Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Schrödingers Whirlpool

Erwin Schrödinger introduced the idea of negative entropy to characterize Life. It’s a mystical concept, as I’m sure he well knew. For Life bathes in a colossal gusher of local energy from Sol. That astonishing light and unimaginable heat vanish surely and almost completely into the Universe, leaving nothing but agitated motion among the sparse molecules spread across the lightyears. Life thrives in the flow, but it is not energy, nor does it violate the laws of energy.

Energy spreads out until it is useless. This loss, we feel it as a loss for some reason, is remorseless, like the flowing of the water remorselessly through a billion channels from the highest clouds to the level of the Sea. But what are we in such a scheme? A physicist sees Life as somewhat counterintuitive, comparing it perhaps to a capacitor, some curious electro-chemical mousetrap that holds back some of that energy flow for later use, where the word "use" itself implies an unscientific refutation of entropy.

It is a mystical concept, I repeat. It has confused generations of creationists. Living things are not immune to entropy and pose no challenges to it. The apparent complexity and organization of life is a product of the flowing energy, slowing it down but an instant, similar perhaps to an eddy in the flowing river. The eddy is not made of water, and causes the water to tarry only a short time. The eddy is not the water, yet the eddy is a complex form that holds together in itself, an apparent spirit of the water, retaining its form and dancing in the water for the span of its moments or days. It seems alive. By Schrödinger’s light, it is alive, and its path cannot be predicted. Nor can ours. But the energy goes its way.


People who apply mystical concepts to the workings of the human universe are almost always misled by those concepts. People who get mystical gratification from understanding those workings, however, can have the profoundest impact on the rest of us. Schrödinger was from that second group, as were Adam Smith, Einstein and Darwin, who found that there was grandeur in his view of Life. Carl Sagan tried to express this in his series, Cosmos, which I recommend as still inspiring after two decades. Wonder and awe and even mystical experiences are common to those who explore the world with the cold scalpel of reason. Why that is so, I can only guess, and my guess is this: it is because the real world is worthy of such emotions, and the mystical world is worthy of such a scalpel.

While Darwin had the pleasure of his discovery, that marvelous engine of Beauty, I suspect that Thomas Malthus, who has also given us a great truth, had trouble getting out of bed. I imagine that he found it hard to breathe from time to time, as I do when I think about his offering to us. It is the straitjacket of reproductive life. The Malthusian Denialists are rampant among us. It’s hard to blame them. Bartletts’s Law suggests that this simple idea is indigestible, that humans cannot, by their nature, understand it . Perhaps, as has been suggested, Bartletts’s Law is an inevitable outcome of natural selection when the human mind meets Malthus. Can anyone who comes to understand him reproduce as productively as before? Darwin certainly could, but he was an unusual creature.

These thoughts are occurring to me as I try to put the work of Joseph Tainter in perspective. I am pondering the subject at Steve Sturgill’s behest. Steve has, I think he would agree, been driven to pessimism at least in part by the school of thought currently thrashing in those waters that Tainter described so cogently.

Tainter, in my abrupt summary, has identified energy and complexity as the limiting factors, the controlling inputs, of modern civilization. Even research and development, he would say, requires increased complexity and energy inputs that are reaching a saturation point. The Law of Diminishing Returns would indicate that increasing inputs into the business of solving problems rewards us with smaller and smaller payoffs.

I would like to generalize his viewpoint and make a statement I can agree with. Every society, every growing system, requires one thing that it does not have. The limiting factor could be energy, labor, land, knowledge or just plain resolve. If the society gets more of that one thing, then it will be short of something else. Each solution requires effort, concerted action, and probably some physical inputs, such as energy or nitrates or water. The odds are that sooner or later the society will, solving many problems as it grows, finally stumble upon a required input that the society is congenitally unable to provide. The suggestion was that the Roman Empire lacked energy resources, provided in those days by slaves, and resolved the issue in a dysfunctional way, by adapting a strategy of conquest, which could not be sustained. It is obvious that the problem is growth itself, to which there are indeed limits.

