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How low (power) can you go?

(This is an abridged version of the talk I gave at TNG's Big Tech Day in Munich, June 2012.)

On the subject of ubiquitous computing devices and urban architecture

A couple of basic physical rules underly the dizzying progress in electronics that we have seen over the past fifty years. Moore's Law, attributed to Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, postulates that the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit of constant size doubles approximately every two years. Originally coined in 1965, Moore's law has run more or less constantly ever since. It can't continue indefinitely, if only because we're getting close to the atomic scale; a silicon atom has a Van der Waals radius of around 200 picometres, and to build circuits that mediate electron transport we need discrete atomic-scale structures. It is not obvious that we can build electronics (or other molecular structures) with a resolution below one nanometre. So it's possible that Moore's law will expire within another decade.

Having said that, predictions of the imminent demise of Moore's Law within a decade go back to the 1970s. And if we can't increase the two-dimensional structure count on an integrated circuit, we may still be able to increase the number of structures by building vertically.

A newer, and more interesting formulation than mere circuit count is Koomey's Law, proposed by Jonathan Koomey at Stanford University: that the energy efficiency of computers doubles every 18 months.

This efficiency improvement has held true for a long time; today's high-end microprocessors require far less power per instruction than those of a decade ago, much less two or three decades ago. A regular ARM-powered smartphone, such as an iPhone 4S, is some 12-13 orders of magnitude more powerful as a computing device than a late 1970s-vintage Cray 1 supercomputer, but consumes milliwatts of power for computing (rather than radio) operations, rather than the 115 kilowatts of the Cray.

Taking them together, what do these two laws imply about the not-too-distant future?

The first consequence: we can expect our computing devices to be more powerful. This is no surprise — we have become used to the performance of our computers increasing by a factor of roughly 100 every decade for a long time now. If we assume another two decades before Moore's Law breaks down, then by 2022 we can expect our smartphones (or equivalents) to be as powerful as today's leading edge desktop workstations; and by 2032, to be capable of delivering peta-FLOPS of performance per processor core, with multiple cores as standard, terabytes of RAM, and multiple terabytes of non-volatile storage. Koomey's law meanwhile implies that these devices will have similar, if not better, battery life to today's equipment.

Interestingly, it is not impossible that Moore's Law — the increase in circuit density — will taper off before Koomey's law — the increasing performance per watt of power — follows suit. In this case, our computing devices will be somewhat more powerful, but vastly more energy efficient. This will tend to drive compute-intensive applications towards massively parallel architectures.

It's unlikely that we'll see Koomey's law taper off before Moore's law comes to an end: if only because a failure to improve power efficiency as we increase component counts will result in circuits that dissipate disproportionately more heat. We've been here before and it doesn't end well.

Another side-effect of a slowdown in Moore's law is that as we near the limits of semiconductor node resolution, the fab lines in use will be amortized over very long production runs: if we can't move to a smaller node size because of the laws of physics, then existing node sizes will be exploited and the pressure to compete on performance will be replaced by pressure to compete on price.

So the most probable outcome I can see is that we will be entering an era of small, ultra-low-power wireless devices. I'm thinking in terms of RFID tags that are actual processor units — microprocessors with associated storage that are electrically powered by the radio frequency radiation that gets data into them, and modulate the radiation they re-emit to broadcast output from whatever programs they run. Or maybe they'll be powered by solar cells. Either way, they'll be churned out in such vast numbers that the price tends towards euro-cents. What can we do with them? Or rather, what will be done with them?

As a science fiction writer, I like scribbling crude calculations on the back of an envelope and seeing where they take me.

Let's start with a current generation low power microprocessor aimed at consumer tablet devices and smartphones — the NVidia Tegra 3. At a 40 nanometre node size, it has four ARM Cortex A9 processor cores, running at 1 to 1.5Ghz, along with a low power GPU. I don't have a figure for power consumption, but as it's a smartphone or tablet processor, it's likely to be on the order of 1 watt. In raw performance it's probably about as powerful as a desktop processor from a decade ago. NVidia's road map runs approximately three years into the future, by which time the fourth generation of this architecture should be established — they're promising roughly 75 times the performance of their 2010-vintage Tegra 2 series processor.

I'm picking on this processor purely because it's a useful reference point. If you have an Android tablet or high end smartphone today, this is the sort of processor that's running it.

What does 20 years of Koomey's law — on diminishing power consumption — get us, if we hold the performance side of the equation constant?

20 years of a process that doubles every 18 months gives us around 13 generations, or a factor of 10,000 increase. In this case it corresponds to a ten-thousand-fold decrease in power. So by 2032 or thereabouts, we could expect a processor roughly as powerful as the one powering the tablet I'm giving this talk with to be available and to operate on around one hundred microwatts of electricity. Sensors and i/o and networking obviously make their own claims on power consumption, but: we're talking about sub-milliwatt power consumption.

(Note that I don't think we can push our power efficiency much further. Eventually we run into problems with thermal noise, not to mention that with only 1.6 x 1019 electron volts per joule, we face a hard limit on how many individual electrons we can move around our circuits. An electron volt is on the order of the same amount of energy as a covalent bond, and around fifty times the energy of a Van der Waals interaction between atoms; it's thus a rough approximation for how much energy it takes to kick an electron around. If we're trying to carry out on the order of a billion computational operations per second, and each operation relies on interactions that involve setting around a thousand electrons in motion, then we can't obviously get our power consumption down below microwatt levels.)

