Friday, October 28, 2011

The Dragon-Kings

Back in the summer of 1977, I worked as a janitor in a magnet factory. After the first half-hour there, being shown my duties, I was pretty much on autopilot for the next three months. I could have used the time to really develop my dope-taking skills, but there were just a little too many industrial hazards in the place to make that a valid activity.

Fortunately, someone in the break room had an appetite for science and technology.  I'd find magazine issues of Science Digest, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and the occasional Aviation Week or Scientific American. An article caught my eye about a NASA proposal to send automated factories to the Moon to create fuel depots and piles of prefab construction materials for future colonies and missions. Not just automated factories, mind you, but self-replicating automated factories that would produce fuel depots and construction materials as more-or-less excreted afterthoughts.

The article referred to these self-replicating factories as "robot farms". (No doubt alluding to ant farms as an applicable association to get the self-replicating part across to the public). I thought about those robot farms whilst sweeping floors and burning trash through the summer months. In the spring semester just prior, I had taken classes in mathematical models and simulation, a FORTRAN programming class, and an interesting elective on microbiology. Not knowing a damned thing about the required machinery for robot farms,  the conditions on the surface of the moon, the composition of the lunar regolith, or even the amount of programming required to make a robot farm self-sustaining, I decided to figure out the theoretical - the ballpark number - aspects of the endeavor.

I felt no need to investigate the actual specifics of the robot farm, but merely to treat it as a reproductive unit.  To stick with the ant farm metaphor, one would assume there would be different castes of machines. A specialized worker caste, obviously, to stripmine and gather minerals, smelt and separate the valuable materials, process, assemble, and store basic components. Perhaps an intermediate network caste - railroad, conveyer belt, and radio or telephone robots to link, coordinate, and ship materials and information around (as will be seen later, this might be the most important caste). And then their would be the reproductive caste, that would further construct the necessary robots, as well as program them. At the time, I was not aware of John von Neumann's investigations into self-replicating phenomena, in either the form of cellular automata, or machinery, but basically, this was the gist of it.

And I assumed, since NASA was contemplating it, that plans for building these robot farms with materials available upon the Moon existed and were feasible (apparently, the robots would be mostly made of iron, titanium, and glass, based upon the composition of the lunar soil. Couple this with solar power - either as concentrated heat or converted electric, and your best bet is some type of silicon ecology). That NASA would use processes that could be used on the lunar surface (no carbon, no hydrogen, no water, but plenty of dust to gum things up, and sunshine, but also solar magnetic storms and flares and gamma and X- rays and things that really mess with electronics).  So all NASA needed was to, well, shoot some big magical metal seed pod up there and get the whole enterprise to going.

As such, really, I just assumed the plans for the damned things would work out, and could concentrate on how - and how fast - they'd "grow". Treating one robot farm as a reproductive unit, a logical starting place was Fibonacci's rabbits. In 1202, Fibonacci thought about rabbit pairs producing. He assumed that they would take a certain amount of time to mature, and from then on out, they would breed. So, generation-wise, 1 pair would take time to mature, then produce another pair. The new pair takes a generation to mature, but the first pair continues to breed and makes another pair, and so you have 3 pairs. And then the first pair has another pair, and the now mature second pair breeds and has a pair, and now you have 5 pairs, and so on.
Fibonacci Rabbits

When you add up the numbers, you'd produce the Fibonacci sequence, and they'd go like:
1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55,  89, 144, 233, 377, 610, 987, 2584, 4181, 6765, 10946, 17711, 28657, 46368, 75025, 121393, 196418, 317811, 514229, 832040, 1346269,....

So, after 30 generations, there would be more than a million machine complexes on the Moon. Give them ten square miles territory each, and that's 13 million square miles of strip mined golden goodness. Keep in mind, the Moon's surface area is around 14 million square miles, that's something. Throw in some generation time number - a month or a year or even a decade, and the Moon is over run with machines and the material instrumentalities of human civilization in a very short time span, compared to its geologic life.

But, like the Drake Equation, these are all fairly silly and arbitrary numbers that don't really mean anything. First of all, notice that Fibonacci's rabbits are immortal. If rabbits die, that slows down the sequence some. For example, if a pair dies after, say, three generations, then the sequence is 1, 1, 2, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 12, 16, etc.

