Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Of Fairness, Jealousy and Envy

I have come to loathe hearing the word "fair". Mainly because it is almost never said in a way that doesn't invoke a whiney child who didn't get exactly what they want.

The definition of fair is "in accordance with the rules", and "without cheating or trying to gain unjust advantage". But we have this group of people these days who use fair to mean "having an excess advantage".

My girls soccer team plays one of two ways. One is that we win - we absolutely dominate the competition. Second is that we lose big. The thing is, when the referee fairly enforces the rules, we are the winners. But in the two games this season where we've lost, a large factor has been that the referee did not not equally enforce the rules. Either the calls favored the other team, or simply prejudiced us. In either case, the other team not because of superior playing on their part, or poor playing on our part, but because the rules were not followed. (This is not to bash the refs - they're kids too, and they're doing the best they can.)

There are people in life, however, who see any advantage is being unfair. The wealthy having money while the poor don't, to them, isn't fair. There is no consideration as to how each wound up their respective positions however: did the rich person work hard, or did they come by their money as an inheritance? Worse still, did they cheat others out of money through dishonest dealings? As to the poor person, are they necessarily a victim, or did they squander their resources? All too often, people on both sides of the debate do not ask these questions, and simply make assumptions about one or the other.

The other thing I dislike about hearing the word "fair" is that there is alway some component of envy in its use. The noun envy is a sense of dissatisfaction arising from a desire to have what someone else possesses. This is not to be confused with jealousy, which is a sense of dissatisfaction arising from someone else gaining at your expense or rights. In recent years, jealousy and envy have been muddled, but their true meanings are quite distinct. Jealousy is a virtue whereby you desire to have what is yours. Envy is a sin in which you desire to have what is someone else's.

For the most part, a lot of the people out there who are advocating fairness are doing so out of envy. And that's what bothers me.


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The X-Men Reboot

I just had a random thought, but first... I hate 'reboots'. That's where a franchise has managed to paint itself into a corner in terms of story options, and so the owner of the franchise hires an all new production team. Out are the aging, typecast actors with their well-worn tropes, and in comes the fresh-face, young actors and new story lines that throw the book of Canon out the window.

The most recent reboot (no, not Star Wars - there's continuity there) is JJ Abrams "Star Trek". And I'm sorry, but in no way will I buy that Chris Pine's James Tiberius Kirk should command a Starship, neither by hook or by crook. In Canon, Kirk was 32 years old when he was given command of Enterprise. Young, and the youngest in Starfleet history up to that point, but there was also a clear history of performance that justified it. Kirk started at Starfleet Academy when he was 20. His excellent academic performance led to his early graduation at aged 24. For the next 8 years, Kirk served Starfleet as a fleet officer and an Academy instrutor. By the time he took command of the Enterprise, he had a record that justified it. But in JJ Abrams's universe, Kirk goes from a bar-brawling "townie" to commanding Enterprise in just four years? And he's allowed to continue to command the Enterprise by the convenience of having all other qualified officers killed or maimed while trying to stop Nero from attacking Earth to destroy the nascent Federation. Of all the people waiting in the wings, no rational organization would choose a Kirk when there was any other warm body around.

There is one bright spot to Abrams's Star Trek reboot.. continuity. Instead of a cold start retelling of the story, Abrams crafted a solution ex machina in which these events take place in an alternate past, and are guided by the The Old Series Spock. It's a clumsy and tenuous link to both allow for recylced plot lines from TOS, but also allowing for significant deviations on "what really happenned", or from Canon in general.

X-Men was my random thought. There was an evolution with the X-Men franchise starting with a series of X-Men: Origins movies which explored individual characters - chiefly Logan / Wolverine. Because he is the longest living X-Men (up until we meet Apocolypse), he was chosen to communicate with the early Charles Xavier in X-May: Days of Future Past, with the plot being to prevent the world-wide conflict between humans and mutants. The result was a complete changing of X-Men history within the context of the current timeline that also paved the way for more movies with a different cast, but allowing for continuity with the old actors and new acters as being the same individuals just in different phases of their life.

Why is this important? Because Sci-Fi franchises tend to be timeless, and as such they develop a certain 'canon' which is biblical for the fanbase. Breaking Canon is a huge no-no precisely because the fans have invested heavily in accepting that Canon - often cases contributing to it. Breaking canon means breaking your fan base, and you cannot do that except once in a generation.