Typical commercially available photovoltaic cells today deliver around 150 watts per square metre, or 150 microwatts per square millimetre. So it's reasonable to assume that a 2040 processor unit of the kind I'm sketching on my used envelope here, with a one square millimetre surface area, could just barely be powered by daylight — but if we increase it to two millimetres on a side it can probably produce sufficient surplus to charge a battery or capacitor for nighttime operation, and to run some significant i/o devices as well. And if one square millimetre doesn't supply enough electricity, we can always make it three or five millimetres on an edge, and gain an order of magnitude for our calculations.

The reason I picked the one millimetre dimension is simply because, from the eye level of a standing human, a one millimetre square device at ground level is all but invisible. Today we are used to the public sensors around us being noticeable if you know what to look for. In 20 years time this may no longer be the case, and the social implications are worth exploring.

I am not a semiconductor industry expert, so I have no direct sources for manufacturing costs — much less for costs we are likely to see in 30 years time — but going by ARMs figures from 2006, the license fees per processor are on the order of four euro-cents; at the low end, and in massive production volumes, ARM based processors can be priced in double-digit cents.

So. What sort of applications can we imagine that might result from this trend?

Let's look at London, a fairly typical large capital city. London has a surface area of approximately 1570 square kilometres, and around 7.5 million inhabitants (not counting outlying commuter towns). Let us assume that our hypothetical low-power processor costs 10 euro cents per unit, in large volumes. To cover London in CPUs roughly as powerful as the brains of the Android tablet I'm reading this talk from, to a density of one per square metre, should therefore cost around €150M in 2040, or €20 per citizen.

To put this in perspective, in 2007 it was estimated that councils in London spent around £150M, or €190M, per year on removing chewing gum from the city streets.

So for the cost of removing chewing gum, a city in 2030 will be able to give every square metre of its streets the processing power of a 2012 tablet computer (or a 2002 workstation, or a 1982 supercomputer).

Getting data in and out of such open-air devices is an interesting issue.

Looking around at current standards, I note that Bluetooth Low Energy devices exhibit peak power consumption in the tens of milliamps, but drop to nanoampere power consumption when inactive: overall average current draw is on the order of a microamp, and it provides data rates of around 200kb/s at ranges up to 50 metres. Taking a wild leap in the dark, I therefore conclude that if we are willing to reduce our range by an order of magnitude, we should be able to push up our data rate accordingly — and reduce power consumption at the same time. Obviously there are limits to how far we can reduce the power requirements for a radio or optical transceiver, but I would conservatively expect it to be possible to shift tens of megabits per second across ranges of up to five metres using microwatt levels of power within the next thirty years.

Alternatively: we are already beginning to see sodium vapour and halogen street lamps replaced with LED installations to save power. It's not unreasonable to use LEDs in public street lights to both illuminate open-air photovoltaic electronic devices (thereby powering them) and to broadcast data to them at optical wavelengths. Getting data out of such devices may require them to draw more current for radio or optical signalling, but again: some cities are already using street lighting installations as convenient structures to support public wireless internet routers. Just as we are never more than ten metres away from a rat, it's reasonable to expect that such low power devices will never be more than ten metres away from a street light.

Now. What can we do with a city that has 1.5 billion networked ambient-light-powered processors, or roughly 200 cpus per resident?

In my previous talk at a TNG TechDay, I discussed the limits to data storage, the possibility of lifelogging — of using wearable devices to record and index everything we do — and the implications for civilization once everything that happens to everyone is recorded for perpetuity.

I also noted that the combined video and audio streams from the entire population of Germany, over a period of a century, would occupy on the order of a hundred kilograms of Memory Diamond — a hypothetical crystalline form of carbon used for data storage, in which each bit is represented positionally by an atom of one isotope or another (in this case, carbon-12 or carbon-13). With Avogardro's number of bits storable in 12.5 grams of carbon, if we can figure out how to read and write this stuff we can store roughly 0.5 petabytes in each gram of substrate.

(Using this yardstick, on a world-wide scale Google currently processes about 2 grams of data per hour.)

So, the first point to note is that if the world of 2032 has this level of ambient computing power at all, we're likely to have the data storage to go with it.

Let's assume we have found a use for our billion cpu city, and we're running a billion operations per second on each cpu. If each operation generates one byte of useful output — from air quality sensors, or cameras, or whatever — then our city is producing 1018 bytes of data per second. That's heavy data: that's 2000 grams per second. We're really going to have to get our data de-duplication strategies under control, lest we build up memory diamond landfill at a rate of seven tons per hour! Luckily most computer programs don't generate anything like one byte of output per operation — that's a ridiculous edge condition. Given the bandwidth and power constraints on our tiny solar powered processors, I'd be surprised if they averaged even a megabit per second of output — and even that would correspond to uncompressed high-definition video from every square metre of our city. So let's arbitrarily hack six orders of magnitude off that peak data output figure. Our city of 2032 is emitting as much information in a second as Google processes in an hour today: remarkable, but not outrageous in context.

What can we do with all those chips?

For starters, we can monitor the hell out of everything. The price of genome sequencing is collapsing at present, in a manner eerily paralleling Moore's Law: this year, Oxford Nanopore will sell you a USB-connected sequencer for €700, and are proposing to sell rackmounted systems that, for around €20,000, will be able to sequence an entire human genome in 5-6 hours in 2013. Large scale integration and lithography techniques developed in the semiconductor industry feed into the rapid improvements in sequence analysers. Taking 2013 as our baseline, and a cost of €1000 for a human genome, then applying the same scaling laws to genomics, we can conclude by by 2032 it should be possible to exhaustively sequence a personal genome for under a cent. The equipment to do so will be cheap and effectively solid-state. So why don't we monitor the city's genome?

