Category Archives: biology

Paging Dr. Freud…

Logged on to desktop-Facebook recently.

Was greeted by these ads.

They were… disturbing.

disturbing facebook ads

I don’t even want to know what photos they used for the female or gay audience!

Perhaps this is some sort of bizarre homage to Renaissance painter Guiseppe Arcimbolo, colloquially known as “that crazy artist who painted people as if they were made of fruit”, as per the portrait below.

488px-Arcimboldovertemnus

More likely, it’s just the latest example of the ubiquity of sex in advertising.

It also leads to the question of whether algorithms can be developed to detect this kind of sexual imagery; one can imagine Facebook would want to prevent such advertising from getting displayed to inappropriate demographics, though some of that might be covered off by stated interests.  (One imagines that the above images wouldn’t be pushed to someone who’s expressed strongly conservative religious interests on FB…)

Software updates are flu shots

Syringe

A nice metaphor for software updates.

Flu shots attempt to immunize people from the influenza virus, by exposing their immune systems to small doses of weakened or dead virus molecules. The idea is that this gives the immune system a “practise run” with a less-dangerous version of the influenza virus the patient might run into, later that year.

The situation is complicated by the fact that there are countless strains of flu, because the virus isn’t actually very good at copying itself accurately. When people with the flu sneeze, the viruses they expel will have already mutated from when they contracted it. To use the scientific jargon,

“…each daughter virus has an average of 1.34 to 1.52 mutations! The superfast mutation rate of influenza is what fuels its ability to evolve and adapt, overcoming the immune system’s method of recognizing old pathogens.”

Software updates — anti-virus updates in particular — serve much the same function: they create a moving target, which hopefully stays a step ahead of software viruses, which can take control of a computer in much the same way that parasites can “hack” their hosts, and change their behaviour.

Parasites “hack” human behaviour too — toxoplasma gondii is a well-known example — with all the collateral implications for the concept of free will. In addition to a host of terrible diseases, the parasite may make people more likely to take risks, not unlike what it does to rats. (Infected rats seem to behave more recklessly, among other things losing their fear of cat odours: getting the rat eaten is a way for the protozoan to get back into a cat, its favoured host species.)

On a personal level, given the “don’t-try-this-at-home-kids” characteristics of my investment strategies since we adopted our cat, I wonder if I’m one of the roughly one-third of people who host this “friend”-with-benefits…  :)

And just as a flu shot gives our immune system a chance to develop antibodies which will detect and defeat the flu strains to which we’re exposed — as well as close mutations — updates give our O/S or software the ability to neutralize the viruses / trojans / malware which they target, as well as any closely-related variants which run closely-similar scripts.  (If my understanding is correct.)

This is probably a good time to remind readers that the historical/mythical Trojan Horse was not a big wooden horse, but more likely a wooden battering Ram. Switch mammals and you get a wooden battering Horse, then add a few hundred years for legends to accrue in a Greek society which lost all its siege-warfare skills — seriously, they were hopeless besiegers — and you can see how tales of a wooden Horse ending a siege could be re-imagined as some sort of horse made out of wood.

The software update / flu shot analogy is imperfect — among other things, genetic variation among life-forms has no software analog — but is probably good enough to be functional. Or at a minimum, drive a bit of thought about the ways biology reflects and refracts itself, in our innumerable human endeavours.

I do wonder if people would be more likely to install and/or update anti-virus software, if it were marketed with a flu shot analogy.

Admittedly, given the nonsensical, false superstitions about vaccinations some people hold (which seem to be a case of people’s distrust of Big Pharma companies metastasizing into a distrust of evidence-based medicine — preventable flu deaths rose by the equivalent of twelve 9/11 terrorist attacks per year in first-world Japan, after mandatory immunization programs fell prey to fearmongering) … software firms might think twice about such a marketing strategy.

The surveillance state is an autoimmune disorder

Reaching into American history, we encounter the saying, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”…. in our modern era, we might need to add a corollary, namely that “the price of infinite vigilance, is freedom”.

First, a short medical analogy.

Autoimmune disorders

Autoimmune disorders (Wikipedia prefers autoimmune diseases) occur when the body’s defenses — antibodies — no longer distinguish between healthy tissue and harmful cells. Instead of focusing on the dangerous antigens, they attack the body itself.

