Silly, fun things are important

Wednesday, February 7th, 2018

Yesterday’s Falcon Heavy test flight was impressive:

Launching a Tesla roadster into space was, of course, a ludicrous stunt. Kids these days may not get the allusion to the opening scene of Heavy Metal:

The South Park guys had quite a bit of fun — 10 years ago — spoofing that scene — and the rest of Heavy Metal:

A few hours after the launch, Elon Musk answered some questions:

Project Plowshare

Saturday, February 3rd, 2018

Back in the “Atoms for Peace” era, the US’s Project Plowshare attempted to harness peaceful nuclear explosions for massive public works. The first test, Project Gnome, took place roughly 40 km (25 mi) southeast of Carlsbad, New Mexico, in an area of salt and potash mines along with oil and gas wells:

It was learned during the 1957 Plumbbob-Rainier tests that an underground nuclear detonation created large quantities of heat as well as radioisotopes, but most would quickly become trapped in the molten rock and become unusable as the rock resolidifed. For this reason, it was decided that Gnome would be detonated in bedded rock salt. The plan was to then pipe water through the molten salt and use the generated steam to produce electricity. The hardened salt could be subsequently dissolved in water in order to extract the radioisotopes. Gnome was considered extremely important to the future of nuclear science because it could show that nuclear weapons might be used in peaceful applications. The Atomic Energy Commission invited representatives from various nations, the U.N., the media, interested scientists and some Carlsbad residents.

“We’re going to set off an atomic bomb in a cave. You wanna come?”

Gnome was placed 361 m (1,184 ft) underground at the end of a 340 m (1,115 ft) tunnel that was supposed to be self-sealing upon detonation. Gnome was detonated on 10 December 1961, with a yield of 3.1 kilotons. Even though the Gnome shot was supposed to seal itself, the plan did not quite work. Two to three minutes after detonation, smoke and steam began to rise from the shaft. Consequently, some radiation was released and detected off site, but it quickly decayed.

The cavity volume was calculated to be 28,000 ± 2,800 cubic meters with an average radius of 17.4 m in the lower portion measured. The Gnome detonation created a cavity about 170 ft (52 m) wide and almost 90 ft (27 m) high with a floor of melted rock and salt. A new shaft was drilled near the original and, on 17 May 1962, crews entered the Gnome Cavity. Even though almost six months had passed since the detonation, the temperature inside the cavity was still around 140 °F (60 °C). Inside, they found stalactites made of melted salt, as well as the walls of the cavity covered in salt. The intense radiation of the detonation colored the salt multiple shades of blue, green, and violet. Nonetheless, the explorers encountered only 5 milliroentgen, and it was considered safe for them to enter the cavern and cross its central rubble pile. While the three-kiloton explosion had melted 2400 tons of salt, the explosion had caused the collapse of the sides and top of the chamber, adding 28,000 tons of rubble that mixed with the molten salt and rapidly reduced its temperature. This was the reason the drilling program had originally been unsuccessful, finding temperatures of only 200 F, without high pressure steam, though the boreholes had encountered occasional pockets of molten salt at up to 1450 F deeper amid the rubble.

Today, all that exists on the surface to show what occurred below is a small concrete monument with two weathered and slightly vandalized plaques.

Other proposals under Project Plowshare included widening the Panama Canal, constructing a new sea-level waterway through Nicaragua nicknamed the Pan-Atomic Canal, cutting paths through mountainous areas for highways, and connecting inland river systems.

No mention of draining the Mediterranean though.

(Hat tip to commenter Sam J.)

Its rules are designed with one eye on how those rules might be exploited down the line

Thursday, February 1st, 2018

Steven Johnson looks beyond the Bitcoin bubble:

History is replete with stories of new technologies whose initial applications end up having little to do with their eventual use. All the focus on Bitcoin as a payment system may similarly prove to be a distraction, a technological red herring. Nakamoto pitched Bitcoin as a “peer-to-peer electronic-cash system” in the initial manifesto, but at its heart, the innovation he (or she or they) was proposing had a more general structure, with two key features.

First, Bitcoin offered a kind of proof that you could create a secure database — the blockchain — scattered across hundreds or thousands of computers, with no single authority controlling and verifying the authenticity of the data.

Second, Nakamoto designed Bitcoin so that the work of maintaining that distributed ledger was itself rewarded with small, increasingly scarce Bitcoin payments. If you dedicated half your computer’s processing cycles to helping the Bitcoin network get its math right — and thus fend off the hackers and scam artists — you received a small sliver of the currency. Nakamoto designed the system so that Bitcoins would grow increasingly difficult to earn over time, ensuring a certain amount of scarcity in the system. If you helped Bitcoin keep that database secure in the early days, you would earn more Bitcoin than later arrivals. This process has come to be called “mining.”

[...]

Token economies introduce a strange new set of elements that do not fit the traditional models: instead of creating value by owning something, as in the shareholder equity model, people create value by improving the underlying protocol, either by helping to maintain the ledger (as in Bitcoin mining), or by writing apps atop it, or simply by using the service. The lines between founders, investors and customers are far blurrier than in traditional corporate models; all the incentives are explicitly designed to steer away from winner-take-all outcomes. And yet at the same time, the whole system depends on an initial speculative phase in which outsiders are betting on the token to rise in value.

“You think about the ’90s internet bubble and all the great infrastructure we got out of that,” Dixon says. “You’re basically taking that effect and shrinking it down to the size of an application.”

[...]

So much of the blockchain’s architecture is shaped by predictions about how that architecture might be abused once it finds a wider audience. That is part of its charm and its power. The blockchain channels the energy of speculative bubbles by allowing tokens to be shared widely among true supporters of the platform. It safeguards against any individual or small group gaining control of the entire database. Its cryptography is designed to protect against surveillance states or identity thieves. In this, the blockchain displays a familial resemblance to political constitutions: Its rules are designed with one eye on how those rules might be exploited down the line.

