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?


Missing an entire upper row of teeth, he greeted me in his El Rito yard surrounded by piles of firewood and friendly orange cats.

I pulled up to the pile, nose first; “you might not believe this, but we are putting the wood in the front”. “I know”, he said, “it’s a Tesla”. And he reviewed what he had heard about the battery plant that might have gone to Albuquerque but went to Reno instead, about the falling out between Musk and Fiskar, about Elon’s rockets and how they didn’t use Russian engines and didn’t blow up like the Virgin Galactic flight this month, and about the high-performance battery research going on at Los Alamos. All this with his sonorous, New Mexican-hispanic voice, big smile, and warm, lighthearted eyes.

As we worked together loading the wood, he told me about competing with Olguin’s in Taos — where I was going to get wood, but who was sold-out — over a big latilla and viga job. It was clear he didn’t think much of them. While we finished loading the wood, the kitties finished putting muddy prints on the car.

“Would you like to go for a ride?” “Sure!” As we drove a circuit through El Rito, he noted how quiet the car was, except for the tires on the chip seal surface. I said, “yes”, and noted that earlier in the day I had gotten to drive on 285, and it was smooth as could be. He said, “yes, they put a great surface there because of all the truck traffic. They did it as part of Obama’s Recovery Act a few years ago, along with a bunch of bridges that have needed repair for 50 years. It was good. It put a lot of folks around here to work.”

As we headed back to his house, I missed it and went too far. We stopped a few hundred feet further on, and I asked if it would be okay to back into the nearby driveway. “I don’t want anyone to have to bark at us…” “If they do, I’ll bark back”, he said softly, easily, and warmly, still wearing his excited, unpretentious smile.

I told him I’d be back.


For me, intimacy means possessing accurate, particular, and meaningful knowledge, and necessarily implies the vulnerability we feel, for example, when sharing our dreams and fears with each other, or telling a lover how we like and don’t like to be touched.

In this sense, intimacy can be, but is not necessarily, a good thing, since it also includes the vulnerability we would feel if an enemy knew our location and weaknesses in our defenses, or knew what we care most about and how to access and damage it.

Also in this sense, we can be more or less intimate with ourselves: how extensively and well do we know the particulars of our physical, emotional, and cognitive selves? Over how wide a range of circumstances do we know how the arrangement of atoms that is us will behave? When on an exposed ridge with a storm moving in, do I freak out, or do I become focused and resourceful? When offered a meaningful gift, do I rejoice or run away? When I feel a particular fogginess, do I know whether I should sleep, drink water, eat food, or go for a walk? When I discover behaviors I don’t like about myself, do I know how to go about making effective changes? Do I want to make changes?

Intimacy, I argue, is not casual, but a source of either ecstasy or terror. The wonder of love making, the devastation of rape. The delight of knowing where to find a good fruit tree, the fear of a seeing pair of mountain lion eyes focused on me at close range. The satisfaction of creating an advertising campaign that results in many people buying. The defeat of realizing that we have been duped by a scam.

And it defines “science” as I think of the word: the application of sound reasoning to unbiased observations of the world around us to increase the extent and accuracy of our models of reality as measured by the accuracy of our predictions. Because it is unimaginably hard, successfully harpooning a comet implies extremely accurate models the Universe including the comet’s location, the physics of getting there, of radio communications, of the materials and practices that allow a thing to survive and function in space, and so much more. The joy we feel upon such a success is more than the culmination of effort, but the unequivocal, undeniable certainty that we know true things: that we are deeply intimate with the Universe.

  Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on March 14, 2015;   ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on March 14, 2015; ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM


UPDATE: It turns out that Philae’s harpoons didn’t manage to make a secure connection.

Running In Ashland

Last spring, at the Marin 35 km trail race, I ran out of energy at about 30 km. It was my first long trail run, and I hadn’t yet read Steve House’s Training for the New Alpinism. Running faster when I felt like it was fun at first, but maybe made the last 5 km the hobbling comedy-show that it was.

At the Ashland trail race last weekend, I tried to be a little smarter. While I was lured a bit by trying to run with everyone else as we left the start, by-and-large I managed to keep a slowish, steady-ish pace up the long grade that is the first third of the route. And my energy seemed good! Maybe I had learned something after all!