Mother and Daughters
Something like that occurs just through geography. As mother farms send out a daughter farm, the logical, or obvious, arrangement to share surface resources ends up looking like a bee's honeycomb, since the densest packing of circles is hexagonal. A mother farm sends out daughter farms equidistant to her, and after six generations, she has nowhere to send the next, provided she can only start adjacent daughters. (This may seem an arbitrary restriction, but geography and transport play a role in this). Things get worse for the daughter farms. If we restrict colonizing to adjacent territories, daughter farms quickly run out of places for their own children. This is a geometric consequence of expansion. An expanding circle sees its area increase faster than its circumference. The ratio of circumference to area, as radius increases is 2 π r  / π r 2, which simplifies to 2/r.  As r tends to infinity, 2/r goes to zero. (Well, no, not zero, but a really, really, really tiny number). This decreasing ratio is the same problem that animals face with the surface area to volume ratio. For an increasingly large volume, it is difficult to bring in nutrients, or materials, through a (relative to size) increasingly smaller surface area. This is probably why there are no 30 foot long bacteria sliding around...

In any case, I'd assume NASA would have some stop code in the reproductive stack for those geographic reasons. Not to mention the fact that the lunar surface will not be uniform in resources. Some areas will be a horn of plenty, others sparse and penurious, and the honeycomb will be anything but regular. Then there is the fact that machines break down, and if enough components, workers, assembler what have you, fail, the whole farm fails and dies. So, no, even in the most optimistic fantasy scenario would you see the Moon populated with a robot ecology in a year, or a decade, or a century.

Pen and Ink Robot Farm Simulation
Since I did not have access to a computer (and affordable home PCs were still some years in the future), I filled up a notebook with graphic simulations, not to mention at one point I took over the dining room table and represented the robot farm "states" with coins. I still can't believe my parents put up with it for two weeks. The notebooks are gone, but a sample page would something like this (perhaps best viewed through hemp-remediated brain to get the idea):

Hemp, or more accurately, herb, being the operative descriptor for this examination.

Another term that comes to mind would be Monte Carlo masturbation.

As is often the case with a general mathematical analysis, even a substandard one as this, no significant insights or profound revelations come from anything like this. (Indeed, my high school leanings towards numerical Platonism were completely quashed by investigations into higher mathematics. Once you realize that the best models are little better than toys, that empirical observations of the the thing itself is the best simulation of all, the maths quickly lose their shine. Mathematics may be more than just counting, but not much else).

Graph of a Logistic Equation
In retrospect, I could have just spent three minutes looking at a logistic equation and been done with the whole thing. Of course, a logistic equation is kind of a dumb shit itself, if you don't know what the population growth (r) or carrying capacity of the environment (K) is, and that is the unknown factor that you want to find out.

Fortunately, there was that microbiology class I mentioned at the beginning of this essay to draws from. Interestingly, for an intro class, it was taught by a full professor. In retrospect, he was on his way out, towards retirement, had a few heretical ideas about evolution, and was therefore, relegated to the academic gulag. Still and all, he was a smart fucker, and he talked about things that only now are being considered.

Oh, sure, he presented the usual accepted canon of the Darwinian fundamentalists, with the singular gene and in sole and supreme primacy for inheritance, and yet the old guy also talked of how often singular microbes talked to each other - through shared RNA rings, diffusible molecules, proteins, and peptides and who knows all what else. The amount of chatter at the cellular level - quorum sensing, eavesdropping on competitors, synchronizing with collaborators, not only between members of the same species, but also across species, is really quite astounding, and probably a trillionfold-plus the amount of electromagnetic chatter we humans engage in. Not to mention things like biofilms, which seem to serve all sorts of mysterious multicellular purposes. Teams of things, groups of things, were far more interesting and compelling area of study. The old prof was not quite ready to commit to Lamarckian mechanism or teleological impetus, but there was clearly some sort of purpose to all this.  

It wasn't until my return to college that I got to spend time in the computer lab to run simulations. The problem is, I really didn't know what I wanted to simulate, or even what the equations would look like to do it. As Richard Hamming famously said "Many a physicist has gotten the right number with the wrong equation". Multiply that sage observation for "wrong mathematical model". I had experienced this in my prior spring semester's "Mathematical Models and Simulations" when I was assigned to replicate the population model of a simple marine ecosystem with the Lotka-Volterra equations - only to find that these equations did not accurately model the ecosystem. (The "prey" adults ate the "predator" babies, and thus a key coupled feedback parameter was lacking from the equations).

Way too many hours wasted on this shit
Plus, those slippery network connections that the old microbiology prof had talked about were dancing in my head. I knew that I was dealing with some kind of power law scenario here (and, what with Benoit Mandelbrot having just coined the term "fractal" a mere three years before, I was clueless on that particular front as well).

I would have to turn to discrete structures, combinatorics and graph theory for the answers I wanted. Late night computing ended up being all about hemp-flavored Star Trek games on terminals connected to the mainframe computer.

Suffice to say, I was never quite up to the task, but what I lacked in quantitative analysis I made up for in qualitative, and a judicious use of highly unscientific inductive thing.

