Iceland is a Weird Place

If you were to ask an Icelandic sheep farmer freezing in his longhouse 500 years ago: “hey, will those rainy mountains and geysers make your descendants wealthy?” he would have said “you’re crazy. sheep and fish are natural resources, rainy mountains just get in the way.” 

Fast forward 500 years. Those rainy mountains provide tons of fast-flowing water, which can be turned into something the sheep farmer couldn’t even imagine – cheap electricity. This electricity can be used to smelt something else the sheep farmer didn’t know existed – pure aluminum. This aluminum is valuable because it enables thousands of technologies that – you guessed it – the sheep farmer could barely have imagined.  

With this story and many, many like it, I always find it surprising that many people still say “yes, well NOW we know what the limits are and should really slow down.” 

Inspired by: Planet Money Podcast – “A City on the Moon”

Counterarguments Include: Ah, but now we have science that tells us the value of all resources. 

Learn more: Julian Simon wikipedia. Julian Simon Econtalk. Julian Simon Planet Money. Aluminum. 

 

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Why are Rockets like Amphorae? Pt 1.

Short answer: They’re both technological local maxima.

“whoo hoo, I’m a local maxima!”

Long answer:

If asked “what container do you use to ship large volumes of wine?” the answer is  pretty clearly “the barrel, duh.” But if you asked that question two thousand years ago, it would be “amphorae, duh. Barrels are expensive, tiny, shoddy containers made by barbarians.”

(ASIDE) Amphorae were the dominant vessel for liquid transport in the mediterranean world for centuries. You probably think of amphorae as little urns that look something like this:

Achilles (left) is a metaphor for barrels in a historical context

But that will be like someone a thousand years from now thinking of a custom Porsche when someone says “car”: they’re both high-end luxury goods. Instead of being painted with Greek men killing each other, most amphorae were several feet long and looked something like this:

Transport Amphora

Today, it’s clear that barrels have many advantages over amphorae: they’re lighter, less fragile, and don’t need special racks to hold them during transport. So why were they ever chosen over barrels? Historical momentum and initial conditions.

Amphorae were developed in tandem with Mediterranean trade – amphorae enabled trade in valuable liquids and in turn, increased trade incentivized innovations in amphora technology. All of this occurred around the Southeastern Mediterranean (present-day Egypt, Greece, Lebanon etc.) Here, wood was relatively scarce and expensive. What was cheap and plentiful? Rich river mud. What’s made out of mud? Amphorae. As trade expanded from this region into the rest of Europe, so too did the practice of using amphorae to transport liquids. Archeologists have found amphorae in Britain and Northern France, where wood is far more plentiful, so it would have been easy to use barrels instead.

So why didn’t barrels begin to dominate trade as soon as heavily wooded regions connected to the trade routes? The same reason we’re still using rockets to transport everything to space: Historical momentum. What did it take to shift the balance from amphorae to barrels? Something that hasn’t happened yet to space technology: a massive shock.

To come, in no particular order: Werner Von Braun, Muslim Invasions, and space cannons.

 

Don’t Try This at Home

Today I inadvertently ran a human toxicity trial with N = 1 data points. I’m calling it ‘the effects of way too much black pepper on human physiology.’ The conclusion is that you should ALWAYS make sure you have the side of the the pepper container with many little holes, rather than one big hole open. If you’ve ever wondered what happens if you eat several tablespoons of cracked black pepper in more detail, read on.

Black Pepper Kernel

There’s a reason it looks like the Death Star

I ate the pepper around 8:45 pm and noticed nothing before going to bed. However, I woke up the next morning around 7:00 am and thought ‘weird, it feels like my face is on fire.’ The effect was similar to eating something extremely spicy – you feel hot and flushed, sensitivity in the back of your throat, and nothing tastes quite right. Except it has lasted all day (due, I’m guessing to the time-release effects of digestion.)

The heat in my face seemed to come straight from my extremities, which alternated between weirdly numb and just uncomfortably cold. My eyes felt like they do when you’ve had them open underwater far too long. I think the pepper actually acted as a stimulant, because it affected me very similarly to a strong stimulant (even before I had coffee) – giving me tons of energy when I started moving, followed by a spiraling crash.