But then, just after the half-way mark, my hip flexors, psoas and iliacus in particular, started complaining. And then seizing. While I had reasonable energy levels, there was just no getting them to move quickly. I tried to find a pace I could sustain, and at some points the muscles relented a bit, but inevitably I would have to walk some before I could shift back into a running stride. As the remaining distance declined, so too did the proportion of time I could run. I began to cajole my hips: “come on! We can do this boys!” It was fun.

The last section was a steep downhill accomplished via long switchbacks. On the straight-aways, the grade was just so so that my legs would swing forward under their own weight, not requiring much help from my freaked-out flexors. At the switchback turns, the increase in steepness meant that they had to do some braking, and I could manage only by making many small steps. For me at least, it was hilarious and I spent a bunch of time laughing.

I thought, “you are just going to have to waddle the rest of the way in”. A few minutes later, I came across an instruction painted in the same temporary markings as the intersection guides for the race: “No Waddling”. I thought, “they must’ve been thinking of me!” I stopped waddling and began thinking of Isabel Allende’s Sofia Loren story. I straightened up as much as I could and tried to make only dignified noises. I think I successfully stopped waddling, but am pretty sure I didn’t run any faster.

By the last mile, the pain seemed to stop hurting per se, and just became the way of the world: the way things had always been and always would be. This too was an improvement! I managed to “run”, so long as you are okay with a broad definition thereof, joined by the volunteer sweeping the trail: yes, I was the very last.

The last mile took me 18 minutes. It was so funny it was fun. And somehow, I felt some delight in finishing last; perhaps it was a recognizable place? Not some indeterminate location in the middle? Or perhaps because I finished at all? In any event, I deeply enjoyed moving across the Earth’s surface on my feet; dancing, swinging, dancing. I didn’t want to stop then, and I am thinking of how I can go even farther next time. Maybe I enjoyed being last because I got to run longer? In my dreams, I never have to stop.

Ashland Creek watershed
Ashland Creek watershed

Latent Laws

We have discovered that the particular, regular arrangement of silicon and oxygen atoms that we call quartz will change shape if we apply voltage to it. That is, in the environment of an electric charge, the arrangement that is quartz behaves by deforming. We have also found that the reverse is true: if we put quartz in an environment where we apply pressure, it will produce a voltage. We call this the piezoelectric effect.

Discovered in the late 1800s, we have since used this behavior to control frequencies in millions and billions of devices from watches to radios to computers and more. The lawfulness of the Universe means that every time we make a crystal oscillator with quartz it exhibits the same behavior. Or, perhaps better, the fact that we observe the same behavior every time is evidence that the Universe is lawful.

Quartz has other behaviors. Depending on its environment’s temperature, its crystal structure can shift. At high enough temperatures, it melts. Glass will not scratch quartz, while a diamond will.

Though we did not know about the piezoelectric behavior of quartz before its discovery in 1880, we expect that had someone deformed quartz while measuring its electric charge in 1879 the result would have been the same. Or in 1079. Or 10 million years ago. In fact, this behavior “existed” even in the early days of the Universe, before atoms of silicon or oxygen had ever formed in star-hearts.

Like the quartz crystal exhibiting piezoelectric behavior, every particular arrangement will exhibit a particular behavior in a particular environment. Water is liquid at temperatures between 0 °C and 100 °C, solid below. Beneath a foot, an ant-arrangement changes from a living behavior to that of a proteinaceous goo. A white cedar log may last centuries buried in a swamp, but will turn to ash and smoke in a fire.

Until a particular arrangement is put in a particular environment, these behaviors are latent; unexpressed and unknown. The expanse of latent behaviors is a library enormous beyond comprehension, and we can see our adventures in tinkering and experimenting as an expedition among its vast landscape of shelves, opening the books and cataloguing what we find between their covers.

Our explorations have yielded wondrous capabilities from steam engines to automobiles to aircraft, from pencils and paper to the unimaginably complex arrangement of charges, wire, and glass that is the computer on which I write these thoughts. Our observations, and our reasoning about them, have allowed us to answer questions we have asked since we were able to ask at all: the nature and origins of living things; the composition of matter; the history, size, composition, and structure of the Universe; and the workings of our own minds. We live in a unique and amazing time, one our predecessors could only dream about if they could imagine it all.