We know, however, that we have not reached those limits yet, for the growth of GDP still outpaces population growth. We are, however, borrowing against a future that will come to its limit more abruptly because of our profligacy. Abrupt limits lead to collapse. Do we have a choice? I certainly think so, but not as we are.

One of the limiting factors in our society is decision unification. The democratic structure does not allow for rational choices pursued patiently. And autarchy, plutocracy, and kleptocracy are much worse in every way except single-mindedness. We see this amply demonstrated in the ecological crimes of the USSR, the PRC, the states of the Warsaw Pact and Saddam’s Iraq.

Part of Tainter’s thesis is that complexity increases continually. Most of what he sees as complexity is Division of Labor as delimned by Adam Smith in 1776. We become more productive by breaking difficult jobs into many parts and allowing people to specialize in each part. It applies to manufacturing, regulation, research and general scholarship alike. But it is only one of the ways that we improve productivity. When I was a child, my father had several mechanics who worked on his car. One of them was a specialist in carburetors. He had studied them for decades and could take one apart and put it back together in the dark. Today, he would be out of a job. There are no carburetors, so no repairmen. Things have been simplified, not complicated. There are also no computer repairmen or vacuum clearner repairmen because we have become so productive at producing them that it’s cheaper to replace than fix. Maybe they still have carburetor mechanics and vacuum cleaner repairmen in Cuba, but that speaks to other problems.

I used to be a computer programmer, but now most of these jobs are gone. Why is that? Software has added to our productivity so effectively that upgrades have become nuisances rather than eagerly awaited benefits. People can do a lot of their own programming now because it’s so packaged and programming languages have improved. Outsourcing is routine. Simpler in some ways, harder in other ways. People can’t program their VCRs, so we now have the Geek Squad. That complicates things a little for now, but in ten years your electronic devices will interface with humans much more conveniently. Part of our complexity input is being reaped in the form of simplicity output. So Tainter is not necessarily correct. At least not yet. And maybe we can change in more fundamental ways as well. Maybe we can learn to observe ourselves, rule ourselves and regulate our growth.

2/13/2007 1:28 AM

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I am a sucker for new words. GOMBOC is a mathematical word related to turtles in some obscure way. Turtles are pretty cool in themselves. I remember that my father used to bring home box turtles when I was young. I think he let them go after we lost interest in them. I miss turtles. It's hard to find them anymore. I don’t think it’s the fault of Global Warming, but I do suspect that we’re somehow to blame.

I also miss pheasants, but people tell me that’s a good thing. They weren’t native anyway. I’ve had enough of crows and starlings and deer, too, for that matter. OK, I lied. I still like seeing the deer.

2/12/2007 11:59 PM

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Calculus of Confrontation

Peace is very nice, but it doesn’t exist until everyone subscribes. Where ever in the world there are tyrants who rose to power using violence, or something close to violence, there are people who know the effectiveness of violence, and will resort to it with increasing frequency as it becomes increasingly effective.

Our enemies recognize that, for the most part, we do not come from the same school as they do. We can be intimidated by accusations that we bully others, usually by bullies themselves, and we can be intimidated by threats of violence. Americans see the rest of the world as a hornets’ nest. I mean, sure, we’re more powerful and everything, and sure, we could just destroy them completely, but my gosh, why should we go meddling? What’s to gain? Live and let live. People are different. Respect their differences. Culture is relative, and everyone thinks their culture is the best. Isn’t that right?

Well of course it’s right. But seriously, these annoying other places are annoying because they don’t share any of those dicta of tolerance. They would like to grab that ring in our collective nose and lead us around like a prize bull. If you think they would have any qualms about embarrassing us, or hurting us, you’re crazy. The use of power by power-loving people becomes when unmet, effective and exponentially cumulative. Prussia nearly conquered the world. Do yourself a favor and look at the historical maps of the Roman Empire.

