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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Quadrocopters Juggling Inverted Pendulums

This is incredible - quadrocopters autonomously throwing and catching poles (inverted pendulums):

With all the talk about the use of drones to kill terrorists and the debate whether or not to use them within the boundaries of the United States, it seems odd to me that no one considers that this technology forms the basis for personal drones. In about ten years, for a few hundred dollars, anyone will be able to build an incredibly maneuverable autonomous drone that will be able to find and destroy a target.

Technology is wonderful but dangerous.

HT: Marginal Revolution

Friday, February 22, 2013

Complexity Bubble

There have been lots of economic bubbles in my lifetime: the housing and financial bubble, the higher education bubble, the stock market bubble(s), the Internet bubble, the savings and loan bubble, etc.  But perhaps everything's a bubble and the problem is not bubbles per se, but rather when bubbles become too big or too fragile (or both) and pop.

I think civilization and the extended order is just one big bubble.  Well, actually more of a high order multidimensional froth - a whole bunch of tightly intertwined hyperbubbles which I'll call a hyperfroth.  Each of the hyperbubbles is a mathematical representation of an entity of civilization - individuals (tiny hyperbubbles), companies, institutions of commerce and law, other agencies of governance, etc..  Some hyperbubbles are partially or completely enclosed by other hyperbubbles.

The reason I envision the froth in more than 3 dimensions is that it enables more interaction of the surfaces of far, far more hyperbubbles.  For example, it you pack oranges as densely as possible in a plane (2 dimensions), each orange touches 6 others. In three dimensions each orange will touch 12 others.  In 24 dimensions, each orange will touch 196,560 other oranges when tightly packed (see the Kissing Number Problem for an excellent description).  These additional dimensions are necessary for allowing more interactions between more entities represented by the hyperbubbles if a model was going to be created that was representative of civilization (it would, of course, be impossible to create an accurate model, but it would be possible to create a model that exhibited some emergent behaviors similar to civilization).  It's perfectly fine, however, to visualize the hyperfroth as soap suds in 3 dimensions and from here on I'll generally leave the "hyper" prefix off of bubble, froth, etc.

In this model, there is an elastic hypermesh that surrounds and puts pressure on the froth.  The mesh is civilization's frontier. The elastic pull of the mesh represents entropy, the tendency towards randomness that's the inherent enemy of order and usually an enemy of complexity and therefore civilization.  The pressure due to entropy acting on the mesh is pushing inwards trying to compress (and collapse) the froth.  As long as there's enough energy to keep the bubbles inflated and as long as the bubbles remain sufficiently resilient, entropy is kept at bay and civilization continues and possibly even expands (i.e. becomes frothier).

The bubbles of civilization are going to deflate or pop from time to time and usually it's no big deal.  If you look at soap suds with lots of bubbles and a few of them pop, you hardly notice.  Likewise, as long as only an occasional bubble of the extended order deflates (occasional relative to the vast number of bubbles), and as long as that bubble is either not all that large or the rate of deflation is moderate, civilization isn't much impacted and perhaps doesn't even really notice.  For example, every time someone dies, that's a tiny bubble popping and civilization isn't much affected.

On the other hand, every time a bubble pops, in the area of that bubble, entropy accelerates the frontier mesh towards the center of the froth.  If the bubble that pops is big, the resulting mesh momentum towards the center can be large.  If the nearby bubbles (and in hyperspace, a lot more hyperbubbles are nearby than in 3 dimensions) are insufficiently resilient, then these will also pop or otherwise collapse, the inward momentum increases, further stressing and popping bubbles, gaining more and more momentum and greatly increasing the probability of an all out collapse in which a substantial percentage or perhaps even all of the bubbles collapse leaving only a bit of soap scum instead of the froth.

In the general case for systems like this, events like popping bubbles occur according to a power law distribution where small bubbles (or small groups of bubbles) will pop with far more frequency than an event where a very large bubble or large group of bubbles pop.  This means that for long periods of time, the froth will have sufficient resilience to handle the popping events.  Eventually though, the big event with lots of bursting bubbles will happen, creating the acceleration and momentum that causes the whole froth to rapidly implode.

