20110227

The Paradox of Dual-Use Research in the 21st century

Predrag Bokšić | perceptron
A few days ago, I attended a short conference called Dangerous Liaisons held at the Biodesign Institute. Speakers included researchers in genetics and synthetic biology, the chains of the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, the senior FBI agent for WMD threats, and a AAAS fellow in biosecurity. The subject of the talk was dual-use research, and how it can be controlled. The problem is that while genetics and synthetic biology offer tremendous benefits for health and new chemical products, at the same time these technologies might empower criminals and terrorists, or even lead to an accidental bio-disaster. How can we regulate dual-use technologies for the safety of mankind?

(As a historical aside, it's only recently that dual-use has taken on these negative connotations. Dual-use used to be good. "Oh, you mean we can use these rockets to kill commies and explore the solar system? Awesome!" But civilian technologies with clear military implications is relatively new phenomenon.)

The primary concern of all the presenters was that whatever form the regulations take, it not impede 'good science.' There were several good justifications for this: regulations that are too stringent will be disliked and evaded by the community, the science is advancing too quickly for central bodies to monitor and control, and impairing biology will both leave America at a disadvantage economically and in terms of responding to an actual incident.

The core problem of dual-use, as identified by NSABB, is research that might make biological agents more deadly or transmissible. Specific research projects include reconstituting the 1918 flu, or improving the deadliness of the mousepox virus, research which could be easily transferred to weaponizing smallpox. In the NSABBs view, the benefits of such research must be carefully balanced against the risks, and such weighing should be carried out at the most basic level, by researchers developing experiments and by existing Institutional Review Boards. The role of groups like NSABB is coordinate and develop guidelines.

NSABB's guidelines might help protect against the accidental release of bioweapon, but what about deliberate attackers? Much of the talk was focused around creating a "culture of security" in biology labs. Background checks to work with select agents may miss many danger signs, and with new techniques, even non-select organism might be dangerous. All presenters spoke about the need for scientists to be alert for dangers in the lab. Special Agent Edward You, in particular, described his job not as catching potential bioterrorists, but about creating a framework so that scientists know who to call at the FBI if they see something. A second side of the culture of security is getting private gene synthesis firms to check orders against known pathogen genomes, and not create smallpox genomes for example, something that firms have current volunteered to do.

On the one hand, this kind of voluntary regulation is the best, and maybe only workable option, on the other hand, I have real concerns about what it means for the actual day to day practice of lab work. Quite literally, it requires that PIs monitor their students, and make sure that they're not spies, terrorists, or psychopaths. Is this really a fair burden to place on scientists, or is it a rerun of the "Red Scare." One attendee asked quite penetrating questions about whether or not he should let Iranian PhD students work at his lab. The universality of science, the concept that a scientist should be judge by the merit of their ideas and not their personal background or place of origin, is not compatible with these kinds of concerns.

While private monitoring among firms is an option now, as the technology becomes cheaper and more widespread (and it will), how can the industry regulate itself against the existence of "grey hat", fly-by-night companies. I'm reminded of the situation with "Research Chemicals", synthetic hallucinogens which are structurally similar to banned substances, but not covered by law, and their production by various shady chemical firms. Particularly, the developing world, where intellectual property restrictions are routinely evade, may offer a fertile breeding group for these malefactors.

So, is there hope for the future? Dr. Kathleen Baily has stated that graduate students with $10,000 in equipment could synthesize substantial quantities of a biological agent. (Although it is worth noting that synthesizing an agent is not carrying out an attack. Many of the more difficult challenges in biological warfare involve distributing an agent, not producing it). Whatever the exact resources requuired, on the spectrum from "the Unabomber in his cabin" to "the Iranian nuclear program", bioterrorism trends towards the lower end. However, while terrorist groups including Al Queda have enthusiastically pursued bioweapons, biological and chemical attacks have so far been extremely dissapointed. The Aum Shinrikyo nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subways killed only 13 people, likely fewer than a conventional bomb. I agree with the presenters that the best defense against dual use research is ironically actively pursuing this kind of research, to develop counter-measures against an attack. Despite media hype, terrorists and lone wolves have been not shown even the minimal organization necessary to carry out a bioweapons attack. We can, at least for the moment, trust the biology community.


20110225

Democrats, Experts, and STS

Predrag Bokšić | perceptron
Governing is no easy task. While in some idealized, Athenian past, every decision required of the body politic might have drawn solely on common sense, these days every decision is intertwined with knowledge known only to specialists in the relevant field; it is locked behind walls of expertise. The body politic, if it is not to flail randomly in an insensate throes, must rely on the advice of experts. How then can rule by a small elite be reconciled with democracy?

The modern expert advisor is the spiritual descendant of Machiavelli. The brutally realist Italian revolutionized the Mirror for Princes genre, speaking directly in the vernacular, and cloaking his rhetoric in an objective "view from nowhere." To prove his credibility, Machiavelli erased himself, claiming merely to transmit the facts of history and psychology into applicable lessons on power. Early scientists, as exemplified by the British Royal Society of Boyle's era, used the same technique to 'merely transmit the facts of nature,' displaying for the public that which was self-evidently true.