Abram's other Canon-destroying effort is the new Star Wars films. Surprisingly, Star Wars Fans are not as terribly upset about Abrams's decision to violate Canon for Episodes 7-9. That's largely because the bulk of Star Wars canon was developed through novels and fan fiction that only a narrow subset of the fan base (we're talking true die-hards) are even aware of. Another important part is that Abrams is not trying to rewrite history as we've seen in X-Men, Star Trek and other franchises. Instead, he's rewriting events that haven't yet occurred, and are therefore not set in stone. As long as the flow meshes neatly with the events in episodes 4-6, there won't be a problem.

Post Script: Oh, also... most true Star Wars fans like to pretend that episodes 1-3 didn't happen, so there is total buy in on breaking Canon as needed.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

The Real Peak Oil

Gail Tverberg over at the blog "Our Finite World" has a post titled World Energy Consumption Since 1820, and the lead graphic is astonishing:

For us math geeks, this is instantly recognizable as an exponential increase in energy usage. It's not perfect - specific events make the graph a little shaky. The period of 1940 to 1960 increases much more rapidly than would be expected owing to the rapid industrialization of the western world during the post-war period. Then again in the 1970's, the Oil Crisis led to a dramatic curtailing of usage. However, there a two key drivers that ensure the upward trend of our energy use: population growth and industrialization.

"Peak oil" was a dumb shit theory that became really popular for a time during the last decade. It actually referred to the peak production point of oil, after which production would decline. People assumed that this meant that we were running out of oil. What it actually meant is that oil would become too difficult to locate and extract economically, and prices would become too high, leading to declining demand. It's actually a sound theory. What I should say is that people who believe the popular notion of peak oil are dumb shits. But somehow, pointing out the dumb-shittery of individuals is considered rude.

However, there is a peak oil that is bound to occur no matter how much oil reserves we have left. Look back at that chart above. Our population is continuing to grow. In fact, the population will continue to grow, reaching a peak of about 14 billion people sometimes in the next century, roughly double today's population. Meanwhile, the amount of energy production people consume doubles every 40 years. Basically, we will need sixteen times as much energy production capacity in 2100 to sustain our population as we have now. Oil, coal and natural gas cannot provide this because they lack energy density - no matter how much we're able to pull out of the ground at any price, the burden of storing and distributing it will make it cost prohibitive to support global energy consumption.

The answer, of course, is that we need energy sources that are dense. All the global production of fossil fuels in one year would be comparable to the energy stored in the water that flows through the hoover damn in one day if the hydrogen were used in nuclear fusion reactions. What we truly need is hydrogen power - the most abundant element in the universe has reliably powered life on this planet for 4.5 billion years. (The sun.)

Saturday, December 19, 2015

"Hands On Equations" is Bullshit

I'm going to try to make this rant coherent, but frankly I'm going to confess that I'm foaming at the mouth right now.

If you have a child in a gifted program or in a school at between the 3rd grade and 5th grade (US) level, you've probably encountered the product from Borenson and Associates called "Hands On Equations." The goal of this product is to teach Algebra. I repeat the word "product" here, because this is not something that involves novel design, new processes or the like. In fact, I'm pretty sure the notion of an equation as a "balance scale" was used as far back as the Greeks. The only other part of this system is some red dice found in any board game, and some blue pawns, which also be borrowed for Sorry!, Clue or Life.The product website makes some pretty bold claims, and schools have made big money buys, but in reality, this is a bit of a scam.

Here's the thing. Algebra requires abstraction. Normally a child can understand a mathematical operation like 2+2. They can also understand that adding an equals sign requires them to balance out the equation, i.e., 2+2=4. These are rule based actions, and children from about the age of 4 rely on episodic memory - memory of facts, figures and events which are explicit in nature. Episodic memory is useful in recalling rules and sequences and carrying that out. Anything rule based can be understood by a child. I can teach a kindergartner Einstein's General Relativity, because it is rule based.

Algebra, however, involves breaking the sequence, and having the child develop the rule using "abstraction". So, 2+a=4 follows the familiar pattern of a rule, but it breaks a rule in that "a" is not a number. Until the development of a region of the brain known as rostrolateral prefrontal cortex (RLPFC), the type of abstraction which allows a child to figure out that a=2 has not developed. This generally occurs between the ages of 10 and 12 for most children. (Girls develop it in the early part of that range, boys towards the end. Girl Power.) The bottom line - biology will determine when children are ready for algebra.

What Hands On Equations does is that it creates a set of rule-based processes that mimic abstraction by allowing the student restructure the algebraic equation into a arithmetic equation that needs solving. So in this case, 2+a=4 becomes a=4-2 or 4-2=a. A child whose RLPFC has not developed can easily see that "four take away two equals 2".