A city does not consist solely of human beings. A myriad of macroscopic and microscopic organisms coexist with us. This month, my home city — Edinburgh — has fallen victim to a outbreak of Legionnaire's disease. The local health authorities believe the bacteria responsible are being emitted from cooling towers used by some local businesses, but are slowly and painstakingly trying to trace them. With this level of distributed processing, though, we should be able to conduct real-time epidemiological surveillance, tracking disease agents even before they have infected human or animal hosts (by sequencing DNA samples taken from airborn particles). Certainly with 1.5 billion processors in a mesh network performing sequence matching on the data from our street-level genome samplers should be practical.

I can't emphasize the importance of this aspect too strongly. We are living through a very dangerous period, in which our long-neglected arsenal of antibiotics are under threat from rapidly developing antibiotic resistance. Some strains, such as the New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase 1 plasmid, render most available antibiotics useless, and can spread horizontally between bacterial species. Other diseases such as extreme drug-resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB) threaten a return to 19th century levels of mortality if they take hold. (Untreated XDR-TB is fatal in up to 90% of untreated cases within a month; the treatment requires up to two years of intensive chemotherapy.) And to add to the fun, our increased long-distance mobility and the increased population density of our cities mean more opportunities for epidemics to emerge from isolated reservoirs of infection and spread globally. In 2006 we barely dodged a bullet in the shape of SARS, a respiratory infective virus with a fatality rate of around 25%, that was as contagious as the common cold: it would be much, much better to deal with such dangerous pathogens by identifying and disinfecting potential infection sites *before* they get into a human population.

Monitoring air quality and dangerous pollutants at a local, square metre level, is a no-brainer — even anti-climactic in comparison.

We can set our ubiquitous processors to work in other ways, too.

Climatology and meteorology: being able to monitor environmental conditions down to the square metre level may give us truly local weather forecasting, not to mention a better handle on optimizing our energy conservation strategies.

Local monitoring: they can each track their square metre of ground, photographing and reporting changes. If a pavement or road surface is degrading, maintenance can be scheduled before a dangerous pot-hole develops.

Traffic control: if we have metre-level resolution in our monitoring, we can not only optimize our vehicle and pedestrian traffic flow (to the extent possible, within the hard limits of routing algorithms), we can also handle emergencies more effectively. A six-year-old chasing a ball towards a street may result in the local nodes notifying the autopilot of an approaching car to apply the brakes before the child runs out from between the row of parked vehicles ahead. Alternatively, automated vehicles can be diverted away from potential congestion choke-points before they develop, rather than blindly following a route in a map database.

Lately, urban planners in some towns and cities (I believe Bohmte near Bad Essen is one example) have been experimenting with removing road signage, in order to compel drivers and pedestrians to pay more attention to their surroundings, in an attempt to improve road safety.

If we have streets that are self-monitoring, we could see road markings vanish entirely, as people and vehicles rely on navigation services for guidance and cues from the streets for safety. Think in terms of city streets with no sidewalks and no road markings, where pedestrians have total right of way — but where cyclists have glasses that show them pedestrian-free safe cycling routes, and self-driving are directed around collision hazards by the street itself, in time to modify their courses before the vehicles reach the kids.

To an un-networked eye such streets would look very 19th century and dangerous — vehicles, people, would appear to be mixing indiscriminately, not even driving on the correct side of the road but following random-looking paths — but it would all be monitored and controlled for public safety.

Speaking of public safety: we know that some human behaviours are unusual and may require intervention. An adult sitting or lying down on the sidewalk may require medical assistance. Signs of violent disorder may require police intervention. Rising background temperatures beyond safe limits may indicate a fire. And so on.

This is the picture for what we get from ultra-low powered devices on an infrastructure level. But there are other applications. Today, clothing sold in shops comes with labels that instruct the owner in how to wash and care for their garments. Wouldn't it make more sense if the garments had enough on-board intelligence to tell the washing machine how to treat them, so that it was impossible to accidentally damage an item of clothing? (Or if your phone could identify itself to the washing machine, and the washing machine could call you to extract the phone from the pocket you left it in, rather than giving you a soggy, expensive, and unpleasant surprise?)

With ten cent processors we can see a variety of manufacturing and production uses, too. Every individual plant growing on a farm might have its own processor, monitoring its sunlight and nutrient availability, with a biosensor primed to detect chemicals released by insect damage or fungal attack. Today, we waste a lot of food before it is harvested simply because we can't individually inspect every plant. But if suitable sensors cost significantly less than the spoilage, then it makes sense to instrument everything.

And now for the bad consequences.

Our sensibilities are offended by ubiquitous cameras monitoring us as it is. How much worse is it going to be if the city itself monitors everybody's movement, every hour of every day? Worse: if every square metre of ground is aware of every RFID (radio frequency ID) tag passing over it, and can associate clusters of RFID chips (for example, the labels that your underwear use to tell your washing machine how to clean them without damaging them) uniquely with people? Wearing a hoodie will not help you regain your lost privacy when the hoodie itself helps define and identify you.