The Machiavellian advisor works primarily at the point of power, at the person of the sovereign, but in a modern democracy, the sovereign is a fiction. The people rule, through their representatives. Though the relation of the people and their representatives is far from straightforward, (representatives speak for the people, make decisions for the people, and serve as targets of blame for the people, among their diverse function), a representative who strays too far from the desires of his or her constituents will soon fall. Therefore, expert advice applied at this level, once it departs from common knowledge, becomes useless. The experts and those who listen to them will be discarded at the first opportunity.

Instead, in a democracy, experts must also address the validity of their claims to the public. The end product of advice, and the advisory process itself, must appear credible. Science (roughly, the process of discovering facts about the natural world) in it's Enlightenment legacy, and the scientifically derived technologies around us, is one means of certifying the validity of expert claims, and representative decisions. Yet, because scientific claims speak to fundamental truths about the world, and can thereby override deliberation, astute politicians have learned to deploy counter-claims and counter-experts. Moreover, political figures has disseminated a narrative that discredits the ability of science to make any epistemically true and relevant claims about the world.

How then can scientists operate in a climate of such hostility? Dewey provides an model; by visualizing society as composed of a network of identities, with individuals belonging to multiple identities at once, he suggests that science can be democratized by tying as many people as possible to the "scientist" network. But what exactly is it that individuals should be educated in? There is no way for people to learn more than a scanty sampling of science. Rather, the chief science, the skill of kings, is learning to evaluate experts and their claims. There are universal patterns to how expert knowledge is created, and the vitamin that the body politic needs today is not more public scientific knowledge, but more public science, technology, and society scholarship.


20110221

Lunch with Sheila Jasanoff

Predrag Bokšić | perceptron
Sheila Jasanoff is one of my personal academic heroes*, so her visit to ASU last week was perhaps the highlight of the many lectures I've attended so far. I remember back when I was a sophomore, and Shelley Hurt handed us Designs on Nature and said something like “this is a difficult book, but this is a very important book, so pay attention!” Since then, Jasanoff has come up in nearly all of my ASU classes. Her many contributions to the field include a bunch of brilliant comparative studies on environmental and healthcare regulation in the US, UK, and EU. The idiom of co-production, which explains how “Orderings of nature and society reinforce each other, creating conditions of stability as well as change,” and her latest masterpiece, bio-constitutionality, which I won't even attempt to explain (wait for the book).

Along with a general lecture on bio-constitutionality, Jasanoff spent a lunch with a group of graduate students, with the goal of helping us become wise. She is simply an absolute joy to listen to, intelligent, precise, relevant. She hit us with three solid thesis topics in 15 minutes, which almost makes me wish I didn't have mine set, but onwards to the meat of the issue.

Jasanoff covered several topics of interest to STS practitioners, how to use theoretical paradigms, comparative studies, and the like. STS is a diverse field, but it shares the common question, “What difference does it make that science and technology are forces in our society?” Methodologically, you can attempt to bash everything into a theory, which leads to rigid, wooden papers, or do pure ethnography, where you go in with no preconceptions, take notes on everything, and hope that at the end of the day, something interesting emerges. Realistically, you need some conceptual guideposts, the challenge is to pick ones that help problematize and explore your research question.

A second topic was how graduate students can change the world. Jasanoff explicitly discourages trying to be policy relevant, or an intellectual who changes the world. If you want to change the world, go do it! Be a politician, or an engineer, and make things, don't be a critic or adviser and try and sidle towards influence that way. One person asked about policy relevance, which Jasanoff is also not a big fan of. Being policy relevant means chasing the headlines, trying to use scholarship to beat professional spin-doctors and lobbyists, and that's a race a good scholar will never win. At best, you'll become captured by the kinds of people who control Washington DC, and who wants to work for them? What we should do, “If you succeed in crafting a voice, and talking about interesting things, the right people will find you.”

I asked about my perennial hobby-horse, the lack of conservative scientists, and conversely, the lack of credibility that science has for conservatives. While there is some truth to the idea that scientists like big government because it pays for their labs, that model is overly simplistic. Rather, in her view, scientists have become arrogant, and have failed to justify their support to the public. (True, Science the Endless Frontier is still the primary justification for federal R&D, and it's 60 years old) Scientists shouldn't discredit Palin et al, rather they must be humble, must empathize and understand why arguments about big government encroachment are effective in these situations. Theories of public irrationality are profoundly anti-democratic; it's anthropologists hunting for fuzzy-wuzzies in their backyard. Scientists have effectively abrogated a public position, with disastrous results. “The Enlightenment was not a historical event. It is a process, a mission, a continuous duty to explain yourself.”

*for the record, Sheila Jasanoff is my role model, Bruce Sterling is my guru, and Robert McNamara is my idol.


