when i first started riding around with a blinky bike i was kind of uncomfortable about the whole thing, feeling like a showoff. i’m pretty sure mom told me not to be a showoff, right mom? anyway after i saw the reactions people had, i felt a lot better because most people see it as kind of a performance / art thing and love it. it seems to be the kind of unexpected colorful fun folks want to see on their night on the town. so now its become loads of fun to ride around, i am getting into the performance more by engaging people’s random questions better. one of my favorites from friday’s critical mass ride:
“how does it work?”
“where can i buy one?”
“you can’t buy magic!”
hehe. so silly. why not give the “real” answer? i’ve tried that. nobody wants to hear it. people like anecdotes and stories! this reminds me of an anecdote a couple years ago i found myself standing in front of a guy i didn’t know at a party. being my typical socially awkward self i realized i’d better say something or things would only get more awkward (it took me most of high school to figure out that much). so i said: “hi, what do you do?”. at which point he proceeded to tell me a 15-minute story about the history of esquires and a number of related things. after quite a while he got around to the fact that he was an accountant preparing to take the bar, but by then we were talking about other things. so he knew that if he started with ‘i’m an accountant”, i would have written him off. but i think the real point is that stories are more interesting than facts. i use a shorter version of his strategy most of the time when people ask me what i do.
now if i can figure out how to reconcile entrepreneurship! bleh.
is it wrong for me to change a post after i publish it?Â why?
i was thinking a bit about burning man this week. here’s an idea:
hold burning man (or other event) on a clearcut forest site. each person brings a sapling and plants it at the end of the event. many different species could be planted and the resulting forest diversity would be better than standard regrowth of clearcut areas. next year - find another clearcut site. this planting completes a symbolic cycle of burning into a more holistic one including birth and regrowth. flying over the western US one can generally spot lots and lots of clearcut areas. hmm, recently clearcut stuff is usually remote and hilly, but that’s just because the easy stuff was cut a century ago for pasture - we often forget how much of the land used to be forested. perhaps some large pastures can be reclaimed. what kind of effect could this have? lets see: google finds me a number of reforestation recommendations around 500 saplings per acre. with 25,000 people you’ve forested 50 acres at 1 tree per person. 12 trees per person to get a square mile of new forest.
well that’s my idea for the day. here’s how a got there:
there are lots of things about burning man that i like. but there are some things that bug me also which i was recently reminded of so i thought i’d get those out before i forgot.
for the first day or two, burning man seemed fairly environmentally aware - Leave No Trace (LNT) is heavily espoused. unfortunately a widely promoted solution to convenient LNT is to burn everything. this is wrong. it should be ‘pack-in, pack-out’. i’ve attended burning man twice with a large and prominent camp that builds a significant structure for supporting lights, sound etc. the first year when we started take-down on our camp, everyone was happily throwing dozens of week-old two-by-fours and four-by-fours into the designated “burn pit” rather than bother to bring them home where they could be reused. i quickly complained, and did not have much trouble convincing the team to spend the extra 10 seconds per beam needed to separate the small nail-filled bits from large useful pieces. their original attitude was mainly just lazy justification - everyone else is doing it, and where are we going to store this stuff at home? well - if you are going to throw it away, there are countless convenient sidewalks around the city where “urban recycling” will take care of good lumber in minutes.
i have also heard: “burning stuff is a spiritual component of burning man”. i agree that burning a large temple at midnight with 20,000 other people is a spiritual experience. i don’t agree that throwing a couple of 2×4’s into an oil drum at noon and then going back to carry more is significant. even if it is, i think it’s irresponsible to put no limit on wasteful behavior in the name of a spiritual experience. the temple burn provides many people with a great experience compared with the amount of consumed resources. burning all your scrap lumber is not. compare to consumerist society: “i paid for it, i can waste it!”. you also might think: “burning man is about irresponsibility and hedonism”. personal irresponsibility is one thing, irresponsibility to society is another. if you would get away with it, would you just leave all your trash all over the desert? would you drive a hummer if you could afford it? some people at burning man do seem devoted to unfettered hedonism, but i don’t think it is the majority by any means.