While a benign or well-intentioned government might choose to use the capabilities of such monitoring systems only for the public good, the question of what a dictatorship might do with them has an obvious answer. Anonymity is possible in crowds today, and even the surveillance cameras can't always break it. In a city with distributed processing and monitoring of everything down to the square metre level, anonymity breaks down because you just can't cram enough human bodies onto a square metre of sidewalk to blur the combinations of characteristics which identify us to the machines — even without ambient genome sampling.

It has been said that the internet means the death of privacy — but internet-based tracking technologies aren't useful if you leave your computer at home and switch off your smartphone. In contrast, the internet of things — the city wallpapered from edge to edge with sensors and communicating processors — really does mean the death of privacy. You'd have to lock yourself in a faraday cage and switch off all the electrical devices near to you in order to regain any measure of invisibility.

I don't want to dwell to excess on the uses dictatorships or police states might make of such technologies. It's enough to note that advertising agencies would kill to have access to such a surveillance network; just knowing which shop windows individuals spent most time lingering in front of in a shopping mall is valuable information to retailers.

One thing is for sure: even if our governments are benign, we're going to be subjected to more monitoring than most people today can possibly imagine.

Finally, I'd like to leave you with this question: what socially beneficial uses can you think of for a billion loosely coupled, low power microprocessors and their associated sensors? Because in 20 years time, buying and deploying such a network will be cheap enough for city planners to consider it routine. The logical end-point of Moore's Law and Koomey's Law is a computer for every square metre of land area on this planet — within our lifetimes. And, speaking as a science fiction writer, trying to get my head around the implications of this technology for our lives is giving me a headache. We've lived through the personal computing revolution, and the internet, and now the advent of convergent wireless devices — smartphones and tablets. Ubiquitous programmable sensors will, I think, be the next big step, and I wouldn't be surprised if their impact is as big as all the earlier computing technologies combined.

395 Comments

1:

some 12-3 orders of magnitude

12-13?

2:

We know one extreme capability in terms of computing power per Watt - the Human brain. Which is roughly 10^16 FLOPS at 20W, or about a petaFLOPs per Watt.

3:

> is some 12-3 orders of magnitude more powerful
Sorry 12-3 is.. 12 times to 3 times more powerful?

Thanks for the post Charlie.

Fritz

4:

It's much easier to hypothesize a billion processor city from the perspective of the hardware. But making the leap to the myriad of applications, from pedestrian safety to police surveillance, begs the question that thwarts every credible discussion about AI, singularity, and ubiquitous computing. Specifically, who is going to write all that software?

Simply put, we don't know how to design or build systems on that scale. It exceeds the human capacity for organization and comprehension. Unless there is a massive shift to some new paradigm for software engineering, say subsumptive computing on a grand scale, we're going to keep doing exactly what we are doing now, just smaller and faster for a while.

5:

Have you read "Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing" by Adam Greenfield?

He seems to have written this book without any knowledge of Bruce Sterling's Splimes.

6:

I am also sceptical of extending Moore's Law by going 3D. Much more likely is some kind of large area printing process. The resulting sheet can be folded or rolled into a small volume. The brain does similar packaging.

7:

Big Nanny is watching you!!

8:

This will tend to drive compute-intensive applications towards massively parallel architectures.
Which will lead towards strong AI, almost inevitably, particularly if "back-liked" or interconnected (a la brain-wiring)
Um.

Either way, they'll be churned out in such vast numbers that the price tends towards euro-cents. What can we do with them? Or rather, what will be done with them?
Matrioshka Brains?

Now. What can we do with a city that has 1.5 billion networked ambient-light-powered processors, or roughly 200 cpus per resident?
And what do we do if it wakes up?
More seriously, what about the other direction ...
PV power-generation at 10 times the present efficiency?
Even without assuming a sensible/economic/"easy-to-do" method of electrical energy storage.
This would mean the end of the GW/planetary heating crisis, and ditto enough available power for all the world's inhabitants - or would it?

While a benign or well-intentioned government might choose to use the capabilities of such monitoring systems only for the public good ...
Ah, but it's for their own good, and we are benign ... really?
If you believe that then you really are going to buy this nice bridge, aren't you?
The level of self-deception employed, ESPECIALLY by politicians (think of the vile christian lying slime Blair, for a start ) doesn't bode well, even in a supposedly "democratic" system like ours, does it now?

What socially beneficial uses can you think of for a billion loosely coupled, low power microprocessors and their associated sensors?
Well, that's easy - because it is already being done on a small scale ...
SETI / Protein folding / Climate Modelling / and all the other scientific problems that require large distributed computing nets. Google "BOINC" for a list.

9:

Au contraire: We have a good example of a system with on the order of a billion nodes: it's called the internet (IPv4 version). You're assuming all the nodes in a city-sized network will be doing the same thing, running similar software as part of a single large-scale operation (possibly even acting as a SIMD device); I think this is unlikely.

10:

At what point would there be strong pressure to write more efficient programs?

Beneficent uses: I wonder if there are physical indicators (heart rate etc.) which would give clues about what fiction, music, and so on a person would be likely to like.

I have a faint memory of an article about an online game which used heart rate to help with team building.

In re lack of privacy: I wish people would think more about the fact that homosexuals and lesbians having some degree of privacy was a major factor in their being able to get rights.

11:

Cool.
Do you see any limit coming from material shortage? Rare metals et similia. Or you have a way out in mind?

12:

> lock yourself in a faraday cage
I see this phrase and I start thinking of ways to actually accomplish it. How to hide from, spoof, confuse, or avoid the internet of things is an equally interesting question.