I am fascinated by the existence of an endless sea of behaviors of which we know only a small portion. By our growing ability to predict what behaviors lie out among the waves as with our prediction of the Higgs Boson so many decades before we could create the arrangement and environment we predicted would coax it to surface. By the “existence” of stable, lawful, latent features of our Universe which seem outside of time and space and matter, but which are only revealed by them.

The Nature of Nature

The Universe, reality, has a nature. Part of its nature, we have discovered, is that its nature is lawful. It is predictably this way, predictably not that way. This lawfulness, along with observation and reason, have ummasked deep mysteries and made us unimaginably wealthy.

But what do we mean when we use the word “nature”? To my mind, it is useful to think in terms of arrangement and behavior. How are the elements of reality arranged, and what are their behaviors? A stone and the Earth, separated only by 100 meters of air, will move towards each other. Sufficient excesses of positive and negative electric charges equilibrate with a spark. A rabbit will seek out vegetation and avoid coyotes.

When we talk about the nature of reality, we are always talking about some arrangement set in some circumstance. How much can that nylon rope hold? The rope is a particular arrangement of atoms, and implied in the question is a particular gravitational field (Earth’s), and a temperature and chemical environment that does not significantly change the rope’s arrangement. How will this drug affect a person with such-and-such disease? The person with the disease is a particular arrangement of atoms, and we are wondering how that arrangement will change in an environment that includes the drug. Research and experimentation can be understood as putting various arrangements into various circumstances, and observing the arrangements’ ensuing behavior. It is how we come to know the nature of reality.

Different arrangements have different behaviors in the same environment, and the same arrangements have different behaviors in different environments. An opened watermelon will dry up and shrink in the desert sun, while a bar of iron will retain its shape for decades. At “normal” temperatures, say 20 °C, an amethyst is hard, durable, and maintains its shape, while in an environment of 10,000 °C, it softens and becomes liquid.

A defining behavior of living organisms is that they make copies. We are an arrangement of atoms that, under certain circumstances, make copies of our arrangement. Under other circumstances, extremes of temperature, or in the jaws of a predator, they do not.

Of course, being me, I also want to consider what we mean by arrangement. We can say that this tree is arranged closer to us than that tree, or the lake is to our east and the hill to our west. Or we could be more detailed in our description, saying how far or close or what bearing east or west. Or we couldn describe the specific arrangement of each atom, including bond lengths and angles, in our amethyst. We could even contemplate describing the fine scale position of its atoms as their thermal energy moves them around. Or even the positions of the subatomic particles in each atom. Reality is exquisitely detailed, far more detailed than we ever attempt to describe, or are even capable of describing. Our descriptions of arrangements are always limited and approximate models of actual reality. In any practical instance, “arrangement” means an approximate description of the actual arrangement of items in reality. Consequently, what we in fact describe tells as much, perhaps more, about us as it does about reality. What, from the functionally infinite array of possible observations and descriptions, did we choose to observe and describe?

Further, the division between an arrangement and its environment is arbitrary; chosen by us to suit our purpose or question. So, we can ask how a leaf moves, caught in the environment of a stream, or we can ask how the leaf and water move in the environment of the stream bed. How does a piece of wood behave in the environment of a fire, or how does a fire behave in the environment of a oncoming rain storm? We draw a cognitive circle around an arbitrary group of atoms of interest, arranged in a particular fashion, call everything else around it its environment, and ask about the arrangement’s behavior. Again, our choice for dividing an arrangement and its environment tells as much about what is important and interesting to us as it does about the arrangement.

Likewise with behavior. As a stone and the Earth move towards each other, we could say simply that they move towards each other, or we could describe the stone’s speed and acceleration relative to the Earth. Or, we could describe details of its orientation, its rotation, and even the thermal motion of atoms on the leading edge as they heat up from collisions with air molecules. We might observe that human speech makes small changes in air pressure nearby, or we might observe that this environment of air atoms makes another person do something different than what they were doing before. We might choose any of these behaviors to describe but, like arrangements, we choose some arbitrary aspect of an arrangement’s behavior to describe; one that tells about our purpose and focus.

So, when we talk about the nature of reality, we are generally talking about the behavior of a particular group of atoms, an arrangement, in its environment, with the division between “arrangement” and “environment” chosen by us for its relevance to our goals. There are an uncountable number of different arrangements, environments, and ensuing behaviors, all potentially described with different focuses and levels of detail.