Long story short, it came down to this. A networked system of robot farms would look a lot less like a superorganism of an ant colony, or for that matter, the loosely linked organism of a sponge or a jellyfish, and a lot more like a multicellular organism of an animal, or actually, more like a... nervous system. Yeah. Like a brain. And that sent a little thrill of fear through me the first time I thought of it, I can tell that much.

Herr Gauss's Bell
So, thinking, on average, about what a typical sample of such a thing would, perhaps, a Hebbian or neural network, I figured the average behavior would not be a sample that could be described by a Gaussian distribution, a bell curve, but, given the power law characteristics, something that would have a fatter tail (keep in mind, this is me describing my thinking back then now).


It's only lately that I've found the term I didn't have back then to describe what I saw in head. Here's bascially what I saw. A robot ecology up on the stark surface of the Moon slowly and painfully gains a small foothold. Over time, all the little components, working together, working along a code that NASA wisely saw fit to allow to self-optimize, talking to each other about hazards and bonanzas, mileposts, and breakthroughs and setbacks, for the longest time is a small silicon ecology, and then, with a sudden effloresence, blossoms and blooms into... something else entirely. And it, this event, though I did not know it then, I would now call a technological or Vingean singularity. The difference, though, and this is important, is that whereas Vinge and his predecessors relied upon some type of intelligence to see it through, I saw that this particular disruptive event would require no Intelligent Design. It was all strictly through ratcheted happenstance.

And the other term I was lacking? To describe this world-changing paroxysm?

I have finally have a term for it, it would be a Dragon-King Event.

All my silly reductive analysis would not have caught any of it: "By cutting the mammoth in pieces, we observe only mice".

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Hat Etiquette

Before there was the fist tap, there was the doffing of the hat. If hats are back, I want to see hat etiquette back as well.

I've never been a hat person. Coming of age after the sixties, when the hat started to disappear from the men's fashion landscape, let alone after the proletarian clothing revolution of the 70s, there was just never any call for the wearing of a hat.

And I don't include the baseball cap in the category of hat wearing. Let's be clear on my opinions on this. There is a difference between a cap and a hat. The former is worn by children. The latter by adults.

Aw!
But, as I say, with the proletarian revolution, caps are now the new hats. I myself am a strict adherent of the revolutionary canon. If I could I'd show you a picture taken of me when I was about five or six years of age, you'd see that I am wearing the same clothes now. Jeans, T-shirt, tennis shoes. Given a choice this is the default mode.

Still, since about a year ago I received a gift from a friend in the form of a baseball cap, and I've taken to wearing one. But I also am following hat wearing etiquette, even if it is a child's cap.

So, here's an old school website for hat etiquette. I've modified the rules to suit myself. For example, the rules involved to "greet a superior", on the street, in calling indoors, or in passing, I strictly ignore, as no man is my superior. So forget that shit. Here are my rules:

1) When to remove your hat: When entering indoors, such as a home, restaurant, library, movie theater, school, office, or place of worship. Entering into a public buildings or events, such as a post office, grocery store, airport, sporting event, etc. does not require at removal. Rather than list all contingencies, the rule of thumb I took was: a man does not remove a hat where he does not seat himself. The hat is also removed when the national anthem is played, or when the flag is presented in parade.

2) When to tip or doff a hat: Always when greeting a lady as a sign of respect. Rather than list all possibilities, the rule of thumb I adopt is that a man tips or doffs his hat in situations where he would say "Excuse me", or  "Thank you".

3) All around advice. Keep the hat clean. Never display the inside of the hat when tipping or greeting.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Does Intelligence Have Survival Value?

Possibly short-term, at least for the East African Plains Ape, but long-term? I mean, as a modern species, we've been around for perhaps 200,000 years or so, and yet we are precipitating a once in a 100 million year extinction event. Part of it kicked off when we had nothing more than stone, wood, and leather to work with (the Ice Age megafauna extinctions).

Seeing as I'm a direct descendent of the pioneers who wiped out the Neanderthal, the dire wolf, the giant cave lion, and giant cave bear, I'm perversely proud of that. (Although I'm sure my ancestors would look at me, an above-average 21st century physical specimen, as a chicken-boned wimp with a tiny brain. Not very big. Not very strong. Not very clever.)

Point being, I've really to wonder about intelligence as a long-term survival trait. And the theme today is, has it happened before?

All those mass extinction events in the fossil record, all due to "natural' causes?

The late Ordovician, life still bound to the sea, and 50% of it wiped out. Mostly trilobites and invertebrates, but some primitive jawless fishes, and straight-shelled cephalopods in shallow tropical waters, with the vast Panthalassic Ocean spread over the entire Northern Hemisphere. Did the continent of Gondwana park itself at the South Pole, causing catastrophic glaciation, lowering the sea level and eliminating whole swathes of habitable shallow? Or did some intelligent cephalopods get too smart for their own good? Very difficult to develop any kind of technological civilization under water, but then, I'm thinking like a plains ape, with fire and smelted metals and dry sticks and stones ready to hand. Why not build tools out of modified life? Who says you can't create a bacterium to generate electricity, radio waves, nuclear fission? Not me. It could have happened.