You'll remember from Resilience and Collapse that according to Joseph Tainter, an expert who studies the collapse of civilizations, that the complexity of a civilization is "generally understood to refer to such things as the size of a society, the number and distinctiveness of its parts, the variety of specialized social roles that it incorporates, the number of distinct social personalities present, and the variety of mechanisms for organizing these into a coherent, functioning whole. Augmenting any of these dimensions increases the complexity of a society."

The current civilization of which we are part is orders of magnitude more complex than anything that came before it.  If you consider the extent and complexity of specialization that's developed to produce a simple pencil and that the pencil is one of the simplest of tens of millions of products produced by and then distributed to billions of people with innumerable governments, institutions, laws, agencies, etc., it's a complexity far, far beyond the civilizations of the past.

It's also orders of magnitude more complex than it was a mere century ago when 50% of the population of the United States worked in agricultural versus less than 3% today.  But the 3% remaining in agricultural form a sub-froth that's far more complex and specialized than the 50% that used to engage in farming.  The knowledge, techniques, management, planning, business practices, etc. are far more specialized, complex, and intertwined than they were.  The other 47% are now engaged in whole new sets of activities creating goods and services that weren't even imagined back then and the vast majority of these new industries have a sophistication well beyond what the original 50% could comprehend a century ago.

Every story has an ending as does every civilization.  This civilization, like all others before it, will one day collapse, where collapse, in Tainterian terms, is the rapid simplification of society.  However, there's been an increased perception lately, especially among libertarians and conservatives, that the time till the collapse is short, perhaps measured in decades or years or even less, rather than millennia or at least centuries that might otherwise be expected to mark the time remaining for this civilization.  While the power law distribution of events might not have changed at all, the ability of the froth to withstand smaller events might have been significantly reduced in recent times.  There are a number of possibilities within this hyperfroth model to explain new weaknesses that could lead to collapse.

First, it's possible that the froth of civilization is too puffed up, with too many bubbles stretched beyond their limit.  It might be that the irrational exuberance of the Internet bubble was actually just a mirror of general over-exuberance across all of the bubbles of civilization and the momentum caused by this exuberance pushed the mesh of civilization beyond a sustainable frontier.  In a organizational sense, humans may now be stretched well beyond what they are capable of sustaining.  Perhaps Deirdre McCloskey's Bourgeois Dignity put humanity as a whole into a mania that hyperventilated the hyperbubbles and as the manic phase wears down and leads to the depression of the psyche across most or all of humanity that inevitably follows the euphoria, the stretched out bubbles will pop and/or rapidly shrink and the froth will collapse to nothing.  This is rather like Icarus flying too close to the sun and when the wings melt it's a really long ways down.

A second possibility is that civilization would potentially have been perfectly sustainable, but Statism has changed the characteristics of the froth.  The bubbles that represent the institutions of commerce, law, and governance have ceased to allow energy to flow through the rest of the froth with the necessary efficiency.  These sclerotic institutions have become rigid and sharp (as opposed to smooth) and instead of adapting when other bubbles deflate and cushioning the impact of the deflation, they've instead started puncturing and otherwise hastening the demise of the other bubbles.

A related problem is that when it comes to the institutions of governance and commerce, lots of small, independent and therefore resilient bubbles have been replaced by a few colossal bubbles that take a great deal of energy to keep inflated.  Not only do these bubbles absorb energy that could be used to keep other bubbles inflated, these colossi are also rigid, heavy and sharp and burst the surrounding bubbles at ever increasing speeds.

It's of course impossible to know exactly how things will play out but given that the volume of the mesh of civilization far exceeds anything that came before it, if and when it collapses, the collapse may make the dark ages look like a shining golden age.  From such a lofty expansion comes the possibility of an implosion that wipes out humanity or at least takes the small percentage of humans remaining all the way back to being hunter-gatherers with no or limited technology.