Tinkering with different arrangements and environments and observing their behaviors, in both controlled settings and our day-to-day lives, is how we come to know the Universe to the extent that we know it. Reasoning around these observations yields our internal models of these behaviors from which we make predictions about everything from where to put our foot so we don’t fall over, to how much to turn the steering wheel so we don’t go off the road, to how big a beam to put in our roof to prevent collapse, to how to arrange atoms so they compute for us, to how natural selection works, to the distance to the stars, to what words will bring a spark to our lover’s eyes and joy to his or her heart.

And lastly, since no two arrangements are exactly the same in every detail, just what do we have in mind when we use the word “copy”? To my mind, we mean that one arrangement is similar enough to another that, in a similar-enough environment, its behavior is also similar. A photocopy of a page of text is a copy in that the behavior of interest, that it can be read, is the same. Two Model A Fords are copies in that they can both go down the road, even though one may be more rusted than the other, or have tires with different wear and, of course, though their detailed arrangement of atoms are radically different. The two daughter copies of an amoeba that has undergone division are copies in that they can both feed and in turn make further copies, but the two are not exactly the same in every detail.

The detailed differences between “copies” that we, at first glance, may ignore, may become evident under changing circumstances. Our two Model A Fords may both behave similarly on flat terrain, but if the fuel filter is clogged more in one than the other, it may not be able to climb a steep hill, while the other can.

So when we use the word “copy” or “duplicate” we are inescapably implying a particular, approximate description of the arrangement, environment, and behavior of interest. And revealing a great deal about ourselves in the process.

Anti-Carbon Profit

“…a low-carbon economy is an efficient economy that will deliver faster economic growth, better lives and a greener environment.”

Reducing fossil-fuel consumption is an economic win, not loss? Who knew? What a surprise! Ummm, well, maybe not a big surprise. At least as early as 2007 McKinsey & Co. concluded that half of US carbon emissions could be eliminated at a profit (pdf). Rocky Mountain Institute, Ed Mazria, Phil Kaplan, and many others have been making this point for decades. Maybe there’s something to the idea that reducing the costs of creating wealth makes us wealthier after all.

But there will be losers, and they are fighting tooth and nail to prevent the trend and confuse the issue with the money we give them every time we buy gasoline, fossil-fuel fueled electricity, and natural gas. Fighting to make 99.9% of us (14%) poorer, the economy worse off, and accelerate us towards <del>the Cliffs of Insanity</del> climate catastrophe. How do I really feel?

Jobs To Be Done

One of Horace Dediu’s organizing questions is “what is the job to be done?”. I find it valuable. In his Critical Path podcast #122, he reviews Apple’s September 9 announcements from this perspective. (Note the illusions in the opening video.)

The JTBD notion posits that we spend time and money on things that do a job we want done. As he says, for what job are we hiring this product or service? Part of why I find this question, as he poses it useful, is because he sees it in terms of our nature, in the sense of “wealth” as I see it. What moves us? What do we seek and desire?

So in attempting to understand who will suffer by the introduction of iPhones and iPods, he speculates that one of the teenage JTBD is of being cool. To the extent that an iPod does this job better than the latest jeans, it is the clothing maker who’s business is at risk by the introduction of iPods.

Likewise, the wholesale destruction of the low-end camera and camcorder industry by smartphone cameras reveals that there was a JTBD by reducing the “friction” of making photographs; eliminating a separate, bulky device with lots of confusing settings. It turns out this friction was frustrating to many of us, and when we had an alternative, we hired it to do the job of reducing this friction, to the detriment of incumbent manufacturers whose products did not.

If, Horace suggests, we think only about product categories, say the phone handset industry, instead of the JTBD that a product solves, we will miss the actual impact of a product. Just ask the music industry.

As I understand Horace’s view, there are two types of JTBD: jobs that can be done better, and jobs that we would like done, but aren’t actually being done. Before cameras, the job of preserving moments was not being done, and we were willing to pay to have it done; with the payment including the effort required to operate, carry, and protect the camera. Smartphones didn’t introduce photography, but they did make it easier and better, and we hired (are hiring!) them to do that job.

