We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Modernist Cuisine and Nuclear Reactors

I rececntly ordered a water circulating heater for sous vide cooking. I do not like cooking all that much, but the controllability and repeatability of sous vide, along with the opportunity to play with a new gadget, appeal to my not-so-inner geek. To make the most of it, I ordered a copy of Modernist Cuisine at Home. It is a home version of the original Modernist Cuisine book that comprises six volumes and 2,400 pages and deconstructs the science of cooking. It is part of the molecular gastronomy movement in cooking, an attempt to make cooking more science-y. This appeals to me also because normal cookbooks are oppressive: “Do this!” they say, without ever explaining why. From their random examples I am unable to build a mental model of what is going on, so I can only follow the instructions blindly and wonder why I failed. And the jargon in cookbooks is incomprehensible; I am much more likely to be able to understand a science book.

Nathan Myhrvold is a principal author of Modernist Cuisine. He was the CTO of Microsoft and later went on to found Intellectual Ventures, which buys patents and licenses then to companies who are being patent trolled, though others have accused them of patent trolling themselves. An offshoot of this is Intellectual Ventures Lab, which does research and applies for patents and contains the kitchen where the cookbook was developed.

Myhrvold is a global warming believer, though he annoyed all the right people when he appeared in a chapter in Superfreakonomics suggesting that we might reverse the effects of man-made global warming with other man-made technology, instead of by reducing carbon dioxide emissions. And he is a proponent of nuclear power as a solution. Intellectual Ventures Labs began work on a travelling wave reactor, a type of nuclear reactor that runs on U-238, which reduces the need for enriching. TerraPower is now one of many subsidiaries, and is developing the reactor.

Between this, thorium, and a host of other reactor designs, I am hopeful about the technology of nuclear power, we just need the politics to catch up. A micro nuclear reactor was proposed in Alaska but, “the project never began the mandatory, lengthy and extremely costly process of gaining approval by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission…which takes tens of millions of dollars and several years”.

Using a Playstation controller to fire a machinegun in combat… no, really!

Talk about ingenuity! That thing does not looks very RPG-resistant, so it very wisely has a top mounted camera so it can fire from behind cover!

But guys, it is an improvised armoured ambulance, not a ‘tank’.

Closing DECC – Bishop Hill and commenters on why and how

Bishop Hill has a posting up today about the gigantic folly that is the D(epartment) of E(nergy) and C(limate) C(hange).

Says the Bishop:

As we look at UK energy policy now, DECC has had the country make a massive financial gamble on the back of a prediction that was wholly unfounded and which has been obviously so for many years. We now learn that DECC has also distributed this astonishing wave of public money in a manner that can only be described as monstrously incompetent, and which many will assume to be monstrously corrupt…

Comment (Oct 3 9.32am) from “fen tiger”:

I have a relative who works at DECC, and has done since getting his masters. He’s an environmental economist (one of many in DECC, I imagine), briefing the likes of Huhne, Davey, and Gummer. He appears to know nothing whatever about the climate question, but is fully invested in the warming scare (condition of employment, I guess).

Closing DECC would obviously benefit the country: but it would also benefit many of those who work there. My relative is not an untruthful man, but he has worked since leaving university in an environment where systematic untruthfulness and wishful thinking are the norm; an environment where the taxpayer would get better value if he were paid to stay at home and do nothing. He desperately needs to get out and find a real job (although his qualifications won’t help with that).

This comment is anonymous partly because I don’t want to foment a family rift, and partly because I am ashamed of having a family member employed in this way.

But how to close DECC?

“Roger Tallbloke” (Oct 3 9.08am) had already commented earlier, thus:

Strategic action on the part of the consumer could actually make a difference and help get rid of DECC. This action is quite simple, and won’t take long or cost the consumer anything. Here’s what they need to do.

Vote UKIP.

Would that work? Is this a case where your vote might actually make a difference?