That being said, the symptoms died down over the past 15 hours, so I assume there are no lasting effects.

I thought this would be worthwhile to write up because a search for ‘black pepper overdose,’ ‘black pepper side effects,’ and ‘black pepper toxicity’ yielded nothing useful. Also as a warning: if you accidentally dump a massive amount of pepper on your dinner, throw it away. It isn’t worth it.

 

Disambiguate!

Have you ever gone through the Wikipedia disambiguation pages for the greek and Roman characters? If not, you should.

Even if you narrow your scope to just a single discipline like Mechanical Engineering, the same symbol can mean multiple things (G can be both the gravitational constant and electrical conductance.) At the same time, the same thing can be represented by multiple symbols – depending on which professor you ask, the name of the angle on the latitudinal plane in spherical coordinates can be either φ or θ.

This isn’t a problem that has a solution – there are only 50 characters between the Greek and Roman letter systems.

Instead, there’s a deeper lesson: chances are, an assumption that what you think is an unambiguous implies something entirely different to someone else. If this can happen with equations (normally held up as the paragon of unambiguity) think about what happens in English.

Engineering vs. Economics (a response)

Last week, Russ Roberts (of ever excellent Econtalk) wrote a blog post about economics and engineering. I was surprised by how much I disagreed, though not in the way you might expect.  His point: looking at the economy isn’t anything like an engineering problem. The economy is complex and emergent while engineering problems can be modeled very accurately by simple equations:

“Running an economy is not an engineering problem. There are no simple equations that describe its motion that are akin to the engineering problem of space travel.”

 The gap between economics and engineering is not so large as Russ makes it out to be, but the similarity is in the opposite direction from the normal misconception: rather than economics being captured by simple equations like engineering, engineering is more complex and emergent than most people (even engineers!) acknowledge, like economics.

 Sure, engineering theory can be captured by simple equations (“it’s just physics!”) but then, so can economics. It’s just easier to get to ‘the emperor has no clothes’ point in economics. You can write down the rocket equation, F = MA, do some orbital dynamics and say, “yup, that’s how we get to the moon” but this is what the wiring of the Apollo computer looked like:

Image

 

Just as in economics, the gap between neat equations and reality is huge. Non-optimal solutions are built on non-optimal solutions because technology has become so complex that you can’t just start from scratch. A huge amount of programming is done using Unix command line commands and the C programming language, both built in the 70’s and flash frozen into the system.

 “Ironically, in an unplanned economy, shopping is usually as straightforward and predicable as space travel. It becomes a engineering problem–what is the shortest route to the grocery–what is my optimal path through the store given my shopping list.”

 From my perspective, Russ’ wonder at how well the unplanned economy works, rings just as true for engineering.

Never Say Never

The deluge of end-of-year related media seems to take two forms: recaps of the past year and predictions for the future. (Interestingly, there aren’t a lot of year-end reports along the lines of ‘and here’s what I’m doing RIGHT NOW’) Many predictions involve technology: will 2014 be the year of the 3-D printed, cloud-neural network quantum-computing autonomous cars?!?!?! (Answer: No.)

For everybody who thinks fusion powered utopia is just around the corner, it seems there are at least ten naysayers who think technological optimists are just indulging sci-fi daydreams. Although anecdotes aren’t proof, many very smart people, through their own pessimism, have inadvertently offered up counter-evidence for a pessimistic viewpoint. Check it out:

  • “A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.” — The New York Times , 1920.
  • “There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom.” — Robert Millikan , winner of the 1923 Nobel Prize in physics, 1928.
  • “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”  — Scottish mathematician and creator of the Kelvin temperature scale William Thomson, Lord Kelvin , 1895.
  • “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” — Ken Olsen , founder and president of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977 .

(Quotes from this long article on the Motley Fool) 

The anecdote usually mentioned in this context – the patent officer claiming in 1902 that everything useful had already been invented – is apocryphal.

You should be skeptical of any tech prediction more than five years down the road, and ‘never’ is about the most far-off prediction there is.

So how do you strike a balance between deluded optimism and stick-in-the-mud pessimism? Don’t just predict a future, choose the one you want the most.  Work backwards to the actionable item for the next year to make your future a reality starting in 2014.