20110218

Serious Games

Predrag Boksic | perceptron
Games have been on my mind more than usual lately, both because of Jane McGonigal's new book Reality is Broken, and Bruce Sterling's review of The Art of Game Design. Games are fascinating because players perform pointless tasks that under any other circumstances would be considered work, and master arcane skills, all in the name of fun. If the energy put into playing games could be harnessed to external reality, whether economic or political, it'd be like building a social perpetual motion machine.


At the Prevail Project, we've been throwing around a few ideas for games. Games are undoubtedly educational, every game must at least teach players how to play the game. The military is investing heavily in games, and in fact, through Axis & Allies and Dungeons & Dragons, many modern games are able to trace their ancestry to Kriegspiel, the war game of the Prussian General Staff. The experiences of games can be immersive, epic, transformative. But aside from warfare, educational games exist in a ghetto of boring vocabulary flashcards and math drills. How can we use games to tell people stories about the world in a way that translates into becoming better citizens? Fate of the World is one such game, where players must solve global crises, learning about energy, climate change, and balancing political constituencies.


Another side of games is socialization. The typical charge leveled against gaming is that it's an anti-social activity that takes a person out of their community. McGonigal presents research saying that gamers are more cooperative that the average person, and that games provide a social space that introverts feel comfortable in. Schell in The Art of Game Design has an interesting anecdote about designing an MMO (Massively Multiplayer Game) for Disney where the mechanics encouraged cooperation and politeness, leading to a better player culture. Multiplayer gaming with people you know can be a great way to bond. The question is how to make the social aspect of games more real, and not 'thin' connections that draw a player away from the real world.


The last area of games that we're interested in, and on which relatively little research has been done, is the use of games to help collective decision-making. If I may get theoretical, there are basically three ways we collectively make decisions. The first is democracy; we vote for some people on the promise that they'll do right by us. The second is expertise; we delegate questions to people who claim to know something, and do what they say. The third is economic; we pay people to do things we want, are rewarded for doing useful things in turn. All of these methods have problems. Democracies are slow to make and implement decisions (“You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they've tried everything else.”--Winston Churchill). It's hard to evaluate the advice of experts, and expert advice is rarely followed, and the economy is in thrall to next-quarter thinking, and many people find their jobs (if they're lucky enough to have a job) pointless and alienating. But maybe the principles of game design, experiences, flow, the right mixture of emotions and incentives, can be used to improve upon the money economy. If there was a platform for people to experiment with various forms of currency, reputation, and reward, then a diversity of options might help us discover a way to collectively make decisions that is effective, legitimate, and most of all, fun to participate in.


20110215

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Neuroscience

Predrag Boksic | perceptron
I was watching this interview of Neil deGrasse Tyson (via). I'm not going to post a full transcript of the segment, mostly because Neil argues that transcripts are bad about 45 seconds into the video. Click on the first link to watch this segment of the interview.

In brief, Neil states that some may not want neuroscience to explain beauty. But, if one were to record which parts of the brain lit up when viewing a beautiful painting, and if lighting up the same parts of the brain made a previously not-beautiful painting seem beautiful, we'd have demonstrated that beauty is a neurological phenomena.

What surprised me was that I immediately considered this an unsatisfactory explanation of beauty. Skeptics and non-scientists may have similar gut reactions to such an experimental result, and dismiss the mission of neuroscience completely, so its important to examine why I instinctively rejected this evidence.

The experiment would provide strong evidence of the neural correlate of beauty, but nothing more. For those entrenched in dualist beliefs ( e.g. immoral souls exist ), even demonstrating that brain activity is necessary and sufficient for subjective experience will not convince them that the brain ≡ the mind. But, people with less fantastic belief systems may still not be satisfied.

This experiment lacks two things that I think are critical for understanding how the brain gives rise to subjective experience. First, it could not explain how perceptual experience was translated into activation of beauty-related areas of the brain. Second, it could not provide a model that we could use to sample from the distribution of beautiful things.

The first is always a challenge in neuroscience. Once you think you understand what part of the brain is doing, you can begin to try to understand how it is doing it. Due to the high connectivity within the brain and the fact that the brain did not evolve to be understood, there may be no succinct explanation of how perceptual experience is registered as beautiful or not beautiful. The simplest complete model of the system may be a complete model of the brain right down to the biophysics, but we will at least have a model.

The second is a problem outside the scope of neuroscience, and is related to the P vs NP problem. Even if we simulate the mechanism for perceiving beauty, we may not be able to generate beauty. We could test whether something is beautiful, but would be left to random sampling to generate the test set. In computer science, we don't yet know whether problems that can be checked quickly also have solutions that be solved quickly without random guessing. It may be provably impossible to efficiently sample the distribution of beautiful things. How do you think skeptics of science would react to such a result?

Now, Neil DeGrasse Tyson made up that experiment on the fly, under pressure, in front of a television camera. This is impressive, and I'm not criticizing someone who is almost certainly a good deal cleverer and more awesome than I am. In other words, onward ! science !