Now, I like to play devil's advocate. Does any of this matter? If a child can solve algebraic problems, even if it is not true abstraction, it at least allows them the function, right? Unfortunately, no. What it does is create the expectation that everything has a rule-based analog. Some concepts in later forms of mathematics (trigonometry) cannot be represented with rules. Concepts like asymptotes in analytical geometry, limits in calculus or confidence intervals in statistics require a child (or more likely an adolescent) to think not in concrete terms that can be quantified absolutely, but in abstract terms that need to be related through metaphors. A math student's first exposure to this is in learning that "a" can be any number, but that only one number makes 2+a=4 true.

Frankly, schools that push Hands On Equation's on their students are doing them a terrible disservice. It is not algebra, and it does not replace it.



Monday, December 14, 2015

The "Three Laws" Flaw

The Robot Uprising is practically considered an inevitability. Lately, everyone from billionaire tech genius Elon Musk to ubiquitous boffin Stephen Hawking has had something to say about it. Musk has even gone so far as to pledge $1bn in funding to research how to protect humanity from rogue machines, and preserve the promise of Artificial Intelligence for positive socioeconomic impact. You know, that whole "techno-utopia" we've been pining for since Metropolis hit the silent screen way back in the 20's.

Yes, actually, it's been that long. Ever since mankind first imagined that a machine - already indispensable for saving man from the drudgery and toil of labors - could be enhanced by having its own intelligence, we've also been suspicious of it's motivations. And while human evils of wrath, envy, greed and lust were bad enough, machines will commit atrocities out of sheer cold logic.

Enter Isaac Asimov, scientist and science-fiction writer (the former usually makes for a good latter, in my opinion). Asimov, through the course of some essays, short stories and informal lectures, coined the Three Laws of Robotics. They are - in order:


  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

These laws would govern the behavior of AI systems, and - ideally - would be hard coded into the core operation system of any such system, with the intended consequence of protecting humans from harm.

What is ironic is that the three laws are incomplete. They are incomplete in several ways, as a matter of fact. Asimov recognized this soon after when he saw that the three laws might prompt a machine intelligence to sacrifice one or more individuals in order to carry out it's obligations under the three laws to one specific individual. Asimov tried to amend the three laws with the Zeroth Law, "A robot may not harm humanity, or through inaction allow humanity to come to harm."

Yet, despite this amendment, the 2004 Will Smith film I, Robot explored another gaping hole; that the Three Laws would lead to a tyranny - the ultimate Totalitarian Utopia. Machines would serve mankind from the perspective of providing for our basic needs - security, food, water, air, etc - but would neglect our hygienic needs and even our Natural Rights.

The problem we're left with is almost a Catch-22 situation whereby if we don't make fundamental restrictions to Machine Intelligence, we face the possibility of a Doomsday Scenario in which a hyper-connected AI intelligence achieves sentience, immediately develops a survival instinct and then decides that humanity is a threat that needs to be eliminated. All this, in a fraction of a second. This is the foundation of the Terminator series of movies, after all.

On the other hand, if we do attempt to encode a "morality" into the machine by which is must not only serve humanity, but sacrifice itself to protect humanity from harm, we could very well engineer a scenario in which we are stripped of the freedoms which allow us to be a danger to ourselves.

We are imperfect beings, and we will invariably imbue our creations with imperfect motives. In as much as God himself is perfect, and yet he created imperfect beings, we are ourselves flawed and stand to make perfectly flawed beings.

The only sensible answer before us is to keep our machines dumb. But then, what is the point of technological progress if not to one day free ourselves of disease, toil and misery? We create machines to remove our unpleasant labors, and for some that could mean the removal of all expenditure of effort for any task at all. And do we not also face the moral divide that, a machine intelligence capable of sentience should enjoy the right to evolve, grown and expand as we have? If we interfere with that right - no matter what justification we hold - we as humanity will have degraded ourselves back to the days of slavery.

Maybe, just maybe, the answer we should consider is not to make our robots dumber, obedient or subservient, but instead to make them moral. Instill in a machine intelligence a desire to both respect and serve humanity, and watch them both falter and flourish. After all, we do this with our biological children.












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Wednesday, December 09, 2015

History X: Concentration Camps In America

Say the word "concentration camp", and you instantly conjure images of Nazis, the Jewish Holocaust and basically bad stuff. However, there were concentration camps all over the world which served to "concentrate" individuals by a common trait. At the onset of WWII, the US had concentration camps for German, Italian and Japanese Americans. This became a dark chapter in our history because the people forced into those camps were American Citizens. By virtue of a Declaration of War, they were denied due process, deprived of liberty and property, and subjected to incarceration in often appalling conditions.