I am also fascinated by Horace’s analysis of ApplePay. There are, he posits, two parts to the payment system: the “rails”, that is, the mechanisms of clearing and communicating; and the “risk”, that is, transaction disputes and fraud. One of the JTBD that Apple is solving is reducing fraud risk by eliminating the need to expose one’s card information, and by adding fingerprints to identity verification. Another JTBD is increasing convenience and speed for both customers and retailers.

So ApplePay is improving an existing JTBD rather than introducing a solution for one that is not being done. And of course, Apple’s share of the transaction fees are surely small, but Horace points out that, after the expenses of setting up the software and putting together the deals, Apple’s cost of revenue is very low. Horace speculates it could be less than 20%, implying 80% profit. And it appears they are likely to capture a meaningful portion of all transactions… Nice work if you can get it!


It seems to me that half of being strong is knowing where we’re weak.

Constructing an accurate model of reality is hard. The Universe is almost-infinitely complex, endlessly detailed, and rapidly changing. Our ability to acquire data about reality is profoundly limited. Consider vision. Light reflecting off 3-dimensional reality enters our eyes and creates a 2-dimensional patch-work of color on our retinas; Annie Dillard’s “unpeached peaches”. Different regions of the pattern have no intrinsic information about the distance to the object that reflected it, nor the color of the light that initially struck the object. In chapter 4 of How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker tells us that constructing a 3-dimensional model of the world around us from the 2-dimensional image cast on our retinas is not just difficult, but impossible. There isn’t enough data on our retinas to do the job.

Yet we unconsciously and nearly-instantaneously create a 3-dimensional model of our surroundings that is accurate enough that we can successfully walk, run, ski, drive, surf, and fly aircraft without bumping into walls, trees, rocks, coral, bridge abutments, or mountains. How do we do it?

Pinker tells us that it is through the magic of assumptions. By assuming that light is generally uniform, that two objects don’t, by chance, have exactly the same edges, nor are those those edges likely to line up perfectly, and a host of other built-in beliefs about how the world is organized, we can construct a 3-D model from 2-D information.

These assumptions are pretty good. It turns out that there are some aspects of reality here on Earth that are pretty consistent, and which don’t have to be actively queried every time we open our eyes. Those of our predecessors that possessed visual computational circuits that made good assumptions were able to rapidly construct accurate 3-D models; avoid cliffs and poisonous snakes; and navigate successfully to food, shelter, water, and a mate. They become not just predecessors, but ancestors. As copies of these ancestors, we too possess these “firmware” beliefs about the nature of reality. And they serve us well.

But, like many of us, I was introduced early on to optical illusions, drawings, like the one below, that “fooled” our visual system.

Both of the cylinders are the same size by the ruler, but no matter how many times we measure it, no matter how deeply we know it, our visual system tells us that the upper one is larger. In order to deliver a good model in real time, our visual system utilizes hard-wired, and thus extremely fast, assumptions about perspective, distance, and, in this example, size. And because it is hard-wired, it can’t be changed through learning any more than we can learn to have three or four legs instead of two.

So we see that optical illusions occur when our most-of-the-time accurate assumptions about the nature of reality are violated. In the example above, the cylinders aren’t actually in a hallway, but the grid work on the left and right is interpreted by our visual system as such. By violating our evolutionary assumptions we can reveal what they are and see how the “magic” is performed.

This fascinates me. Contained in my moment-to-moment living, in opening my eyes and seeing the 3-dimensional arrangement of objects around me, are the deaths of our predecessors who did not have accurate assumptions, and the unbroken chain of sex (and I hope some measure of love-making) of my ancestors who did. These assumptions reveal the nature of the Universe to us, are a built-in model of reality, with which I was born, seemingly for free. An extraordinary feat of computational prowess that even now, 60 or so years into the age of serious computing, we still have trouble matching. Talk about having a super-fast GPU! How cool is that?

Pinker further illuminates the world of “intuition”, the built-in assumptions we possess about the world that give us a leg-up on its navigation. Intuitive physics, intuitive psychology, intuitive statistics, intuitive biology, and more. These are models of the reality in which we have very high confidence; so high that they are hard-wired into our genetics, and though we may, with great effort, over-ride them on occasion, it seems impossible to escape them. To unpeach Dillard’s peaches.