Much has been made of the anarcho-libertarian streak in Bitcoin and other nonfiat currencies; the community is rife with words and phrases (“self-sovereign”) that sound as if they could be slogans for some militia compound in Montana. And yet in its potential to break up large concentrations of power and explore less-proprietary models of ownership, the blockchain idea offers a tantalizing possibility for those who would like to distribute wealth more equitably and break up the cartels of the digital age.

The blockchain worldview can also sound libertarian in the sense that it proposes nonstate solutions to capitalist excesses like information monopolies. But to believe in the blockchain is not necessarily to oppose regulation, if that regulation is designed with complementary aims. Brad Burnham, for instance, suggests that regulators should insist that everyone have “a right to a private data store,” where all the various facets of their online identity would be maintained. But governments wouldn’t be required to design those identity protocols. They would be developed on the blockchain, open source. Ideologically speaking, that private data store would be a true team effort: built as an intellectual commons, funded by token speculators, supported by the regulatory state.

Like the original internet itself, the blockchain is an idea with radical — almost communitarian — possibilities that at the same time has attracted some of the most frivolous and regressive appetites of capitalism. We spent our first years online in a world defined by open protocols and intellectual commons; we spent the second phase in a world increasingly dominated by closed architectures and proprietary databases. We have learned enough from this history to support the hypothesis that open works better than closed, at least where base-layer issues are concerned. But we don’t have an easy route back to the open-protocol era. Some messianic next-generation internet protocol is not likely to emerge out of Department of Defense research, the way the first-generation internet did nearly 50 years ago.

Yes, the blockchain may seem like the very worst of speculative capitalism right now, and yes, it is demonically challenging to understand. But the beautiful thing about open protocols is that they can be steered in surprising new directions by the people who discover and champion them in their infancy. Right now, the only real hope for a revival of the open-protocol ethos lies in the blockchain. Whether it eventually lives up to its egalitarian promise will in large part depend on the people who embrace the platform, who take up the baton, as Juan Benet puts it, from those early online pioneers. If you think the internet is not working in its current incarnation, you can’t change the system through think-pieces and F.C.C. regulations alone. You need new code.

Most people aren’t shoplifters

Sunday, January 28th, 2018

TechCrunch looks inside Amazon’s surveillance-powered no-checkout convenience store, which should work just fine as long as all the customers are Amazon employees:

In addition to the cameras, there are weight sensors in the shelves, and the system is aware of every item’s exact weight — so no trying to grab two yogurts at once and palm the second, as I considered trying. You might be able to do it Indiana Jones style, with a suitable amount of sand in a sack, but that’s more effort than most shoplifters are willing to put out.

And, as Kumar noted to me, most people aren’t shoplifters, and the system is designed around most people. Building a system that assumes ill intent rather than merely detecting discrepancies is not always a good design choice.

Space is open for business

Sunday, January 21st, 2018

Space is open for business. Rocket Lab has announced, with its successful Electron rocket launch, from its own private launch pad in New Zealand, which reached orbit and successfully deployed multiple small satellites that will map the earth’s surface and track weather systems and shipping.

The Electron rocket is disposable:

It is made of lightweight carbon composite material and has 3D-printed engines to reduce costs and assembly times. It is 17m long, roughly a quarter of the size of rivals such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which can carry satellites the size of a van into orbit. Each Rocket Lab launch costs about $5m, compared to $62m for SpaceX, the company founded by billionaire Elon Musk.

Sunday’s launch was the second test flight by the Electron rocket following an earlier flight in May. On that occasion the rocket entered space but was unable to reach lower earth orbit due to a technical fault. It is planning a third test flight later this year.

Some satellite providers are willing to risk their products on test rockets due the lengthy backlog in launches that has built up as the industry expands. Rocket Lab deployed the three small satellites on behalf of Planet and Spire Global, US-based satellite providers that are deploying constellations of nanosatellites at a low earth orbit of about 500km.

Rocket Lab says its private launch pad on the picturesque Mahia peninsula on New Zealand’s North Island gives it a commercial advantage to many competitors, who use government-run facilities such as Cape Canaveral in the US. The company is licensed to conduct a launch every 72 hours from the remote location, which benefits from the lack of air and shipping travel in the vicinity.

I first heard about Rocket Lab just last year.

An alternative to “old fashioned” deuterium-tritium fusion

Thursday, January 18th, 2018

HB11 Energy proposes an alternative to “old fashioned” deuterium-tritium fusion, laser hydrogen-boron fusion:

A scientific paper accepted for publication describes the road map that has deemed the approach by one of the founders with his team as a viable approach based on the experimentally confirmed reaction gains one billion times higher than the classical values, placing it far ahead any DT fusion approaches.

Other advantages: Unlike deuterium-tritium fusion and fission techniques, the HB11 reaction is sufficiently clean with respect to production of any harmful byproducts or radiation. It also has the potential to create electricity directly without the need for a heat exchanger and steam turbine to generate electricity as required for coal or fission nuclear power stations. This will allow power stations to be built with a relatively small capital investment and footprint based on presently achieved extreme laser technology.

We expect to be able to provide energy for about one-quarter of the price of coal fired power, without any carbon emissions or radioactive by-products, which will be disruptive to the power industry. With the small size and footprint of a HB11 power station, the addressable market is expected to reach further than the power grid to applications such as ships, submarines, large factories or to remote locations such as isolated towns and mine sites.

