture war. It's not about my experts vs your experts. It's that the majority of the GOP candidates (sorry Jon Huntsman) are literally so bad at distinguishing good advice from bad advice, that they might very well hand what remains of the Treasury over to some Albanian pyramid scheme.


Mr Williams, why is it that competency fails the GOP litmus test days?


20110809

The Crisis of Collective Decision-Making

The latest catastrophe in America governance-the inane brinksmanship over the Debt Ceiling has finally made it official: our representative democracy is too dysfunctional to handle even routine matters, and lack of confidence in government is spilling out into the economy, diplomacy, national security, culture, you name it. Given how totally FUBAR the situation is, I want to take a step back and talk about what’s underpinning this collapse. Not just the economic or political issues, but the philosophical ones.

The challenge of governance is that of making collective decisions. And before you say that “we don’t need to make collective decisions,” even Libertarianism requires some common agreement on basic property rights. Global challenges demand common action, and even coming to no decisions is, in and of itself, a decision.

There are basically three ways that a group of people can come to a collective decision.

1) Swarm: Everybody acts according to what is best for them, based on the information that they have. In the animal kingdom, these are schools, flocks, hives, and other animal collectives. For humans, this is the Free Market. The decision of the swarm is the sum total of the actions of its members. Swarms are fast and efficient, but they have less strategic foresight than individual members. Schools of fish get trapped by dolphins and eaten, herds of animals stampede off cliffs, and free markets fail in a variety of ways.

2) Consensus: Everybody sits down, discusses their preferences, beliefs, and opinions of the options at hand. No decision is taken if a single member is opposed. In theory, consensus is great, but in practice it breaks down when more than a few people are involved, usually over definitions, mutually incompatible desires, or plain stubbornness.

3) Delegation: The task is divided between several people, each of whom works on it individually. Delegation is the structure of modern society; almost every complex effort involves some amount of delegation. Delegation allows each member to apply their unique talents to the decision, while still being fast and strategically responsive. However, delegative institutions can become highly dysfunction, through the Peter Principle, shooting the messenger, and detachment between decision-making and operational levels.

Now, let’s get back to the real world, and American politics. Congress combines Delegative and Consensus aspects. By voting, we delegate the responsibility to create and enforce laws to politicians. Democracy serves as a check to ensure that leaders act in the interests of their constituents. Once elected, politicians act to create laws through a process of negotiation and compromise to ensure the broadest base of support, a formalized variation of Consensus.

At least, that’s the idea. Now, in 2011, both side of that governing mechanism have broken down. Few people believe that either of the major parties represents their beliefs, yet the same old candidates keep getting elected. Consider a ‘rational’ election. The candidates would be weighed on their performance, and the better one selected. Now try and think of the last time a candidate was fairly evaluated by the opportunities presented them, their choices, and the results of his or her choices. The mechanisms of delegation which are supposed to select the best candidate instead selected for the best advertising campaign.

Most bills are passed on party-line votes, by the barest majority. Rather than Consensus, Congress works on the most fragile of coalitions, leading to unpopular laws which seem to jam together multiple policy proposals. Rather than an attempt at a “best-of” plan, we seem get policy proposals which satisfy nobody.

My time on the Hill was spent as Senate Intern #16, so I can’t claim to speak from any sort of deep insider knowledge, but DC struck me as a town of very hard working, very insular people. Representatives and Senators are surrounded by the staffs, who talk mostly to professional lobbyists and advocates. Conservatives and liberals eat at different restaurants and different bars. I only saw Republicans at Senate staffer softball games. What passes for “debate” on the Senate floor is talking-point laden gibberish directed to an empty room and a few cameras. Committee hearings are for grandstanding and scoring points. Legislative ploys pass for communication. Given the hyper-planned schedules of most professional politicians, I have no idea when they meet with each other to find common ground.

So there’s no consensus in the upper levels of government, and there our mechanism for picking leaders is little better than random chance at weeding out the crazy, corrupt, and incompetent. Where do we go from here? Karl Schroeder at Charles Stross’s blog had an interesting proposal for solving wicked problems.

“Here's my take on things: our biggest challenges are no longer technological. They are issues of communication, coordination, and cooperation. These are, for the most part, well-studied problems that are not wicked. The methodologies that solve them need to be scaled up from the small-group settings where they currently work well, and injected into the DNA of our society--or, at least, built into our default modes of using the internet. They then can be used to tackle the wicked problems.

What we need, in other words, is a Facebook for collaborative decision-making: an app built to compensate for the most egregious cognitive biases and behaviours that derail us when we get together to think in groups. Decision-support, stakeholder analysis, bias filtering, collaborative scratch-pads and, most importantly, mechanisms to extract commitments to action from those that use these tools. I have zero interest in yet another open-source copy of a commercial application, and zero interest in yet another Tetris game for Android. But a Wikipedia's worth of work on this stuff could transform the world.”