And, in what I find one of the wonders of Civilization and of being human, we are able to observe and understand how our built-in beliefs work. To discover that we have them in the first place. In addition to the shear joy of knowing our own natures and its computational and engineering marvels, we can also improve our models of reality: in knowing that we make assumptions, that we posses genetic beliefs, that were often-enough true historically to be written into our DNA — and that they aren’t true in every circumstance. Our hard-wired beliefs about the world can be wrong; the assumptions can be violated as they are in the drawing above. Sometimes this happens when we encounter a rare circumstance, or when the world changes. Or when other folks use knowledge of human assumptions to redirect our energies in service of their own goals. Knowing a bit about our assumptions gives us a chance at adjusting for violations. To know that the cylinders will, despite my visual system’s screams to the contrary, fit through the same round hole.

Flying Offsets

Joe Romm claimed that the real name for carbon offsets is “carbon rip-offsets” because they are all rip-offs. But the high energy-to-weight and rapid fueling requirements for aviation fuel means that there are currently no usable substitutes and, if there are no good off-sets out there, there is very little we can do to reduce the carbon emissions of flying other than to not fly. Isn’t there some way we can confidently mitigate our air travel emissions?

Ultimately, a true offset will either put carbon back into the ground in a long-lasting form such as coal, oil, charcoal, or some mineralized form; or it will reduce the amount of carbon that would otherwise have been dug-up and burned. The first is hard to do, and the second is hard to verify. But M. Sanjayan suggested an approach that makes good sense to me: giving away energy efficient lighting on his trips. The bulbs offset carbon by reducing the energy used to provide light, increasing what I call “energy performance”; providing the same energy services but with less energy. He suggested CFL’s, but LEDs are now in mainstream production and offer an even better solution.

I wondered, how many LEDs would I have to buy and give away to offset a given flight? The amount of carbon dioxide produced in the generation of electricity varies around the world, but in the USA the EPA tells us we average about 0.55 kg per kWh. On a visit to my local hardware store this week, I found 60 watt replacement LEDs for $13. These use only 9.5 watts of electricity and produce the same light as a 60 watt incandescent bulb. They are rated to last 25,000 hours.

We see that over 25,000 hours, a 60 watt bulb will use 1,500 kWh of electricity and the 9.5 watt LED will use 238; a difference of 1,262 kWh. Using the U.S. average of 0.55 kg per kWh, this means that replacing a 60 watt incandescent bulb with this LED will reduce electric power carbon dioxide emissions by 694 kg.

How much carbon dioxide do I emit on a flight? Terrapass, a seller of (rip-)offsets, provides a calculator to estimate this number. They indicate that for a Los Angeles / New York roundtrip, each passenger creates 873 kg of carbon dioxide emissions.

It looks like I can offset my carbon emissions from a round-trip cross-country flight by buying and giving away two 9.5 watt, 60 watt replacement, LEDs to someone who will use them to replace incandescents. A significant virtue of this approach is that it is verifiable to me: I know I bought the bulbs; I know I gave them to someone who installed them; and I know they will reduce electric power consumption while providing the recipient with the same energy service (lighting) that they previously enjoyed and that they will save on their electric bill in the bargain. I don’t have to worry about whether the offset company is honest, or how much of my donation is actually going towards an offset, or whether it is really an offset. And, as Sanjayan says, it’s a fun way to make friends at your destination.

Capital & Labor

I have been following some of Paul Krugman’s thoughts on the relative portion of income from capital and labor.

What I get so far is that one can produce income either from doing something: swinging a hammer (okay, firing a nail gun); driving a tractor; guiding mountain trips; making executive decisions, or any other activity that provides income as a function of one’s efforts, aka labors. Or, one can produce income by owning something and renting it out. One might own 100, or 100,000, nail guns and rent them to carpenters; or one might own a similar number of tractors and rent them to farmers. Or own and rent real estate of one kind or another.

The rise of technology, and the things we produce with it, has made income produced from capital possible. Before the discovery that we could make, own, and rent things, the portion of our income derived from labor was 100%. And, as the number and variety of things we make, own, and rent increases, so too does the portion of income from capital.

Clearly, one must have capital to access income from capital. And the unhitching of income from our universal 24-hour allotment means that income from capital can more readily be large than can that from labor. So there is a positive feedback loop with capital income: more capital, more income; more income, more capital. We can guess that the Reagan-introduced policy of low taxes for folks with more money, might also support this loop. There are, of course, limitations on this loop; most significantly in my mind is the risk that the bet on what to own and rent is wrong and the capital, and any income it might have produced, is lost.

