Halfway to 2

0.99 °C.

The 2016 number is in. The average surface temperature was 0.99 °C above the 1951 to 1980 average. So we have, for 2013 to 2016, 0.6 °C, 0.68 °C, 0.87 °C, and 0.99 °C, respectively. Averaging 0.13 °C rise per year, were we to continue at this rate we would arrive at our targeted upper limit of 2 °C by 2025, 8 years from now.

Detailed slide show from the NOAA-NASA announcement here.

Consistent Hypocrisy

Is there some guiding star for the ever-shifting river of  rhetoric and "alternative facts" that flood forth from Republican leadership? A leading hypothesis is that their (sole) focus is enriching the rich at the expense of everyone and everything else.

Supporting this view, we have seen the "transfer" (there are other words we might use) of about 15% of the nation's total wealth from 99.9% of us to the top 0.1%.

From the New York Times’ 2016 year in charts, we find more support for this hypothesis. It appears, for the moment, that the Republican goal has got some new legs. (Yes, you are reading the chart correctly, a full ¼ of the total proposed tax cuts are intended for the top 0.1%.)

A Nutrition Taxonomy

With our ongoing application of observation and reason, we have come to deeply understand many aspects of the nature of the Universe, including living creatures and humans. What have we learned about nutrition and the food we eat – among the most intimate aspects of our lives? Where do we get to if we start with the question, “what food items are nutritious, and not so nutritious, for humans?"

Since there is big money in food and medicine, large stakeholders devote lots of money to research – and to skewing the research and promoting the skewed results – we are left, understandably, always doubting what we hear. So how do we arrive at an answer to our question that is more true than not? We could go to PubMed and search for papers on particular topics, read them, read the papers they cite, read the papers that cite them, figure out who was industry funded, evaluate the quality of their science and, with time and work and careful thought, arrive at a sense of what is most likely true. We could also go the USDA’s Nutrient Database and sort through what nutrients are in what foods. Obviously this is a lot of work, and much more work than any of us is likely to do. A trusted guide would be helpful; someone who has done a lot of the above work, is not sponsored by a stakeholder, who is asking the same question about what is actually most nutritious, and who provides links to the papers they discuss so we can look at them ourselves and see if their reasoning holds up. (Still plenty of work: all this extra work needed to get accurate nutrition information is a result of the efforts of stakeholders to confuse us, to get us to buy their products. I think of this as a tax: a tax imposed by the stakeholders on the public, enriching the stakeholders at our expense.) Are there any such guides out there? I have found a few; perhaps there are others. Dr. Michael Gregor's Nutrition Facts is one, and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is another.

My studies, aided by these guides, have led me to include fiber and antioxidants on my mental list of primary nutrients, in addition to carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, and vitamins. They have also led me to believe that the nutrients provided by animal-based foods, mainly protein and fat, are easily obtained from whole-plant foods but without the cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other health risks intrinsic to animal-based sources. Fiber is only found in plant foods, and plant foods are dramatically better sources of antioxidants. Most of the items that are nutritious for humans are of plant (or fungal or bacterial) origins, and getting them directly from these sources is preferable to getting them second hand via animal foods and incurring the significant risks and undesirable health effects inherent in them (bovine leukemia virus, causing an estimated 37% of breast cancers, is just one recent such discovery). The highly beneficial, preformed omega 3 fats promoted in fish oil, for example, are not made by fish, but by algae that the fish eat. Like the fish, we too can get these essential fatty acids directly from algae, sparing our bodies from the mercury and PCBs in fish, and ocean ecosystems from destruction.

As I have studied, a general taxonomy of foods has begun to develop in my thinking:

  • Poison or Neutral: No nutritional value to eating under any circumstances.
    • Amanita phalloides, plutonium, diesel fuel, PCBs, mercury, lead, Olestra, etc.
    • Dyes, flavors, preservatives, conditioners, growth hormones, pesticides, infectious microbes, ethanol, etc.
  • Avoid: These provide nutrition, but at a cost to our health; eat these when they are all that's available.
    • Animal-sourced foods: meat (including fish); eggs; dairy.
    • Refined sugars: sucrose (table sugar); HFCS; honey; agave; fruit juices; maple syrup.
    • Refined oils: corn oil; sunflower oil; cotton seed oil; palm oil; olive oil; etc.
    • Trans fats: margarine and any hydrogenated oils
    • Refined grains: white flour; white rice; etc.
  • Prefer: These provide nutrition and promote health; eat these if they can be procured.
    • Whole grains and beans.
    • Vegetables and Fungi: beets; sweet potato; onion; carrot; mushrooms (cooked); fresh garlic; artichoke; crucifers (kale, broccoli, brussel sprouts, radish, etc.); squash; tomatoes; bell peppers; etc.
    • Fruit & Berries: black raspberries; black currants; barberries; blueberries; strawberries; raspberries; blackberries; goji berries; cherries; grapes; watermelon; apples; lemons; citrus; dates; plums; kiwi; pears; raisins; apricots; etc.
    • Nuts & Seeds: walnuts; almonds; pistachios; peanuts; flax seeds; pumpkin seeds; tahini; chia seeds; sunflower seeds; unsweetened cocoa or chocolate; etc.
    • Spices: turmeric; marjoram; cumin; oregano; fennel seeds; fenugreek; black pepper; cayenne; peppermint; cilantro; ginger; rosemary; Ceylon cinnamon; cloves.
    • Beverages: water; black, green, or white tea (without added dairy or sugar); coffee.
    • Supplements: Vitamins D3 and B12 (mandatory); Algal Omega 3; iodine.

We have also discovered that who we eat with, our emotional relationship with eating and what we eat, presentation and rituals, and the social and cultural setting significantly affect our health and physiology. Though these factors are hugely important, my focus here is simply on our discoveries about the direct effects of what we eat on our physiology.

While this approach to eating yields a diet that overlaps with a vegan diet, it is not, however, defined the same way – and with significant implications. Beer and potato chips, twinkies and coke, sugar and palm oil, are all "vegan" but are not nutritious and a diet defined by not eating animal products, rather than one based on nutrition, can lead to serious malnourishment and illness, facts that have, appropriately, given "vegan" a bad name. If we eat a nutritious diet, it turns out we will also be eating a vegan diet: the inverse is not also true.

Independently, and in addition to the health risks of eating animal-based foods, there are also a number of modern-day problems with the animal-based food industry, including ecosystem destruction, high fossil-fuel consumption, air and water pollution, antibiotic resistance, health impacts on folks working in the industry, and the maltreatment of animals. If one of the greatest benefits provided by Civilization is an increase in the level of respect and compassion we have for each other, other creatures, and ecosystems, reducing (eliminating) animal-sourced foods in our diet not only provides optimal nutrition, but also a way to embrace, celebrate, and advance our outrageous good luck to live at this time. And since reductions in animal-based food consumption also dramatically reduce carbon emissions and ecosystem destruction, not eating animal products is a choice we can each make to strike directly at corporate malevolence, political corruption, and to increase the chances of Civilization’s persistence.

Women and the Persistence of Civilization

Fellow citizens and interstellar travelers,

There has long been discussion of the notion that men and women would give rise to different politics (there was a fight about letting women vote a century ago or so, wasn’t there? ;-) ) Today Nate Silver, an assiduous practitioner of applying observation and reason to polls and politics (and therefore also a purveyor of exceptionally accurate predictions), has a post detailing exactly what those differences are in our current presidential election. The discoveries are dramatic and reveal that women, literally, will be responsible for giving Civilization a fighting chance at persistence this November. Thank you women. Thank you.


In related news, today also provided us with a brilliant, and blistering, dissection of just how the GOP got here, courtesy of John Scalzi. 

Yours in estrogenic gratitude, M.


What do we have in mind when we talk about “behavior”? When we say, “I threw a stone in the air and it slowed and then returned to the ground”, “they made love and she had a baby”, or “I put a piece of wood in the fire and it turned to ash”?

I think we always have in mind some arrangement of atoms in, and distinct from, its environment: what some object does in some setting. If we change either the arrangement or the environment, or how we choose to divide one from the other, the behavior changes. A stone in the fire does not burn. A piece of wood on a glacier’s surface does not burn. I went for a hike in the mountains; the skin on my nose turned red with sunburn.

With this view, we can understand a great deal of what we do as discovering and trying to predict what different objects will do in different environments. Will this steel beam hold 10,000 kg? Or will it break? Will telling this person that I am in love with them make them smile or run? When it rains in those mountains, this canyon fills with raging water. A quartz crystal is hard and stable at room temperature, but in a 10,000 °C furnace, it becomes soft and fluid. If I leave an apple on the ground in this rain forest, it decompose in weeks, but if I leave a stone in the same forest, it remains as is for decades.