The late Devonian, another 50% wipeout, and again primarily marine. Animals still stuck in the ocean, save for early tetrapods, but land plants have developed to create their special form of havoc. Did a clever relative of Ancanthostega manage to screw the pooch (anachronistically speaking) upon landfall? Or did the tentacled ones manage a second chance, only to blow it?

The Big One. The End Permian. 250 million years ago. 96% of all marine species. 70% of all land vertebrates. Was it a comet? A continental United States sized volcanic eruption now known as the Siberian Traps? Super global warming from the coal deposits burned by said eruptions? Temperature extremes from the forming of the supercontinent Pangaea? Revenge of the hydrogen sulfide excreting purple bacteria? A combination of all of the above? Or was it one of the mammal's ancestors, a therapsid with a too much brain and not enough sense? One over time able to manipulate rocks into rockets, and thence to tip them with nuclear barbs? Would there even be a fossil record for that?

The end Triassic. Kind of disappointing as extinctions go, but still a respectable 48% death rate. it is thought to be due to the some two million cubic kilometers of magma released during the Central Atlantic breakup, along with two quadrillion kilograms of sulfur di- and trioxide molecules. But then again, it might have been an early dinosaur with a big brain.

The Cretaceous. Well, everyone knows it was Comet Chicxulub, right? The "tail of the devil" went smacko, whacko, slapping right into the ocean north of the Yucatan with an explosive force of 100 million megatons of TNT. Or could it have been some feathered serpents? Some smart version of Quetzalcoatl mucking up the timeline with a fissile slugfest with some other mythical power? And throw in a little peyote to get the whole Mexican flavored apocalyptic vision quest to going?

Which brings us full circle to the present. Or did I leave out the Oxygen Crisis of 2.5 billion years ago? Well, those of us In The Know, know it was the Spirochete Conspiracy. Yeah, Penrose's (if you buy into Penrose, which I don't, but never deny a source of entertainment) quantum-minded microtubules, not quite entirely tamed into eukaryotes yet.
 

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Crazy Man Strategy

So, there was the strange plot to kill the Saudi ambassador on American soil. And various theories have been put forth as to how and why and what and all that.
Rank Amateur

But the one thing that the paranoid, short-sighted, small timers invariably note is that Iran just wants to warn us, makes us scared, deter from interfering further in the region. And also its a message, basically that it is ready, willing, and able to create havoc on American soil.

Yeah, right. As if they were dealing with a rational people.

It's what they call the Crazy Man Strategy. Act all ape shit, and they'll be all "hey man you don't want to mess with that crazy person. They're cr-rrazy!"

The problem with the Crazy Man Strategy is you got to do more than just talk the talk, or even walk the walk. You gotta demonstrate. You got to bite off noses. Burn houses with people in them. Bomb 'em back to stones. You got make it clear, absolutely clear, that you are ready to do whatever it takes to be sure that everyone, and I mean everyone, knows that you are over-the-bend, batshit, bugfuck, don't give a shit about anything or anyone at anytime anywhere completely fucking apeshit insane.

And we Americans got that act down pat. Professional.

Come on now. Iran gets a nuke? So fucking what? What are they gonna do? Put it in a cargo container, and waste LA? Chicago? Washington?

And they think what would happen?

Face it. Krushchev tried the crazy act. Bang his shoe on the podium at the UN. Nothing. We would burn the fucking world down for a few pitiful tactical nukes in Cuba.

I mean, we know how to nuke people. We're good at it. We have no compunctions about it. No hesitation. Not a second of sleep. Not a tear, not even a crocodile tear.

That little bug smear on the windshield? That was Tehran. Want to play the bonus round? Try for Isfahan?

You got nothing.

Instructional Videos!

I tried uploading videos using the school's Piece of Shit IMac, and quite frankly, Steve Jobs blows, and his products (software products at least) are shit.

That's what I think.

So, anyway, I tried to give you an artisan's eye view here in the videos (I believe it's also called gonzo, or monkeycam video). Unfortunately, it would not all load properly and so I will offset the video with a textual description as well. But first, here's the setup I threw together in about ten minutes to get that crittercam experience to working:



video




The E coli bugs, the ones with the spermy tails, were made from a mold I made from some plastic jelly bean candy containers I found in the grocery store a couple years ago around Easter time. You soak the plaster mold in water. You pour molten wax into the mold. Let the wax skin up a bit over the course of a minute or so, pour the excess wax back out into the wax pot. Here's a video of that plaster mold:


video

Here's a quick video of my wax tools. Some of my wax tools:

video

Note in particular the carbon encrusted mini spatula like tool made from a piece of welding rod. This is the hot tool I use most often for "welding" pieces of wax together. You heat it up in the flame of an alcohol lamp, and apply it to the wax. I was not able to upload the latter part of the final video, which shows me using this tool to finish up the attachment of one of the tendrils to the jelly bean body, but you get the general idea. The touch and timing component here is key, learned from experience, as to how long you can apply the tool to melt the wax, as well as the interaction between gravity and the surface tension of wax to avoid drips and spills. It is part of the reason it would be very nice for the learner to experience what the artisan is doing. I think the combination of visual and haptic data would cut the learning time down by a considerable amount. The only thing better, of course, would be a download of my 20 years experience. Maybe. But then, if you can do that, what's the point? Right?

Right?

Anyway, here's the monkeycam video. It felt really weird manipulating the tools through the camera, but I could get used to it:










A final video, in which I attach a sperm tail to a jelly bean utilizing fire and a hot knife:



(Oh, and by the way, I just heard from Kohler! I was... rejected! 349 proposals for 16 slots. Eh! So what. Try again for next year).

Friday, October 14, 2011

Creepsicle, anyone?



I believe, working on these things, I've had about fifteen people so far commenting about how weird they are.

Well, good, that was the point.

I get the feeling that these little fellers are communicating to each other behind my back. Perhaps, even, making group decisions... like the real things.

Working on my wax forms representing bacteria, I put together a makeshift cardboard tray to hold them on. As is usually the case in art making, it is the inadvertent action that results in the most interesting thing.

I can remember - many times - cutting up some wood for a project, only to realize that the scraps are more visually interesting than the intended object's parts.

Go figure.

So... I guess, when I am done with the current project, I'll be making a Creepsicle Tray for chocolate covered creepie-crawlies, and so near Halloween as well. Might be worth making them edible.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Monkey Mirror Neuron Experience

I don't know exactly what it should be called. I don't know what animals have mirror neurons. I don't even why we have mirror neurons. But I just like the alliterative phrase. And here's what it would be.

Well, actually, I think it was brought up in a comment over at Mr. Nulan's Liminal Perspective on Consensual Reality which got me to thinking. And danged if I can find the comment now, but it was basically an invitation through various electronic remediative devices to engage in a Tine Experience.

Although actually no. Vernor Vinge's alien race, the Tines, were these doglike creatures that collectively formed one individual. Kind of like the Borg, but without the technical implants. This was all biological, thoughts shared through sounds. Rather than a Tine experience, which would subsume the individual into something larger, this is more like, just a highly integrated form of Call of Duty multiplayer video game. Or so I suppose. I've never played it.

In any case, let's cut to my chase. Teaching how to work with a material, be it whether I'm glassblowing, or blacksmithing, or throwing pots, or carving wax, I know that the prime method is mimicry. The little monkey mirror neurons are firing so hard and fast in my student's heads you can practically here the static. This causes me to constantly practice the fundamentals so that the students will not immediately pick up bad habits. And I often repeat basic movements again and again until they get it.

How much easier, I wonder, would they get it if they could be me

If they could, through electronic sensory devices follow my gaze, feel the weights in my hands, judge the shifting of my posture, all the while I'm talking.

How would that work out?

Monday, October 10, 2011

"This just in. Steve Jobs is still dead"

Anyone who has paid attention to my scribblings must have figured out by now that I don't buy into the Great Man theory of history - unless, of course, we are talking about psychopaths. I would probably agree that the world would be very different without the likes of Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Lenin, Napoleon, Alexander, etc. etc.

But without the likes of Edison? Gates? Steve Jobs? Here's a counterfactual for you. Let's say Steve Jobs is killed in an auto accident in 1979. In the year 2010, do we have the iPod, the iPad, the iMac, Pixar films, iTunes?

Answer? Yes. They all just wouldn't be called that. They all probably would not be as sharp and slick looking either.

Because, yes, you guessed it. I'm being contrary about the notion that Steve Jobs was the Edison of our times. I'm not alone. Some are offended by this opinion. I have no idea why.

I do recognize that Steve Jobs had a sense of style and slick design.

Now, I have to be introspective enough to ask "Is this an envious post?" Only in the sense that Herman Cain calls the Occupy Wall Street protestors envious. In other words, no, and fuck you for suggesting that you fat ugly old asshole. (Herman, not you, dear reader).

But I do object to this uncritical hyperbole around Jobs the man. This undue reverence and worship doesn't do anyone any favors. Not Jobs, not you and me, and certainly not history.

Let's get the facts right. Jobs did not invent the mouse. Jobs did not invent the GUI interface. Jobs did not invent the laptop computer with a screen interface. Jobs did not invent the personal data assistant that you could call people on. Want to see amazing first-order innovations? Go to Israel. Go to Finland. Don't go to Cupertino.