20110214

Revised Opinions of 3D Printing

I need to revise my 3D printing ≠ digital reproduction post, which at the time was meant to balance some optimism surrounding 3D printing. This revision prompted by reading this old opinion piece on why the internet will never be awesome. The piece reads like a point by point outline of every major web 2.0 company to emerge in the past decade. In other words, by spelling out the limitations of the current technology, we actually create the list of business opportunities that can bring the technology to maturity.

So, my complaints about 3D printing are more of a bulleted list on the remaining barriers to the world of free plastic parts for all. The technical challenges are far from insurmountable. Printers like the "Up!" and BFB-3k* printer are already marketed as being almost plug-and-play, and MakerBot is making steady progress toward this goal.

Here is a quick off the top of my head idea of what it takes to make a consumer-ready 3D printer :

  • pre-assembled, compact design.
  • no open or exposed stages: think microwave oven
  • reproducible design so that one calibration file works for the entire line
  • proper, reliable stage ( so that the machine can zero itself with 100% reliability )
  • streamlined control hardware ( MakerBot doesn't need all of the RepRap circuitry, cutting out the extra components will simplify construction and reduce cost )
  • enclosed electronics
  • easy to use GUI for printing objects
  • critical mass of applications
In other words, the difference between MakerBot and professional printers is maybe a year's worth of focused engineering to make the existing design highly reliable and low cost. We could have in-home easy 3D printing within a couple years, assuming production of such a device would be profitable. But, the nice thing about MakerBots is they are open source and so don't suffer from some of the backwards incentives of closed-source products. Just think of MakerBot ( at least the older Cupcake models ) as the Altair 8800 of 3D printing : basic, taking weeks or months to build yourself, and nothing works reliably. Hopefully the 3D printer analogue to the Macintosh will surface soon.

Even if the technical challenges are solved so that anyone can operate these machines, the question still remains : what are they really good for ? Currently, they are useful to hobbyists as a toy, artists as a new medium, and to a few select people who have been applying them to business. It seems like they might actually be viable in the niche of supplying low numbers of medium strength customized low resolution plastic parts. I may have previously underestimated the size of this niche.

*Thanks Mike for the tip.


Sputnik vs Spudnut: One of these things in not like the other

Predrag Boksic | perceptron
Ever want to punch yourself in the metaphorical nuts? Check out Sarah Palin's facebook page, where she communicates with her hordes of slobbering followers. The latest missive is entitled Sputnik vs Sputnut, and is a direct response to Obama's State of the Union.
"Now, in a recent interview I mentioned analogies that could relate to solutions to our economic challenges, including the difference between a communist government’s “Sputnik” and the private sector’s “Spudnut.” The analogies I mentioned obviously aren’t comparable in size, but highlight a clear difference in economic focus: big government command and control economies vs. America’s small businesses...

I believe and trust in the strength of America’s private sector. But I sometimes fear that the current administration in Washington distrusts or discounts the individuals who have built this country; hence their belief that only a distant bureaucratic elite in D.C. can make decisions for our small businesses that will provide American opportunity. This administration’s thinking is wrong. We don’t need a command and control economy that “invests” our money in their half-baked ideas. We need freedom, reward for hard work, and a re-invigorated sense of personal responsibility and work ethic, especially among our young people."
Well, I'm not an expert (wait, I am an expert), but let me put it this way. One of these things is a national endeavor that pushed the known limits of science and engineering, explored the universe, demonstrated national prestige and power, inspired a generation, lead to whole new industries, and produced an immense degree of wealth through commercial spin-offs, while the other one is a donut made with potato flour.

I don't agree with the necessity for freedom, rewards, a sense of personal responsibility, and work ethic, and that the young are the future, but magic ingredient in the tasty fried concoction* that is our future is vision. Because small business owners think on their scale, they think small. Yes, Google and Apple and Facebook and so on, but the government built the internet, the government funded the science that made the microprocessor possible, and I guarantee you that the government will have a hefty hand in whatever comes next. And as for our young people, while apparently Sarah Palin herself isn't actually anti-education, calls to eliminate the Department of Education, no national standards or nonsensical, mechanistic national standard, and making the quality of a school entirely related to the wealth of the surrounding neighborhood, creating generational cycles of poverty, is not the way to go about it. Businesses don't have the long-term vision, incentives, or capabilities to ensure America's prosperity into the future. I can't guarantee that large scale Federal projects will save this country, but I can ensure you that to reflexively squash them all is to doom us to mediocrity.

*(damn you spudnut, you've made me hungry, and all the donut shops are closed now)


20110210

Jihad on Iowa

This is the post where I destroy any chance of ever having a career in politics. I try not to point out how utterly vapid and harmful the Republican party is, because in the style of some more senior academic, I'm trying to be an honest broker and make friends. But I don't care. I don't give a flying fuck. Sometimes, you see something so fantastically stupid that the only response is mockery. In this clip, Fox News interviews a group of Iowa Caucus Republicans after the Superbowl Obama-O'Reilly interview.