Where we divide “object” from “environment” also determines the behavior we observe and report. We might say that after a heavy snow, a skier triggers an avalanche that moves quickly downhill. But, if instead of defining the object as the avalanche snow, and the environment as the skier and the rest of the mountain, we choose to consider a stone caught in the avalanche as the object and the avalanche snow as the environment the behavior is different: the stone just tumbles around in the snow, but doesn’t move dramatically relative to the snow in the way that the snow-with-stone moves relative to the mountain. Are we considering the movement of an aircraft over the Earth’s surface? Or of the movement of the Earth around the Sun, aircraft and all?

We might say that all stones thrown in the air behave the same way: they go up, slow down, and eventually fall back to Earth. But if we consider the details of several stone-throw trajectories, we would see that each is different. One a little higher than another, or perhaps more rotation in some than others. And they would not all land in exactly the same spot. The finer the level of detail we consider, the more we find each toss is unique. If we consider the finest details of surface heating, or the position of individual atoms, we see that no two tosses will ever be exactly the same in every detail.

If I jump off a cliff into a swimming hole, I could describe my behavior as flailing my arms around and feeling an adrenalin rush. Or I could describe the arc and acceleration of my body on the way to the water. There are myriad different behaviors and levels of detail we might describe for any object in its environment, and which behavior we choose influences the accuracy of our prediction and the nature of the behavior we report. If I predict that both of two jumpers will accelerate towards, and land in, the water, my prediction will be accurate. If I make predictions about arm flailing, I may not be as accurate. If I predict the exact arc each will travel, with micrometer and millisecond resolution, I will certainly be inaccurate. Likewise for a coin-toss: If I say the coin will land on the ground, this prediction is good 100% of the time, but if I predict “heads” I will be right only half the time. When we say two behaviors are the “same”, we are also, necessarily, implying a particular choice of behaviors from among many, and a particular level of approximation.

Some choices in what we observe or report reflect our sensory capabilities. We aren’t able to see infrared wavelengths of light, or the motion of atoms, so we don’t include them in our descriptions unless we are using specialized equipment to expand our sensory ability. We detect strong smells, and might consider the smell of a flower or fire, but completely miss the much fainter smells a bear can observe and respond to.

The reason we must make all these choices, either evolutionarily or as individuals, is because Reality is functionally infinite in the scope of possible things we might observe. No system, save Reality itself, has the bandwidth to contain all of Reality in every detail. If asked to describe my surroundings at this moment, I might describe my desk, the room’s size, the window, door, shelves, and photos on the wall. Another person might make a different selection including the texture and color of the carpet, the type of lighting, or objects on the shelves. With enough time and observation, we could give descriptions and locations of each object in the room. No one is likely to measure and describe the predominant orientation of fibers in the carpet, and I am certain no one will describe the length, curvature, and position of each carpet fiber, much less the position of each atom in the carpet. Because we can only observe a minuscule fraction of Reality’s features, we must necessarily select a small, particular portion of items from the incomprehensibly long list of possibilities.

Because we must make choices when we observe Reality and report on it, we are necessarily revealing a great deal about ourselves as well as about the Reality we describe. Our choices of what to observe and describe tell of what we find important and what not, of our evolutionary inheritance, and of our relative size in the Universe between galactic clusters and subatomic particles.

What do we mean when we say we’ve made a “copy”? An automobile factory makes many copies of a car that all go down the road, have seats, audio and climate controls, windshields, etc., but they aren’t all exactly the identical in every respect and detail. It seems we use the word “copy” when two objects behave similarly in ways that are important to us at the moment. In the case of the car, we are interested in its road-worthiness, but we don’t notice, or care, if the tape holding a wire bundle together in one car is in a slightly different position than in another car, or if the bundle in one car was farther left than the other. Neither of these differences would keep us from saying that these cars are copies.

The special case of life is characterized by arrangements that, in certain environments, express the behavior of making copies of themselves. If an arrangement does indeed make a copy of itself (“copy” here defined as the behavior of making another, copy-making copy) then there will be more and more of these arrangements in the environment.