a couple people i’ve talked to are critical of burning man because of all the effort people put into it, effort that could have been directed to making the world a better place whereas at burning man the effort doesn’t outlive the event and has little effect outside. this is only partly true i think. many people (like myself) who take art to burning man do not dispose of it, it is lasting art which exists in the real world too. the ‘wasted effort’ claim ignores indirect effects. burning man is a radicalizing experience - if you are awake during the daytime there are many people around talking on progressive topics, showing demonstrations, etc. many people come away with an altered outlook on life, and this will change their future impact on the world. even so, i think more could be done at the event to encourage this and possibly some more direct effects as well. (example idea up top)
we recently had a small war here at the lab. we suspect the honey was discovered by a roving band of small but diligent scouts. The scouts left an invisible yet potent trail marking their route, and reported immediately back to their leader who wasted no time in sending an unprecedented invasion force. The invasion lasted for days, at times with sufficient force as to demarcate a 20 foot solid black line of reinforcements. eventually the most honey-loving among us felt compelled to bring this assault to an end, which required installation of an impenetrable moat. Unfortunately, we soon discovered that the unchallenged multi-day initiative of the invaders had led to more than just conquest, it had led to a short-lived victory and all the barbaric atrocities that entails. The evidence of hedonistic excess stared us in the face. Hundreds of invaders, gorged on the fruits of their victory, lay dead in the sticky substance of their desire. what to do with our honey? some among us were happy to mete justice on the hapless ants by taking to heart the old adage: “from the heart of mine enemy comes his power, i shall eat his heart”. others were a bit more skeptical, and i divulge to you the method to obtain ant-free honey despite the significant interrment.
let us consider the following equation:
Da < Dh
Where Da is the density of an ant, and Dh is the density of honey. As a result of the empirically developed formula above, we observe that all the hundreds of ants, dead in their orgy of engorgement, are floating on the surface of the more dense honey. At first glance it would appear to the naive observer that this would make the problem more difficult (there being a layer of ants between the clean honey and the opening of the jar), however this could not be farther from the truth. Consider the following:
Vh >> Vw
Where Vh is the viscosity of honey, and Vw is the viscosity of water. Honey is far more viscous than water, and this is the means to our clever solution. We begin by tipping the precious pot of honey just the right amount to the left, as shown below. We tip it to nearly horizontal for a brief moment, allowing the sweet nectar to flow up the side of the jar - wetting it - as well as our anticipation.
Next, we quickly tip the jar to a similar angle in the precise opposite direction. In this motion we are able to see the results of our action - the original surface of the honey, carrying all its bloated cargo, has stuck to the left wall of the jar in a viscous layer which remains for some time. Only clean honey remains at the surface after the first tip, and this is what we have ingeniously delivered to the open mouth of the jar via our second opposing tip.
just finished instructablizing a “sculpture” i made a few months ago. things got a bit out of hand, as they say. reality was not quite within grasp. it slipped through my clutches.
interweb meme popularity experiments drive one to do the strangest things!
what’s that behind the mango hedgehog? looks like Robert Lang must have stopped by. He’s been experimenting with our laser cutter to do the scoring on some of his origami creations. neat stuff!
operational control systems for the planet, or: holy smokes! what is up with this massive insane rant?February 18, 2006 on 1:13 pm | In Uncategorized | 1 Comment
I went to an interesting talk today by Stephen Lansing at the Long Now Foundation. Stephen talked about his work understanding the traditional organizational methods used by Bali rice farmers, and how the organizational method achieved and maintained an effective farming practice. Most interesting was that the system is self-organizing, adaptive and based only on local feedback - no top-down hierarchy was needed for its development or continuation, although it did self-form a limited amount of hierarchical organization. The traditional approach functioned well for approximately 800 years, at which point westerners came in and instituted a top-down hierarchical system of control and different farming practices which proved inferior to the traditional method in terms of cost and sustainable and reliable harvests, as well as damaging other parts of the environment, etc. I’m sure you are expecting me to launch into the usual liberal rant romanticizing the natives and disparaging the western interference, but it won’t be quite like that today. Thoughts:
- The self-organizing and feedback traits of the traditional system are fascinating, and yield impressive results. The implementation details are very interesting as well (if there is one thing i’m never ever going to talk about in my blog, its religion
- It seems to me that Stephen did not sufficiently differentiate the merits of the organizational system from the merits of the farming practices used. He showed effectively that the traditional system would robustly maintain an effective farming practice (which is inspiring and worth learning from). He showed that the top-down hierarchical method was capable of doing a poor job (and we’re all aware of many failings of top-down systems in our own lives - such as their tendency to optimize for the good of the people running them). But he did not show that the top-down method was incapable of doing a better job. Certainly one of the failings of top-down hierarchical control systems is that lacking proper management and feedback they will cause poor results. However, a top-down system could also provide excellent results if it has the proper knowledge and feedback. The farming practices instituted by the top-down system in Bali were clearly very problematic, but that was a failing of the specific managers of that system, not the system itself. hmm, I will point out that it is a failing of top-down systems in general that they are not robust against poor managers (or, robust only by collapsing the system). Even so, I think we should consider that with good managers a top-down system (which can make decisions based on all system data) can exceed the performance of a system where no global visibility of performance data exists and no global decisions can be made. (note: i am a little unclear on the point of whether the bali system’s self-formed hierarchy was capable of global decisions through consensus)
- I recently read Jared Diamond’s phenomenal book Collapse, in which he details the collapse of many cultures you never learned about in school due to a lack of global visibility and planning of their resources. it struck me: the traditional bali organizational system was excellent at adapting to the yearly feedback of pests and water, but i don’t see that it has any particular capability to respond to the types of longer-term problems which ended many other civilizations. Was it just luck that the bali system worked for 800 years? because they did not happen to run into any longer-term problems like deforestation which need a long-term view and global control to mitigate?