UKIP has turned into a me-too operation on most of the big items of state spending, as Ben Kelly writes in this Libertarian Home report of the recent UKIP conference. But on UKIP’s energy policies, Kelly writes this:

Energy – Ah, Roger Helmer; an intelligent and articulate man, an asset until you get him on the subject of gays or the finer details of rape. Then it’s hide behind your hands time. Luckily he was simply talking about energy policy today. He wants to scrap the Climate Change Act, cut all green taxes, end subsidies for wind farms and get fracking, creating a sovereign wealth fund with the tax income. It is the Guardian’s worst nightmare, and I like it.

Me too. It would be a worse Guardian nightmare if there wasn’t that bit there about “creating a sovereign wealth fund with the tax income”. But when it comes to voting, the question is not: What gets me everything? It is: Does anything get me anything?

An indication two big tech companies might be on the right track?

Apple and Google recently stated that they intend to encrypt-by-default in future mobile phones, and the FBI does not like it one bit. Interesting.

But then again, I asked a highly skilled technical chum of mine about this a few days ago:

What is your technical take on this? Is this a welcome development or bullshit?

And his reply was:

Somewhere between. Trust in closed-source product is hard to build.

Still… the fact the FBI is bleating is heartening. But it is true that we need to keep in mind that these are indeed closed-source products, thus we really do only have Apple and Google’s word for it that they will be as secure as they say they will be.

Katabasis on the climate science cowards

I am in the midst of cleaning my home in advance of a meeting this evening. That is a big task, still not nearly done, so I will be brief. Read all of this, if not now then very soon. It’s about climate scientists and the immoral fools that they are almost all now making of themselves.

It is by “Katabasis” (and yes it is indeed disgusting that he has to use a pseudonym for saying it so like it is (he explains why)), and it deserves to go viral.

I have spent years cheering on the efforts of those who have unmasked those political activists dressed as scientists who, still, peddle the CAGW line (on second thoughts: skip that n). What Katabasis does is nail what you might call the anti-anti-CAGW peddlers for the immoral fence-sitting cowards that they are. This is an absolute masterpiece of the polemicist’s art, and I am very, very envious. Not being any sort of climate scientist, I could not possibly have written it myself but I still wish I had. Go read.

Why fast and powerful computers are especially good if you are getting old

I recall, in the very early days of the personal computer, articles, in magazines like Personal Computer World, which expressed downright opposition to the idea of technological progress in general, and progress in personal computers in particular. There was apparently a market for such notions, in the very magazines that you would think would be most gung-ho about new technology and new computers. Maybe the general atmosphere of gung-ho-ness created a significant enough minority of malcontents that the editors felt they needed to nod regularly towards it. I guess it does make sense that the biggest grumbles about the hectic pace of technological progress would be heard right next to the places where it is happening most visibly.

Whatever the reasons were for such articles being in computer magazines, I distinctly remember their tone. I have recently, finally, got around to reading Virginia Postrel’s The Future and Its Enemies, and she clearly identifies the syndrome. The writers of these articles were scared of the future and wanted that future prevented, perhaps by law but mostly just by a sort of universal popular rejection of it, a universal desire to stop the world and to get off it. “Do we really need” (the words “we” and “need” cropped up in these PCW pieces again and again), faster central processors, more RAM, quicker printers, snazzier and bigger and sharper and more colourful screens, greater “user friendlinesss”, …? “Do we really need” this or that new programme that had been reported in the previous month’s issue? What significant and “real” (as opposed to frivolous and game-related) problems could there possibly be that demanded such super-powerful, super-fast, super-memorising and of course, at that time, super-expensive machines for their solution? Do we “really need” personal computers to develop, in short, in the way that they have developed, since these grumpy anti-computer-progress articles first started being published in computer progress magazines?