Our definition of evolution reflects the different levels of detail we (must) use to describe behaviors. We say, “reproduction with variation” meaning that a creature (or two) make a copy-making copy (they “reproduce”) but not an exact copy (with “variation”). Since the copies aren’t exact copies, the copy-making behavior of some may be faster or more reliable than others. And the variation in others still may result in no copy-making at all. Differences in copy-making behavior will then yield more copies of some arrangements than of others.

Further, an arrangement that expresses copy-making behavior in one environment will not necessarily also make copies in another environment. In an environment without oxygen, or with very high temperatures, most animal-arrangements no longer exhibit copy-making behavior. Other arrangements may make even more copies in a new environment and become, for a while, a dominant arrangement.

The different levels of detail we choose when talking about a particular behavior are at the foundation of evolution.

A key observation we have made about Reality is that a particular arrangement in a particular environment will behave in a predictable way. This is revealed in our ability to make any predictions at all. Concisely, we observe that Reality is lawful. A stone thrown in the air always returns to Earth (unless we have thrown it faster than escape velocity). The arrangement of steel, rubber, wire, and plastic we call a car always goes down the road. Quartz crystals of the same shape and size in an environment of a particular voltage always oscillate with the same piezoelectric frequency. This is not something we have decided, or even could decide: it is a discovery about the nature of Reality: our opinions, beliefs, and desires about it are irrelevant.

Certainly, we don’t know anything like all possible behaviors. We are discovering them all day every day as we traverse and explore the vast landscape of behaviors particular arrangements express in particular environments. This is the process operating as we design and invent new technologies. But every behavior we have discovered is lawful. Because of this, we have been able to build the Civilization-supporting infrastructure we know, use, and depend on from agriculture and road-building to plumbing and electricity to water heaters and refrigerators to phones and aircraft to drugs and steel beams to government and artificial intelligence. The fact that all of us human copies can observe, that we all express the behavior of observing, is itself a result of the lawfulness of the Universe in which we find ourselves. It is, perhaps, possible that this wasn’t the case. That we found ourselves in a Pottter-ian world of wands and spells, or the world of watchful deities promoted by religions — a world where the same arrangement in the same environment exhibits different behaviors at different times — but this is not what we observe.

Note: Like many others, I find the world we actually live in far more moving, compelling, and magical, infinitely richer, and a vastly greater source of delight and mystery than any fantasy our limited imaginations have ever constructed. All this on top of offering accurate predictions!

Slash or Burn?

The ongoing dry weather in California combined with what we know about climate change, suggests that we aren’t so much looking at a drought from which the state will emerge but a fundamental shift to a much more arid climate. To a desert. With less water, the Sierra trees are weakened, vulnerable, and dying at an increasing pace. In a hot, dry climate, once trees are dead or dry the question increasingly becomes one of when they will burn rather than of whether.

My friend Bruce and I have hiked in many regions of the Sierra and love these forests deeply. He told me that in thinking about what appears to be unfolding he wondered if it might make sense to log large portions of the Sierra forests now. To cut them down before they burn down.

The logic is compelling. Current day Sierra wildfires burn hot, and they move fast and far. In contrast to the ecosystem-sustaining, light-on-their-feet fires of our high school biology text books, they are incinerators that leave behind dead landscapes and destroyed soils. They turn all that wood into greenhouse gases, threaten towns, homes, and people, and generally have no benefits. If we were to be convinced that they really are going to burn, perhaps we should log strategic, and possibly very large, portions of these forests now in a way that prevents or limits these outsized wildfires? The carbon dioxide that would otherwise be released in a fire would instead be sequestered in the resulting lumber. We would prevent the choked-with-ash-and-dead streams and lakes, the ecosystem destruction, the danger to homes and people, and gain the economic benefits of the logging activity instead of the massive cost of fighting the fire.

Yes, it would be “intervening” — and on a very large scale — dramatically changing an enormous ecosystem, transforming it from “forest to non-forest” in academic lingo, but it is already going to change. We have already intervened: our opportunity to not intervene came and went decades ago. Today, our choices are about whether and how we might guide the guide the transformation, not whether to have one or not. The logging approach would at least leave an ecosystem of some kind, rather than devastated lives, burned homes, yet more carbon in the atmosphere, and an ash-field requiring many decades to begin recovering.

