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.


E-shop Efficiency

Today I used Cornell’s online purchasing system for the first time. If you needed more evidence that modern universities should be categorized among the hallowed ranks of bloated bureaucracies, look no further.

Let’s quickly get past the fact that it took me a good 45 minutes to make a purchase that would have taken three if I were using my own credit card. By now I’ve become completely desensitized to how much human capitol is wasted by bureaucracies, be they academic, governmental or industry-based. If you don’t believe me, check out the 106 page ‘buying manual’ that I’m sure I was nominally supposed to have read before even thinking about buying anything.

I understand that the university needs accountability for how its money is spent, but this is ridiculous. It’s tangled mess of incentives that’s perfectly embodied by the ‘Supplier Utilization Hierarchy.’ If you can, go with the supplier who’s cut a deal with the University – if not, go with the most politically correct supplier.

Nowhere is time or price efficiency mentioned as a consideration for a purchase.

Confused, bloated systems like Cornell’s are waste of valuable human capitol. (This, of course, makes the big assumption that professors and graduate students would be doing more useful things otherwise. )

Like many inefficiency problems the solution to this one has two components – technological and institutional.

Modern computer technology is very good at combating the type of inefficiency embodied by this system. Machine learning algorithms are great at recognizing anomalous behavior and should be able to reduce the amount of time that humans need to spend writing and reading purchase justifications.  Database and search technologies should be able to spider across the different suppliers – compiling and sorting products rather than requiring the user to know beforehand where to go for which item and filing separate requests for each.

Of course, tech upgrades won’t help much without institutional change. Instead of trying to appease everybody or achieve an agenda, the controllers of these systems need to commit themselves to a single goal – helping us, the users of the system do their jobs as efficiently as possible

Aggravating Aggregation

A small rant inspired by the space settlement video yesterday:

 If you pay attention, throughout the video, the narrator continually refers to activities that will be performed by an unspecified group. Is it humanity? The population of the United States? Just you and the narrator? ‘We will go to L1.’ ‘We will create a base on Phobos.’

 ‘We’ has become one of my least favorite words. It enables (often unconsciously) a passive-aggressive door to a slew of distasteful things: issue commands, assert consensus, play down inherent differences, avoid responsibility, and more.

 “Have we done this?” – I don’t know, have we? You haven’t and neither have I.

 “We should do that.” – Clearly you won’t, so really you just want me to do it.

 “We believe these things.” – how do you know what is going on in anybody’s head but your own?

 I think it’s a natural human tendency to think this way. We want to believe that we’re acting and thinking in consensus.  ß See: that way of thinking is so easy for me to slip into. I don’t actually know what every other human wants; I just suspect it based on observed behavior and my own desires. 

 In reality, there is no ‘we,’ there is no ‘us’ – there are many collections of individuals in different configurations. Taking this fact into account in your thinking is hard: it’s mentally inefficient to disaggregate groups and consider that individuals all have different actions, needs and desires. It’s probably overkill to never mentally aggregate, but I think in many cases, the balance is much too far towards too much aggregation.

 To return to the inspiration for this post: one place I see a lot of this bothersome aggregation is in discussions of space exploration. This is partially because many people (admittedly including myself) see space exploration as an endeavor for all of humanity, and partially because space exploration is so resource intensive that it does require aggregation on some level – I certainly can’t make myself a rocket.

 My open question is this: how can I use ‘we’ and ‘us’ without making unfair presumptions?