Saturday, March 11, 2017

Trump, the Cyber-coding language

There ought to be a programming ("cyber"-coding) language that reflects Donald Trump's handling of information, both for the fun of creating and wielding it, and for the assistance it could provide in making his circumlocutions explicit.

Obviously, any such effort should be crowd-sourced, complete with a GitHub project. Unfortunately, I am neither a good enough programmer nor familiar enough with the ins and outs of open source software to contribute much of value to any such effort, but I do have a few suggestions.

Booleans should have four states: true, false (false but intended to be believed), crossed-fingers (truth optional, but not really intended to be believed), and indeterminate (something akin to Schrödinger's cat).

Scalar values should have only two states: too small to care about and too big to measure (expressible using the sign bit).

Assertions should exist but have no effect when they fall flat.

The switch statement should be recast to perform an operation analogous to a bait-and-switch, perhaps simply ignoring the cases (there only for show) and always performing the default.

And, of course, it should be named "Trump", and the standard library or runtime system should be named "Bannon".

I doubt that attempting to turn this into a working language, one that actually produces compilable code, would be worth the effort, but in the role of prototyping pseudocode it might actually prove to be useful.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Earth covered, Terraced, Molded Dome Structures

If you spin a vessel containing a liquid around the vertical axis, the lower/outer surface of the liquid will mold to the inner surface of the container, while the upper/inner surface of the liquid will form a parabolic cavity. Use a liquid that hardens to a solid, and this is a simple way to create a single-piece dome.

One advantage of a single-piece structure is that it can be very leak-resistant, and domes can be quite strong. The combination of these two characteristics makes molded domes ideal starting points for earth covered buildings, but to keep the earth from sliding off the dome, it's necessary to berm the sides thickly, so the surface of the earth covering slopes more gently than the dome itself.

However, if terrace forming indentations are built into the mold, the resulting dome will be better at supporting its earth covering, and there will be less need for wide berming.

Unless drainage is built into the mold, or drilled into the dome after molding, heavy precipitation will result in overflow, with excess water from higher terraces flowing onto the soil retained by lower terraces, so it would make sense to use a sandier soil mix in the lower terraces, and plants that thrive in such an environment.

The mold can include a protrusion in the bottom to create a hole in the top of the dome for a skylight. Similarly, holes for windows and doors (with reinforced edges and overhangs) may also be designed into the mold, and hardware for mounting doors and windows fitted into the mold before molding.

Once in use, a growing mass of plant roots will help keep the earth covering in place.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Tipping Point or Bottleneck

I love Malcolm Gladwell, as much as I love any man I've never met in person and to whom I am not closely related, but I wonder about the central metaphor of his book The Tipping Point (published in 2000), although I do think the implication of leaving behind the possibility of going back to the way things were before is altogether accurate.

What for me seems to be missing from this metaphor is the limited capacity of any culture to process change. You might think of it as being analogous to inertia or friction, but I think it might better be characterized in terms of density and pressure.

It's as though we are being forced, by the pressure of innumerable events, into a conical channel with what at present remains a tiny opening at the pointy end, like the nozzle of an acetylene torch, being accelerated into an unpredictable future beyond anyone's control. The effect is rather like an extreme roller coaster, both exciting and terrifying.

Perhaps we should be reaching back 30 years further to the publication of Alvin Toffler's Future Shock to find the other side of the Tipping Point coin, and the explanation for why so many people are so ready to support such regressive public policies.

Afterthought: Perhaps an even more apt metaphor is quantum tunneling, in this case between paradigms. Any individual has some probability of finding themselves in an alternative paradigm at any moment, and should they find a place there they may make the transition to that new paradigm permanent.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Apple less visionary under Tim Cook? Don't bet on it!

On the excuse of Tim Cook's five-year anniversary as CEO of Apple, there has been a flurry (one might even say a feeding frenzy) of articles proclaiming that, under his leadership, Apple is less visionary than it was in the past, under Steve Jobs.

That's not the way it looks to me.

Sure, it's been quite a while since certain products have been updated, and, other than the much anticipated Apple Watch, most of the customer-facing news that has broken surface over the last few years has felt incremental rather than new and brilliant.

This is less true of developer-facing news, which has included the introduction and rapid evolution of Swift, and also less true of the underlying hardware technology, such as the A-series chips, which have dramatically improved every year since they were first publicly mentioned (the A4 used in the iPhone 4), in terms of shear performance and also in terms of performance per watt.