The usual arguments in favour of fast and powerful, and now mercifully far cheaper, computers concern the immensity of the gobs of information that can now be handled, quickly and powerfully, by machines like the ones that we have now, as opposed to what could be handled by the first wave of personal computers, which could manage a small spreadsheet or a short text file or a very primitive computer game, but very little else. And of course that is true. I can now shovel vast quantities of photographs (a particular enthusiasm of mine) hither and thither, processing the ones I feel inclined to process in ways that only Hollywood studios used to be able to do. I can make and view videos (although I mostly stick to viewing). And I can access and even myself add to that mighty cornucopia that is the internet. And so on. All true. I can remember when even the most primitive of photos would only appear on my screen after several minutes of patient or not-so-patient waiting. Videos? Dream on. Now, what a world of wonders we can all inhabit. In another quarter of a century, what wonders will there then be, all magicked in a flash into our brains and onto our desks, if we still have desks. The point is, better computers don’t just mean doing the same old things a bit faster; they mean being able to do entirely new things as well, really well.

→ Continue reading: Why fast and powerful computers are especially good if you are getting old

My ten years with 2004’s least exciting phone

Instapundit linked to this: Razr Burn: My Month with 2004’s Most Exciting Phone. Apparently, having become accustomed to smartphones, the lady found the ten year old Motorola Razr V3 un-smart.

Lady, that ain’t a 2004 phone.

This is a 2004 phone.

OK, it would have been nice at this point to download a picture of my phone. But one can’t do that with the Sagem myX-2, the only cell phone that a person of discernment need ever own. The myX-2 does not hamper my appreciation of the world by tempting me to take photographs. Nor does it download things, preferring to keep itself pure. I believe that it is capable of going to look at the internet, at warp 48.3, I am told, but in the decade since I first owned this jewel among telephonic devices, my affairs have never been so disarranged as to oblige me to attempt this feat.

It sends text messages. There is a thing called “predictive text”, but I prefer to make my own decisions.

It has a picture puzzle in which one does something or other with a grid of numbers. Of course technology has moved on and no one nowadays would play anything so primitive.

It falls into rivers. It gets left in the saddlebag of a bicycle stored in a lean-to shed for a month. It is stroked lovingly by people who had one in 2003. It distracts jurors from the case in hand when all the mobiles have to be put in a safe and it is the coolest one there. It bounces. It will be replaced when it finally dies which is sure to happen by 2008 at the latest.

You can telephone people on it.

Ten years after…

It is rather hard to believe that an entire decade has rolled on since the first private manned vehicle released the surly bonds of Earth and flew into space, a realm where heretofore only governments had trod. It was the beginning of a new age, and much has come to pass since then. As with all prognostications, my thoughts of the time were both more and less than the reality of 2014 in commercial space.

I would certainly have been surprised by two things, one of which I would have predicted and one of which I did not even imagine. I am sure at the time I would with certainty have said someone would be flying passengers by now. I would have been equally surprised had someone told me I would be a member of the XCOR Aerospace team working on the Lynx space plane with my own desk in the same location from which I filed my stories that day, in the same room which I had pitched my air bed the night before the big event. I would likewise have been happily surprised to find George Whitesides, our then new Executive Director at the National Space Society, who appears in some of my photos that day, would now be CEO of Virgin Galactic.

So what has happened in the ensuing ten years? For one, SpaceX is now making deliveries to the International Space Station on a regular basis with its Dragon Cargo ship, lifted via its Falcon 9 rocket. They are now sucking up the launch vehicle market, once a near American preserve, that Old Space and their political cronies proved incapable of holding. Noone, not even the Chinese or the French can compete with SpaceX’s prices. Why? No one ever before built a launch vehicle from the ground up to be viable without government cost plus contracts to foot the bill. SpaceX did take government contracts, but they worked through fixed price commercial style contracting. Their startup capital was private venture money that came from the pockets of Elon Musk and friends of his. He put every cent he had on the line and very nearly lost it. He made it through the early Falcon 1 test failures (which I live blogged here as well) on a wing and a prayer. Those failures were pretty much an inevitable part of learning to do something hard in a different way. Elon stuck his own tuckus way out over the edge… and he won.

Virgin Galactic, the company that will be flying SpaceShipTwo, the follow on to the vehicle launched that day ten years ago, has had its share of difficulties, but the company is well funded and they are plodding along towards the finish line for a suborbital tourist vehicle. XCOR is doing pretty much the same, although with a more ‘right stuff’ flight experience.