Faraday clothing would make tracking not trivial, but it'd still be easy to keep a camera on you at all times. A distributed privacy network might work; everybody wears exactly the same set of faraday clothing and everybody that passes in the street runs into each other to try to confuse the cameras. Not sure about how to defeat biometrics (height, weight), though.

Next idea is to put out informational jamming signals. Build your own little supercomputer network, spam the internet of things with false signals, and hope you get lost in the confusion.

Build robots to pretend to be you? Probably insane.

Could you disable small processors in your vicinity? You can buy hats now that are covered in bright IR LEDs to blind webcams; would similar systems work on future cameras and image-processing software?

13:

The electromagnetic interference issues of such a set up are staggering.

Particularly when you consider that in key locations there will be several different networks all layered over one another, and not all by co-operative citizens (corporate or otherwise).

Working at such small power and with so small tolerances: overloading and frying the individual processes would be relatively simple.

Imagine a thunderstorm?

14:

Sadly there is another law that comes into play, Dennard's scaling, which relates to power usage and size in MOSFETs - and it looks as though it has come to an end.

What the industry is seeing is that we're not going to get much more in the way of power improvements as dies get smaller. Hence now the sprawl into larger dies and into multi-core processing.

Also there's the part of Moore's Law that everyone forgets - with each generation of silicon the fabs get twice as expensive.

So in practice, we may well be very close to the end of silicon scaling. Anything smaller than 19nm processes is going to be very expensive to make, and have much the same power requirements as today's silicon.

15:

This all sounds very like the Qeng Ho localisers in "Deepness in the Sky". There are some interesting musings on the real-world requirements behind the hardware here:

http://blog.regehr.org/archives/255

16:

Buy time on a botnet to get from point A to B without being seen (Realtime editing out a moving element from a static background should be easily doable by these nodes). Just stay within the dotted line in your retinal display, Yuri doesn't guarantee stealth outside of the gold brick path. Whoops, sorry for the detour but they just patched that street last week.

Surely these things cannot possibly be made secure if anyone can just chip one off a cobblestone and examine it to their heart's content?

17:

Easier than a Faraday cage: poorly shielded microwave oven.

18:

A Faraday cage might not work unless you can ensure there are no recording devices attached to your clothing, shoes, hair etc.

19:

Re: Social benefits of large scale surveillance and processing, it's hard to think what a hard, static grid could provide that a smartphone with GPS couldn't, aside from better and more reliable coordinates and network connection. Which would of course enable a ton of cool things but I'm not sure if the scenario assumes radical improvements in those areas anyway.

Although... it all hinges on what kind of information you're interested in reporting in on your own and what these omnisequencers will report on you automatically, and what kind of data collator it reaches. An application like grindr gives you constant ambient hookup data, but it's opt-in and only directed towards a minority demographic. What if there was something similar for any kind of personal profile? Where do people my age, nationality, income bracket and social mores hang out? Realtime gentrification at worst, roving street parties at best.

20:

I thought of the Qeng Ho localisers in "Deepness in the Sky" as well while I read this but isn't this an older concept from SF called Angelnets?

http://www.orionsarm.com/eg-article/45f4886ae0d44

21:

try putting these two ideas on the back of your envelope;
we could somehow be using binary code in 20 years (not likely ) but instead of using electrons for representing and transporting information,using some other particles.
or (more likely) we could go quantum.

22:

Well, this level of distribution and processing power kills off most of the computational arguments against a planned economy, so the upside could be that we could live without money entirely.

23:
This will tend to drive compute-intensive applications towards massively parallel architectures. Which will lead towards strong AI, almost inevitably, particularly if "back-liked" or interconnected (a la brain-wiring)

I see no "inevitably" there I'm afraid.

Having massively parallel architectures with feedback loops doesn't suddenly make AI simple. We currently don't understand that much about how our own meat works. Outside of a straight architectural copy'n'paste (ala OGH's Saturn's Children) we don't have any sensible route to architecting strong-AI systems at the moment.

Even there we have trouble since evolution is a complete bastard for optimising itself around sneaky things that make it hard to figure out what's significant or not in our neural systems so we know to copy the "right" things.

There's also the fact that the system OGH is talking about is still made up of lots'n'lots of little Von Neumann architecture boxes networked togethers. That's a *long* way from the architecture that sits around in our meat.

24:

Random thoughts:

1) Hacking... all those little boxes are going to be guaranteed secure and nobody is ever, ever going to do naughty things with them... of course not..... never... (Picturing your hoodie dude using the zero-day exploit in the latest SensCube firmware release to clone his clothing cubes into the nearest 40 people in the shopping centre before they toddle off to do something naughty). The devices and networks are so much more accessible than the current government infrastructure.

2) I wonder if they'll be the electronic equivalent of vacuuming up the top floor of the bus for DNA to fool forensics after later dumping.

3) One sensor per item seems low. Every component piece of material in a device or object could have some simpler, cheaper ones. Throw the rubbish bin into the DissemblerBot and the rubbish will tell the bot the most effective way to dissemble/recycle/reuse/dispose of it.

4) Sensors will get places they're not intended. They'll be in peoples homes. In pigeons. In rats. In people. Lotsa fun there.

5) Spread in the billions over the country/world with small light sensors. Suddenly you have a *very* large telescope assuming you can magic the geolocation/orientation to be precise enough (probably not :-)

25:

I never would have guessed this in 1990, but it seems that I would like to return to 1990.