Type 1 diabetes is an example, where the patient’s immune system attacks the insulin-producing regions of the pancreas. Blood insulin levels drop, making it more difficult for cells to absorb glucose from the bloodstream, leaving elevated blood glucose levels, and all the associated problems of diabetes.

Multiple sclerosis is another example, where the patient’s immune system attacks their nervous system. Localized physical inflammation occurs, which causes nerve damage, which impairs sufferers’ quality-of-life.

These autoimmune disorders occur on the individual level.

The hygiene hypothesis

In medicine, the hygiene hypothesis suggests that allergies could be thought of as a sort of autoimmune disorder, brought about by excessive cleanliness (!).

The general idea is that our immune systems developed over millions of years in the, um, virulent and filthy conditions that characterized most of human existence until the arrival of modern sanitation. Given this, our immune systems have evolved to be hyper-vigilant.  After all, until recently, even minor flesh wounds could be fatal, if they got infected.

One theory posits that if our immune systems aren’t kept busy fending off microbial, bacterial and viral attacks when we’re young, they overreact when they encounter benign intruders (e.g. pollen), or even healthy human cells, mistaking these for existential threats. It’s the medical profession’s equivalent of the “idle hands are the devil’s playthings” argument…!

The generally agreed-upon workaround is to make sure kids wash their hands before eating and after using the washroom, but to otherwise roll around in dirt, play with animals and so forth. The former steps help keep children safe from more dangerous microbes, while the latter keeps their immune systems busy.

Stranger still, medical researchers are exploring the treatment of autoimmune diseases by deliberately infecting patients with parasites!  Reasonably benign parasitic worms which co-evolved with humans and co-existed with us until the advent of modern hygiene, are introduced to the body.  Improvement comes when the immune system stops attacking healthy body tissue, to focus on beating back the parasites.

Unfortunately, the immune system sometimes resumes attacking the body after it beats back the parasites, meaning that periodic reinfection may be necessary. In helminthic therapy, you don’t take vitamin supplements, you take parasite supplements!

Societal-level autoimmune disorders

I think the recently-revealed excesses of NSA / PRISM / surveillance state can be best thought of as a societal-level autoimmune disorder. Human society has almost certainly become dramatically less violent over time, and that’s a very good thing. Especially for those of us who’re members of ethnic groups who’ve historically been the victims!

Meanwhile, for a roughly fifty-year period in the 20th century, an enormous American security apparatus evolved, to address the perceived existential threat from Soviet Communism — and, uh, stamp out any less-than-solidly-pro-American governments in Latin America and other strategic parts of the world. (We should try to be objective, eh?)

With the threat of Communism now gone, the vast resources of American society’s “immune system” have become focused on terrorists — individuals who can cause damage and suffering, but who cannot and could never pose the kind of existential threat of an invading army. This is a good thing: we want to be safe from those who cause us harm.

But like a white blood cell which indiscriminately attacks other cells in the body — not just the harmful antigens — the NSA has effectively wiretapped everyone in the world. Given that in the normal course of law, courts must be convinced of reasonably-probable wrongdoing for wiretaps to be granted, the NSA is essentially treating everyone as a suspect.

In this sense, its behaviour maps to that of an immune system that has been hijacked by an autoimmune disorder, and is treating the body’s own cells as invaders. The main difference is that the surveillance state exists at the societal level, while autoimmune disorders exist at the individual level.

The price of freedom…

If autoimmune disorders can be prevented and/or treated by allowing the body to be exposed to lesser pathogens, this might hint at the path out of the surveillance state. If citizens accept that to maintain their major freedoms, they must accept that minor acts of violence might succeed, the recently-revealed excesses of the NSA could be curbed. A government which tracks its people’s communications, by the very act of doing so, subtly impairs their freedoms of conscience and expression.

The above is a bit abstract, so I’ll close with a couple closer-to-home examples.

1) Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush made the comment to the effect that “[terrorists] hate us for our freedoms”. In doing so, he both oversimplified and mischaracterized the motives of such attackers, which relate more to the various humiliations of Western colonization, and the despair of resolving or overcoming the injustices they perceive.

But if Osama bin Laden hated us for our freedoms, then restricting those freedoms through the surveillance state gives him exactly what he would have wanted! (Political violence — such as terrorism — is successful when it causes the victimized government to bend its policies in the desired direction.) If for no other reason than thwarting bin Laden, it will be important for us to rein in the surveillance state.