SpaceX unveiled its Dragon II capsule a couple weeks ago. They will carry out escape system testing this year and will likely be in manned test flight next year. By 2016-17 they will be a Spaceline that is delivering passengers to the International Space Station and the soon to be launched Bigelow Aerospace space station. Robert Bigelow has been ready for years now… but it did not make business sense to create a destination in space until someone could provide a regular taxi service. When the manned Dragon goes operational, I expect his extensively space tested module technology (two ‘small’ ones are currently in orbit) will go up very soon thereafter.

SpaceX has also been working towards a re-usable first stage. They have succeeded in a liftoff, flight to 1000 meters and a precise landing of a Falcon 9R first stage on the spot in Texas from which it lifted. They recently returned one of those stages from a for-hire launch and brought it to a hover over the North Atlantic waves. Later this year they will fly one from a pad at Spaceport America in New Mexico, perhaps as high as 100,000 feet, and then bring it to a landing. Next year they plan to bring one back from a commercial flight to a dry land site. It will then be checked out for re-usability and possibly reflown. They expect ten flights per stage but even if they only got two, it would halve the capital cost of a launch. If they get the full ten, we are looking at a total collapse of Old Space, a Reardon Steel moment. The only survivors will be those few protected by the Wesley Mouch’s of the world.

Later this year, SpaceX will be launching the first Falcon 9 Heavy. It will have the largest cargo capacity available on Earth and that has only ever been outdone by one vehicle, the US Saturn V Moon rocket. One might make a case to put the Space Shuttle and the short lived Buran in that exalted class, but their actual payload to orbit was mostly vehicle weight.

So much is happening in the New Space sector in June 2014 or is scheduled over the next one to two years that I would need to write a far longer article than this to come close to a proper treatment of the topic. I have not even mentioned most of the companies in our industry. Sadly there is also much I cannot talk about as I am drawing my wages in the field and that places limitations on me. If you want more details on XCOR… you can go read the company blog which can be found via the XCOR home page.

And now… a trip down memory lane. Rand Simberg just wrote his retrospective and since he and I were traveling together for that momentous day, here are the stories I filed as well, plus one other by Johnathan Pearce. The pictorial is at the end. There are a lot of fond memories there!

David Friedman on prediction

Mathematical physicist John Baez made a Google Plus post about finding trends in data. David Friedman responded. My emphasis:

The problem is that, absent a theory, you don’t know what the shape of the function should be and different assumptions about the shape will lead to very different fits. If the ultimate reason to fit the curve is to test a theory and the person doing the fitting wants to believe in the theory, as we often do, it’s tempting to find some functional form that gives a result producing the desired outcome. I gather there is now even software out there that will do the specification search for you. The researcher can to some extent control the problem by specifying his form in advance, but there is always the temptation, if the result turns out wrong, to find some reason to try a different form—and if you don’t do so and as a result don’t publish, someone else with better luck in his first try or fewer scruples does. In the limiting case you try a hundred specifications and report the best fit as confirmed at the .01 level—the same result you would get with a hundred tries on random data. And the same thing can happen with a hundred perfectly honest researchers if only the significant result ends up published.

One solution, of course, is to make your data freely available so that other people can analyze it for themselves. The other solution, and the one that I think best from the standpoint of an outsider trying to decide whose theories and models to believe, is to evaluate by prediction rather than by the fit to past data. If the model is wrong and looks right when applied to past data because the past data was used to choose the specification and parameters, it is quite likely to go wrong on future data.

After being in lots of online arguments on climate issues, I decided to apply that approach to the IPCC models. I concluded that they had done a worse job of predicting the rate of warming than a straight line fit from 1910, when the current warming trend started, to the date of the first IPCC report. That strikes me as a reason to have low confidence in current projections coming out of the same approach.