Alas.

26:

I'm imagining open spaces of play/driving areas where computers route traffic around each person to a 100' radius. As each child runs and jumps and chases their balls with their friends, electric hovercars zoom by, not harming the children or the ground cover, but filling the air with the constant hum of 1000 self-driving Priuses.

27:

This reminds me very much of the Situationist idea of Unitary Urbanism, and in terms of positive uses for such a network, you could take a page out of their book. I think the situationist urban utopian ideas might have inspired Vinge's treatment of the mutability of the landscape in Rainbows End. If we take augmented reality for granted as being common (as it is in Rainbows End, Halting State, and Dennou Coil) then real-time immersive overlays should be feasible for people using thin glasses (which is to say head mounted displays that are very low power in both senses of the word, with the rendering and collision detection and other heavy lifting performed by the city).

Combine this with the employment trends coming out of increased industrialization and automation (only so many people can be in middle management, etc...) and a big middle class with a lot of leisure time could quite easily spend enormous amounts of time and effort putting different skins on the city, the way middle-class tech-savvy westerners spend lots of time now making video game mods.

28:

New forms of civil disobedience. Anonymous organise a couple of hundred people to lay down in the street and max our the ambulance call outs.

Oh and with decent chemical sensors moving illegal drugs around becomes *much* harder.

29:

Walking around in a faraday cage would be as big a giveaway as wearing a cloak and a slouch hat. Think about it, the pavement is registering your footsteps, the walls and shop windows are noting the passage of a figure, and there are no associated rfids passing by? Pretty much the definition of suspicious person.

What would be needed would be to spoof the system. A figure is walking by with a collection of emitters that declare an identity that isn't you. Meantime the identifiers that declare you are stationary in your house, or doing something else as innocuous.

30:

"Re: Social benefits of large scale surveillance and processing, it's hard to think what a hard, static grid could provide that a smartphone with GPS couldn't"

Maybe not, but it's kind of cool that you'd be able to do it without needing a Smartphone, or indeed any kind of phone at all, if you're surrounded by distributed computing resource all you need is a simple (relatively) dumb interface to connect you to it. In fact ultimately you wouldn't even need that. Need to get a *really* urgent message to someone who's walking around without a terminal? The system locates them, identifies the nearest device with the required capability, co-opts it, and scrolls your urgent "page" across a TV, advertising display, or whatever in front of them, whispers it in their ear from a passing insect-sized micro drone, or whatever. Of course the downside is that we'd all be continuously followed by a personalised kaleidoscope of conflicting slide-shows and cacophony of intimate whispers everywhere we went as spammers took advantage of cheap, ubiquitous computing power to hack the networks and deliver advertising to us through the same mechanisms...

31:

PV power-generation at 10 times the present efficiency?

Well, currently the efficiency of your common or garden solar panel is 20% - so I rather doubt you are going to be getting 10x improvement within these laws of physics.

----

Personally I'd be more interested in what could be done when they take serious computing power, at seriously low power, combined with microfluidics, and put it in your food.

If you can sequence and engineer proteins etc. from the ground up, can you engineer antibodies and medicines inside the body in response to diseases and issues found there? Eat your MacDs and get rid of that nasty TB cough?

And that's without going into the Putinesque uses.

BTW It also reminds me of the later half of Bob Shaw's "Light of Other Days"

32:

It would break the Western criminal justice systems, for one thing.

If you look closely enough, pretty much everyone's guilty of something. Maybe murder, maybe jaywalking, probably copyright violations and speeding. When evidence exists to convict nearly everyone, power flows to the prosecutors. If makes a big difference who decides which crimes are prosecuted, whose murders go uninvestigated and whose jaywalking gets punished.

The Soviet system tended to work this way. With tax rates of 180% (to pick one of the more obvious examples), the system was set up to make everyone guilty of something, for the convenience of the police who ran the state.

Put simply, the previously universal combination of public moral rectitude and private moral laxity stops working.

33:

With a power source that runs off blood glucose these can be made an integral part of the body.

34:

One idea on future cities does occur to me here: over time, we're trying to become as power-efficient as possible. Modern LED streetlighting tries to give enough broad-spectrum light to give passable photopic vision conditions; this requires about 1 candela per square metre of illuminance.

If however you only want to provide enough light for people to see by at night, then optimising street lighting for human scotopic vision is the way to go. Scotopic vision is sensing using the rod cells in our eyes, and although there's no colour sensitivity, the necessary illuminance is much, much lower with the minimum being about 10^-6 candelas per square metre. Furthermore the peak spectral sensitivity is about 500nm.

That means that instead of expensive white LEDs (really blue LED emitters plus phosphors) you can get away with blue-green LED emitters, and far fewer of them. A useful compromise might be to install both sorts of LED into streetlights, and switch from white illumination to much dimmer blue-green illumination from midnight to dawn.

35:

I think the big fightback against this will come not in the form of denying information (which looks suspicious, as people point out), but the poisoning of databases.

e.g. An app on my phone that changes bluetooth, wifi mac ids to random numbers regularly. randomly generated rfids.
Fake requests to websites from browsers to spoil profiling.