The birth of the digital camera

Monday, January 8th, 2018

Former Kodak employee Steve Sasson tells the story of the birth of the digital camera:

I worked for Eastman Kodak Company for over 35 years. I began in July of 1973. I was a junior engineer. My supervisor said, ‘We’ve got a filler job for you. There’s a new type of imaging device called a charged couple device imager; we want someone look at one of these and see if we could do anything useful with it.’

Our conversation probably lasted about 30 seconds, it was nothing.

Most of the parts I used to build it, I stole from around the factory. Digital volt meters and chips, digital tape cassette, prototype box, it looks like an erector set with a blue box on top with a lens stuck on top. And I would output to a television set. We took our first full images in December of 1975.

I folded the camera up, and I walked down a hallway, and there was a young lab technician, her name was Joy. I asked her, ‘Could I take a snapshot of you?’ She said, ‘sure, whatever.’ The tape started to move, that’s how I know I made a picture. I popped it out of the tape player, put it into the playback system. It was quite a moment, because this crazy thing actually worked. Up popped the image. We could see her black hair and a white background, but her face was complete static, completely unrecognizable. Jim and I were overjoyed at what we saw, because we knew so many reasons why we wouldn’t see anything at all.

Joy had followed us in, she looked at the picture and she said, ‘Needs work.’

We filed for a patent, and the first patent for a digital camera was granted in 1978. U.S. Patent 5016107. We started to show it to people at Kodak. Then, it became more interesting.

I thought they’d spend all their time asking me how did I get this to work. They didn’t ask me any of the hows, they asked me, ‘Why? Why would anyone want to do this?’

Would you pay $70,000 for a lunar vacation?

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2018

Would you pay $70,000 for a lunar vacation? That’s what Andy Weir estimates it’ll cost — eventually, in the 2080s, when Artemis takes place. Here are his key points, edited down:

The cheapest way to get mass to LEO (at the time of this writing) is with a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster. They charge $61.2 million for the launch, and it can put 13,150kg of mass into LEO. So right now, that means it costs $4,653 per kilogram.

The commercial space industry, through competition and engineering advances, will settle down to the same fuel-to-overhead ratio as the modern airline industry.

For each flight, I noted the price of each class of ticket, then worked out the take — the total amount of money the airline gets if every seat on the plane is sold at its listed cost. The fuel consumed is based on the flight duration and the fuel consumption rate of the aircraft. The cost of that fuel is based on the market price of jet fuel on the day I looked up those tickets, which was $0.475/kg. (Actually, the price was 38 cents per liter, but I wanted price per kg and jet fuel has a density of 0.8kg/L). [...] So for the rest of this paper I’ll assume a commercial airline spends 16.5% of its take on fuel.

A passenger spacecraft would weigh the same as a passenger aircraft capable of carrying the same number of people.

The commercial space industry will use hydrogen-oxygen fuel.

The thing that matters most about rocket fuel is a property called “specific impulse.” I don’t want to bore you with physics (I’m here to bore you with economics) so I’ll just say this: specific impulse is a measure of how efficient a rocket fuel is. The higher a fuel’s specific impulse, the less of it you need to get a ship moving a given velocity. And hydrogen-oxygen fuel has the best specific impulse known. Also, it creates water as its exhaust, so there are no pollutants. And finally, it’s cheap to produce.

Right now, there are engineering limitations to using hydrogen-oxygen fuel. The main one being that it burns very hot — hotter than any engine can handle. But again, I’m assuming all these challenges get researched and solved by a profit-hungry industry.

The final piece of the puzzle is the cost of hydrogen and oxygen. This was a little harder to find. I was able to find reliable data on the 2002 price of bulk hydrogen, so I adjusted the 2002 dollars into 2015 dollars and got $0.93/kg. As for oxygen, I used the publicly available data on what NASA pays for it — $0.16/kg in 2015 dollars. The reaction requires one part hydrogen and eight parts oxygen (by mass), so the total fuel cost is $0.245/kg.

Okay, we have a ship that weighs 165,500kg and we’re going to put 550 passengers on it. We’ll give them 100kg each for their bodies and luggage. That’s a total mass of 215,500kg.

The specific impulse of hydrogen-oxygen fuel is 389s (yes, the unit for measuring specific impulse is “seconds”. It makes no intuitive sense, just roll with it). To get to LEO you need to accelerate by 9,800m/s. LEO actually only requires 7,800m/s, but you lose around 2,000m/s during the ascent to air resistance and other inefficiencies.

Again, I’m skipping over the physics (Tsiolkovsky’s Rocket Equation, if you’re curious) but those numbers mean we’ll need 12.04kg of fuel for every 1kg we want to put into LEO. We want to put 215,000kg into LEO, so we need 2,594,620kg of fuel.

At our calculated fuel cost ($0.245/kg) that means the total fuel cost for the launch is $637,200.

Now I get to use my airline fuel overhead figure. Airlines have 16.5% fuel overhead ratio and we’re going to assume the space industry will as well. So $637,109 is 16.5% of our total ticket take. And that means our total take is $3,861,266.

Our ship carries 550 passengers, meaning each passenger will have to pay $7,020.48.

According to my research, it takes a total of 5,930m/s of delta-v to get from LEO to the surface of the Moon. More physics and math happens here, but it means that for every kilogram of cargo you want to put on the lunar surface, you have to put 4.73kg of mass into LEO. 1kg of actual cargo, and 3.73kg of fuel to get that cargo to the Moon.

So what’s it cost to put freight on the Moon? Well, it would cost 4.73 times what it would cost to put the cargo in LEO. So, while it costs $35.10 to put a kilogram into LEO, it would cost $166.02 to put it on the surface of the Moon.

You have to get your body to LEO ($7020), and then soft-landed on the moon. So you end up needing the same overhead – 4.73 times the LEO cost. $33,206.87.