There is a moment there, where the host says something like, "You realize what the implications of what you're saying, what the main stream media will do with this?" and still, 40% of the audience raises their hand when asked if they believe Obama is a Muslim. Now, this is a claim that's hard to refute, simply because it has no basis in reality, it is conspiracy thinking at it's finest. Because Barack Obama doesn't obviously hate Islam, he must be one of them. I'd give a fair shake for Obama being a secret atheist or agnostic, but Muslim? Islam isn't a religion you accidentally follow, as best as I can tell, it involves a fair amount of effort. Praying five times a day, avoiding alcohol and pork products, not going into debt. If Obama is secretly Muslim, he's worse at it than I am at being Jewish. And even if he is Muslim, why should it matter! But slamming Republicans for thinking that Obama is Muslim is old hat. It's boring, and all that the belief does is show that the professor is xenophobic and can't distinguish reality from fantasy. Let's move onto the special crazy.

"He is Neville Chamberlain in 1939. He is an appeaser, and he will lead us down the path of destruction!" -- Okay, I'm going to have to do a history sperg here. Neville Chamberlain gets a unfair rap. Hitler made it clear he was going to take Sudetenland in 1938. France and Britain were in no way ready for war. Now, when they did declare war after the invasion of Poland, they sat behind the Maginot Line for six months, and then got blitzkrieged. Chamberlain is rightfully pilloried for his "Peace in our time" quote, and was correct in resigning, but he was dealt a truly shit hand. And if Obama is Neville Chamberlain, who is he appeasing? Al Queda, against whom he has performed more strikes in the past year than Bush ever did? China, Iran, the Saudis, the French? Has Obama already sold us out to the reptoids from outer space? America (or at least this Iowa Republican) has to know!

"He gives textbook answers."--Now, maybe you're still traumatized from Fighting The Power in 3rd grade math, but there's a reason that the answers are in the textbook, and that's because they're usually right! I'm no fan of the conventional wisdom in general, but I'd rather have the government follow the expert consensus than the wild hunches of a bunch of lunatics. Our mission is changing the conventional wisdom through the strength of our arguments. Of course, to add to the cognitive dissonance, she immediately goes on to say "He doesn't know what to do, he never knows what to do." If you're following the textbook, don't you know what to do? I guess this textbook isn't Logic 101.

"He's waffling on both sides." -- What the flaming Christ does this even mean? Too aggressive, too pacifistic? Maybe you can work it out with the black death there in the back. Well, I won't waffle, you're dumb as shit.

"He doesn't see the good that America does in the world." --This would be the same party that in a rational world is for increasing foreign aid, too bad this isn't a rational world. But maybe he has a point, after all, if you look at the numbers for foreign aid, most of it is military aid to corrupt Middle Eastern dictatorships, including the now infamous $1.3 billion for Egypt. Anybody with the slightest sense of historical perspective know that this is a traditional ploy for wealthy empires dealing with barbarians. Give the chief a chest of coin and some shiny swords, and he'll keep the peace in his territory and won't attack you. Way more efficient than killing everybody who has a beef with you. Of course, maybe this guy thinks that military invasions are good. Why don't we test it out, send the FBI/DEA/ATF to take over his crappy town.

But the reason I'm declaring Jihad on Iowa is Bruce in the blue shirt. "His religious belief is liberalism, and you know, that's the most intolerant religion of them all, with no wiggle room." -- Right, more intolerant than the religion that says that homosexuality is an abomination, or the one that advocates stoning rape victims to death, or the one covered up decades of sexual abuse. Now, defining religion roughly as "Some shit to do with God", I don't see anything in liberalism talking about the divine, or theology. In fact, liberals believe that you should be free to practice your own religion, and not be forced to practice anybody elses. Put this guy in another country, say, close American ally Saudi Arabia, and see how he feels about 'liberal intolerance'. I would imagine that this man's definition of intolerance is that he is no longer allowed to yell racial epithets at the waiters at the local Denny's.

Bruce, I like you, you are an exceptional person, and I believe that exceptional circumstances will bring out your best qualities. As the good book says, "Then (Jesus) said to them all: 'If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.' (Luke 9:23)." But denying yourself is hard, so with the help of the internet (please internet, if you read this, use your magic technopowers), we're going to do it for you. It won't be much, we'll just follow you around, and whenever you open your mouth to spout some inane bullshit like that, we'll correct you, with footnotes, long footnotes. If you have opinions, we'll discount them. Maybe we'll get bored and key your truck, or screw up your air conditioning, because we're so intolerant. We won't be sentencing you to death, or confining you in a mental hospital, or simply assassinating you, no matter how much we want to, because that would make us like you. As Nietzsche said, "Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."

This is not a "gotcha" video on MSNBC, or a Michael Moore documentary, this is Fox News. This is the friendliest forum for conservatives imaginable. Now, I'm sure a panel of liberals would say dumb things as well, but they wouldn't say so many thing so obviously counter to reality. This is because modern Conservatism as an ideology has become one dominated by what Yaron Ezrahi calls "outformations", linked masses of images and emotions mixing objective reality and subjective experience, designed to separate a person from the groundings of objective reality. In a conservative frame of reference, it appears you can get away with saying quite literally anything and everything, because there are no coherent grounds to criticize anything, not reality, not the past, not even yourself, only the momentary emotions that you feel.