2) brings us back to the “pull quote” at the start of the post.

Reaching deeply into American history, we encounter the saying, “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”. It’s been misattributed to many Great Men in American history, among them Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine, though it seems to’ve been a British actor who first formulated the phrase.

In our modern era, we might need to add a corollary, namely that “the price of infinite vigilance, is freedom”.

[July 25 – light editing to summarize the conclusion at the outset. – Thx for the tip, Bob!]

3D electricity (“Great Upload of 2013”)

(written April 13, 2012.  Part of the Great Upload of 2013…)

As a guy whose birthday falls on the 13th, it always bugged me that my 13th birthday was a Saturday… those darned leap years!

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EROEI

One of my concerns in the past several years has been the fact that “energy-return-on-energy-invested” (EROEI) for fossil fuels has been decreasing.  This is most evident in the petroleum sector: in the good old days, all you needed to do was stick a steel straw in the ground, and you’d get oil.  (As an Algerian colleague once told me, “back home, we drill wells looking for water, but all we get is oil.  It’s like, what the hell?  Oil again??”)

In the days of yore (and lost Lenores) for each unit of energy you “invested” to get the oil, you might have gotten 50x or 100x units of energy back.  Alas, this happens “nevermore”.

EROEI has been dropping because, while we’ve become more efficient at extracting oil, difficulty-of-extraction has gone up even faster.  The oil sands are the most extreme case: for each unit of energy you invest to turn the bitumen into oil, you might get… 5x units of energy back.  So if you want to extract 100 units of oil energy, your cost is no longer 1-2 units of energy… but 20 units of energy, plus a bunch up-front!  (This is why it takes many months and mammoth money to increase oil sands production.)

And while recent developments such as North Dakota’s “tight oil” probably have a better EROEI, they won’t reverse the drainward trend.  Coal is in much the same boat, though natural gas is a different story — we only started to tap the world’s largest natural gas field in the past few years, so its EROEI will probably stay high for awhile.*  Since the hydrogen for most fuel cells comes from natural gas, that’s good news.  (Plus, it’s easier to obtain natural gas equivalents from renewable resources, than liquid fuels…)

Declining EROEI is kind of depressing from a societal perspective, because it suggests that we’ll have to work harder and harder to acquire the energy we’ve accustomed ourselves to — as anyone who’s bought gasoline recently can attest.  ;)  (As if environmental damage, converging debt crises and aging populations weren’t enough!)

EROEI for renewables

Fortunately, EROEI is increasing rapidly in the renewables sector, helping it continue its exponential growth — and that is a cause for optimism.  At the end of 2011, there was enough installed solar and wind capacity to provide 3% of the world’s electricity.  (That number already factors in the fact that it’s sometimes nighttime, and windless.)  And the growth rate is high enough that it could hit 20% by 2020.  That’s a lot of coal plant closures!  Much beyond that, though, and you start to run into realistic limits for wind power**, though solar would still have a lot of “blue sky potential”, in the business parlance.  I hope to ramble about the physical laws governing whales and wind turbines sometime soon…

In terms of solar, the main energy input in making a solar panel comes from creating ingots of 99.999 999 9% pure silicon.  These parts-per-billion impurity levels are so low, you have a better chance of winning the jackpot on a lottery ticket, than randomly picking a non-silicon atom out of an ingot!  Companies slice thin wafers off using the industrial equivalent of a deli-meat slicer, and the wafers undergo post-treatment to become the solar panels US Republicans love to hate.***

About ten years ago, solar companies would use wafers about 0.33 mm thick (330 microns), and EROEI estimates for solar panels in reasonably-sunny areas were in oil-sands range, roughly 5:1.  Today’s photovoltaics are a bit more efficient, and based on wafers about half as thick (180 microns), meaning that for roughly the same starting energy input you can get two solar panels, and thus, twice the electricity.  So in the time since George Bush won election 5 votes to 4 in the Supreme Court, solar’s EROEI has doubled to about 10:1.  The physical limit is apparently about 20 microns, which two Silicon Valley startups already claim to be able to achieve… if given enough investor money.  :)  While most startups shut down, solar panels are almost certainly going to get thinner, meaning their EROEI will get better.