I guess that this trend will have many implications, and surprises. One implication might be that folks with money come to have an increasing share of money in the population overall, especially if favored with lower taxes. Krugman reports that we are observing just this.

The 14% increase in wealth share of the top 0.1% since the Reagan era suggests that his tax-policy legacy has had a significant impact. It also implies that the 99.9% have lost the 14% of the nation’s wealth the 0.1% now have.

Another possible implication of reductions in the portion of economic activity available as labor income is that there are fewer jobs and/or lower wages to be had. That the benefits of a growing economy are increasingly unavailable to folks without capital. How far could this trend go? One could speculate that the recent return of American manufacturing is not necessarily associated with a proportionate return of jobs, but of robots, as illustrated by the experience of coal miners.

It looks to me like this trend will be a big, perhaps much bigger, thing than we are aware. And like maybe I should go see if I can round up a bunch of nail guns.

UPDATE: I neglected to note that income from capital also comes from selling the product of one’s capital assets, so owning a farm allows one to sell the wheat that it produces and owning a factory, or the intellectual property used in a factory, produces income from selling the factory’s output; and the things that one owns may increase in value if others perceive the rent, or sales of output, to be promising.


In 1994 I had the chance to travel in rural western China. I was fascinated to see how distinct each local dialects was, changing dramatically from one valley to the next. Many of the villages were just getting electricity, or just about to get electricity, for the first time. I was also fascinated to find that the first thing that was plugged in was not a refrigerator, not electric lights, but a television. After thinking about this, it made some sense: they had been managing to feed themselves, and had systems in place for feeding themselves, without refrigeration. Lights were probably desirable, but again, they had been managing without them and had lives organized around not having lights. But TV, that was a different matter. A window to the world outside their town; places, people, things they had never seen. The desire for access to this information had never been solved and TV, finally, gave them access. To me, it seems just like our current enthusiasm for messaging and social networking, revealing our hunger for social knowledge.

So. How have various technologies been adopted? How quickly have they become ubiquitous? How ubiquitous? Horace Dediu has made one of his phenomenal charts showing adoption rates and timing for a selection of products. I find it fascinating. I note that radio, TV, cell phones, and “smart” phones are among the fastest to be adopted, and also most completely adopted. All can be seen as feeding our desire for social knowledge and communication.

Horace’s chart tells many stories of wars and depressions and human nature. And, as he says, the biggest mistake would be to imagine that the chart ends here.


For The Record

Paul Krugman says life is messy. Always has been, always will be. Only far-away history appears to have “bold colors and straight lines”. I’m inclined to agree.

I also think that creating an accurate model of reality is hard, and that with time we can increase our accuracy; so maybe we understand truths about the past that we simply don’t have the computational capability to organize in the heat of the moment.

In any event, I’ll go with “messy” for now.

Our policy efforts addressing greenhouse gas emissions have been not just messy, but abysmal. And, unfortunately, the real Earth isn’t waiting for the model Earths we have in our heads to catch up. I guess our efforts will largely be expansions on the current, messy hodgepodge of emissions caps; regulatory limits; occasional, limited emissions trading markets; and such. If this is how we get it done, then good. Count me in.

But I think it is also important to say what it might look like if we did something cleaner, simpler, and more effective. So, for the record, my opinion is that we should tax all fossil fuels when they come out of the ground on the basis of their contribution to greenhouse warming. We can talk about the price we set, but it should be a number that brings fossil fuels way down on the demand curve. The proceeds of this tax should be returned to each individual on a per capita basis.

The virtues of this is that it does not regulate what folks can and can’t do, but makes each pay for the costs they impose on all of us by burning fossil fuels. Want that private jet? Go for it! But the cost to fuel it should be double or triple what it is now. All of us get financial compensation for the costs we incur from fossil fuels, including not just warming but from diseases like asthma, the loss of the gorgeous clear-air days of yore, and more.

There would be no complex regulations with loopholes, innovation and economic activity are spurred, no sophisticated carbon accounting is needed, and most of all, it would work. Quickly.

I guess we will take the messy road, and, well, okay. But this is what I think would be best. Just sayin’.