If there is any hope to be gotten out of this, it is the look of utter dislocation on the interviewer's face as he realizes what decades of Fox News misinformation has done to the crowd. It is terrible, but it is not too late. Step forward, admit your mistakes, help us restore sanity and realism to our politics. And for the rest of you, share this video, share this post, and don't vote Republican until they renounce this bullshit like one would renounce being a member of the Nazi party 1939-1945. Beyond any specific policy, the propaganda that leads people to act like this is an assault on our shared reality and existence as a nation, and cannot be tolerated!

See also:


20110206

Project : Atomic Sun

Progress and innovation let us build a world that departs increasingly from the environment for which we evolved. To resolve the mismatch between our genetic disposition and the world we build, we must either adapt our environment or adapt ourselves. Winters are pretty dark up here, some days I'm not sure the sun even rises. So, I built this lamp. Its on a timer, and functions to keep the circadian rhythm intact.
These are instructions for building a very bright lamp with 20 bulbs and a truncated icosahedral core. Development set me back about $120 total ( bulbs included ), but you should be able to build this for as little as $40 not including the light-bulbs or cost of plastic.


Parts :
Materials:
  • electrical tape
  • super-glue ( I used Gorilla brand )
Tools:
  • Pliers
  • 3D printer
  • razor knife
  • wire cutters
  • wire strippers
  • Phillip's head screwdriver
Assembly:

First print out the indicated quantity of all printed parts.

More detailed assembly instructions for the lamp socket brackets can be found on the thingiverse page. Trim the bracket until the black socket rests flush inside. This is important, since we need the hexagonal cover plate to bond to both the bracket and the socket for a good fit.
The orientation of the socket within the bracket will matter later. The socket has a wide ridge. Align this ridge with a side of the bracket for 10 pieces. Align the ridge with a corner of the bracket for the other 10. Aligning randomly also works, as long as you don't align all sockets so that the wide parts face a side.

Print out 12 pentagonal pieces. All pieces have extra plastic to stabilize the hinge while printing. This can be removed easily with a razor knife.

Perform a test assembly with just the hexagonal pieces. Leave out the pentagons for now since they are hard to remove once assembled. Ensure that all light sockets fit properly and don't collide. You may have to experiment, rotating and swapping between pieces, to get everything to fit well. If all else fails you can tap apart one of the brackets and re-orient it.

Carefully unfold your test assembly into an as-linear-as-possible planar arrangement like below. The exact arrangement doesn't really matter, just so long as there isn't too much branching.

The lamp sockets clip onto 12 to 14 gauge electrical wire. The only 12 gauge wire I could find had too thick of insulation to work with these sockets. I used 16 gauge wire instead, which just barely works. Using scissors or a knife, separate one end of the lamp cord. Protect the ends with electrical tape. Starting at the far end, clamp the sockets to the cable in turn. The sockets are difficult to close, so I had to use pliers to get enough force.

Before you get excited and attach the plug to test everything, slide on the pentagonal hook piece over the cable. The top of the printed piece should be facing away from the assembly, toward the plug. I neglected to do this, and had to dis-assemble my plug to add this piece.

To assemble the plug, use needle-nose pliers to remove the orange stopper from the front of the plug. Remove the prongs. Thread the lamp cord through. Split and strip about 13mm from the end of each wire. Wrap the exposed wire around the bolts attached to the prongs, and tighten the bolts well. Replace the prongs and stopper.

Test each of your sockets. Turn everything over and plug in some lightbulbs. I did it the dangerous way by adding and removing bulbs ( I only had 2 at the time ) while the thing was plugged in. People that don't want to die should un-plug the setup while moving the bulbs. Better yet, order the bulbs with the rest of your parts and put them all in at once to test.

The next step is tricky. Unplug the setup and remove the bulbs. Turn over the setup. You are going to need to fold the pieces back into the polyhedral shape. The lamp cord is inflexible and resists folding, but bending each joint beforehand helps. Adding in the pentagons while folding provides more stability. As the polyhedron becomes more complete, it becomes more difficult to add pieces. If you're having trouble getting a hinge to mate, pry up slightly the side that is already in the polyhedron. The hinges come together more easily if pushed together from the side, rather than if pushed down from above.

When it was all done, the compressed cable overpowered the super-glue on a couple brackets, thankfully this mistake is easily fixed with more super-glue and some patience. You should end up with an object that looks more than a little bit like the detonation mechanism for an atomic bomb. The final assembly is very strong and the hinges will hold together without additional glue.

The last piece you'll insert is the one that contains the power cord and the rope or chain for hanging the lamp. I would attach rope or chain before you add this piece. Don't use polypropylene rope like I did, it doesn't hold knots. A chain would look nicer anyway.
Thats it. You're done. Hang the lamp somewhere, insert bulbs, and power up your own miniature sun.