So let’s say you want a two-week stay. That’s a total of 28 days of expenses at $800, so $22,400. Round that up to $25,000 because vacations always cost more than you expect. That plus the $45,000 travel costs totals $70,000.

So I ask again: Would you pay $70,000 for a lunar vacation?

We need to have some rules for making some rules

Tuesday, January 2nd, 2018

A group is its own worst enemy, Clay Shirky explained, almost 15 years ago:

Now, there’s a large body of literature saying “We built this software, a group came and used it, and they began to exhibit behaviors that surprised us enormously, so we’ve gone and documented these behaviors.” Over and over and over again this pattern comes up. (I hear Stewart [Brand, of the WELL] laughing.) The WELL is one of those places where this pattern came up over and over again.

[...]

The best explanation I have found for the ways in which this pattern establishes itself, the group is its own worst enemy, comes from a book by W.R. Bion called “Experiences in Groups,” written in the middle of the last century.

Bion was a psychologist who was doing group therapy with groups of neurotics. (Drawing parallels between that and the Internet is left as an exercise for the reader.) The thing that Bion discovered was that the neurotics in his care were, as a group, conspiring to defeat therapy.

There was no overt communication or coordination. But he could see that whenever he would try to do anything that was meant to have an effect, the group would somehow quash it. And he was driving himself crazy, in the colloquial sense of the term, trying to figure out whether or not he should be looking at the situation as: Are these individuals taking action on their own? Or is this a coordinated group?

He could never resolve the question, and so he decided that the unresolvability of the question was the answer. To the question: Do you view groups of people as aggregations of individuals or as a cohesive group, his answer was: “Hopelessly committed to both.”

He said that humans are fundamentally individual, and also fundamentally social. Every one of us has a kind of rational decision-making mind where we can assess what’s going on and make decisions and act on them. And we are all also able to enter viscerally into emotional bonds with other groups of people that transcend the intellectual aspects of the individual.

In fact, Bion was so convinced that this was the right answer that the image he put on the front cover of his book was a Necker cube, one of those cubes that you can look at and make resolve in one of two ways, but you can never see both views of the cube at the same time. So groups can be analyzed both as collections of individuals and having this kind of emotive group experience.

Now, it’s pretty easy to see how groups of people who have formal memberships, groups that have been labeled and named like “I am a member of such-and-such a guild in a massively multi-player online role-playing game,” it’s easy to see how you would have some kind of group cohesion there. But Bion’s thesis is that this effect is much, much deeper, and kicks in much, much sooner than many of us expect. So I want to illustrate this with a story, and to illustrate the illustration, I’ll use a story from your life. Because even if I don’t know you, I know what I’m about to describe has happened to you.

You are at a party, and you get bored. You say “This isn’t doing it for me anymore. I’d rather be someplace else. I’d rather be home asleep. The people I wanted to talk to aren’t here.” Whatever. The party fails to meet some threshold of interest. And then a really remarkable thing happens: You don’t leave. You make a decision “I don’t like this.” If you were in a bookstore and you said “I’m done,” you’d walk out. If you were in a coffee shop and said “This is boring,” you’d walk out.

You’re sitting at a party, you decide “I don’t like this; I don’t want to be here.” And then you don’t leave. That kind of social stickiness is what Bion is talking about.

And then, another really remarkable thing happens. Twenty minutes later, one person stands up and gets their coat, and what happens? Suddenly everyone is getting their coats on, all at the same time. Which means that everyone had decided that the party was not for them, and no one had done anything about it, until finally this triggering event let the air out of the group, and everyone kind of felt okay about leaving.

This effect is so steady it’s sometimes called the paradox of groups. It’s obvious that there are no groups without members. But what’s less obvious is that there are no members without a group. Because what would you be a member of?

So there’s this very complicated moment of a group coming together, where enough individuals, for whatever reason, sort of agree that something worthwhile is happening, and the decision they make at that moment is: This is good and must be protected. And at that moment, even if it’s subconscious, you start getting group effects. And the effects that we’ve seen come up over and over and over again in online communities.

Now, Bion decided that what he was watching with the neurotics was the group defending itself against his attempts to make the group do what they said they were supposed to do. The group was convened to get better, this group of people was in therapy to get better. But they were defeating that. And he said, there are some very specific patterns that they’re entering into to defeat the ostensible purpose of the group meeting together. And he detailed three patterns.

The first is sex talk, what he called, in his mid-century prose, “A group met for pairing off.” And what that means is, the group conceives of its purpose as the hosting of flirtatious or salacious talk or emotions passing between pairs of members.

You go on IRC and you scan the channel list, and you say “Oh, I know what that group is about, because I see the channel label.” And you go into the group, you will also almost invariably find that it’s about sex talk as well. Not necessarily overt. But that is always in scope in human conversations, according to Bion. That is one basic pattern that groups can always devolve into, away from the sophisticated purpose and towards one of these basic purposes.

The second basic pattern that Bion detailed: The identification and vilification of external enemies. This is a very common pattern. Anyone who was around the Open Source movement in the mid-Nineties could see this all the time. If you cared about Linux on the desktop, there was a big list of jobs to do. But you could always instead get a conversation going about Microsoft and Bill Gates. And people would start bleeding from their ears, they would get so mad.

If you want to make it better, there’s a list of things to do. It’s Open Source, right? Just fix it. “No, no, Microsoft and Bill Gates grrrrr …”, the froth would start coming out. The external enemy — nothing causes a group to galvanize like an external enemy.

So even if someone isn’t really your enemy, identifying them as an enemy can cause a pleasant sense of group cohesion. And groups often gravitate towards members who are the most paranoid and make them leaders, because those are the people who are best at identifying external enemies.