On the financial side, the panels aren’t even the cost-prohibitive component of solar arrays anymore: installing rooftop solar in the US will cost you roughly $6/Watt up-front, of which the panel only represents $1.  (The rest is associated electronics, and labour.)  That’s about double the cost in Germany, whose feed-in tariffs allow for project financing of the rest.  This means there’s a big incentive to figure out how to capture more solar energy from a given square metre of rooftop — people with a choice of $6 per Watt or $7 per 2 Watts, are inevitably going to choose the latter, eh?

Into… the third dimension!

Part of the solution will probably be to extend solar panels into the third dimension, in the manner these MIT guys did.  It’s a bit like the moment 400 million years ago when the first Cooksonia pertoni told a friend, “I’m tired of competing with lichens and mosses for sunlight in the x-y plane; imma grow me in the z-direction!”

As such, it’s possible that instead of flat slabs, solar-panelled houses of the future will have bristly, antenna-esque solar panels protruding from their roofs — kind of like the branches of trees.  The “treeing” of photovoltaic arrays makes sense, since trees have had a zillion generations to figure out how to maximize sunlight collection.  Of course you’d figure with all that time, some of them would’ve realized the evolutionary advantage of, oh, being able to move by now…  :)

And while such a future would be aesthetically great for those of us who enjoy the look of Gothic churches or Thai wats (Buddhist temples), for minimalists like Steve Jobs on the other hand…  ;)

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* that is, unless something destabilizes Qatar or Iran, but c’mon, how likely is that?  ;)

** alpha nerds can peruse this link; the rest of you can shake your heads in despair…  :)

*** technically speaking, Solyndra was a thin-film solar company using glass substrates, not silicon.  But such subtleties are not the stuff of Fox News…

Epic Vancouver 2012 (and raw food)

(originally written May 15, 2012 — part of my Great Upload of 2013)

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I outlined a piece tentatively titled “Douglas, Deng and Diocletian” on Saturday, as I cycled to Vancouver’s new convention centre along the largely-empty downtown bike lanes.  ;)  But alas, attending the Epic Vancouver “green consumerism” show threw those plans off-kilter.  Musings about historical figures are “evergreen” projects — they can be written up any time — but event-driven patter has a best-before date.  :)

I was surprised that Cadbury didn’t have a booth at the conference; they were the first major confectioner to switch a major product line to all-fair trade chocolate a few years back (their flagship “Dairymilk” bars) and you’d figure they’d want to make sure everyone knew it.  Heck, according to the Tommy Douglas bio I just finished, our Greatest Canadian hired one of the Cadbury heirs to help set up government-run enterprises (insurance, bus services) to help improve Saskatchewan’s finances so the province could finally move ahead with universal healthcare in 1962.  Being able to tie the Cadbury name to Canadians’ most treasured institution, would seem like a marketer’s dream…!

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The Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association had a century-old electric vehicle on display (model year 1912).  I was shocked (ha) to see steering was accomplished with a bunch of levers — like a modern military tank.  I guess the automotive Steve Jobs hadn’t yet reinvented the human-car interface with the steering wheel.  (“We think this ‘steering-wheel’ thing is going to be big — it’s insanely great!!“)

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As is typical of these trade shows, the headline sponsors were environmentally-conscientious corporate behemoths, but the exhibitor mix went well into the “granola” spectrum.  ;)  One of these was the raw food society of BC, who seemed a pleasant if misguided bunch.  Which isn’t to imply that the rest of us aren’t misguided — we surely are, just in a more mainstream way.  ;)

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As I understand it — possibly incorrectly — the idea is that raw food is closer to what humans evolved eating, meaning it’s better for us.  As such, it belongs to a family of beliefs which considers technology unnatural, and hence bad, or possibly dangerous.  Of course, while we may chuckle at the raw-fooders, most of us are a little uncomfortable with GMO’s.  The sad hilarity is that it’s more logically consistent to reject all technology from fire onwards, than to pick and choose an arbitrary point between “natural” technologies and “unnatural” ones!