We've seen people seeding Amazon reviews with crap to destroy its value. I've seen some smarter companies and programmers fill internal databases with 99% garbage: e.g. usernames, etc. They still work as required by specified when searching on a given key, but trawling won't work.

example: ISPs are required to keep logs of emails, connections by users. Fine. But the law didn't specify keeping the log clean: 99% of the entries are emails for ficticious users (inserted in such a way its difficult to automatically determine which). Give me a court order for the emails of a given user, I can give you clean records as required by law. Pull the entire db and do something it was specifically anti-designed for, such as finding which users visited "www.amnesty.ie", and you'll get 99% garbage.

Personally I think the fight-back for privacy has only just begun.

36:

Imagine a thunderstorm?

The local city utility maintenance crew drives to the area and throws out a few shovels of computer dust.

37:

I also wonder what this would do to our justice system. On one hand, criminal acts would be so easy to catch, that many of them would quickly stop existing. Nobody in their right mind would try to rob a store (or kill or rape in semi-public spaces) when they know they will be caught before they even reach the building's exit.

38:

I think the assumption that Moore's law, or even Koomey's law, is going to hold for another two decades is wildly optimistic. I would expect a taper off much sooner, perhaps even this decade.
The physics and the economics of smaller process nodes is becoming harder and harder, to the point where anything beyond 10nm or so looks extremely difficult.

39:

I think you meant an iPhone 4s Is 2-3 orders of magnitude faster than a Cray 1, not 12-13 OOM.

The best case for the cray would be something like a linpack that filled the Cray memory, where the iPhone would offer less than two orders of magnitude in greater performance, completely limited by memory bandwidth.

Best case, for something that fit completely in cache on the modern processor and couldn't be vectorized on the Cray, you might see another couple orders of magnitude.

40:

Well, according to Agent Smith, 1990 was the high point of our civilization.

41:

Yes: 2-3 OOM relative to a Cray. (The "12-13" reference is to doubling periods of Moore's Law and Koomey's Law, if they continue to iterate at current tempo. Which is itself a questionable assumption ...)

42:

I'm always bemused by tales of countries where crossing the road any old where is actually illegal. Here, it is considered good etiquette to use a marked crossing if one is nearby and there is traffic, but I'll frequently cross the road outside our local police station without wandering the 50 metres along to the actual crossing point.

43:

They're computers: 12 binary orders of magnitude is plausible.

44:

Nobody in their right mind would try to rob a store (or kill or rape in semi-public spaces) when they know they will be caught before they even reach the building's exit.

I have relatives where the husband is a cop and the wife works in the parole office. What you don't understand is there are some people who are wired (or raised in some bizarre way) such that they seem to comprehend the concept of getting caught. Repeatedly. Over and over again. A hard case of "they just don't seem to get it". He, the cop, referred to them as a part of their frequent flier program. The other part mainly being the lonely and mentally disturbed who interact with the judicial system for reasons other than crime.

His off the top of his head stat was 90% of the people they need to pick up can be found at their girl friend's or mother's home. Every time. Over and over again.

Maybe Charlie's computer dust would make is easier to keep tabs on these folks and intercept them when needed. (In the US if you're on parole your civil rights basically don't exist.) So maybe fewer cops chasing criminals and more doing baby sitting and interventions. Of course I could see long term it being easier and easier to get on the "to be tracked" list.

45:

One issue of 3D circuits, (stacked, folded, whatever), is getting rid of the heat. Little as it would be it is still an issue. With 2D it is easy to design conductive thermal transfer systems. With 3D you have to get the heat out of the middle. A harder problem without taking up a lot of the middle with plumbing of some sort. Our brains have a LOT of blood flow which helps takes care of this. Plus being somewhat spherical in shape with the edges hard against the skull and thus the open air.

A thermal image of a body shows an impressive amount of heat being generated by one's head.

46:

There is a school of thought that quite a few secret intelligence organisations also do this sort of thing, and keep quite extensive archives of UFO reports, carefully synthesised Freemasonry conspiracy theories and the like, simply to give unreliable low-level employees something to leak to the press which can be easily detected and refuted, but which will give away the leaker as a security risk.

47:

Ultra-fine weather data. With some sort of learning network, better weather monitoring. Automatic theif detection, even if they use a faraday cage. Automatic human social interaction monitoring. Privacy tracking - when should data be annonymised? The ability to record video from any point of view by composite image. Impromptu recording, without any obvious intermediary. Impromptu contracting in the presence of digital witnesses. Impromptu surveillence of Bill the builder for small claims fraud cases. Automatic impartial turnout numbers for conferences, political rallies and so on. Which could be intereated with outing planning, generating conformity as a side effect. Also, lawsuits about accuracy from aggrieved small businesses, keyword sales.

Bob is 7 minutes late for your meeting, and is stopped in traffic. Consent, and the amount of information to forward would be key to social acceptance.

Automatic surveying, with automatic planning permission "enforcement", ie you must apply for planning permission within 7 days.

Outloud - if they can listen, you may be able to summon tbe police or other services in a non-automatic way.

Automatic infrastructure monitoring - sewer 4669815 is blocked, or rail # is experiencing an over or undertemperature event. Presumably integrated with a geographical and flow plan database of the system. Similarly, road usage stats - this road is achieving it's estimated potential, and the tarmac will be lifetime expired in another 2 months and change. Traffic accident analysis.

Rain shadow estimation and payment of compensation automatically for even quite small buildings.

48:

It would probably be possible to sterilise your clothes from RFID or similar technology by nuking them in a micro-wave, and thus attain some degree of anonymity from active or semi-active monitoring systems. Be prepared to have to jailbreak your kitchen implements, though.