The third pattern Bion identified: Religious veneration. The nomination and worship of a religious icon or a set of religious tenets. The religious pattern is, essentially, we have nominated something that’s beyond critique. You can see this pattern on the Internet any day you like. Go onto a Tolkein newsgroup or discussion forum, and try saying “You know, The Two Towers is a little dull. I mean loooong. We didn’t need that much description about the forest, because it’s pretty much the same forest all the way.”

Try having that discussion. On the door of the group it will say: “This is for discussing the works of Tolkein.” Go in and try and have that discussion.

Now, in some places people say “Yes, but it needed to, because it had to convey the sense of lassitude,” or whatever. But in most places you’ll simply be flamed to high heaven, because you’re interfering with the religious text.

So these are human patterns that have shown up on the Internet, not because of the software, but because it’s being used by humans. Bion has identified this possibility of groups sandbagging their sophisticated goals with these basic urges. And what he finally came to, in analyzing this tension, is that group structure is necessary. Robert’s Rules of Order are necessary. Constitutions are necessary. Norms, rituals, laws, the whole list of ways that we say, out of the universe of possible behaviors, we’re going to draw a relatively small circle around the acceptable ones.

He said the group structure is necessary to defend the group from itself. Group structure exists to keep a group on target, on track, on message, on charter, whatever. To keep a group focused on its own sophisticated goals and to keep a group from sliding into these basic patterns. Group structure defends the group from the action of its own members.

In the Seventies — this is a pattern that’s shown up on the network over and over again — in the Seventies, a BBS called Communitree launched, one of the very early dial-up BBSes. This was launched when people didn’t own computers, institutions owned computers.

Communitree was founded on the principles of open access and free dialogue. “Communitree” — the name just says “California in the Seventies.” And the notion was, effectively, throw off structure and new and beautiful patterns will arise.

And, indeed, as anyone who has put discussion software into groups that were previously disconnected has seen, that does happen. Incredible things happen. The early days of Echo, the early days of usenet, the early days of Lucasfilms Habitat, over and over again, you see all this incredible upwelling of people who suddenly are connected in ways they weren’t before.

And then, as time sets in, difficulties emerge. In this case, one of the difficulties was occasioned by the fact that one of the institutions that got hold of some modems was a high school. And who, in 1978, was hanging out in the room with the computer and the modems in it, but the boys of that high school. And the boys weren’t terribly interested in sophisticated adult conversation. They were interested in fart jokes. They were interested in salacious talk. They were interested in running amok and posting four-letter words and nyah-nyah-nyah, all over the bulletin board.

And the adults who had set up Communitree were horrified, and overrun by these students. The place that was founded on open access had too much open access, too much openness. They couldn’t defend themselves against their own users. The place that was founded on free speech had too much freedom. They had no way of saying “No, that’s not the kind of free speech we meant.”

But that was a requirement. In order to defend themselves against being overrun, that was something that they needed to have that they didn’t have, and as a result, they simply shut the site down.

Now you could ask whether or not the founders’ inability to defend themselves from this onslaught, from being overrun, was a technical or a social problem. Did the software not allow the problem to be solved? Or was it the social configuration of the group that founded it, where they simply couldn’t stomach the idea of adding censorship to protect their system. But in a way, it doesn’t matter, because technical and social issues are deeply intertwined. There’s no way to completely separate them.

What matters is, a group designed this and then was unable, in the context they’d set up, partly a technical and partly a social context, to save it from this attack from within. And attack from within is what matters. Communitree wasn’t shut down by people trying to crash or syn-flood the server. It was shut down by people logging in and posting, which is what the system was designed to allow. The technological pattern of normal use and attack were identical at the machine level, so there was no way to specify technologically what should and shouldn’t happen. Some of the users wanted the system to continue to exist and to provide a forum for discussion. And other of the users, the high school boys, either didn’t care or were actively inimical. And the system provided no way for the former group to defend itself from the latter.

Now, this story has been written many times. It’s actually frustrating to see how many times it’s been written. You’d hope that at some point that someone would write it down, and they often do, but what then doesn’t happen is other people don’t read it.

The most charitable description of this repeated pattern is “learning from experience.” But learning from experience is the worst possible way to learn something. Learning from experience is one up from remembering. That’s not great. The best way to learn something is when someone else figures it out and tells you: “Don’t go in that swamp. There are alligators in there.”

Learning from experience about the alligators is lousy, compared to learning from reading, say. There hasn’t been, unfortunately, in this arena, a lot of learning from reading. And so, lessons from Lucasfilms’ Habitat, written in 1990, reads a lot like Rose Stone’s description of Communitree from 1978.

This pattern has happened over and over and over again. Someone built the system, they assumed certain user behaviors. The users came on and exhibited different behaviors. And the people running the system discovered to their horror that the technological and social issues could not in fact be decoupled.

There’s a great document called “LambdaMOO Takes a New Direction,” which is about the wizards of LambdaMOO, Pavel Curtis’s Xerox PARC experiment in building a MUD world. And one day the wizards of LambdaMOO announced “We’ve gotten this system up and running, and all these interesting social effects are happening. Henceforth we wizards will only be involved in technological issues. We’re not going to get involved in any of that social stuff.”

And then, I think about 18 months later — I don’t remember the exact gap of time — they come back. The wizards come back, extremely cranky. And they say: “What we have learned from you whining users is that we can’t do what we said we would do. We cannot separate the technological aspects from the social aspects of running a virtual world.

“So we’re back, and we’re taking wizardly fiat back, and we’re going to do things to run the system. We are effectively setting ourselves up as a government, because this place needs a government, because without us, the place was falling apart.”