And private investors did not put in the initial seed monies to make these things happen. All that blue sky shit would never, ever have been funded by timid private investors.

The Defense Department funded it all. That's right, the US military is responsible. DARPA, mostly.

Credit where credit is due. Let's be honest about it.

Apple has been very good at integrating existing technology. If you wish to credit Jobs for recognizing these various innovations as potentially fruitful, I've no problem with that. But don't go making him into something he was not. Making shit up is more than half the problems we have around here.

(Oh, and whoo! my 300th blather as of today. Sticks tongue out at you).

Friday, October 7, 2011

Get out of my trailer

What my kidneys will be looking like in a few years
Earlier in the year, I sent in an application for Kohler's Art/Industry Residency. I haven't word one back from those bastards. So... I'll try again and apply for 2013 pretty soon.

It would have been a lot of fun had I been accepted. They have a cast iron foundry and a clay studio, and I had planned on utilizing both of them, making cope and drag sandcast molds for the iron, and plaster molds to slip cast porcelain. The obstacle for me in the application process was that you were supposed to come up with a concept for the works. Why can't I just make cool shit? No, there has to be some social value I guess. I came up with something in about 20 minutes, and this is what my proposal was:

"Although my primary interest has been figurative work, I am interested in depicting the figure as an ecological consortium.

We like to think of ourselves as discrete individuals, but the fact of the matter is we are communities of cells - not only human cells, but bacterial cells as well. It is estimated that there are ten times as many microbial cells in our bodies as human cells.

The Human Microbiome Project has recently identified perhaps a hundred times as much microbial genetic material as human within our bodies.
Our bodies can be viewed as entire worlds, with lush metaphorical rain forests within the gastrointestinal tract, and stark Sahara-like conditions on regions of skin such as the forehead.

My intent would be to render these conditions using both cast iron and slip-cast porcelain. The idea is to craft human anatomical or cellular portions in iron, and present an aura, or halo, of slip cast bacterial inhabitants of the human host community.

For example, a piece could include a larger than life size portions of molars, gums, tongue, etc. along with the porcelain bacterial denizens associated with it. Or, a life sized figure with a bacterial cloud surrounding and/or or suffusing it.  Or a representative human cell candidate, with a retinue of bacterial cells."
Your standard human cell
I'm going to continue to push this theme in the proposal next year, but slightly different. I suppose it had to do with a passage I read about relative size of bacteria and human cells. Bacteria can range from .5 to 5 microns in length. Human cells average around 10 microns. But in average, you typical volume of human cell to bacteria is about the same, scaled up, as a house to a person, or better still, a trailer.

Your standard trailer park trailer
So, that gave me the idea of a trailer park. I don't think I'll make the whole trailer park. I'll probably just make one trailer, but the trailer would be a morph of a trailer park trailer mobile home and a human cell. The resulting object would be of  slip cast and hand built porcelain.  

Human trailer park denizen
And then the little bacterial trailer park denizens? Pretty much as they are, with no attempt to anthropomorphize them (they'd just look like Mr. Peanut anyway), but they would be cast iron. And the beautiful thing is, I can do it all with the college's facilities. I just need to buy a clay-lined crucible and some class 25 grey iron scrap, and I can work in cast iron with our furnaces. Yay!

And then I'll have visual aids to go with my proposal to Kohler. I'll keep y'all posted.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

"Les classes dangereuses"


Back in the early to mid-nineteenth century Paris, the bourgeoisie considered the lower classes to be most associated with criminals. Poverty and crime go hand in hand, so the thought went, and all those of the lower orders were considered, through this piece of logic, to be considered the Dangerous Classes.

Dangerous to whom?

In the agrarian ages, the dangerous classes were the peasantry, the landless laborers, the tenant farmers. In the early era of manufacture, the dangerous classes became the vagabond mechanics and displaced cottage artisans forced into the cities. In the heavy industrial age, the laborers in the factories became dangerous. Now, in the information age, the middle class, thrown into a precarious state, dispossessed of stable careers, is dangerous. And in the post-information age? In an era of intelligent (or at least highly skilled) robots and computers, will the upper middle class, the professionals, the degreed, the certified, the accredited,  join the ranks of the dangerous?

Are you seeing a commonality here? Marx would have called it "human capital". The danger element is that the people who actually do all the fucking work, when deprived of this activity, can get into all sorts of mischief.

The dangerous ones are the indispensable ones. Not individually indispensable, mind you, but as a class (unless and until you get the robots up and running) the ones who, surprise!, don't need any supervision to do their fucking job. And in the triumphalist Cold War victory message, that central planning doesn't work, that distributed, egalitarian, collective wisdom seems to work just fine all on its own without a planner, without a manager, without a director, without a chief executive officer, what are we to take from that?