Add to that the rumors that they're hard at work preparing an autonomous electric vehicle of some sort, and that they are also investing heavily in augmented reality.

To me it looks like Apple is laying the groundwork for bigger visions, perhaps even more profound visions, than it ever attempted under Steve Jobs. Time will tell.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Bring back the five-year plan!

Okay, five may not be the right number, maybe seven, maybe four, maybe even just two, but the idea deserves another look.

The Soviet Union took a lot of jibes for its five-year plans, with their lofty targets and less than stellar fulfillment, at least that was the view of them we got growing up in the U.S. The Soviet example aside, the point of having such plans isn't so much to push progress as to control its collateral effects, which largely have to do with new stuff arriving piecemeal, instead of in a coordinated manner, each driven as if by an ambition of its own — and push-back born of what happens to the value of investments in displaced ways of doing things.

I know I should be providing examples at this point, but the noise around any particular interesting example is so deafening that it makes thinking about imposing a little discipline on progress very difficult — and that's near to the point, without that discipline chaos reigns.

What such 'plans' can offer is staged transitions, with new things that are interdependent arriving together, and together with provision for the retirement of old things. (For 'things' read infrastructure, technologies, practices, methods, regulations, arrangements, ...)

Of course nothing above the quantum level happens instantly, and there would need to be some overlap, say a two-year ramp-up period before a new plan takes effect, and another two-year period to tie up loose ends after it has been superseded.

Have a great idea that isn't quite ready? Maybe it gets pushed back to the middle of the next plan, maybe to the beginning of the following plan, but when it does roll out it will arrive as a complete idea, with thought having been given to how other things are effected, including who stands to profit from having their idea anointed and how standards essential applies.

So who gets to say what each new plan should include and what it shouldn't, and how much advantage should those who play by the plan receive over those who chose to ignore it? Good questions, which I leave as an exercise to the reader.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Tai Chi for roboticists

As roboticists struggle to create devices (especially humanoid devices) capable of moving about safely and elegantly in uncontrolled environments, it would help if they had a deep, visceral understanding of movement themselves.

This is something the practice of Tai Chi could help with. Tai Chi begins with static balance, and progresses very gradually to dynamic balance, although incorporating momentum from the outset, while it is still negligible, with the aim of developing exquisite awareness of it.

There are also health benefits, which can be achieved through many activities, but for assimilating the fundamentals of graceful movement, there is nothing better than Tai Chi.

Friday, June 12, 2015

hunger & crop subsidies

Alternative uses for commodities that are directly consumable by people (wheat, maize, soya, etc.), such as the production of meat, fuel, and bioplastics, drive up the prices of those commodities, making them less affordable to those who can't afford anything else. Government subsidies contribute to the profitability of producing such commodities, but are inefficient as a means of keeping the prices to end consumers under control.

The solution would be to confine subsidies to shipments which actually go to direct human consumption, leaving other uses, including meat production, to compete in an open market. (Dairy and egg production might be subsidized at a lower rate than direct human consumption, although this begins to get complicated as laying hens, dairy cows, and the majority of male chicks and calves go to slaughter sooner or later, so such operations are a mixture.)

However, this approach begs the question of whether the grain that goes into a box of processed breakfast cereal should receive the subsidy. Since some processing (roasting, rolling, milling and/or grinding) renders many commodities more useful, it wouldn't make sense to preclude that, but there are other ways to approach this issue.

Subsidies could be limited to larger package sizes, say one kilogram (2.2 pounds) as a minimum, or to products where marketing overhead (advertising, packaging, etc.) and profit constituted no more than, say, 20% of the price to the end consumer. (That figure would need to be high enough to fund a distribution network, but not so high as to make that business lucrative enough to attract corruption.)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Intel fails Apple again

Well, obviously not just Apple, but Apple in particular.

Apple has chosen to ship new 15-inch MacBook Pro models with last year's (Haswell) processors, because the appropriate low-power, quad-core chips remain unavailable in the current generation (Broadwell) of Intel processors. With the first of the next generation (Skylake) processors arriving in August, it's likely that, for this particular product line, Apple will skip Broadwell altogether, and, once new MBPs ship with Skylake, all will be well once again, for awhile.