People who work on social software are closer in spirit to economists and political scientists than they are to people making compilers. They both look like programming, but when you’re dealing with groups of people as one of your run-time phenomena, that is an incredibly different practice. In the political realm, we would call these kinds of crises a constitutional crisis. It’s what happens when the tension between the individual and the group, and the rights and responsibilities of individuals and groups, gets so serious that something has to be done.

And the worst crisis is the first crisis, because it’s not just “We need to have some rules.” It’s also “We need to have some rules for making some rules.” And this is what we see over and over again in large and long-lived social software systems. Constitutions are a necessary component of large, long-lived, heterogeneous groups.

Geoff Cohen has a great observation about this. He said “The likelihood that any unmoderated group will eventually get into a flame-war about whether or not to have a moderator approaches one as time increases.” As a group commits to its existence as a group, and begins to think that the group is good or important, the chance that they will begin to call for additional structure, in order to defend themselves from themselves, gets very, very high.

(Hat tip to Morlock Publishing. I told him I was reminded of Robert Conquest’s Three Laws of Politics, and Elam Bend noted that my post comes up first if you Google that term.)

Yeah, we’ll throw off the yoke

Tuesday, January 2nd, 2018

Tyler Cowen interviews Andy Weir (The Martian, Artemis) on the economics of space travel, and it veers off into some less technical topics:

Cowen: Now let me ask you some questions about governance in space. I’ve read some of your favorite works are by Robert Heinlein, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress; Red Mars of course by Kim Stanley Robinson; Asimov’s Caves of Steel. And it’s a consistent theme in these stories. In fact, the stories you love, they involve an element of rebellion.

Weir: They do.

Cowen: If we had a colony on the Moon, how long do you think it would be before that colony would seek independence from Earth rule?

Weir: Well, first off, it wouldn’t be Earth rule. It would be ruled by some specific country. Right?

Cowen: Sure, or company.

Weir: Or… Country. You can’t really seek independence from a company.

Cowen: Well, it could be like the East India Company, right? The Kenya Space Corporation, they have some features of East India.

Weir: Right. They’re much nicer than the East India Company was.

Weir: Yeah, well, the Kenya Space Corporation in my book is just… They have a very simple business model. They build Artemis and then rent out lots. They don’t try to control its economy or its people or anything. They’re literally just landlords, and absentee landlords at that. But you can’t declare independence from a company because, by definition, the company owns all the assets. If you say, “I’m independent from the company,” what you’re doing is resigning. Right?

Cowen: Well, you’re stealing, in a way. But it happens, right?

Weir: Yeah. But if you’re talking about some sort of revolution or something like that, well I guess the first step is you’d have to be pretty sure that you are self-sufficient and independent. You have to be, like, Earth-independent. Which, in the case of Artemis, it’s not.

Cowen: But you have some allies. So what’s now the United States declares independence from what was then Britain, and the French help us. Other people who are upset at Britain help the American colonies to become independent.

So as long as you have some outside allies, wouldn’t you expect, within say 50 years’ time, a lunar colony, a Mars colony would try to seek independence so those rents could be captured by domestic interests?

Weir: Possibly. Ultimately, I believe that all major events in history are economic. And, I mean, independence was really about who gets to collect taxes, right? So if the people who live in a city are content with the economic status that they have, they’re not going to rebel. People don’t… People, despite what you see, I would challenge you to show me any situation where people revolted over purely ideology without any economic reason.

Cowen: But think about the American colonies. So the British were taxing us maybe 5 percent of GDP —

Weir: And the American colonies preferred that those taxes went to the American colonial governments.

Cowen: Yes, absolutely. But it wasn’t that much money, in a sense. That to me is what’s surprising.

Weir: Well, at that time, taxes globally were not that much money.

Cowen: Yeah.

When you read these books by Heinlein, Asimov, Kim Stanley Robinson . . .

Weir: Yeah, they always end up being political thrillers and that’s not what I’m going for. I’m showing the frontier town and the kind of cooperative aspects of human nature. I’m not…

For some reason, every book about colonizing space ultimately seems to lead to a revolution. Because that’s exciting, right? It’s Star Wars.

You know, you’ve got a rebellion, so “yeah, we’ll throw off the yoke,” and it has historical parallels and it’s all awesome like that. But I don’t necessarily think that’s going to be the case. Partially because as long as we keep following the rules of the Outer Space Treaty, which I believe we will, there’s no such thing as sovereign territory outside of Earth. So Artemis is, functionally speaking, an offshore platform.

Cowen: On Earth, do you think we should experiment more with seasteading? Set up sea colonies?

Weir: Yeah.

Cowen: Underground colonies?

Weir: Absolutely.

Cowen: Have them be politically autonomous, if they want?

Weir: You would have to change maritime law to be able to do that. Right now, under maritime law, you can seastead. I mean, you can do it right now. You can go out into the international waters and build something. You have to flag to some country, though.

Cowen: Right. A cruise ship, yeah.

Weir: Yeah. Well, yeah, you could flag to like Suriname or something like that. You could fly a flag of convenience. But, one way or another, you are subject to the laws of the country that you’re flying the flag of, just as Artemis is subject to the laws of Kenya.

He who does not know foreign languages does not know anything about his own

Sunday, December 31st, 2017

Machines have developed the ability to understand, process, and even translate languages:

In recent years, much of the research in machine learning has focused on the algorithmic concept of deep neural networks, or DNNs, which learn essentially by inferring patterns — often patterns of remarkable complexity — from large amounts of data. For example, a DNN-based machine can be fed many thousands of snippets of recorded English utterances, each one paired with its text transcription, and from this discern the patterns of correlation between the speech recordings and the paired transcriptions. These inferred correlation patterns get precise enough that, eventually, the system can “understand” English speech. In fact, today’s DNNs are so good that, when given enough training examples and a powerful enough computer, they can listen to a person speaking and make fewer transcription errors than would any human.