For details see:

http://daviddfriedman.blogspot.com/2014/03/have-past-ipcc-temperature.html

And for a more general sketch of the argument for taking prediction as better evidence of a correct theory than the fit to past data, see:

http://daviddfriedman.blogspot.com/2010/03/prediction-vs-explanation.html

Update: What is particularly fascinating to me is the idea that 100 perfectly honest researchers will make models and by chance one of the models will validate against old data and that is the one that gets published. So there is a publication bias.

Faulty towers in North Korea and China

Tyrannical regimes don’t collapse because the peasantry are suffering. They collapse when the hitherto supportive inner circle of peasant-minders starts to suffer.

Thus it is that the most politically portentous line in this (thankyou Mick Hartley) about two new buildings in North Korea, one collapsing, the other already collapsed …:

Another apartment building in Pyongyang is reportedly in danger of collapse as fear spreads after a 23-story apartment building collapsed in the North Korean capital early this month, killing hundreds of people.

Both high-risers were built as upmarket homes for the elite.

A government source here on Tuesday cited rumors that an apartment building in Mansudae in downtown Pyongyang has subsided around 10 cm and dozens of cracks have appeared in the walls. “Fearing a collapse, residents are racing to sell their apartments and move out,” the source added.

… is the bit in the middle, about how these collapsing apartments are “homes for the elite”. By the sound of it, no North Korean home that is more than a tiny few stories up in the sky any longer feels safe.

Not so elite now, are they? If peasant houses collapse, screw ‘em. But who is going to screw these people? They are screwers.

Not so long ago there was a somewhat similar report concerning badly built towers in China.

One of these weeks, months, years, decades, a really really big skyscraper is going to come crashing down to the ground. Not because someone flew a plane into it. No, of its own accord. Through its own “internal contradictions”, you might say.

When that happens – and I really do think it’s only a matter of when – what’s the betting that the media coverage will imitate art.

Taking a ride in an Uber taxi

It’s one thing to read a Guardian piece complaining about Uber. That certainly makes Uber seem like a fine thing, but you can’t trust everything you read, can you? Maybe Uber is not actually as great as the Guardian is making it appear. Last Friday evening, a week ago, by a lucky chance, I went one better. I had an actual trip in an Uber-taxi. It was a good experience.

Rooted as I am in the twentieth century, I was not the one who set this journey in motion. The man who did was my twenty first century friend Rob, who is as computer-savvy as I am computer challenged. I and Rob were guests at a dinner party, and I heard that he and another guest had some kind of lift home fixed, going back towards central London, and I asked if I could join in. Yes, fine. I then rather delayed things by taking what turned out to be rather too long to do my thankyous and fairwells, because, basically, I am not used to taxis being this fast in answering the call. But, eventually I was aboard, and off we went.

It was only when I was in it that I learned that this was one of these new-fangled Uber taxis, this being why it had arrived so quickly to pick us up and why I should have been quicker off the mark when leaving the party.

What Rob had done, as soon as he and the other guest decided they needed to be off home, was crank up the Uber app on his smartphone and summon – and here’s the point of this system – the nearest Uber taxi, by looking for blobs on his smartphone Uber-map.

On our journey, we and the driver chatted about how the new system worked. New technology often has this effect, I find. It gets people talking. It reminded me a bit of the early days of blogging, which got all sorts of people in touch with each other who would never normally have been communicating.

Our driver preferred his new Uber-life partly because he now gets no grief from a demanding taxi-cab office with its rigid time and place demands and general stress and hassle. He now eludes that middle man and, via his new and improved middle man (Uber), instead relates directly to his passengers. There is an elaborate regime to register both complaints from drivers about passengers, and from passengers about drivers, but for a driver who wants to do an honest job, that’s all good, just as it is for passengers who are willing and indeed eager to behave themselves.

We passengers also like the service that the driver and his comrades provide, because it is cheaper than old-school taxis, and quicker, and easier to track. But given that Uber is so cheap for us passengers, and given that the driver pays twenty percent of the reduced fare that we pay him to Uber, how come the driver is nevertheless such a contented guy?