To adapt an analogy I heard in some podcast, cooking is a convenient technology, just like writing.  The pot gives us an external stomach in which to pre-digest our food (using heat) for easy nutrient absorption, just like paper and other media give us an external brain to store data for easy information retrieval.  And while cooking probably destroys some nutrients, it kills off microbes which cause food-borne illnesses, too.  In earlier eras before modern healthcare technologies, that was pretty important!  The Chinese have been cooking water for at least three thousand years: tea is lightly-flavoured boiled water with a caffeine kick.  It was the Red Bull of its day!  ;)

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I imagine most Canadians who go on raw food diets lose weight, if for no other reason that junk food options must be pretty meagre.  Eating less calorie-dense foods, they’d probably feel full sooner, and their bodies would have to work harder to pull nutrients out of the food they did wind up eating.  Since modern urbanites tend to be on the thick side of fit, this probably nets out positive on health, but mainly as a result of better eating habits, as opposed to prehistoric ones.

One species that could definitely benefit from cooking is pandas, who eat 12 hours a day.  Their carnivorous digestive system can’t extract nutrients from bamboo very easily — not that there are many to begin with!  And given all the fiber they take in, they’re not just regular, they’re frequent: dozens of times a day.  Reminds me of when Leo was a newborn.  ;)

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I didn’t see any vegetarian groups at Epic, though the crowd was probably their target market also.  While Westerners could probably benefit from reducing meat in their diet, avoiding meat is more of an ethical issue than a “natural human condition” issue.  One theory has it that meat-eating is a big reason why we spread across the earth, and our largely-vegetarian chimp brethren didn’t.

The premise is that meat enriched the milk of human mothers so much, they could wean babies earlier than other primates (traditional societies wean at around 2 years; largely-vegan chimpanzees at about 5 years).  This meant humans could reproduce faster and dominate the world the way we’ve been doing, for the past tens of thousands of years.  It would also imply that to enjoy a truly representative Paleo diet, raw food enthusiasts would want to get used to all manners of sashimi.  :)

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Considering how much flack TIME magazine got recently for putting a woman breastfeeding a three-year-old on its cover, this all seemed topical enough to justify swerving my writing plans.  As strange as that may seem to the rest of us, if she was a paleo-diet vegetarian, five years might be scientifically justified (!).  It seems weird to us since it’s so far from our cultural norms, but most cultural norms are laughably arbitrary: while my Ukrainian grandmother looked queasy when I told her I ate raw fish, my Japanese mother-in-law was astounded that I sometimes ate carrots, uncooked…!  :)

Of whales and wind turbines

(originally written June 20, 2012 — part of my Great Upload of 2013)

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So I was reading up on my Ray Kurzweil last night, because it’s good to read people you disagree with once in a while — but preferably no more often than that.  ;)

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Kurzweil

Ray Kurzweil is a futurist who believes we’re heading into a singularity where, in this century, life will transcend biology and we’ll reach some sort of a higher condition of life.  His ideas could probably be summed up as:

– it took billions of years to go from single-celled creatures to multi-celled ones

– then hundreds of millions of years to get to human-like creatures

– then hundreds of thousands of years for homo sapiens to create cities

– then thousands of years for us to start making upgrades (artificial hips, pacemakers and the like)

– and in a short span of time, we’ll transition from a biological-molecule-based form of consciousness to a silicon-based one

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His ideas are pretty much distilled in this decade-old article/manifesto, which he wrote during the heady days of the dot-com bubble.  As such, though the trends in computing power have probably continued, economic progress… has not.

He made surprising choices in some graphs (e.g. patents issued over time) in that he didn’t factor in the huge effect of a rising population.  It looks like the number of patents issued per year went up tenfold from 1900 to 2000, but the US population also increased four-fold from roughly 70 million to 280 million.  So patents per person “only” went up 2.5x in a century.

There’s a big wrinkle though, which is that the US urban population went from about 40% to 80% in the century of 1900 to 2000, so the urban population probably rose about 8x [28 million to 200 million] in that century.  So in the past century, patents-per-urban-person might only have gone up… twenty percent?  A bigger wrinkle is the fact that half of US patents nowadays go to foreigners, and the biggest wrinkle is probably that patents aren’t a great way of measuring innovation.  They might be the best available measuring-stick, but that doesn’t mean they’re all that accurate…

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Cities and Whales

The urban-population factor is important because recent research purports to show that as metropolitan areas get bigger, they tend to “speed up” — since Metro Vancouver has twice the population of Metro Calgary, one would expect Vancouver to have 15% higher per-capita mean income and patenting rates.  Of course, local factors like the tar sands mean that these general trends come with massive, massive margins of error.  :)

The reason for this trend might be that as cities get bigger, people can become more and more specialized, and nudge the boundaries of human knowledge just a bit further in one tiny area.  And with so many people around them, there’s a better chance they’ll run into someone who can make use of that knowledge.  And there is a symmetric downside: apparently per-capita crime and other social ills also tend to increase about 15% with each doubling in city size.