Tobacco, Trickle Down, Climate, and Sugar

I think of there having been four great dis-information campaigns in the last 80 or so years. Tobacco of course, with advertisements, and industry-supported “research”, claiming that smoking was good for you in spite of science proving this to be wrong. Similarly, beneficiaries of lower taxes on the rich and of continuing to dig up and burn fossil fuels launched massive campaigns to achieve their goals in the face of clear evidence that “trickle-down” didn’t and greenhouse gas warming did.

A similar campaign on nutrition has come more recently to my awareness, funded by dairy, sugar, meat, salt and processed food industries. Today, from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), we have an historical reconstruction of some of the sugar industry’s successful efforts to obscure the role of sucrose in raising cholesterol and causing heart disease. For the benefit of a few, already rich, folks, imposing the cost of suffering and death on millions.

The Pacific Northwest

Auto Pilot, Auto Insurance

Auto fatalities happen about every 94 million miles. By comparison, Tesla reports that the first fatality while its Autopilot was engaged happened after 134 million miles, suggesting that even in our early self-driving days, we already have a better chance of arriving at our destination with “auto piloted” cars. With the rapid application of creative coding to driving data logs, cameras and detectors, and vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications, we can expect dramatic further reductions in our accident-anxiety and our accidents.

Confidence in this prediction is supported by the observation that auto insurance companies are starting to think about how to navigate the reduced premium revenues that will result from dramatic drops in accident rates and how to shift their focus from driver liability to product liability. There may be ongoing discussions about philosophical ethics, but if autonomous vehicles can double, quadruple, or decuple our chances of getting to our destination in one piece while making the trip substantially more satisfying, I think these attractions will swamp any philosophical hesitations.

And I think roadways that only allow autonomous operations will quickly follow as self-driving vehicles reach a meaningful measure of total vehicles.

Source: http://www.kpmg.com/Ca/en/industry/Financi...

(Good) Emissions News

Coal use for electric power generation has been, mercifully, falling off a cliff since 2007 or so (Figure 7.2 from the EIA’s July 2016 Monthly Energy Review). Since buildings make up most of electricity demand in the EIA’s Residential and Commercial sectors, this drop in coal use has lead to a drop in the emissions from buildings (Figure 12.2 also from EIA’s July 2016 report).

EIA Jul 2016 p108 Fig 7-2.png
EIA Jul 2016 p176 Fig 12-2.png

Ed Mazria of Architecture 2030 has been pointing out the central role buildings play in reducing emissions, because of their longevity, because they use mostly electricity, and because coal has provided the largest share of electricity generation. Mazria (and many others) have focused on making better buildings and, in a time with expensive photovoltaics and coal the dominant fuel, this seemed to be our only option. Buildings have seen improvements as revealed by the flattening curve in Figure 2.1 (especially against a background of growth), but the collapse of coal seems the biggest contributor to emission reductions.

EIA Jul 2016 p28 Fig 2-1.png

With the now low, and rapidly falling, cost of photovoltaic and wind generation — and their rapidly increasing share of electric production (Fig 12.2 indicates renewables at about 20% that of coal in 2006, jumping to more than 30% today, just 10 years later), we can expect building emissions to continue falling dramatically. Lucky for us, better buildings will contribute to reduced emissions, but are not our only hope for reductions.

Transportation emissions are still high. They fell some with the 2008 economic crisis, but seem to have leveled off and even increased with low motor fuel prices and a recovering economy. The good news here is that electric vehicles have just started up their growth curve and with most major auto makers following Tesla’s lead, and trucks, buses, and even ferries, all heading rapidly towards electric, the adoption rate could be fast indeed.

All of this against the backdrop of a steady increase in what I think of as “energy productivity”, the amount of economic activity per unit of energy consumption (Fig 1.7). Today, we have roughly 3 times the economic active per kWh as we did in 1950. Prospects for continued gains in energy productivity, renewable generation, and motor vehicle electrification is (very) good news.

EIA Jul 2016 p16 Fig 1-7.png


SolidEnergy's two-fold battery improvement. From SolidEnergySystems.com.

SolidEnergy's two-fold battery improvement. From SolidEnergySystems.com.