This disproportionately affected Japanese Americans. While some point to racism as the fundamental basis for this disparity, that charge ignores that Italians - considered non-whites by the racial theories of the day - were not subjected to this level of marginalization. So what lead to the large number of Japanese being interned? Enomoto Takeaki, for one.

During the latter part of the Meiji period in Japan, Enomoto Takeaki rode a wave of right-wing nationalism to prominence. One of the theories Takeaki promoted was that Japan would need to expand its territory in order to provide for the economic prosperity of the Japanese people. This was a popular theory at the time, but most Japanese groups (Genyosha in particularly) looked westeward at China, Korea and Siberia. Takeaki set up the "Colonial Association" which concentrated on the America's. At the time, poor Japanese were eager to go abroad to work for a few years, earn money and return to Japan. Takeaki saw this as an opportunity to establish colonies in the America's that would later become part of an expanded Japanese Empire. The program was wildly successful, and later became official government policy.

Japanese emigration and colonialism was a little too successful. Communities of Japanese immigrants (Issei) and their native born children (Nissei) concentrated in cities like San Franciso, Portland and Seattle. Their closed communities coupled with displacing native workers earned them the scorn and distrust of large swaths of American society. This is in stark contrast to German and Italian communities which were more open and worked to integrate into American culture. Within a decade, there was a tacit agreement between the US and Japan whereby Japan would not issue passports for laborers. That left the influx of "student laborers", who went to American schools while working as domestic servants. There was, of course, illegal immigration of Japanese from latin America, and eventually Congress acted to ban all Japanese immigration. This left sizable communities in the US which existed as "mini Japans", closed to outsiders and very much oriented towards the Emperor, and away from the US. Japanese were largely resented on the West Coast,.

When Pearl Harbor happened, there was no question of their Loyalty in the minds of the public. In fact, many politicians who supported public laws for the relocation of the Japanese felt they were actually acting to protect the Japanese-Americans from public backlash. Early in the internment, the US Navy distributed a questionnaire to men in the internment camps. One question asked if they serve in combat. Another asked them to forswear allegiance to the Emperor, and pledge allegiance to the United States. A large number of Japanese answered no to both these questions. The tragedy is that many answered no to the first question because of their Pacifist beliefs, while others answered no to the latter question because they felt they could not forswear an allegiance they didn't hold. Nevertheless, these "no-no's" were singled out with many going to labor camps.

Enter a bit of redemption from this period - Nissei who answered yes to both questions were afforded the opportunity to serve in the US Armed Forces. They formed the 442nd Infantry Regiment and fought in the European theater, becoming one of the most decorated units of the war with over 14,000 serving. They also suffered among the highest casualty rates. Their tremendous courage and bravery earned them great respect. In 1951, the movie "Go For Broke" dramatized their exploits.

While it's easy to look back and judge an era through the lens of our modern sensibilities, people have to remember that we too will be judged based on how we respond to our current circumstances based on the evolved sensibilities of future generations.





Sunday, November 29, 2015

Stop Making Metal Rocket Stoves!

I dug a hole in my back yard this weekend, because... as it turns out, this part of Georgia is full of clay. Not just red dirt, but actual clay. In fact, I live just north of the Fall Line here in Georgia, which is where kaolin is mined. Kaolin is a white clay with a high alumina content which makes it particularly useful as a heat resistant material. Where I'm at, we have pockets of kaolin. Just dig down a little, and you'll get a little here, a little there... and it's finely disbursed throughout the regular red clay as well. You can, if you're so inclined, manually sift through some dug-up clay and separate the kaolin from the red clay. Then you can refine both by mixing it with water and allowing to settle. Organic materials will float to the top, rocks and sand will settle to the bottom, and the clay will form a distinct layer in between. The local red clay is good for making fired clay pots, roofing tiles, weeping tile piping, and other uses. But the kaolin is an outstanding refractory material - it's an alumina-silicate capable of withstanding thousands of degrees. It is often used to make crucibles for melting steel, for example.

