Thursday, July 27, 2006

Economic Recursion

Dan has cracked the code on computer upgrades. He decided to buy Apple shares to finance the purchase of his new Apple PowerMac. Apple's success is therefore key to getting Dan's business. Not only is this conceptually pretty cool, it occured to me that it is not even uncommon. We all do this sort of thing every day. We buy clothes and wear them to the store where we bought them. We buy gas and use it to drive to a service center to keep our car running, where we buy parts and use them to get us to a gas station. I suppose this sort of circular consuming and producing is the basis of any economy bigger than simple subsistance agriculture, where each individual makes most of what they need themselves. Perhaps this is obvious to economists, but I thought Dan's solution was an elegant one (in a bull market). It certainly got me thinking about how all parties in a complex economy depend on each other.

Perhaps the high degree of economic interdependence explains why societies can collapse so rapidly when the social contracts needed to run them are disrupted. I am thinking about Iraq, of course, but it seems this is the basis for a simple economic argument against breaking a country's social system. They are easy to break, but hard to repair.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Mulgara's Initial Release

Mulgara is going ahead. The initial release looks set for the end of this month (July 2006). This first release will be based on an older version of Kowari from 1 August 2005. That date will avoid any code contributed to or by Northrup Grumman Corporation, even though their recent correspondance allows its use. It will also avoid a reported scalability bug while we investigate.

Unfortunately, several old Kowari bugs will temporarily reappear in Mulgara, but users may expect them to be quickly repaired. Those bugs include the lack of permanent model names and the presence of the Jena API and RDQL support.

Perhaps Mulgara can one day recombine with Kowari. The Mulgara team remains open to that possibility, but needs to move forward without waiting for further talks. Users are encouraged to follow Mulgara for new features in the meantime.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Northrop Grumman Backs Down on Kowari

Northrop Grumman Corporation has sent an email affirming that the code currently checked into Kowari's Sourceforge project is "non-proprietary, open source software, licensed freely to all under the Mozilla Public License, version 1.1". They have dropped their claim that some of the code is tainted.

The Northrop lawyer specifically referred to their letter to me last January and apologized for its results.

Mulgara developers are discussing what impact, if any, this news will have on the fork.

Ant Pedometers

Agent modeling is looking as an even more powerful mechanism for modeling the real world. Ants, it seems, count their steps in a form of simple dead reckoning. Thanks to Nova Spivack for the pointer.

Brains for Phenotypic Advantage Over Environment?

I had a thought in January 2004 while re-reading Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea and thinking about Jared Diamond's postulated "Great Leap Forward" in human capacity 50K years ago.

Consider that humans "suddenly" exploded all over the face of the earth 50K years ago. This is a big deal because all other species are constrained to a bounded habitat. This event was almost certainly the result of an increase in human brain capability.

Dennett says we are allowed to take the "intentional stance" when trying to understand evolutionary phenomena. That is, we can ask what something is "good for". Indeed, he says that the intentional stance is necessary for any real reverse engineering effort.

So, taking the intentional stance, we can say that the mutation that spread through human brains 50K years ago was "good for" spreading human phenotypes into new habitats.

Now, genes don't care about environment. Environments impact genes' ability to survive. Phenotypes care a *lot* about the environment, but they are stuck with the hand they are dealt.

I think it makes sense to think about the mutation that caused the "Great Leap Forward" as a mutation for allowing (fixed) phenotypes to extend their habitat (by thinking, having better mental maps of cause/effect relationships, whatever). Phenotypes which could have the option of moving to better environments could presumably breed more, embedding the mutation in the gene pool.

Humans can survive in difficult environments (e.g. Siberia) by thinking and by passing down "good" thoughts ("memes") via cultural transmission. It seems to make sense that our distant ancestors did not have that capability, and so were limited to more forgiving environments for their phenotypes (e.g. equatorial Africa).

This difference in phenotypic capability is certainly modelable, but I am not sure whether the model could be tested against any hard evidence. At best, one could show that the modeled capability is one possible mechanism that would allow humans to survive in Siberia (a mutation that gave you blubber being another!). That's OK, since there are many possible paths through Darwinian design space and I think the best anyone can show would be a valid path, which might differ from the single path actually trodden by humans without further evidence from genetics/archaeology/etc.

Memetic Nature of Sexual Selection?

What if the phenomena that we associate with Darwin's sexual selection (e.g. large breast size in humans, hair/eye color and other properties which cannot be traced to advantage reinforced by natural selection) are a consequence of memetic imitation? In other words, the underlying mechanism of sexual selection is memetic imitation in the same way that the underlying mechanism of natural selection is genetic survival.

That would be consistent with Schelling's neighborhood, the observation that people tend to prefer mates of a physical form to those encountered in childhood and possibly Jared Diamond's comments in The Third Chimpanzee regarding sexual selection.

Critics of Global Warming

K and my father both pointed to Prof. Richard S. Lindzen's article on the Wall Street Journal's OpinionJournal

Prof. Lindzen wrote a justified diatribe on both Al Gore's approach in his movie and various hyperbolic media statements regarding the ramifications of global warming. He specifically said that there is no "consensus" within the scientific community for global warming.

There is no "consensus" for the simple reason that there is no "community" and there is no mechanism for "consensus" other than polls by journalists. Daniel Dennett, the Tutfs University philosopher famous for his missives on evolution, once said that any new idea in science goes through three stages:

  1.  "That can't be right!"
  2.  "Well", in the face of overwhelming evidence, "you might be on to something..."
  3.  "Of course!  Everybody knows that."