Lithium-ion batteries gave birth to the laptop and phone revolutions of the past decade and are now bearing down on motor vehicles and our electric power infrastructure and business models like an avalanche boiling down-slope on the trees below. This avalanche's trigger was John Goodenough who invented the lithium-cobalt-oxide cathode and made lithium-ion batteries a reality. Since then, folks like Jeff Dahn have been steadily refining battery structure and the electrolyte’s secret-sauce, but the fundamentals of LCO cathode (and variants on it) plus graphite anode have remained the best we can do. The graphite anode is bulky, and far from what we know to be possible; ideally we would use pure lithium, reducing this extra bulk and increasing the stored energy two fold. So far no one has successfully commercialized such an anode.

SolidEnergySystems.com now claims that they have developed a working lithium anode strategy and that it will be seen in upcoming tech products soon. The battery business is full of promising announcements, most of which seem to vanish and there are plenty of remaining questions for SolidEnergy including cycle life and power density. Is SolidEnergy different? I don't know, but they seem pretty far along, and say their batteries will be in "watches and wearables"  this year. Apple is expected to have their annual fall product announcement the first week of September: it would be fun if one of their new features is doubled-battery life.

Why We Climb

A friend and I were noting how it seems we create gratuitous mini-crises and other circumstances that require immediate attention, speculating that maybe we (and maybe others) do this to excuse attending to less interesting, less clear, less urgent, if nonetheless important tasks. As I wandered over the question, observing the internal dynamics of remembered instances, I felt that such avoidance indeed seemed present. But I also sensed something else lurking in my emotional pathways. I found thoughts of the joy that many of us get from climbing, about the sense of clarity and focus that we have when we climb. There is no wondering about what needs to be done: the protection needs to be placed; the hand and foot holds found; and appropriate speed made. We may choose to climb, but once climbing, the world becomes exquisitely, ecstatically simple.

I thought of the fight I heard through the cheap walls of a Bethel, Alaska apartment building, as a man drunkenly raged against the loss of meaning in his life, the loss of hunting as a full-time way of life, against the bureaucracies, against the whites (like me) who had taken this essence from him, and, eventually, against his wife. (At 4 AM, as it seemed that blows might fall and feeling like a perpetrator bringing heat on a victim, I called my seat-mate on the flight in, a family violence counselor in town. A few minutes later, the police arrived.)

As I wandered this landscape, I also remembered Tim O’Brien’s magical, enveloping book The Things They Carried, where he describes finding ecstasy in full-on fire-fights. And I remembered Gary Trudeau’s cartoon where Ray is being sent home from Kandahar with too much brain trauma. Ray protests saying that “War makes complete sense to me”.

Then I thought about how it has become clear that exercise is good for us; even though an overwhelming portion of the physical work required for survival in our evolutionary growing-up is now done by machines that turn energy into fulfilled desire, we still benefit from exertion. Just as human baby brains expect to encounter speech and language and depend on this circumstance for development, it seems our bodies expect a world in which we are constantly doing physical work; that our bodies require such work, even if circumstance does not.

I began to wonder if the near-perpetual state of life-and-death circumstances I imagine our evolutionary selves must have lived left us, as with exercise, needing such experiences to be right?

Perhaps we climb, skydive, wrestle alligators, drive and ski fast, and otherwise pursue our now-extensive scope of adrenalin-producing activities because, like exercise, we simply don’t work well without them? In our modern lives, with greatly reduced physical effort and mortal risk, perhaps we seek these out, creating the urgency artificially by climbing El Sendero Luminoso or The Rupal Face.

Perhaps our fascination with, and rationalizations of, military gear, big trucks, gambling, religion, enormous wealth or power (anything this big must be important, right?), ultra-running, the Pacific Crest Trail, and climbing, and the bottomless pain of my Bethel alter-egos, reflects a hunger for clarity, urgency, and meaning that, like exercise, is much reduced in our well-planned, newly-paved, and fully-insured modern lives but who’s absence leaves us off-kilter and unraveled? (1)

Perhaps our efforts to explain our Hillary-style confusion about why we climb, about why we create “unnecessary” risk for ourselves, are incorrectly posed as philosophical questions. Perhaps we just need that focus, clarity, and urgency in the same way we need food, air, language, and exercise? That without the chemistry of focus and clarity, our physiologies struggle and sputter? That our genes’ evolutionary assumption that this is the way the world is, has been violated? (2)

Maybe our bodies believe, just as they believe that there will be air to breath and gravity to pull us Earth-ward, that the world is urgent, and that if we aren’t having an urgent experience, we aren’t paying attention, and they are pushing us to see the urgent and important it knows must be there. And, maybe, we are not making excuses, but correctly detecting that what we are avoiding actually isn’t important?