We, and the rest of the free world, represent something new. We are a people who truly believes that we can coexist and actually wants to coexist with the rest of the world. Before the US came into being, nations addressed each other with avarice, animosity or indifference. We are different. You don’t have to be part of the US to be our natural allies. You can be as different as you want, and everything is cool. We love everybody, but we must not allow ourselves to forget that some nations, the lands of the powerful men, return the favor by viewing us with avarice, animosity or indifference – and they make their plans.

Ralph Peters discusses some of these axioms in an article in Front Page Magazine. He notes that our enemies, unchecked, unconfronted, have meddled, and will not hesitate to meddle more in whatever efforts we take in the world. As long as the parental eye of the voting American public doesn’t see the devious action under the table, there is no price to be paid by the troublemakers.

Within two weeks, four choppers go down in Iraq. Shot down. By enemies who previously couldn't hit the Goodyear Blimp.

Attack helicopters and transport birds, military and contractor aircraft went down. Crews KIA (in one case, executed). Did the bad guys just get lucky?

No. They have new weapons. And new training. And a new strategy.

Unless these shoot-downs were a weird blip, foreign powers are involved, providing the missiles and training - probably outside of Iraq. Our intel services either already know who's lurking behind our enemies' new capabilities or will confirm it soon enough.

And who might those third parties be?

[T]he foes of freedom beyond Iraq's borders raised the stakes significantly by providing deadly new weapons and training to the insurgents and terrorists. They're confident that they hold the winning cards. It's time we taught them how to play for keeps

To your Average Anti-War Thinker, this sounds like new excuses to pursue a tired strategy. But why do we do it? What profit is gained for the Administration by hysterically barking at every rabbit in the woods?

The fact is that there are reasons rooted in the real world, reasons that cannot be believably explained to a cynical public in the midst of a propaganda war. So the President does not try. The AAWT, on the other hand, fleshes out that unexplainable something with the magic sinews of imputed motive. I’m sure you’ve heard some of these accusations. They are ludicrous, but they are believed. The over-the-top conspiracy theorizing on the Left tells you that they are outraged at the uncivilized behavior of the White House. And it should also tell you that they just cannot compute what the real reasons might be.

2/11/2007 2:46 AM

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Hafnium Extends Law for Moore

The Age has a description of the next technology in computer chips, as announced by Intel and IBM, amid some interesting commentary on Moore’s Law. This breakthrough uses the unusual metal hafnium rather than silicon. Hafnium has good electrical characteristics and is denser and more accurately etched into narrow bands. It will make it possible for new components to double the number of transistor elements just in time to keep Mr. Moore honest.

I’m gratified to see the suggestion in writing that Gordon’s Guesstimate has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have thought so myself. Some think it's just a mirage caused by shifting goalposts. This is interesting, but ignores the incontrovertible fact that computing technology has advanced beyond our wildest dreams -- every two years or so, I would say. The spotlight that Moore's Law has put on this is also undeniable. One could hope that the same kind of focus ensued from, for example, Bush’s Mars Mission. But I’m afraid nobody believes him. Without the belief, the schedule is fantasy.

The prediction of a “singularity” in human/technology development by 2040 is not as powerful either. It is more like religious millenialism. There is no way to know whether it’s right until we get there. And when we don’t get there on the projected date, they just say, our calculations were off. We really meant to say 2050.

The real power of Moore’s Law is as a quantitative measure of progress in a designated domain. He predicts … we observe … we believe. It is up to specialists in connected fields to understand what those predictions mean to them and to do their part in making the magic happen.

2/7/2007 11:38 PM



Chemical & Engineering News on new chip technology

45 nm competition w gratuitis ref to Milton Friedman

Moore’s Law thread on mushroom

Deep historical analysis of Moore’s Law

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Searching the Vasty Deep

The Internet is now being used as a tool for seeking lost individuals and ships lost at sea. Satellite and aerial mapping data, in the case below, is being shared out to numerous volunteers. Page codes are returned to a central web site with recommendations – "nothing found", or "please review".

James Gray, 63, a Microsoft researcher and winner of the prestigious Turing Award, failed to return home from a sailing trip on Sunday, January 28.

He left from San Francisco Bay aboard a 40-foot sailing boat, and had intended to scatter his mother's ashes at the nearby Farallon Islands.