A big plus for the driver is that he now works exactly when he likes, that being what a lot of the grief between him and his former taxi office had been about. He can start and stop when he pleases, with no warning concerning either, provided only that he finishes all paid-for journeys he embarks on.

But just as impressive as the increased flexibility the driver enjoys is that the flip side of us having hailed the nearest Uber taxi to us when we wanted to start our journey is that our driver is immediately available to start his next useful journey just as soon as he has completed his previous one. Our driver had been taking someone to that particular part of suburban London, and within moments there we were, wanting him to take us back to the middle of London from that same out-of-the-way spot. He doesn’t have to drive back, empty, to some damn taxicab office. He resumes work at once. This is why Uber-taxis are cheaper. This is not done by lowering the standard of living of the drivers or the quality of the product. It is done by seriously improving the efficiency of the drivers and their vehicles.

You can tell that Uber is a massive efficiency gain by the fact that the regular black cab drivers are in a state of fury about it, and have been threatening to screw up London’s traffic, with some kind of demo/disruption or suchlike. Their excuse is that there is apparently some law or other which, in the opinion of the cabbies and their lawyers, these new Uber-taxis are breaking, concerning computer tracking or something. But such complaining seems likely only to publicise that if the law is getting in the way of Uber, then it should stop.

If you want some more jeering at those angry black cabbies, see what City A.M.’s Guy Bentley has to say about them.

That the black cabbies are demonstrating against Uber in particular, rather than against “Kabbee, Hailo, Addison Lee, GetTaxi, Uber and Green Tomato” merely serves to establish Uber in the public mind as the market leader. I daresay there are also “network” reasons why one big brand leader is advantageous to most customers. So, big win for Uber, I’d say.

I am sure that there are many, many tweaks to Uber that I am not even remotely aware of, the kind where not only do I not know the answer but where I had never even thought of the question. But presumably Uber-savvy commenters can fill in many more details.

In particular: what could go wrong? Our driver didn’t seem to have any worries. But, was he perhaps being a tad optimistic? Will his income maybe decline if lots more want in on the driving side of things? What about if robot cars join in, and snatch away his job? Great for us passengers, because if it’s not it won’t catch on. But not so great for our driver.

Once you start talking about systems like Uber and robot cars in the same sentences, is the longer term implication of things like Uber going to be: fewer privately owned cars? Will Uber 3.0 be the first robot car killer app?

But oh yes, back in the here and now, one further detail I do now remember the driver talking about. If you are an Uber customer based in Los Angeles (as a recent passenger of his was), you can use the exact same account to whistle up our London driver as you have already been using in LA. The exact same account. Think about that. In any Uber-enabled city, and there are now a lot of such cities around the world, you can use taxis with the kind of confidence you already have about Uber-taxis in your own back yard.

My guess would be that a characteristic Uber first time user is someone who is about to venture to a foreign city where Uber is in action, and he signs up for Uber beforehand, so that he knows his taxis in the strange foreign landed will then be sorted at non-punitive expense and without grievous risk. Where he lives, he has a car and trusts the local taxis. But in foreigner-land, Uber taxis will be a massive plus. Then, once he has sampled the service in a strange city, the obvious next thing will be to use it back home more regularly. If that’s all approximately right, you can see why the black cabbies are spitting blood.

But alas for the black cabbies, their complaints are only advertising Uber to a global audience of city-hopping tourists and businesspersons. London’s black cabs are famous the world over. So if they are now moaning about Uber, that’s a global story. With enemies like this, Uber hardly needs an advertising agency.

But that’s enough guessing from me about Uber. Over to our commenters and their amazing ability to share a collective conversation with us and with each other, thanks to the work of an earlier generation of computer-magicians.

Samizdata quote of the day

“Indeed, it would be helpful if the climate scientists would tell us what weather pattern would not be consistent with the current climate orthodoxy. If they cannot do so, then we would do well to recall the important insight of Karl Popper — that any theory that is incapable of falsification cannot be considered scientific.”

Nigel Lawson