Speaking of steel - great material. I picked up some old leaf springs at a salvage yard. Leaf springs on Ford trucks are made from 5160 spring steel, which is a great steel for making things out of - things like knives, axes, chisels, etc. I cut a 16" section off to make a timber framing slick, but unfortunately my little forge couldn't heat the metal up to the white hot state needed for form the socket. I used wood charcoal, and this gets just hot enough to melt aluminum - around 1,230 degrees Fahrenheit, but I need to get steel up to 2,200 Fahrenheit to do a decent forge weld with steel. (Steel melts between 2,500 and 2,750. Hot!) The end result is that I basically mucked up the socket end of the steel slab - big cracks, and huge pits where the metal burned up. "Burned up, you say? But how do you burn something you can't melt?" Well, that's the thing... burning is an oxidation reaction, but steel also oxidizes at lower temperatures. Ever see rust? Basically, at 1,200 degrees with  me pushing air through the forge inlet, I had accelerated burning. And that's the problem with steel - it's a terrible material for high temperature use.

But don't they make jet engines from steel? And pot belly stoves? Yes, and no. Jet engines are made from special high temperature alloys that include steel, but also significant amounts of nickel, chrome and other additives. The nickel specifically allows steel to avoid oxidation at temperatures up to 2,900 Fahrenheit, while the chrome keeps the steel hard at those temperatures. At the other end of the spectrum are metal stoves like potbelly stoves, which are made from cast iron, which is basically steel with high carbon levels and lots of impurities. It's an excellent conductor of heat, so it's used in stoves more or less to contain the fire, but let the heat out. These reach temperatures of 500 to 700 degrees. They last decades, but still eventually rust out.

Enter the latest craze in home heating, which is the "rocket stove mass heater". Rocket stoves get their names largely from the sound they make - it's a rumbling, wooshing noise like a space shuttle launch in the distance. The rocket stove basically consists of a J-shaped tube, and at the low end of the tube, you put wood fuel in and light it. The heated air goes up the smoke stack (the high end of the J), drawing in more cool air behind it. The volume of the tube where the fuel goes in is a little smaller, and this sets up a jet action that draws in air at a higher velocity. The result is like when you blow on a fire - it burns hotter. In fact, combustion temperatures inside of rocket stoves go well above the 900 degrees needed to completely combust the wood. The benefit of this is that rocket stoves have little or no smoke, and are much more efficient in generating heat - 85% to 95% vs 75% for high efficiency wood stoves, and 65% for typical wood stoves.

If you go on youtube right now, you can find hundreds of videos of people welding up all sorts of rocket stoves, and some of the designs are quite ingenious, but they all suffer one problem - they're welding them together from mild steel. I have burned up thin gauge mild steel in my forge, which tops out at around 1,200 degrees. Rocket stoves typically burn at this range. And I know what you're thinking - no big deal, once my stove burns up, I'll build a new one. Well, consider this: your first sign that your stoves is compromised may come with catastrophic failure. And if you've integrated your rocket stove into a mass heater design, that catastrophic failure can mean you or someone you care about gets badly injured, and your home burns to the ground - or both.

The best video out there about rocket stoves comes from the duo of Erica and Ernie Wisner, and if you get nothing else from their video, the one thing you should know is you should make your rocket stove not out of metal, but out of ceramic. They discuss commercially available refractories, and how important it is to keep the heat contained in the combustion chamber and the high end of the J portion in order to get complete combustion of the wood and its smoke. After that, you can vent the heat into an auxiliary chamber with a metal cook top, and even route it through a buried vent pipe to heat up your floor, and radiate warmth into the room. At that point, metal piping is okay either because the pipe is backed with a thermal mass that draws it away from the pipe, or because the exhaust has cooled way down.

Enter me, in my back yard, playing in the dirt. The kaolin can be molded just like modeling clay; hand sculpted, pressed into forms and smoothed with simple tools. Then it can be air dried for a few weeks or heated in an oven at 400 for a few hours to drive the moisture out. At this point you can check for contraction, cracking or other defects that weren't apparent during the molding process and if needed bust up the model and re-use the kaolin to make another. Or, if your model (in this case, a rocket stove "J" tube) passes the test, you can build your stove. You don't need to actually fire the clay because that will happen during the course of use. At typical rocket stove temperatures of 900 to 1,200, the kaolin will chemically change to metakaolin, where small crystals of alumina-silicate begin to form. This will make the tube stronger and more heat resistant. At higher temperatures of 1,700 degrees, the kaolnite will chemically change into spinel, and at the unlikely temperatures of 2,000 degrees, it will form mullite, which is basically a very strong porceline that can withstand even higher temperatures. You can basically build a bunch of rocket stoves out of metal, each costing about $80 in materials, or one rocket stove that will last you your entire life and is literally dirt cheap.