Several days of intensive searching by the US Coast Guard and private planes revealed no sign of Dr Gray or his boat, so desperate friends and colleagues turned to the internet for help.

On Friday, engineers from NASA, online retailer Amazon and technology companies such as Google and Microsoft organised a satellite and high-altitude aircraft to photograph the area where he was believed to be located.

The photographs were then split into smaller tiles and uploaded to Amazon's Mechanical Turk website, allowing virtually anyone to take part in the search effort.

If you want to help, click here. This methodology is essentially distributed computing, similar to that used in the SETI project, except that the parallel component consists of human visual analysis units. I wonder whether this open community approach might have helped with the Beagle 2, an ESA lander lost on Mars, Christmas Day, 2003.

Remote sensing and satellite imagery are finding more uses every year. It’s really remarkable. Search theory and methodology have also matured dramatically within my lifetime. I remember Grace Hopper mentioning the search problem in a speech at my school. As a naval officer, she couldn’t help but be exposed to the problem. A recent episode of Numb3rs went into some detail on how to find a sunken ship.

We may think the world seems small today – with international communications and online mapping, but things can still be lost on a single plot of land, and the Pacific is a whole other thing. I’m sure Hopper would be gratified, but not surprised, at how computers have facilitated this work.

It is ironic that once imaging becomes sufficiently detailed and available to do this kind of work online, countervailing forces act to politically impose reduced availability and resolution. If India can change an international Google standard, I can imagine what China has requested.

2/6/2007 1:56 AM

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Still Waters

I have a friend who worked with me for many years. This gentleman is active in his church and a doting father and husband. He is a productive worker in his company and a community volunteer who often finds himself in positions of responsibility. It’s not clear why this happens. He’s very quiet; he has a policy of not volunteering. He always says he’s too busy. He never promotes himself. Yet he seems to know everyone and everyone knows him. He is never thought of when people discuss technical talent, yet he is always learning and always one step ahead of where I think I ought to be going. He never loses his cool, but he often seems to be frustrated, which he indicates with a very dry humor. And he always ends up in charge of something.

He and I worked in some difficult situations for some bad bosses. In those situations he served as a sounding board for disaffected individuals, and I believe he managed to rectify some situations with some under-the-table tactics that I never fully understood. After a few years of working with him, I compared, in my mind, the current management to his example -- and found the current management wanting. I began to encourage him to seek a promotion. I began quietly campaigning for the idea with some people I knew, but it never happened because my friend didn’t want it to happen. He didn’t want the limelight. He didn’t need the glory. He didn’t want to rock the boat.

Now, we all know people like this. Supremely competent, level-headed, socially adept and unambitious. Compare them to the people who actually get into high offices. I have often said that our government would improve if we were to select our officials randomly from a phone book. The people that do get elected are lackluster, hypocritical dimwits, with many exceptions of course. The problem is that people like my friend really could never get very far in a political situation. They are insufficiently nasty and selfish.

When they move up, you usually find people like my friend in positions like assistant director, liaison to the president, treasurer, vice chair, head of the decorations committee. They understand everything that is going on. They know what needs to be fixed, but they refuse to impose their personality on the process. Successful politicians are not like that, but they work with people like that.

The problem with our democracy, as I see it, is that far too many wise and competent individuals are languishing in the backwaters, which is precisely what they want, of course, but it is not what we want. We want the right people to move up and the wrong people to stay out of power. The algorithm of government today does not work that way. How do we change the algorithm? If every such individual were to move up one level in the social/governmental/military hierarchy, I believe there would be revolution of competence with far-reaching effects.

A management consultant once told me that the secret of success is to steadily expand your sphere of influence. It’s a very simple formulation. I don’t think it has helped me a whole lot over the years, but I have come to see how it applies. My friend doesn’t care about his sphere of influence. He only cares about his circle of friends. As a strategic approach to enhancing American democracy, I believe we should look at mechanisms that leverage the social talents of these backwater sages. I have a few ideas in mind.

2/4/2007 5:14 PM

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