When Rome collapsed, it did so fairly slowly.  More importantly, most people during that era knew how to do enough to survive (farm, hunt, fish, gather, etc.).  Compare that to the current situation or what the situation will be in a few decades when even the 3rd world becomes more reliant on technological sophistication to survive.  Earlier I pointed to the example of creating a simple pencil.  It requires a huge network and no single individual knows how to do it.  Without an unbelievable number of entities a silicon fab can't be built/maintained, without computers and other advanced technologies, energy acquisition (finding it, horizontal drilling, distribution, etc.) is hopeless, without energy and other advanced technology can 7 billion people grow and trade enough food to keep themselves alive?  No!  They cannot, so the population will be reduced to a small percentage of what it is currently and that reduction will make it impossible to support the specialization necessary to wield sophisticated technology.  Those few of us who are left will be reduced to trying to scratch out a living in the dirt.

And then the really long, hard, and slow cycle of creating and pumping up hyperbubbles and building the next civilization will begin.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Collectively Anti-Collectivist

One thing I find humorous  yet disheartening, is the set of numerous screeds by Libertarians trying to rally to act collectively against collectivism.  As an example, here's an excerpt from a recent post by self-described libertarian Sarah Hoyt (one of Instapundit's occasional guest bloggers and someone he links to fairly frequently):
"We might not be able to stop the collapse.  It might (MIGHT) even be in our best interests to speed it up.  BUT we must stand ready to take the reigns when it all crashes, and we MUST not let [collectivists] pick the man on the white horse, and shove his “enlightened” rule down our throats.  You know what always results from it ... and we can’t allow it to happen." [emphasis added]
That's a lot of "we" and "our" for one small paragraph written by a libertarian.  But how do libertarians, who eschew power and refuse to "collect", obtain and use power in a sufficiently ruthless fashion, possibly compete against those whose primary purpose and goal in life is to obtain, maintain, and yield as much power as possible, usually in the name of a collective?

I've asked that and similar questions over at Hoyt's blog and it hasn't made me any friends (to say the least).  It seems like a rather important and fundamental question, yet not only do she and her regulars refuse to answer, they paint me as horribly evil for even asking the question.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Invisible Hand and Group Size

Over at PJ Media's The Belmont Club, guest poster Leo Linbeck writes some insightful remarks about cooperation and competition:
An underappreciated story of the Progressive Movement and its progeny (The Fair Deal, The New Deal, The Great Society, The New New Deal, and so on) is its emphasis on collaboration over competition. FDR put it this way:
Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off.
This has it exactly backwards. It is cooperation that is useful to a certain point, and then we must rely on competition.
Cooperation arises from trust. Robert Axelrod, in his 1984 book The Evolution of Cooperation, used game theory to describe the way in which cooperative behavior arises from competitive game structures:
For cooperation to emerge, the interaction must extend over an indefinite (or at least an unknown) number of moves…
For cooperation to prove stable, the future must have a sufficiently large shadow. This means that the importance of the next encounter between the same two individuals must be great enough to make defection an unprofitable strategy…
In order for cooperation to get started in the first place, one more condition is required. The problem is that in a world of unconditional defection, a single individual who offers cooperation cannot prosper unless some others are around who will reciprocate. On the other hand, cooperation can emerge from small clusters of discriminating individuals as long as these individuals have even a small proportion of their interactions with each other.
“Indefinite number of moves,” “shadow of the future,” “small cluster of discriminating individuals” – these are characteristics that break down as the size of a human grouping grows. With your neighbors, you’re likely to interact with them repeatedly in the future, the future interactions are likely to be important, and there aren’t that many of them. But as the scale grows, these conditions erode, and with them the possibility of cooperation.
That’s when competition kicks in. The fact is that human beings compete in groups; there is a significant advantage to be gained by having multiple skill sets and personalities united in a common effort. (Engineers and salespeople are famously different, but rely heavily upon one another for their livelihood.) There is cooperation within these groups, but competition between them.
Smith's "Invisible Hand" is required precisely when actual hands start to become invisible due to the size of the group.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Scary Reading of the Day

For the libertarian/conservatives among us, if you want to read something really scary check out the following:

It's For Your Own Good!

The fact that the ideas in the article are even being taken seriously is appalling in my opinion.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Wishful Thinking

USA Today requested that readers come up with a single word to describe the state of the union and compiled the results into the following word cloud:
What word jumps out the most?  Well, according to USA Today:
The words that were mentioned the most include: "improving," ...
I don't know about you, but I think that anybody who looks at that cloud and sees "improving" first is "screwed", "pathetic", and pushing "propaganda".