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This “speeding up” with bigger size is the opposite of what happens in publicly-traded companies, which tend to “slow down” as they get bigger — fewer patents per person, lower per-person revenues, etc.  (The trend surely holds true for privately-held companies too, but since public companies release quarterly financial statements it’s waay easier to crunch public company data than private companies’.)  This phenomenon could elegantly, partially explain why public-sector bureaucracies often seem worse than private-sector ones: few private companies ever reach the size of governments!

A similar “slowing down” with size occurs in biology, a phenomenon known as Kleiber’s Law.  (Not to be confused with George Clooney’s girlfriend Stacy “Keibler”, or the cookie-making “Keebler” elves.)

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In the critter world, when animals double in size, their metabolic (food) requirements tend to only increase by 70-ish percent.  To use math terms, the exponent describing the relationship between metabolic rate and mass, is between 2/3 and 3/4.  And before you ask, yes indeed, there is the usual academic bun fight over what exactly that exponent is!  :)  To use a better example than the one offered in Wikipedia, if we were to compare a 200 tonne blue whale with a 20 gram mouse, the whale weighs 10,000,000x more, but only requires about 10,000,000^0.7 = 80,000x as much food.

Another example of how life seems to “slow down” for big creatures is the reasonably-accurate factoid that many mammals, big and small, have a lifespan of about one to one-and-a-half billion heartbeats.  And indeed, whales live a lot longer than mice — in the absence of whalers.  And cats.  :)  I could imagine that for our earliest mammalian ancestors, this might have represented a good balance between “durable enough to have offspring” and “not so resource-intensive as to starve other important bodily functions of nutrients”, but then I imagine a lot of plausible-sounding, completely-inaccurate explanations.  :)

Rambling aside, as animals get bigger, they get more efficient with their food inputs.  Which brings us to wind turbines!

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…and wind turbines

One of the few things I remember from my chemical engineering economics course is that the cost of components in a chemical plant increases more slowly than size, with the exponents generally in the 0.5-0.8 range.  We could think of this as a rough industrial analogue, or maybe even an extension, of Kleiber’s Law.

This trend applies to wind turbines, because if you scaled up a turbine so its blades and everything else were twice as big, you’d need more than twice the material, but you could probably extract quadruple the energy.  (Taller turbines can access stronger winds, and the blades would rotate through 4x the cross-sectional area, but various losses would eat away at that.)  The net effect is that bigger wind turbines are more efficient per-tonne-of-construction-material.  Not unlike that whale.  :)

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And back to Kurzweil

Before setting sail on that cetacean tangent (ie. talking about whales) we were examining how a lot of the technological progress feeding Ray Kurzweil’s optimism might not have come from exponentially-improving calculation power, but from a one-time migration of people from the countryside to the cities.

If population growth and urbanization were big drivers for the extraordinary progress we made in the 20th century, it stands to reason that we might see a slowing-down of things in the 21st century, as world population (and world urban population) level off and start falling.  This would be a bit of a downer for techno-optimists’ utopian visions, but would fit the more pessimistic notion that the human condition is a cycle between harsher and milder dystopias.

As an admirer of the great Greek tragedies, I’m in the latter camp.  And while I’m as overconfident in my opinions as most men, I have an ace up my sleeve: as per page 3 of the TIME magazine article, people with mild depression are more accurate at predicting future events!  Nice of the universe to finally throw us folks a bone…!  ;)

Mitt’s bad day (wasn’t nearly as bad as the dinosaurs’)

As expected by everyone outside the American right-wing echo chamber, Obama handily defeated Romney in the US election.  In the weeks leading up to the election, pollster Nate Silver (who posts at the New York Times) came under such ferocious criticism from Fox News & friends, for purportedly “skewing” his results to inflate predictions in Obama’s favour, that you’d think he was a climate scientist!  That wasn’t just my left-leaning impression, either.  David Frum — former George W. Bush speechwriter David “Axis of Evil” Frum — tweeted to that effect!

As it turns out, it was the American right which was diddling the numbers in their favour, much as they do with climate data as it arrives.  (This is known as the “down the up escalator” technique.)