I could probably look up some papers on this topic and see if my hypothesis has support outside my own observations and reading, but I told a friend I’d go climbing, and, you know, well, sorry, gotta go…

UPDATE: I also remembered Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution in which he imagines Sherlock Holmes as a cocaine addict. Holmes is only stable when he has a mystery to solve: in the absence of a crime’s clarity, he fell to cocaine. Likewise, Steve House describes his sense of emptiness after climbing the Rupal Face.

  1. While the origin of our interest in these pursuits may stem from a quest for meaning, I do not think they are all justified by it: the consequences of our chosen pursuits differ and matter.
  2. I don’t think Civilization has eliminated meaning, only that it has radically shifted where we find it. There is, I argue, meaning in the choices we make because the impact of our decisions on those around us and the yet-unborn are greater now than they have ever been. As introduced by Reinhold Messner, and advanced by Steve House, meaning today is not found, as it was historically, in the ability to summit by any means, but in how we summit.

Glasses Off

The beautiful photographs made using Kodachrome depended on the work and artistry of engineers at Kodak who made decisions about contrast, color interpretation, saturation, white balance, and more, and coded these decisions into the chemical software of the film. All a photographer has to do is get the exposure at the right level for the scene, press the shutter, and hey presto! The hard work of the engineers goes to work for us and makes gorgeous color and contrast. The difference between various films is the different decisions encoded into them. Velvia? More saturation. Tri-X? No saturation.

The photons making landfall on opsin molecules in our retinas, like those reaching a Kodachrome emulsion, are just starting points. The same types of decisions (and more) are made by the visual circuits in our brains encoded by evolution instead of engineers. What wavelengths should yield the sensory experience we know as blue? How much contrast should be applied locally to edges, and how much to the “image” as a whole? What color temperature should be presented to us as white? What is noise in the image, and what is actually a feature of that which we are observing?

The visual computations applied to the raw data coming from our rods and cones are masterful not just because they happen at all, but also because they happen so fast. So fast that we are unaware that the computations are even taking place: when we open our eyes, we just “see”.

Cut to a few years ago when the first blurred details of presbyopia, the reduced elasticity in our eyes’ lenses, were showing up for me. I was doing a fair amount of image editing at the time, restoring damaged photos and such, and I found that on days when I spent a lot of time looking at my display, I was able to read much better than on days when I did less editing. The difference was pronounced.

I wondered what might be going on and, after a little searching, found that by showing contrast patches known as “Gabor Patches”, one could train one’s visual circuits to compensate for our inelastic lenses. It turns out that the fact that vision is software, along with our discoveries about it, means that we have an opportunity to adjust our brain’s visual software to enhance edge contrast of letters making up for the optical fuzziness our lenses can no longer avoid. Apparently I had been performing a crude version of this training by looking at subtle contrast differences in the images I was restoring all day.

My hunt was on: this was an ideal application for an iPhone, and I was sure that someone must be building an app to exploit this part of our nature.

Eventually, I found Glasses Off and, also eventually, they released their app. And, having used it, I am experiencing a reversal in my need for reading glasses. For all but the most challenging circumstances like low light and small print, I can now, again, read without fumbling and donning.

It takes a while: I had to do the 15 minute training 3 or so times a week for several months to notice clear results. But the results are clear. I can now read, without glasses, 90% of what I used to need glasses for, and my progress is still underway as I continue to train. I am super psyched.

Is Civilization cool or what?

Renewable Forces

Even with falling fossil fuel prices, it looks like the underlying forces driving the cost of producing energy from photovoltaics and wind vs fossil fuels is taking hold.

In related news, I have discovered another serious entrant to the grid storage race: Alevo. Alevo is developing a “new” lithium-ion technology, and betting on it with a factory in North Carolina. Using lithium, instead of more abundant elements as Ambri and AquionEnergy are doing, seems risky. But I gather Elon Musk also thinks lithium based batteries can be inexpensive enough for stationary storage, so we’ll see!