Monday, February 11, 2013

Who's Arrogant and Condescending?

In an article linked to by Instapundit, a teacher complains about a conference he attended:
"I spent the last thirty minutes listening to a group of arrogant and condescending noneducators disrespect my colleagues and profession. [...] 
Today I have listened to people who are not teachers, have never worked in a classroom, and have never taught a single student tell me how to teach.”
The last part is extraordinarily unlikely.  We've all been students and have all taught ourselves (for example, at minimum, that would be the ostensible purpose of homework).  Therefore, we're all experts to some degree on teaching and, more importantly, learning.

If I had to do it over again with my kids, I'd be sorely tempted to home school them

Thursday, February 07, 2013

As Long As We're Talking About Lettuce...

I might as well post about some recent handiwork by my company (Vision Robotics Corp.), a robotic lettuce thinner...

When growers plant lettuce, they plant a lettuce seed every 2 to 3 inches.  Ultimately, they want a lettuce plant every 10 to 12 inches.  The reason for the over planting is that many of the lettuce seeds either don't come up at all, or don't survive the first couple of weeks.  However, they end up with too many plants and need to thin the survivors.  Except for our new, Robotic Thinner, the thinning is currently done by laborers with hoes.

Our Thinner uses cameras to detect the lettuce and decide which ones to keep.  It actuates sprayers which spray the lettuce plants to be removed with fertilizer. It turns out that fertilizer kills the plants it's sprayed on, then is absorbed into the soil and fertilizes the "keepers".  The Thinner is mounted on a tractor.  The Thinner uses the tractor's tanks and pump system and electrical power.

Here is a link to a 30 second youtube video of it in operation:
In the video, as the tractor goes by, you can see the thinner mounted to the back.  You can see the banding of the fertilizer.  The dark areas are where the fertilizer is sprayed to thin lettuce and the light bands are where the "keepers" are located.

The pictures below show the effects of thinning the lettuce.  In addition to costing about 1/3 as much as manual labor using hoes to thin, notice that the ground is undisturbed by the thinner which, according to the growers using the thinner, allows the "keepers" to be more consistent in size and health since their roots are undisturbed.  In addition, fewer weeds are able to get started in the unbroken ground.

In the "4 days after thinning" shot, if you look closely, you can see little brown dead lettuces that have been thinned by fertilizer in between the remaining green keepers.  In the "4-5 weeks old" shot, the lettuce has been cultivated (weeded) so at this point the ground is disturbed but the lettuce is way ahead of any possible future weeds.

Each Thinner takes the place of roughly 30 to 50 people with hoes.  The world (well, North America) only needs about 150 Robotic Thinners to thin all of the lettuce so it's a pretty small market.  That will displace about 5,000 laborers, but it's really terrible work and the growers are having trouble getting people to do it anymore.

It's been a fun project.  I know a LOT about growing and processing lettuce now.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Changing Comment Settings

There's been a lot of anonymous spam lately.  Blogger usually knows it's spam, but somehow it gets through to the reader anyway.

I'm trying a different setting for comments that disallow anonymous comments.  I don't think I've ever had a anonymous non-spam comment.  My one test seems to still work.  Let me know if you can't comment (I'm pretty sure y'all have my email address).

Wash Your Veggies

At Restating the Obvious, Harry points to an article that notes that "[a]bout 1 in 5 illnesses were linked to leafy green vegetables — more than any other type of food."

I work with lettuce growers and they're horrified that somewhere downstream from them someone packages their lettuce and puts "already washed, ready to eat" on the package.  They think it's idiotic that anyone would eat any vegetable without rewashing it first.

I've seen one of the packing plants and it's amazingly sterile.  The people are wearing sterilized gloves, lab jackets, boots, and hair nets and everything (including hands and lettuce) is continually washed down with a chlorine solution.

The problem is that one little bacteria that somehow survives the chlorine onslaught and makes it in the package becomes a lot of bacteria after a few days en-route to the market, then your home, and then finally the dinner table.  For the vast majority of people nearly all the time, no problem, but still, it's a good idea to rewash vegetables before you eat them.