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It’s been interesting following the chatter this election cycle, as people wondered whether Obama could win the white vote; whether half-white and already-once-elected incumbent President Obama, could win the white vote.  (As it turns out, Romney got a higher percentage.  It was pretty obvious he would, given the data from the 2008 Obama-McCain election.  Obama got 50% of the white vote outside the American South, but only 30% of the white vote in the American South.  That doesn’t look suspicious at all…!)

Perhaps Chris Rock’s outreach efforts to white voters helped Obama carry the day.  (He left it to the Jay-Z fan club to rally the home crowd.)  :)

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Things really went grim for Mitt when some investigative reporting showed that while Solyndra-type failures represented 8% of government energy-startup-company investments, when Romney headed Bain Capital a full 22% of its investments went under.  (Admittedly, Bain’s specialty was the business equivalent of organ harvesting.)  I guess that’s why people say government shouldn’t pick winners and losers — when they do, they make the private sector look bad.  ;)  There’s some highly enjoyable Daily Show coverage here (it’s about 2 minutes in).

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Of course, as bad as Tuesday was for Mitt, on the “bad days” scale, it was pretty mild.  Consider the dinosaurs.  One of today’s leading theories — based on extensive computer modelling — suggests their extinction happened in one day.

While the dinos may have been in a bit of a decline for several million years prior  (an “evolutionary recession”, perhaps?) the 15-km-wide asteroid that hit them is thought to have hit land, with the heat causing continental-scale forest fires.  A huge plume of debris is then thought to have entered low orbit, spreading across the world’s skies before falling back to earth several hours later.  And like all space objects re-entering the atmosphere, the friction of re-entry caused it to burn up, giving off tremendous heat.

The calculation is that this would have been the equivalent of putting the planet in a pizza oven for several hours.  Land surface temperatures would have risen far, far above boiling around the world, and the top few inches of ocean water could have been vaporized.

The boiling temperatures would have killed off any dinosaurs not already affected by the forest fires; and taken out most of the terrestrial plants, too.  Mammals are thought to’ve survived because our long-ago mouse-like ancestors lived in underground burrows and were able to escape the heat.  Birds also survived because their common ancestor also used  underground burrows.  (Hmm… maybe those hobbits are onto something.  :)  )

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By this theory, the sea life extinction would’ve happened in the subsequent years, as sulfur-aerosol dust clouds dimmed the sun and reduced photosynthesis.  Then as the aerosols fell to earth, they’d’ve turned into sulfuric and sulfurous acids (H2SO4 or H2SO3) which would’ve acidified the oceans, killing off shell-based creatures and hitting the food chain for a double whammy.

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Next update soon.  I gotta start looking at basement suites.  ;)

The biology of phishing

Some nefarious group recently made a phishing attempt against me, trying to lure me into providing bank account information in response to an Official Looking email.

Presumably, the combination of spam filters and alert consumers means phishing has a very, very low success rate.  Fortunately for criminals, email has virtually no incremental cost: you can send a million phishing messages almost as easily as you can send a thousand, or ten.  In contrast, con men can only be in one place at a time, and probably need to invest a lot of time per victim, so they need a much much higher success rate.

That brought to mind r/K selection theory, from biology:

– in r-type reproduction, creatures create zillions of offspring.  In stable ecosystems, almost all the offspring will die before reproducing, giving a (near-infinite offspring x near-zero success rate) arrangement.  Examples include insects, fish, and dandelions.  By analogy, phishing would fit this category.

– in K-type reproduction, creatures create few offspring, but the survival rate is much higher.  Basically, it’s a (near-zero offspring x near-100% success rate) type arrangement.  Examples include bears, elephants and whales.  By analogy, con men would fit here.



And this got me wondering how businesses look, when viewed through the r/K lens.  (It also got me sending emails to the local university asking if any researchers have been looking at this topic; we’ll see if anything pops up.  :)  )

By and large, virtual goods seemed to follow r-type behaviour, and physical goods, K-type.

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Central planning – not just for the communists anymore

(written Aug 22, 2011; uploaded Aug 8, 2012 … but still valid, I think!     :)  )

(also, Jesse was kind enough to post a lightly-adapted version on his blog, last year)

It’s been a rough few weeks for the capitalist system, which bestrides the globe like a teetering colossus. Not only has there been stock market turmoil worldwide, and the temporary threat of a (temporary) US default on its debts … but an esteemed, very well-to-do economist suggested that Karl Marx was right! In the Wall Street Journal, no less!