20110205

Towards a Closed Loop Economy

Innovation is Serious Business. It's the key to prosperity, national security, health, jobs, you name it, innovation will solve it. But for all the talk that gets thrown around about innovation, and innovation policy (at least in the circles I run in), one question which is largely unaddressed is: Can we innovate in any direction we want, or are there historical patterns that describe how technological change produces the social, political, and economic outcomes were aiming for?


The study of economic history is called cliometrics, and one of the seminal works in the field is Chris Freeman and Francisco Louca's As Time Goes By: From the Industrial Revolutions to the Information Revolution. Freeman and Louca develop a theory of innovation centered around Kondratiev Waves, decades long cycles of economic development driven by a “carrier branch technology.” They identify five Kondratiev Waves: water powered machinery, the steam engine, electrification, motorization, and computerization. Kondratiev waves display common characteristics, the carrier branch technology allows vastly more efficient use of resources, while creating new demands for raw materials, new technological innovations, and new forms of social organization. However, each wave's upswing is followed by a downswing, a structural adjustment as the limits of the technology are reached, and the quest for further profits and efficiencies instead leads to the elimination of jobs, and associated social and political unrest. I'll use the steam engine as the canonical example.


Steam engines were initially developed to pump water out of coal mines, and were relatively bulky and immobile. Improved metallurgy and machine tools allowed the creation of lighter, more efficient steam engines capable of driving locomotives on railroads around 1820. Railroads created a new market for coal, which was become cheaper thanks to better mining techniques, but more importantly, made it much easier to bring coal to market. Factories, which previously had to be located by fast flowing rivers, could now be moved closer to population centers and raw materials. Travel became a mass commodity, and millions of people could travel between cities cheaply and easily on a network of new railroads and steamships. Entrepreneurs became extremely wealthy, while many investors went broke in speculative bubbles. The sheer scale of railroad enterprises (thousands of employees as opposed to hundreds, and geographic dispersion) required new techniques of rational management, for example, the Harvard Business School was founded to train railroad executives, while timezones were imposed so that a nationwide train schedule could be coordinated. By 1870, market pressures had forced the creation of massive conglomerates, run by Gilded Age robber barons. Recession and labor unrest reverberated around the world, and wealth production did not begin in earnest until the start of the next Kondratiev wave in the 1890s, when electrification provided a host of new opportunities. Similar stories can be told about each of the other Kondratiev waves.


So what's the take away, the relevance to modern life? Kondratiev waves last about 50 years, in total. The start of the computer age can reasonably be traced back to the invention of the integrated circuit in 1959, or more realistically, the IBM S/360 in 1964, which was the first widely available general purpose computer. The exact date isn't important, what matters is that now, fifty years later, we've reached a point of saturation in terms of computers. Micro-controllers are in literally every possible device. 4.6 billion people have cell phones. Computer chip manufacturing is a cut-throat business conducted on the thinnest of margins. These facts are clear signs of a mature technology, and the downslope of a Kondratiev wave. The economic and political side matches as well. We're seeing persistent unemployment and social unrest the world over, from the United States, to Greece, to Egypt. While the proximate cause of the most recent recession was financial mismanagement (made possible in large part by the computerization of the financial sector, I might note), it seems more plausible that in fact we're experiencing a structural adjustment. Computerization is tapped out as a primary driver of economic growth. Incremental innovation in computers and related technologies will not restore prosperity. What is needed now is a new carrier branch technology.


Carrier branch technologies are big, they fundamentally alter every aspect of production and social organization. What in the pipeline might fit the bill? Nanotechnology is a perennial favorite, but molecular assembly is fifteen years away, and has been since 1986. Human enhancement and biotech is important, but I'm not sure how much it drives at the "means of production." Clean energy might work, but replacing coal plants with solar plants, and gasoline with batteries, doesn't seem big enough for a Kondratiev wave.


This comic [backup link] provides a hint. It tells the Malthusian story of reindeer on St. Matthew Island, where the population expanded exponentially until they hit their resource limit, and collapsed. While the only thing more predictable than a Malthusian prediction is that it will be overturned, the central tenet that in the long run, Earth is a finite system, is a physical fact. So let me speculate, what if the outputs of the economy were identical to the inputs? What if the human economy was a closed loop, taking in only sunlight, and producing the absolute minimum of waste? Stop burning fossile fuels, stop mining metals, stop depleting fisheries and upsetting nutrient cycles, and focus on minimizing


This would require the re-engineering of almost material artifact, every large scale technological system. The amount of human effort would be staggering, millions if not billions of jobs would be created. The potential benefits are large, not only would we be saving the planet, but we'd be growing the economy, because turning trash into wealth is the very definition of alchemy. Moving to a closed loop economy is not just ecologically sound, it's also cost efficient. As Neal Stephenson recently pointed out, sucking resources out of the ground and lighting them on fire as a way to create energy is a method that appears, from the point of view of hypothetical alien anthropologists, to be insane.