The only reason to have a financier, a venture capitalist, an entrepreneur, is not for their vision, not for their directives, not for their goals, or priorities, or agendas, but quite simply, for their monies?

"Give us your monies, shut the fuck up, stand aside out of the way and from underfoot, and we will make you some more monies, motherfucker".

That's dangerous. That's a genie not following orders. That's a Titan unbound. That's a team of wild horses. That's a rogue monster, unchained, unleashed, unpredictable.

We are told, by the greasy advertisers and slick-as-spit public relations dweebs, that the natural order is for the rich to be self-servingly enlightened, and by doing so, create jobs for the rest of us. We, the idled layabouts, who, left to our own devices, would no doubt drown face down in the mud for lack of effort or thought to turn ourselves upright. These wonderful job creators provide all and everything that allow the dangerous to be productive and good and worthy as members of society.Wow, the only logical response to that is...

Fuck you.

Funny thing is, it's all about rules in the game, isn't it? As Duncan Watts argues in "Everything is Obvious Once You Know the Answer":

"...arguments about the so-called redistribution of wealth are mistaken in assuming that the existing distribution is somehow the natural state of things, from which any deviation is unnatural, and hence morally undesirable. In reality, every distribution of wealth reflects a particular set of choices that a society has made: to value some skills over others, to tax and prohibit some activities while subsidizing or encouraging other activities; and to enforce some rules while allowing other rules to sit on the books, or to be violated in spirit. All these choices can have considerable ramifications for who gets rich and who doesn't... but there is nothing "natural" about any of these choices, which are every bit a product of historical accident, political expediency, and corporate lobbying as they are of economic rationality or social desirability."
One thing that should be taken from all this is that solutions are dynamic. All targets are moving targets.

And those defenders of the status quo and the ruling class, by remaining inflexible, unbending in their support and beliefs, by standing still in the way of events, are, if history is any guide, sure to come to ruin.



Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Fitness Seascape

How Quaint!
Hell is a cold place. Ask anyone who has been cold and can't warm up. Hell is Cold. Ask my ancestors. They set Hell in a deep, dark place of ice and wet and cold. It might as well have been the bottom of the ocean. And when the end of days come, when the Twilight of the Gods is at hand, the Fimbulwinter comes, a winter that makes the Ice Ages look like umbrella drink tropical paradise, and the inhabitants of Hell storm the citadel of the gods in a huge ship made from the fingernails of the dead, scratched across the surface of ice of the now Moon-dead seas.

Heat? Heat is to be welcomed. We East African Plains Apes, having evolved with sweat glands for that parched and arid million year landscape, can handle the heat. All we need is some wind to evaporate the sweat and cool us off. In fact, look at our descriptive terms for a light current of air - breeze, zephyr, melody. A puff. A waft. A whiff. A breath. A blessing. All hold the promise of refreshment and respite. Why even the sound evokes the feeling. A cool, cool breeze. Sweet, fresh, and sparkling clean.

But that's not what I want to talk about.

Neal Stephenson recently wrote an essay, "Innovation Starvation", decrying the slowing pace of innovation. I enjoy reading Stephenson's books, am sometimes engaged with certain of his ideas (or at least struck at how we have come to the same conclusions), appreciate his ability to spin an adventure yarn, am only occasionally disappointed in how his characters seem a bit too modern and hip and speak too often with Left Coast mannerisms, but on the whole consider him a pretty damn good author. But in this essay, I've got a lot to disagree with. More about that in a minute. Maybe.

One of the things that often struck me as wrong, or wrong-headed, was the use of the business metaphor describing all things biological. Biologists would describe the "cost" of a certain adaptation, or a "payoff" of a certain behavioral strategy, and I thought, well, they've got it all backwards. Rather than biologists using Smith or Galbraith or Friedman as their conceptual modellers in these casual descriptions, economists should be using Darwin to fathom the world of business and finance.

Biologists will often talk of a fitness landscape. The idea being that the further up on the landscape you are, the more fit an individual can be considered (given that the terrain is a metaphorical or visual aid for selection pressures). Thus, being up on a plateau is better than being down in a valley. Or supposedly so. It could be that the plateau is not the highest one. The highest one is called the "global maximum", others not so high are "local maxima". The problem with being on a local maxima, at least within the narrative of the fitness landscape, is that one must descend back down into the valley to ascend a higher peak. Well, this always struck me as a silly metaphor, but only because of the study of nonlinear population models I did in college, and as a computational hobby for years afterwards.

In the late 80s I decided that a much better term was fitness seascape, considering that models that best modeled population dynamics, competition, and cooperation, were not only nonlinear (with feedback loops), but also, well, dynamic. In other words, searching for a general solution, a permanent global maximum, was silly because, the accurate model, like Nature itself, had conditions changing over time. An individual sitting on a peak, could through external events, suddenly find itself sitting in a trough. And thus adaptations are always local. Or rather, non-local, but relative, with no absolute frame of reference. No Newtonian world view of static spaces and times.