It’s an interesting solution. Rather than trying to fix mechanisms of Delegation, which may be fundamentally broken (and don’t tell me to “give power back to the people.” I’m a Californian, I know what kind of nonsense you get out of direct democracy, and I want professionals in charge), we instead move over to a Swarm/Consensus based model. Information technology improves the signals the Swarm uses to communicate, and data mining tools extracts Consensus definition and choices in real time.

Of course, the devil is in the details. Policy-making is a lot of power to hand over to an algorithm, and networks would have to have a way to hold people to account for their choices. Combining the continuous, geographic real world with discrete, protean virtual networks may not be possible. Instead of one political network under the American flag, we’d have dozens or more, all proposing incompatible versions of reality.

America is not alone in political paralysis. Look at the UK, Belgian, Italy, Greece, Germany, Iraq, and so on. Representative democracy is entering a period of crisis worldwide (by the way, if you know of a functioning democracy, please let me know). I’m no fan of the Beijing Consensus of authoritarian capitalism, but it strikes me that society rests on a substrate of technology. Democracy as conceived during the Enlightenment was only possible in a literate society. We are now post-literate, hyper-textual, and we need a new Constitution, that allows us to make effective and wise collective decisions.


20110728

Why Cities Keep Growing, Corporations Die, and Life Gets Faster

Kevin Kelly and Bruce Sterling have taken their whacks at the latest from the Long Now foundation. Now only a few days late is my commentary.

streetsandplants.jpg


There's an old adage that if you can describe a problem mathematically, it's 80% solved, and if you can't describe it mathematically, you're never going to get it right. The second modern risks that the world faces today, climate change, political paralysis, financial collapse, obesity, and anomie all are closely tied together by industrialization and urbanization. At the same time, the creative and innovative solutions that might help solve these problems also originate in cities and corporations. In an increasingly urban world, cities and corporations are the keys to the future, and Geoffrey West believes that he has the mathematical tools to understand them.

Read the Rest


20110721

Fractals on the Master Boot Record

WeAlone contributor Keegan has adapted the video feedback method of rendering Julia sets to fit in 512 bytes of Intel machine code that runs from the master boot record. This program was created for the IO MBR demo competition.



When a computer starts up, a very small program begins the process of loading and booting up progressively more complex programs, until an entire modern operating system is loaded. With some cleverness and optimization, we were able to make a program that fits in this space, and rather than booting the machine, renders animated Julia set fractals.

The source code is written in assembly, and can be downloaded here. The compiled program image can be downloaded from here.

If you're running Linux, you can try this out yourself using the qemu machine emulator, which can be retrieved from the package manager ( menu → system → administration → synaptic package manager, search for and install 'qemu-kvm' ). Once installed, simply typing "qemu phosphene.mbr" in a terminal should suffice.

You can also create a USB thumb drive that can boot most Intel architecture machines into this fractal rendering mode. Once booted, it is possible to remove the USB stick and leave the machine in a fractal-rendering coma until it is power cycled. Be careful here, if you overwrite the MBR on your own machine, you will trash your partition table and leave your system only able to boot as a fractal.

Assuming your USB thumb drive is /dev/sdb, the following commands will create a bootable USB stick. For the love of humanity do not write to /dev/sda, since this is probably your system boot partition.

$: sudo dd if=phosphene.mbr of=/dev/sdb
$: sync
( wait until IO lights stop blinking and remove the drive )

In one instance, we found that writing to /dev/sdb1 worked while writing to /dev/sdb did not. I'm not sure if this was a fluke, but you can try this if it doesn't seem to work on the first try.

These programs are so small, they can be distributed as plaintext in base64.


with a more flickery, rapidly changing colorscheme :
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=



A nice colorscheme with a black background :
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=


To convert these strings into a usable program, in Linux, use the base64 command. Type "base64 -d > phosphene.mbr" in the terminal, and press enter. Then, paste one of the base 64 encoded programs in the terminal. Press enter, and then control+D ( end of file ). This will convert the text into the compiled machine code for phosphene.mbr. Run it as explained above using qemu or making a bootable USB drive.

$: base64 -d > foo.mbr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=
$: qemu foo.mbr


20110715

Planting the Seeds

Today, I was catching up on my news, reading about the Clock of the Long Now, when I heard a little story about roof beams at Oxford's New College (really, you should just watch Stewart Brand's clip). Five hundred years ago, at the same time as the college was built, the founders planted oak trees, because they knew that long after they were all dead, the beams would become beetley and eventually need replacing. Their foresight floored me; to plan that far ahead, to ensure a legacy for their successors deep in the future. And it got me thinking about our energy system, which underpins every other part of the economy, and about the seeds we should be planting now. Read the rest.


20110713


Two more from Breakthrough

The last two mandatory blogs from my time at Breakthrough are up. Click the links for the full thing.