Those stages constitute "consensus" in the scientific community. Note that there could very well be a fourth stage when the notion enters school text books. I think that global warming is somewhere between stages (2) and (3).

Prof. Lindzen has most probably fueled the ill considered media storm that he dislikes. His article was aimed at the media and politicians coming to the wrong conclusions, but he failed to highlight where consensus does occur. He did say:

- "Most of the climate community has agreed since 1988 that global mean temperatures have increased on the order of one degree Fahrenheit over the past century, having risen significantly from about 1919 to 1940, decreased between 1940 and the early '70s, increased again until the '90s, and remaining essentially flat since 1998."

- "There is also little disagreement that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have risen from about 280 parts per million by volume in the 19th century to about 387 ppmv today."

- "Finally, there has been no question whatever that carbon dioxide is an infrared absorber (i.e., a greenhouse gas--albeit a minor one), and its increase should theoretically contribute to warming."

He made the point that the Earth's climate is dynamic, and it surely is. Understanding the Earth's climate is probably harder than rocket science and for the same fundamental reasons. Rocket combustion is complex (in the scientific sense of the word) and so is the climate. There are too many variables which interact to too many ways to measure.

So, what is going to happen? We don't know. Al Gore said it, Prof. Lindzen said it and I've just said it. However, consider this. We do know that we have been polluting the air, water and land all around us since the industrial revolution and are continuing to do so at an increasing rate. We do know that badly polluted areas are difficult to live in (such as Mexico City) or even impossible (such as Prypiat, Ukraine). Should we continue to pollute at such a rate until the science is 100% accurate in its ability to predict the future, or should we reduce our pollution rates?

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Why We Will Face Severe Global Warming

OK, this post is going to be about global warming. I have my flak jacket on and I can take it. Bring it on. Unlike just about everyone I know who talks about this issue, I HAVE DONE THE MATH. So there.

As a student at the Naval Postgraduate School from 1989-1992, I took a mandatory class for my major on remote sensing of the Earth's environment. We spent some weeks of that course (OC3520 - which now seems to be called OC3522) going over the detailed evidence for and against global warming. The result at the time (1990) was that the statistics were inconclusive - global warming was then a theory and more data needed to be collected to find the truth. The lack of data gave rise to NASA's Mission to Planet Earth, a series of five satellites which collected the necessary data in the mid and late 1990s. Substantial new core samples were taken in both polar regions. The supercomputer centers at the national laboratories (including Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where I worked before moving to Australia) were turned from a primary mission of nuclear blast modeling (since the Cold War had ended) and put onto the modeling of the Earth's climate. I used to van pool to Livermore with the scientists doing that work. Their results, and confirmations from Russia and Europe, have shown conclusively both that global warming is occurring and that greenhouse gas emissions created by humans are the primary culprit.

The science on global warming has coalesced only in the last five years. Anyone who says that there is still substantial debate on the existence of a trend of global warming and that human pollution is largely responsible is no longer up to date. Debate remains on many smaller details, most of them related to the rate of temperature increase and what to do about it.

The scientific community is as united today on global warming and the need to urgently reduce greenhouse gas emissions as they are on, say, evolution. That is, many scientists still debate the details and a few even object entirely, but the base concepts are quite mainstream.

Today I saw a recorded interview with Sen. James M. Inhofe (Republican from Oklahoma and chair of the Committee on Environment and Public Works) who stated that the entire global warming "scare" was simply a "hoax". Later I found a floor speech by Inhofe on a Climate Change Update, in which he lays out those views in detail. Now, this guy HAS NOT done the math and possibly doesn't know anybody who has, and yet he chairs the U.S. Senate's environmental committee? Inhofe and powerful people like him simply will not listen. That is why the United States, as the world's largest contributor to global warming, will not sign the Kyoto Protocols. That is why Gore's movie is falling on deaf ears. President George Bush has even stated that he won't see The Inconvenient Truth. In short, that is why global warming will devastate a substantial percentage of the world's biodiversity in our lifetimes and we will sit back and watch it happen. No amount of talking can cure an ignoramus.

Part of the problem is that climate change is treated as a split issue in the popular press, but not in scientific journals. This article in Science, for example, describes a study of 928 peer-reviewed scientific abstracts which agreed that global warming was occuring and that humans were responsible. Contrast that with Google Trends, which shows no increase in Internet searches for the topic for the last couple of years. People, it would seem, are happily following the tragedy of the commons right into the future. It is not that humans aren't predictable, they are all too predictable. They (we!) simply don't seem to want to face the consequences of our actions. But we will, like it or not.

Even if the popular press pulled their head out and the US Government decided to support Kyoto, we still live in a country too spoiled to change rapidly.

I am not just talking about doing something. My family has planted trees and bushes in the last four houses we have owned. We installed solar hot water heating in one house and are investigating options for doing it in our new house. Neither I nor my wife drive much - we work from home. We grow some of our own herbs and have started planting vegetables. We recycle as much as we are allowed to. We use air conditioning as little as one or two days per month in summer. What are you doing?

Alas, my neighbor just cut down 69 trees. I can't undo the damage and can't even get him to discuss why that might not be a great idea. Nor can I compete.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Suck for the Cure

The vacuum cleaner company Oreck and The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation are sponsoring Clean for the Cure, a fund raiser for breast cancer research. In short, you buy a pink vacuum from Oreck and $50 goes to the charity. Naturally, my wife bought one when we needed a new vacuum.

Now I am stuck with a hot pink vacuum cleaner.

I would have gladly bought a green one and given $50 to the Komen Foundation if asked. I wasn't asked. *sigh*