What may be surprising to some is that computerized learning machines exhibit transfer learning. For example, let’s consider an experiment involving two machine-learning systems, which for the sake of simplicity we’ll refer to as machines A and B. Machine A uses a brand-new DNN, whereas machine B uses a DNN that has been trained previously to understand English. Now, suppose we train both A and B on identical sets of recorded Mandarin utterances, along with their transcriptions. What happens? Remarkably, machine B (the previously English-trained one) ends up with better Mandarin capabilities than machine A. In effect, the system’s prior training on English ends up transferring capabilities to the related task of understanding Mandarin.

But there is an even more astonishing outcome of this experiment. Machine B not only ends up better on Mandarin, but B’s ability to understand English is also improved! It seems that Willans and Goethe were onto something — learning a second language enables deeper learning about both languages, even for a machine.

The signal was designed to exploit the difference

Sunday, December 17th, 2017

How does a Taser work?

When you pull the trigger of a Taser gun, a blast of compressed nitrogen launches its two barbed darts at 55 meters per second, less than a fifth the speed of a bullet from a typical pistol. Each projectile, which weighs 1.6 grams, has a 9-millimeter-long tip to penetrate clothing and the insulating outer layer of skin. Two whisper-thin wires trail behind for up to 9 meters, forming an electrical connection to the gun.

Because the barbs get stuck in clothing and fail to reach the skin about 30 percent of the time, the gun is designed to generate a brief arcing pulse, which ionizes the intervening air to establish a conductive path for the electricity. The arcing phase has an open-circuit peak voltage of 50,000 volts; that is, the voltage is 50 kilovolts only until the arc appears or until the barbs make contact with conductive flesh, which in the worst conditions offers around 400 ohms of resistance.

The target’s body is never exposed to the 50 kV. The X26 — the model commonly used by police departments — delivers a peak voltage of 1200 V to the body. Once the barbs establish a circuit, the gun generates a series of 100-microsecond pulses at a rate of 19 per second. Each pulse carries 100 microcoulombs of charge, so the average current is 1.9 milliamperes. To force the muscles to contract without risking electrocution, the signal was designed to exploit the difference between heart muscle and skeletal muscle.

Skeletal muscle constitutes 40 percent of a typical person’s mass and is responsible for making your biceps flex, your fingers type, and your eyelids wink. It’s organized into bundles of single-cell fibers that stretch from tendons attached to your skeleton. When your brain orders a muscle to flex, an electrical impulse shoots down a motor nerve to its termination at the midpoint of a muscle fiber. There the electrical signal changes into a chemical one, and the nerve ending sprays a molecular transmitter, acetylcholine, onto the muscle. In the milliseconds before enzymes have a chance to chew it up, some of the acetylcholine binds with receptors, called gated-ion channels, on the surface of the muscle cell. When acetylcholine sticks to them, they open, allowing the sodium ions in the surrounding salty fluid to rush in.

The movement of those ions raises the cell’s internal voltage, opening nearby ion channels that are triggered by voltage instead of by acetylcholine. As a result, a wave of voltage rolls outward along the fiber toward both ends of the muscle, moving as fast as 5 meters per second. As the voltage pulse spreads, it kick-starts the molecular machinery that contracts the muscle fiber.

By directly jolting the motor nerves with electricity, a Taser can stimulate the muscle and get the same effect.

The force with which a skeletal muscle contracts depends on the frequency at which its nerve fires. The amount of contraction elicited is proportional to the stimulation rate, up to about 70 pulses per second. At that point, called tetanus, contractions can be dangerously strong. (The same thing happens in the disease tetanus, whose primary symptom, caused by the presence of a neurotoxin, is prolonged contraction of skeletal fibers.) The Taser, with its 19 pulses per second, operates far enough from the tetanus region so that the muscles contract continuously but without causing any major damage.

Heart muscle has a somewhat different physical and electrical structure. Instead of one long cell forming a fiber that stretches from tendon to tendon, heart muscle is composed of interconnected fibers made up of many cells. The cell-to-cell connections have a low resistance, so if an electrical impulse causes one heart cell to contract, its neighbors will quickly follow suit. With the help of some specialized conduction tissue, this arrangement makes the four chambers of the heart beat in harmony and pump blood efficiently. A big jolt of current at the right frequency can turn the coordinated pump into a quivering mass of muscle. That’s just what electrocution does: the burst of electricity causes the heart’s electrical activity to become chaotic, and it stops pumping adequately — a situation known as ventricular fibrillation.

The Taser takes advantage of two natural protections against electrocution that arise from the difference between skeletal and cardiac muscle. The first — anatomy — is so obvious that it is typically overlooked. The skeletal muscles are on the outer shell of the body; the heart is nestled farther inside. In your upper body, the skeletal muscles are arranged in bands surrounding your rib cage. Because of skeletal muscle fibers’ natural inclination to conduct low-frequency electricity along their length, a larger current injected into such a muscle tends to follow the grain around the chest rather than the smaller current that penetrates toward the heart.

The second protection results from the different timing requirements of the nerves that trigger muscle contractions and the heart’s intrinsic electronics. To lock up skeletal muscle without causing ventricular fibrillation, an electronic waveform has to have a specific configuration of pulse length and current.

The key metric that electrophysiologists use to describe the relationship between the effect of pulse length and current is chronaxie, a concept similar to what we engineers call the system time constant. Electrophysiologists figure out a nerve’s chronaxie by first finding the minimal amount of current that triggers a nerve cell using a long pulse. In successive tests, the pulse is shortened. A briefer pulse of the same current is less likely to trigger the nerve, so to get the attached muscle to contract, you have to up the amperage. The chronaxie is defined as the minimum stimulus length to trigger a cell at twice the current determined from that first very long pulse. Shorten the pulse below the chronaxie and it will take more current to have any effect. So the Taser should be designed to deliver pulses of a length just short of the chronaxie of skeletal muscle nerves but far shorter than the chronaxie of heart muscle nerves.