The actual policies involved in transitioning to a closed loop economy are far from easy. There are entrenched interests opposing any such shift. Not only is it cheaper to extract resources from the ground, and use the atmosphere as a carbon dump, but humans intrinsically enjoy being part of the larger world. As I've been thinking about this, the image of domed cities and hydroponic farms came to mind, a classic sci-fi dystopia. But as a start, we need to begin collecting information about the total life-cycles of products, and encouraging greater amounts of recycling. We need to identify what technological changes can be done easily, and what will be hard. There will be normative and cultural shifts; consumerism is not compatible with a closed loop economy However, in terms of the grand challenges of the future, the big economic picture, the creation of public policy and the role of individuals, there are steps that can be taken. This is the innovation we need, not only for prosperity, but for survival.


20110201

What Comes Next

This is a continuation of a previous article.


I won't be breaking any news when I say that the Mubarak regime is done. At this juncture, the momentum of the crowd is only accelerating, the army has refused to intervene, and President Obama publicly has called for Mubarak not to run for re-election in the fall. American envoy Frank Weisner demanded Mubarak step down, and was rebuffed, but there doesn't seem to be a pathway for Mubarak to maintain his grip on power. Asymetric warfare theorist John Robb has laid out the victory conditions for both sides. Essentially, Mubarak wins if he outlasts popular anger. The protestors win if Mubarak is forced to flee the country. With public services decaying, the security police discredited and demoralized, and victory close at hand, the protestors have no reason to stop with their central demand unmet. Conversely, there is literally nothing Mubarak has to offer, not promises of stability, not continued terror, only his departure.


EDIT: As I'm typing this, Mubarak has announced he will step down on the next elections. But I'd bet he'll leave well before then.


So what happens next? I'd like to focus on three different issues, Egyptian politics, Israel, and democracy in the Middle East.


I will freely admit that I am not an expert on Egyptian politics. Consensus is that the best organized opposition group is Muslim Brotherhood, but that Mohamed ElBaradei is best situated to step into a leadership role. An internationally renown diplomat, ElBaradei is compromise figure who's stature is his best asset, but who's long separation from Egypt might hinder his effectiveness. The worry floating around American conservative circles is that the Egyptian revolution is a stalking horse for an Islamist takeover, similar to Iran in 1979. This may yet happen, we can't know, but the faster the transition happens, the less likely religious groups will be able to exert a major influence. The chaos and uncertainty in Egypt right now favors people with local credibility, the neighborhood wardens and citizen-bloggers. The more time the situation has to settle, the more secular forces will fragment and the influence of the superior organization of the Muslim Brotherhood will tell on the elections.


If elections were held today, my prediction would be on a roughly 3 way split between secular protestors, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the entrenched military/intelligence forces of the government. While Mubarak may be discredited, a bureaucracy the size of Egypt's security apparatus is not easily dismantled. While a confluence between the Islamist parties, and the military (the Iranian model) is worrying geo-politically, it's not actually my main concern. Far worse for the Egyptian people would be a situation reminiscent of the French Revolution. As the monarchy collapsed, and the National Assembly took power, actual power devolved into the hands of demagogues, who in the name of “defending the revolution” and “punishing tyrants” committed untold atrocities. Now, the world as a whole has far more experience at democracy than it did in 1789, and the Terror was abetted by the efforts of European monarchies to destroy the new republic. There is no better way to turn a revolution paranoid and violent than by attacking it. The lesson here is that the world should offer its unconditional support to the Egyptian democracy in its embryonic stage, even if we do not like the immediate results.


Israel has suffered a major strategic reversal. Egypt, under the control of a geopolitical realist with ties to the US, was an important, if grudging ally. A return to hot war is unlikely, but ElBaradei has already indicated that he would open the Egyptian side of the Gaza border. Israel faces further strategic encirclement. Clinging to the past is not going to work, Israel should bow to the reality on the ground, and hail a strengthening of peaceful relations with the new democracy. While far from a good choice, taking a hard line now will only force worse choices in the future.


Finally, democracy in the Middle East. From Tunisia, the revolution has swept Egypt, forced the King of Jordan to dissolve his cabinet, and has lead to unrest across the region. Will the revolution continue? I have a feeling that if this initial movement were going to spread, it would have already. The emotional conditions, the heat of the moment, is changing. Potential revolutionaries elsewhere are investing their energies in Egypt for the time being. Social networking, a hyper-oxygenated public sphere, allows the flames of revolution to sprout with surprising speed, but other Middle Eastern autocrats appear to have a better grip on the grievances and mood of the people. In the long run, the example of Egypt (assuming it doesn't immediately and obviously degenerate into a theocracy or civil war) should inspire democrats elsewhere in the region. With revolution as a distinct possibility, tyrants must take the grievances of their people seriously, including opening political freedoms.


The system, as it stands, has benefited America, which receives a cheap and reliable supply of oil. However, long term it was clearly unsustainable. Mubarak's government will fall completely within the week. How many dictatorships will last out the year, or five years? Better democracy now, than chaos in an even tenser world later.