Meanwhile, ARM cores and Apple's implementations of them are closing in on the performance levels of Intel's products, while continuing to beat the pants off of Intel in terms of performance-per-watt, although Intel has made progress in that regard.

If current trends continue, at some point it won't make sense for Apple to continue to use Intel processors for some Mac line, probably beginning with the 12-inch MacBook or MacBook Airs, but once one line switches over, the others will surely follow, with the Mac Pro being the last holdout.

When that day comes, it's likely there won't be many tears shed at Apple.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

state security, nexus of control, and government legitimacy

I you believe, as I do, that the general well-being of the governed is the primary rationale for the existence of government, and the source of its legitimacy, certain things follow.

Among them, in the current environment, is the need for some state security apparatus, a sort of early warning system for any sort of threat to that general well-being, combined with some means to effectively head off those threats or respond in the event they cannot be averted.

But in a world in which state security is a given, and a culture unto itself, one of the most poignant questions to be asked is in whose interest it acts. This breaks down into three more specific questions, relating to the law authorizing the existence and activities of such agencies, the political appointees who run them, and the career agents who rise through the ranks to exert a degree of control.

Of these three, the agents, faced with harsh, pragmatic realities, are the least likely to bend to changes in the political wind, while the political appointees running the agencies are the most. Law moves more slowly, but it too grows in reflection of the prevailing winds of the times. That's not to say that the agents are necessarily more interested in the general well-being of the governed than their bosses, but that can be one result.

This might make the agents seem hard-nosed and unresponsive, but they have a job to do. What's more material is how they conceive of that job, and how they are directed by law and agency administrators, whether it is truly in service of the general well-being or whether it is in service of something else, something more in line with the agenda of the Koch brothers.

Efforts to 'out' agents, like the recent mining of LinkedIn data, are sure to expose many well-intentioned people for every bad actor they uncover, and paint them all with the same brush. While it does possess a certain ironic quality, the net effect will be to thicken the wall between the agents and the general populace they serve. This is not useful.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Drought & desertification: Robots can help

A NYTimes article published April 2nd, Mapping the Spread of Drought Across the U.S., leads off with an animated map supplied by the National Drought Mitigation Center, which shows the spread of drought conditions across the contiguous 48 states since late fall, 2014.

From that article: “Droughts appear to be intensifying over much of the West and Southwest as a result of global warming. Over the past decade, droughts in some regions have rivaled the epic dry spells of the 1930s and 1950s. About 37 percent of the contiguous United States was in at least a moderate drought as of March 31, 2015.”

There are two major ways in which robots can help with the effects of climate change, whether permanent or cyclical, upon food production.

Most immediately, robots can operate indoor production facilities using artificial light to produce high value, quickly maturing crops requiring moist environments. To operate most efficiently, that artificial light would be predominantly red and blue, since green light is mostly reflected away by plants, which is why they appear green to us. This might prove a stressful environment for human workers, but robots won't care.

The other way in which robots can help is in dry fields under the hot sun. This can be as simple as reflective umbrellas, nets, or horizontal shutters that shade the ground from the mid-day sun, but uncover it again in the late afternoon to allow cooling radiation into the night sky. Robots could also maintain drip-irrigation systems or make daily rounds to inject water into the soil near root crowns.

In principle, they could also perform planting, weeding, pest control, pruning, harvesting, and deal with plant materials left behind after harvest, and do it all working a mixture of annuals between and around standing perennials, although much of the technology needed for such a scenario remains to be developed.

On the other hand, given that level of utility, much becomes possible that currently is not. The weight of machinery can be kept entirely off of productive soil, rendering it more capable of holding water. Mulch can be applied at any time. When expected precipitation fails to materialize, plants can be pruned to reduce their leaf area and the amount of water they require. Windbreaks can be installed surrounding relatively small patches of land, in a manner not conducive to working them using tractors and conventional implements, but affording much better protection from drying winds as well as providing a secondary crop of woody fiber and habitat for wildlife. If planted in low berms, those windbreaks would also help to keep what moisture there is in the fields and eliminate water erosion.

The benefits of such technology aren't limited to coping with drought, of course, but given that drought is likely to be a widespread, persistent problem, it can help to keep marginal land, which might otherwise turn to desert, in sustainable production, and perhaps even help to reclaim some land that has already been lost to desertification, beginning with the construction of windbreak fences (like snow fences) to accumulate wind-blown dust that will become the berms into which living windbreaks can be planted.