- Writing this got me thinking about the effectiveness of top-down hierarchical control systems vs. self-organizing bottom-up systems.
- free market capitalism / microeconomics: bottom up
- soviet communism: top down
- fortune 500 corporation: top down
- internet: bottom up (mostly)
- After considering those examples i’m thinking that for organizational systems based on humans, robustness to the many and unpredictable weaknesses of the human agents implementing the system is very important. that’s a main failure for top-down systems. (another failure is the inability of the top to consider every detail of data at the bottom, they must generalize).
- I’m reminded of an excellent point on this my dad once made: all the nuclear reactor failures we have had to date were from a failure in the human part of the control system, not the mechanical part. ie, you must view the operating nuclear reactor as a black box having a control system based on a combination of mechanical/electronic controls and human controls. in all major failures it was the human component which performed unreliably, there has not been a nuclear plant accident that was uncorrectable by the human part of the control system. my dad (a psychiatrist) believed that the designers of the nuclear plants had not properly designed the system to account for the weaknesses of the human component of the control system. thought experiment: is it possible to robustly design a nuclear power plant at all using only uncharacterizable humans?
- I’m also noticing that the main failure for bottom-up systems is the inability to see the big picture and plan for long term problems. the irrisistable force meets the immovable object?
- maybe: the only viable long-term solution is an even balance of both types of system. the hard part is keeping the balance and not letting one of the sides take control. globally i think free market capitalism has too much control currently, we are all aware of the unsustainable effects it is having but our existing top-down systems are mostly not powerful enough to stop it.
- maybe: it is possible to improve one of the two systems against its identified weakness? as i pointed out above, i think top-down systems can only be robust to poor management with a significant collapse. our democratic process improves this compared to a monarchy, but we still see a lot of top-down type problems in our system. bottom up systems have inherent fine-grain local feedback but no long-term global planning, the lack of global planning also can lead to collapse as discussed by Jared Diamond. there are interesting ideas in how to institute global feedbacks into our free-market capitalism so that it can react to longer-term problems. i think these ideas boil down to educating consumers to long-term problems so that they shift their purchasing and drive the market. can this be sustainable? it relies on people actually caring about events beyond their lifetime, and i’m concerned that too many people don’t. even worse, our key problem is excessive consumption and you can’t drive a market by not consuming.
- yikes! this train of thought has spiraled utterly out of control. i’m not sure i know the first thing about most of what i’m talking about here. the insanity ends now. yes, there are a million really important “facts” i overlooked, but hey! this is a blog! not a textbook! the joke’s on you! ha!
- aside: thinking about control systems used in developing electronic and other automated systems with non-human agents. both types of systems are used. i’m coming from an electronics and computation background where we build the same types of systems but the performance and failure modes of electronic agents are far more characterizable than human ones.
It was also tragic how stephen related the destruction of the majority of Borneo forests during his 30-ish years working in the area.
Oddly, my cousin Ethan visited last week. Ethan is working on his PhD and a major focus of his work is Gamelan, the traditional musical ensemble of Bali.
here i’m helping to test one of corwin’s latest contraptions. last week we hosted a bit of a kite designers summit. as daphna observed - “they’ve been talking about nothing but kites for 2 days straight. every once in a while they notice this and talk about something else until their short term memory is flushed…” eric wrote a bit more detail on the kite summit, i just went along for some of the prototype flying.
why would anyone want to be inside watching f**tb*all on a day like this?