I am no expert on military strategy, but I do get that during an infiltration stage of operations, one wants to go unnoticed so that when one starts to actually make trouble, it’s a surprise. I also get that a primary objective of military activities is to disable enemy infrastructure, and that today, “infrastructure” includes functioning networks, secure data, and communications. So, with Stuxnet the U.S. (presumably) managed to disrupt Iranian nuclear infrastructure without firing bullets or landing troops. The lack of familiar conflict trappings may have made us less aware that the conflict was underway, but Iran did not miss the damage we inflicted, nor fail to understand it as an act of aggression.

So. You are Iran and you’ve just had your network infrastructure successfully attacked. Even though you and I are giving them lots of oil money[1] with which to build nukes, building nukes is inflammatory, easy to criticize, hard to hide, and just plain hard to do. Rather than keep dogging the nuke option, waiting years for it to be deployable, being hassled by everyone for doing so, and then figuring out the best way to use them (not a lot of good options here…), why not take inspiration from the attack you’ve just sustained, and pay a bunch of coders to launch a strike of your own? No messy shipments of centrifuges or uranium to explain, just a bunch of keyboards and wire. See if you can get in to your enemy’s network, gain control without actually doing anything so they don’t notice, wait until you’re solid and for the right moment, and then, kabang!

It appears that this scenario may, in fact, be underway.

Security companies have an understandable reputation for making more of security threats than appropriate. There is, however, no doubt that they have uncovered, and helped resolve, significant threats. I am grateful, even if I do take their warnings with a byte of bits.

I hope that if Operation Cleaver is even half as significant and effective as Cylance claims, that uncovering it will lead to our ability to minimize its impact.

It also makes me wish that folks like the NSA had devoted more resources tracking this kind of threat, and less to tracking my oh-so-interesting phone calls and whereabouts…

UPDATE: Just for fun, a map of internet connected industrial control systems; power plants and such.

UPDATE: German blast furnace pwnd, damaged

UPDATE: NYT on Russian hacking of U.S. election

  1. It doesn’t matter if we don’t buy oil directly from Iran, filling our big tanks with gasoline from anywhere keeps the price Iran and others are paid for their oil high.  ↩

Demon Materials

Maxwell’s Demon, the watchful agent that, by allowing fast atoms to pass and not slow ones, was proposed to defy thermodynamics. Though the Demon has shed more light on information theory than it has provided free usable energy, I find the notion of passing one thing, and not another, captivating.

Thermoelectric devices either produce electricity from a thermal gradient, or a thermal gradient from electricity. They are great since they have no moving parts; just put them in place, attach wires, and voila! Their limitation, the reason they aren’t everywhere instead of more cumbersome compressors, is because finding a material that passes electrons, and does not pass heat, is tough. So tough, in fact, that, as I understand it, the periodic table doesn’t contain elements that could produce a bulk material with useful efficiency. So, as cool as they are in concept, I have for years forgone hope that they would ever become mainstream.

But. Enter Xiao Shen and colleagues at Vanderbilt University who have found a novel crystalline structure that may improve the differential between thermal and electrical transmission (see also their Nature Communication). We clearly have a way to go before we learn if this will yield a commercially useful material, but these discoveries make me smile. And, I really want a fridge without a compressor.

In the same vein, Aaswath Raman and colleagues at Stanford have made some advance on a different differential. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere absorbs infrared radiation from the Earth’s surface, heats up, and re-radiates heat back to the surface. At the same time, the atmosphere is transparent to other wavelengths setting the stage for heat to arrive here, but to not leave. This is good since it makes our world the lovely, tomato-growing, swim-suit-friendly place it is, instead of the cryo-cooler it would otherwise be. (Of course, there have been some recent difficulties with extra carbon dioxide production of late, but I digress.)

Though atmospheric carbon dioxide and water vapor block much of the infrared spectrum, there is a window of transparency between about 8 and 13 micrometers. And, since space is very cold relative to Earth’s surface, an object that loses heat in this band should move towards thermal equilibrium with space and cool down. So, let’s build such a material, attach it to something we want to cool down and let it rip. Yay! Instant, free cooling! Oh yes, one thing: most things cool down at night because they lose infrared energy to space through this window. It is during the day when this would be most useful, and during the day the sun is shining and heating things up too. What we want is something that does the opposite of carbon dioxide: something that reflects visible, short-wave light, and emits infrared in the infrared transparency window.

Well, Raman and colleagues appear to have done just this, and achieved about 40 watts worth of cooling per square meter in full sun with no energy consumption. So long as this doesn’t need too much hafnium, we might be in business!

Is Civilization cool or what?