That would be Nouriel Roubini, whose claims to fame came from timely warnings about the US housing bubble (2005-ish) and subsequent US stock market collapse (2008-ish). Now, it’s important to note that he only said that Marx was right in that capitalism could collapse on itself. Not that it actually would. A slight distinction lost on many a lefty website in the past couple weeks. ;)

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Most people are familiar with the spectacular failures of central planning in Communist regimes. According to the resurgently-fashionable Austrian school of economics this is because an economy is too complex to be managed by one expert, or even one committee of experts, regardless whether the clubhouse door reads “Politburo” or “Dragon’s Den”. Rather, society’s fastest path to prosperity consists of allowing every person to decide what’s in their best interest. It’s basically the “million monkeys at a million keyboards” approach. :)

A biological analogy comes from flocks of birds, schools of fish, and ant colonies, among others. These swarms function extremely well, despite being composed of simple critters following simple rules, and despite the anarchic lack of a leader directing things. Our own “simple critter rules” in modern society are probably along the lines of “try to get a higher paying job, and pay lower prices for stuff, within the laws of the land, and without making too many enemies”.

A business analogy comes from Toyota. Their quality went from hopeless to fearsome by training every employee to be competent enough to figure out how to do their own job better, and then allowing them to do so. If their management tried to dictate how each task was to be done, they’d’ve topped out at early-80’s American carmaker quality levels. ;)

In a similar way, they decided not to try to predict the right production levels for each model, colour, and trim level. Rather, they would pre-build enough cars to fill dealership inventory… and each time a customer purchased a vehicle, they’d build one more of that exact model, in that colour, at that trim level. (In economic nerdspeak, they responded to that “market signal”.) So if 5% of Corolla drivers wanted a green car with deluxe extras, in the long run 5% of Corolla production would consist of deluxe green vehicles.

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Since the flaws of central planning / benefits of distributed decision-making occur in the public sector, the private sector, and even in biology, we can generalize that the USSR’s economic problem was ultimately that a small group of people would decide how to (mis)allocate most of the country’s resources. (The little people, after all, could still choose whether to wait in line for an hour for bread, or wait in line for an hour for shoes…)

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Let’s move on to capitalism, now. In the past thirty-odd years, there’s been an immense concentration of wealth — particularly in Anglo-American countries (the US, UK, us, the Aussies). The US is at the leading edge of this trend, with the top 1% owning 42% of the wealth, or about six times as much as the bottom 4/5 of the population. And this means that in recent decades capitalism has moved towards the central planning ideal of a few people in charge of all the resources. This narrowing of perspective has in turn led to policies progressively more disastrous for the moved and the shaken… which was exactly the Soviet denouement.

I wish I’d come to this insight on my own, but I have to credit the thoughtful blog of a well-to-do American serial entrepreneur and, uh, military theorist. (I try to keep my reading varied. ;) )

Capitalism’s path back from central-planning roulette will require a more equitable (or at least, less inequitable) distribution of wealth, by which to rebuild the middle class. This in turn generally starts with higher taxes on the extremely wealthy. So one-time world’s-richest-man Warren Buffett’s recent New York Times editorial is timely; he asked why he paid 17% in taxes on his $40,000,000 of income last year, while his staff (earning probably one-thousandth as much) paid an average of 36%. Which is what Roubini was complaining about, in saying that too much wealth was being redistributed from labour to capital.

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There would be a terrible irony if Marx was right and unchecked capitalism destroyed itself by evolving the self-crippling features of a communist economy, and one does hope that we can reform our current market systems before things get worse. I wouldn’t mind a future that leans Swedish: for all their semi-socialist tendencies, the Nordic smorgasborgers still manage to regularly create free-market titans.* That’s a combination which could conceivably appeal to both the Conservatives and the (now-post-Layton) NDP. Don’t fear, though, I’ve become benumbed to vain aspirations… ;)

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* among them Ericsson, H&M, IKEA, Metro (the free commuter papers), Saab and Volvo, Tetra-Pak, and even BRIO, makers of those beloved wooden train sets of my youth.  Sure, some of them may now be on their last legs, but no doubt there are other emerging Swedish entrepreneurs to fill the gaps…