Technological Mojo
Liberalism as it exists today isn't so much an ideology as a flag of convenience. The progressive position on policies promoting the welfare state and cultural attitudes towards abortion, gun control, and gay marriage unites a solid minority coalition, but one without big ideas except for a vague notion of 'play nice' and 'be yourself.' As Michael Lind of the New America Foundation put it, the Democratic Party is about checking off the wish-lists of its constituent interests groups. "What is the liberal position on the environment? It's what the Sierra Club wants." Rather discuss values, liberals have retreated to policy literalism, appealing to a slew of "scientific" and "rational" policies to achieve narrow, tactical ends: price carbon dioxide, extend healthcare to the uninsured, stop the war, decrease classroom sizes. Liberals have ceded values and emotion to conservatives, with disastrous electoral and policy results at every level of government. Liberal scientism is a rhetoric of failure.

It's Dangerous Being Modern
The Breakthrough Dialog began with a very interesting idea, that of second modern risk, which was not fully fleshed out. At the heart of second modernity is the idea that humanity has become responsible for its own fate. Thanks to the power of science and technology, we have banished the ancient gods and forces of nature. Food, shelter, and physical security are all assured in the first world, and so humanity has directed its efforts to fulfilling post-material needs for status, power, and a moral society. In many ways, this is a zero-sum game; unlike material goods, status and power cannot be increased, only redistributed. Different cultures have profoundly different concepts of morality. For all our efforts to improve the second modern condition, it seems that the best we can do is run to stay in place. Post-material failure is one kind of second modern risk.

But while people worry about their job security, and their child's chances of getting into Harvard, and what their neighbors are up too, second modernity has its own apocalyptic horsemen. Flood, famine, fire and plague are primitive problems. In their place, we have substituted the business cycle, anthropogenic climate change, and total war. Second modern risks are more worrying, not just because they are bigger, mankind finally has the power to wipe itself out, but because they are human in origin, and therefore, in some sense, are our responsibility. My fear is that decades or centuries from now, the weary, broken survivors of whatever ended our technological civilization will look back and say, "But why didn't they change?" How then, can we as individuals and as a collective, come to grips with both kinds of second modern risks?


20110629

The Devil is in the Assumptions

Google just came up with a report on the potential of clean energy technology, which has received some fairly rapturous coverage in the environmental press. The key insights of the report, as follows:


  • Energy innovation pays off big: We compared “business as usual” (BAU) to scenarios with breakthroughs in clean energy technologies. On top of those, we layered a series of possible clean energy policies (more details in the report). We found that by 2030, when compared to BAU, breakthroughs could help the U.S.:
    • Grow GDP by over $155 billion/year ($244 billion in our Clean Policy scenario)
    • Create over 1.1 million new full-time jobs/year (1.9 million with Clean Policy)
    • Reduce household energy costs by over $942/year ($995 with Clean Policy)
    • Reduce U.S. oil consumption by over 1.1 billion barrels/year
    • Reduce U.S. total carbon emissions by 13% in 2030 (21% with Clean Policy)
  • Speed matters and delay is costly: Our model found a mere five year delay (2010-2015) in accelerating technology innovation led to $2.3-3.2 trillion in unrealized GDP, an aggregate 1.2-1.4 million net unrealized jobs and 8-28 more gigatons of potential GHG emissions by 2050.
  • Policy and innovation can enhance each other: Combining clean energy policies with technological breakthroughs increased the economic, security and pollution benefits for either innovation or policy alone. Take GHG emissions: the model showed that combining policy and innovation led to 59% GHG reductions by 2050 (vs. 2005 levels), while maintaining economic growth.


Well, hot damn. That's some good outcomes. All we need is a carbon price, some deployment policy, and a couple of scientific breakthroughs, and we can save the world and get rich at the same time.

Well, I was feeling cynical, so I decided to look at exactly what breakthroughs we might need. Google was nice enough to publish it's data in Appendix C, so please turn down there, and look at solar PV. Google has the 2010 overnight capital costs--what it takes to build an electrical plant, at $4000/kW. The breakthrough scenario has that solar PV at $1000/kW in 2020. Batteries are another core technology for electric vehicles and grid-scale storage. Right now, Google has batteries at $500/kWh, and in their good scenario, $100 kWh in 2020. Other clean energy technologies see slightly smaller, but similar three or fourfold decrease in price in just a decade, along with major increases in reliability and lifespan.

Now, I won't go out and say that those kinds of cost reductions are impossible, since prediction, especially about science and technology, is very hard. But in the case of solar PV, it would be about an improvement an order of magnitude better than what was seen in the past decade. In many cases it appears that we may be approaching limits imposed by the cost of raw materials: silicon, cobalt, lithium, steel, and rare earth metals. Without a better idea of what scientific breakthroughs are needed, or how those breakthroughs could be achieved, Google's report should be taken with a large grain of salt.