And that’s the case. To see just how different skeletal and heart muscles are, let’s look at what it takes to seriously upset a heart’s rhythm. Basically, there are two ways: by using a relatively high average current, or by zapping it with a small number of extremely high-current pulses.

In terms of average current, the 1.9 mA mentioned earlier is about 1 percent of what’s needed to cause the heart of the typical male to fibrillate. So the Taser’s average current is far from the danger zone for healthy human hearts.

As far as single-pulse current goes, the Taser is again in the clear. The heart’s chronaxie is about 3 milliseconds — that’s 30 times as long as the chronaxie of skeletal muscle nerves and the pulse lengths of a Taser. The single-pulse current required to electrocute someone by directly pulsing the most sensitive part of the heartbeat using 3-ms pulses is about 3 A. Because a Taser’s 100-ms pulses are such a small fraction of the heart’s chronaxie, it would take significantly higher current — on the order of 90 A — to electrocute someone using a Taser.

When you factor in that the Taser barbs are likely to land in current-shunting skeletal muscle not near the heart, you wind up with a pretty large margin of safety.

The civilian version is apparently quite small — “close to a Glock 42,” according to one review.

An inelegant weapon for a more barbaric age

Friday, December 15th, 2017

A lightsaber would not be an elegant weapon, as any plasma torch able to cut through a blast door like butter would vaporize flesh explosively:

He thanks Matter Beam of Tough SF for running the numbers. His estimate of a light saber’s output was 35 MW, about the same as a nuclear submarine’s reactor.

I found some footage of a modern plasma torch cutting through meat:

Star Trek’s phasers have the same problem as Star Wars’ light sabers, by the way. Vaporizing a human wouldn’t be much more elegant.

Handle’s theory of consolidation

Tuesday, November 28th, 2017

Hayek claimed that local knowledge favors decentralization. Socialists hoped that cybernetics — what we’d now call “IT” — would overcome this problem. Handle thinks we’re just about there:

IT and increasingly capable and sophisticated management information systems, which themselves benefit from massive economies of scale, and the management techniques they enable, has invalidated this argument. If anything, big companies now seem to have a clear advantage with regards to acquiring and leveraging “local knowledge,” and combined with the other advantages of brand recognition, size and sophistication and capacity for, e.g., rent-seeking and bearing the burden of compliance overhead, that leaves “the little, genuinely-independent guy” with zero chance in the long run.

The Internet vision of the 1990s is turning out to be wrong, Arnold Kling adds.

Intellectual indoor plumbing and toxic ideas that spread like wildfire

Monday, November 27th, 2017

Glenn Reynolds has been reading James C. Scott’s Against the Grain, and he notes how fragile early civilizations were:

A bunch of people and their animals would crowd together in a city, and diseases that weren’t much of a threat when everybody was spread out hunting and gathering would suddenly spread like wildfire and depopulate the town almost overnight.

As Scott writes, an early city was more like a refugee resettlement camp than a modern urban area. He observes that “the pioneers who created this historically novel ecology could not possibly have known the disease vectors they were inadvertently unleashing.”

Then I ran across this observation on Twitter: “The Internet is rewiring brains and social relations. Could it be producing a civilizational nervous breakdown?” And I saw another article noting that depression in teens skyrocketed between 2010 and 2015, as smartphones took over. It made me wonder if we’re in the same boat as the neolithic cities, only for what you might call viruses of the mind: Toxic ideas that spread like wildfire.

[...]

Likewise, in recent years we’ve gone from an era when ideas spread comparatively slowly, to one in which social media in particular allow them to spread like wildfire. Sometimes that’s good, when they’re good ideas. But most ideas are probably bad; certainly 90% of ideas aren’t in the top 10%. Maybe we don’t know the mental disease vectors that we’re inadvertently unleashing.

It took three things to help control the spread of disease in cities: sanitation, acclimation and better nutrition.

[...]

We don’t know much about the spread of ideas, or what would constitute the equivalent of intellectual indoor plumbing. (Censorship isn’t enough, as it often just promotes the spread of bad ideas that people in power like). Over time we’ll learn more. Maybe we’ll come up with something like the germ theory of disease for ideas.

And perhaps people will acclimate. Twitter is still new, and amplifies crazy opinions. People may learn to spend less time on social media or to avoid them altogether. (In Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, the elites of the future consume their news on paper, and send each other handwritten notes; electronic communication is for the plebes.) But that will take time.

Where we can do something right away is with the equivalent of nutrition. Traditional training in critical thinking — the sort of thing the humanities used to revolve around, before they became focused on “social justice” — seems like it would be a useful protective. A skepticism regarding groupthink, ad hominem arguments and virtue signaling would likely offer considerable protection against the sort of mass hysteria we seem increasingly vulnerable to. Likewise, a social consensus on important ideas — the kinds of things we used to teach in civics classes — would help.

The Diamond Age is definitely one of those novels that stuck with me. (Dune is another.)

Arnold Kling points out that this ties in nicely with the recent talk between Jordan Peterson and Jonathan Haidt, where they discuss how the sense of disgust evolved to protect people not just from disease:

We tend to feel an instinctive disgust toward groups with customs and manners that differ from our own. If you can overcome this instinct to feel disgust when you are around foreigners, then you can benefit from their ideas and culture. But you increase somewhat your risk of contracting disease. Peterson describes Adolf Hitler as operating on the theory that having Jews or Gypsies in a population was like having rats in a factory. He was so concerned about the disease that might be spread by such creatures that he wanted them eradicated.