(click images for big version)
oranges from the backyard - yum! at the time it seemed like a really great idea to line up all the oranges and take lots of photos. i think i must have been high from the bike ride.
we’re often pretty busy at work, and with the growth of the company we’ve run out of space on the floor to take a nap when working late. what to do? we have a 20-30 foot ceiling in most of the lab so - duh - just look at the tons of unused space right above our heads! i built myself a nice platform up in the rafters, it’s got great sun from the skylight and it’s out of everyone’s way. and less dust from the machine tools. here’s the view from the floor looking up:
and here’s from the top of the ladder:
i’m now doing a little more decorating, i’ve already painted the ladder and i did a clear-coat on the platform itself since the wood grain was really nice. i’m going to hang my ecuadorian tapestry on the wall i think.
i’ve been talking to the city of emeryville a bit lately. yes, i surprise even myself sometimes. it all started when we learned of the recently completed 96-page “park avenue improvement plan” draft. that’s 10 pages for each block of park avenue. squid labs is at 1467 park ave, so we naturally have some interest in this plan. me, colin and i think eric all read through the plan, and were forced to admit we were impressed with its comprehensiveness and progressive goals. notably, the plan uses the “f-word” in at least two places to describe the desired characteristics of park avenue. that’s FUNKY. needless to say, we’re quite pleased at our fortuitous luck in locating the lab here. i think up to now we’d even been making some effort to keep the funky locked up behind the roll-door. well, time to roll up the door and let out the funky!
a couple days ago i wrote about the bike boulevard. also last week i attended the emeryville city council meeting since they were going to talk about the park avenue plan. i’ve never been involved with my community much. rather, through my life i’ve been an outsider at best, and too cynical to do anything like this. also the people doing it were always such goody-goodies. anyway - after reading the park avenue plan i was inspired and decided it was time for us to step up and be a part of things. The city council meeting was a bit amusing in its formality, but overall i was fairly impressed. perhaps not hard since i probably was expecting to see stream of developers buying their permits for illegal immigrant workers and hazmat dumping. so:
- the city council seems to have a nearly uniform progressive stance on development of the city. “pedestrianization” of the city seemed to be among their top concerns in nearly every matter that was discussed. yay!
- the developers and local businesses who were present seemed quite accomodating and willing to work with the city council’s progressive ideals.
- overall all parties seemed reasonable, knowledgeable and capable of working together.
- politicians really love to talk. it seemed like the 5-hour meeting should have taken about 2 hours, but the city council seemed to have a pathological interest in talking about everything.Â the council members had a surprising amount of enthusiasm for every topic throughout the 5 hour meeting (which was held *after* a full work day).Â all this is probably a good thing for the rest of us as long as we don’t have to go to the meetings - i myself was totally falling asleep for the last 3 hours.
the two major issues discussed at the meeting both seemed like experiments in creating the modern city. i hope they work better than the ikea plan did? or do they think the ikea is a success? it seems strange that the same city that approved all the box stores less than 10 years ago is now all about pedestrianization. or is it that they compartmentalize the parts of the city? but emeryville is only 8 blocks wide and 20 blocks long - you are never more than 4 minutes from ikea! (except when the ikea traffic has backed everything up…)
hmm, when did i turn into such a responsible adult? this whole post reeks of conventionality somehow. note to self: keep roof-mounted potato cannon targeted at city hall. just in case.
my friend Jenna stopped by last week. jenna is a shoe designer who is working on her own line of children’s shoes. according to Jenna, you can’t sell a kid’s shoe these days unless it has LED’s on it. after seeing our LED bike wheels, Jenna wanted to do the same thing, but on her shoes. (i know it sounds ridiculous, but *think*of*the*children*). luckily we already had some circuit boards kicking around that were almost exactly what was needed, so i just reprogrammed them to display patterns as you wave it around. in a typical bout of self-promotion, i’ve made all the design files available open-source on Instructables. i strapped the prototype onto Corwin’s oh-so-stylish shoe and he did some snazzy modern-dance moves with it.Â i still giggle with 8th grade derision whenever corwin talks about how much he likes modern dance.Â anyway, the effect is a bit hard to notice at walking speed, much better if you are running or dancing. I’m still trying to imagine a 3rd grade field trip where every kid is shaking their legs around to make patterns. (click images for full-size)