And not just external circumstances. The fitness of the individual to local conditions changed local conditions. There is a self-referential feedback loop similar to Einstein's ideas about mass and gravity and space and time.

The classic visualization is the solar system viewed as heavy and light iron balls (mass) on a rubber sheet (space/time). The weight of the balls bends the sheet (gravity). The bends in the sheet changes the position of the balls. The "success" or fitness of an individual can change the local conditions of fitness in the same way- although not always as a bend downwards. Relativity being the key phrase here, as, in business as in biology, fitness is a relative positioning, not an absolute one.

So, on my own (honest!), I came up with the term fitness or adaptive seascape. Eventually, the world of academia caught up with me. David J Merrell is credited with coining the term, but actually, I did.

Back to Stephenson's essay, and what annoyed me. He decries the timidity and short-sightedness of private industry. Agreed. He decries the zero tolerance for risk that firms increasingly retreat to. Agreed. He claims that as a (partial) result, innovation is slowing in pace. Disagreed.

A casual glance at the numbers suggests that it is simply not so. True, less world-changing gadgetry is out there, or seems to be. But, in keeping with my ideas about the fallacy of preformationism, the epigenetic narrative, the narrative of history, we simply have not been around long enough to recognize the real consequences of our current crop of gadgets. (Just as it took some time to realize how the telegraph, and by extension speed-of-light communications, fostered the development of the modern corporation). 

"Hi there! I'm Mister B!"
Besides which, if it is true that innovation is slowing down (which I don't think it is), even Stephenson himself recognizes (or so I recall) the remarkable progress of  the Long Boom is owed to some extent by Mister B. Mister B (whom the Japanese called B san) pummeled the majority of the world's industrial landscape into rubble some sixty years ago. The great rebuilding resulted in a one time increase in all things gadget. Couple this with the assumption that the gadgets invented over the past 100 years are all the low-hanging fruit, in other words, the easy stuff to invent, this also may explain the perceived slowdown in innovation.

Continuing under this assumption, we have arrived that the temporary gadget plateau. However, if you look at the current crop of innovations, you will note it is less about gadgets and much, much  more about materials and processes. Nanotech. Synthetic biology. Spintronics. Metamaterials. Graphene. Quantum computing. Energy storage membranes. Superatoms. The world of materials engineering is very quickly to enter its golden age - assisted by chemists, biologists, and physicists.

Stephenson mourns the world where big stuff could be done. I would suggest that he bemoans a world where the easy stuff could be done. The stuff that looked risky, but actually wasn't.

The really truly risky stuff still lies ahead of us.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

This is how it starts -

 - with the young ones. Always the young ones.

The under 30 crowd is starting to protest again. At first I waited to see if this was just a flash in the pan, but the Occupy Wall Street movement seems to be gaining momentum. I say so not because of the increasing number of cities that are seeing demonstrations. After all, if you don't have a coherent message, the chance that a movement will crystallize is remote.

But, there is something going on concurrently with all this, it is the We Are the 99 Percent movement. They are feeling the real deal. The played by the economic rules, worked hard, studied, did all the right things, and they are homeless, bankrupt, bereft of a decent job and a dignified way to earn monies, and pissed off about it. Who can blame them?

But it's even worse than that. By not working, by sitting idle, the country is losing a vast and valuable opportunity and resource. I would think even the most heartless capitalist stooge should recognize that an idled mind and hands is a waste of both capital and labor. It is a devastating loss of time, talents, and monies - a loss to the individuals, to the community, to business, to country, to the world.

Now, you would think the responsible so-called "job creators" would be taking notice. If (ha) they actually were job creators, then they have to be thinking to themselves "God we really are doing a terrible fucking job aren't we? I feel awful at being such an incompetent fuckhead. Maybe I'd better go take a few laps in my champagne-filled Olympic-sized swimming pool and de-stress".

But no, the right wing media is instead getting both puzzled and scared. The tone has changed from sarcasm to just a bit of quaver in the voice, and perhaps a little tiny squirt of brown liquid shit in the silk panties to go with that.

One can hope.

I know the clueless assholes on Wall Street are frustrated. "Wha - well, those kids should be marching on Washington! They should be protesting Congress and the White House! Don't they know that's where all the troubles began?" God damn boys, clue yourselves in for a change. If you boneheads can't figure this out, one has to wonder why we don't have a financial meltdown every other week.

I suspect Warren Buffet has got it figured out. He seems a smart enough guy. I take him for a student of history, and being able to recognize the consequences of being on the wrong side of it.

Because, if this continues, Warren knows its his head in the wicker basket.