49:

Watch for more cascading failures as security margins get shaved (touched upon in a deepness in the sky, where a highly-optimised solar system has lost its economic capacity to a catastrophic failure).

50:

Re spoofing: If we assume that, in some countries at least, superconductors on you can't analyse and transmit your genome (by law, not technical incapacity) pretending to be someone else if you're reasonably similar in build isn't too bad. You meet, you swap clothes, yes all of them in a closed and/or very close place, and off you go. I imagine under such a system, unless made illegal, many homes will have faraday cages built in. In fact the cable companies will probably lobby for it because it keeps them in business suppling wires and services that run into your house - and at home your "phone" (whatever that looks like at the time) hooks up to an in-house wireless network to make its calls.

You'd have to have electronic items switched for anonymity too - but we already have things like burner phones used by criminals.

And, of course, if you're very short, tall, thin, fat etc. you're in trouble. Or if they have a backdoor hack for genomic tracking and broadcast with a warrant or similar.

As for the system exhibiting strong AI, even at a rudimentary level, I rather doubt it I'm afraid, although it might become even more scarily good if such a thing did happen.

But, roughly speaking, each 10m radius patch has 100 monitors in it. Let's say the population of monitors is 10% of the total, so we'd expect ~10 of each in range, and be pretty surprised if there are 0 in any 10m radius. One that scans for heat, one that scans for pollutants with a side-line in smoke, one that scans for bodies lying down etc. Perhaps one that listens to conversation and reacts to certain sounds - "help", the sound of breaking glass, metal on metal impacts, gunshots and so on. That's probably another legally limited system, the technology to relay it all to Siri's big sister is there I'm sure and monitor all conversations. All they do is dumbly report up the line. And, much like CCTV centres today, the intelligence is supplied by a human getting alerts and looking at them. The system 'merely' gives them better coverage and the equivalent of CCTV that says "look here, numbskull, this might be interesting" to give more nuanced coverage.

No need for strong AI, although I imagine some good weak AI in there to pass significant data up the chain.

51:

Due to legal/social resistance, costs, planning, other projects taking priority, and a few good old-fashioned boondoggles along the way, you can safely add a couple of generations to the time it would take to actually deploy these devices. Assuming the technology becomes practicle 2030ish, you'd start seeing smartcity developments around 2060-2080. All unevenly applied, so there would be gaps as the infrastructure is laid down in some areas but not others. Starting in 2060 London lays out smartcity mesh in the most economically productive areas, to 'boost productivity' and keep the rich folks happy, then it spreads to high-crime areas 10-20 years later, and then starts to fill in the gaps 10-20 years after that. Circa 2080-2100 the system is everywhere.

52:

Won't the processors infiltrate everywhere, like seeds? I imagine them sticking to clothing so that you acquire RFIDs as you move around. Others will wash down below ground. Yet others might become airborne, providing a full 3D sensor net.

What will be interesting is how useful data mining will become so that sensor states can offer predictions that can be used to alter outcomes with interventions, either electronic or physical.

53:

"What will be interesting is how useful data mining will become so that sensor states can offer predictions that can be used to alter outcomes with interventions, either electronic or physical."

So we're talking more grist to ATHENA's mill here?

54:

> (Note that I don't think we can push our power efficiency much further. Eventually we run into problems with thermal noise, not to mention that with only 1.6 x 1019 electron volts per joule, we face a hard limit on how many individual electrons we can move around our circuits. An electron volt is on the order of the same amount of energy as a covalent bond, and around fifty times the energy of a Van der Waals interaction between atoms; it's thus a rough approximation for how much energy it takes to kick an electron around. If we're trying to carry out on the order of a billion computational operations per second, and each operation relies on interactions that involve setting around a thousand electrons in motion, then we can't obviously get our power consumption down below microwatt levels.)

The relevant concepts here are https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reversible_computing and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Landauer%27s_principle

> Theoretically, room‑temperature computer memory operating at the Landauer limit could be changed at a rate of one billion bits per second with only 2.85 trillionths of a watt of power being expended in the memory media.

(I once read that we were estimated to be something like 10 orders of energy efficiency away from the limit, which sounds high given your estimates.)

55:

Automatic curfew/restraining order enforcement. However, on the subject of rfids, you don't just want to get them off ylour clothes, you want them in a bag with a faraday cage, so you can get rfid changed quickly. Once someone thinks it's worth adding a spotter for that to the city code base, it'll probably stop working. This may even have shown up in one of our host's books.

56:

Most of all, I would expect virus programs to be farmed on such networks. You basically have one large cellular automaton of variable and slightly strange topology and lots of computing resources available for each cell, which will then need to squeeze the result of the computations through low bandwidth connections.

The behavior of each cell would be determined by the behavior of each adjacent cell in a fully automated process - updated and interfered with by programs indistinguishable from viruses.

57:

It is the panopticon. - Basically, this kind of thing allows anyone with a warrant to view the past. It doesnt even matter if it is theoretically hackable, because you cannot aquire the tools and code to do that without being spotted.. by the panopticon. This means societies will rapidly diverge in two directions: Nightmarishly opressive, and "repealers". By repealers, I mean that some places will simply make their body of law a heck of a lot smaller (by neesesity. Because their police and other organs of enforcement are just not okay with locking up everybody, nor with arbritiary appliaction of the law).
Laws against Murder, Rape, and Assault will not go anywhere, even if availablity of a video evidence of basically everything will make trials more of a sentencing hearing than anything else.

IP enforcement and weed illegality however?
Too many people doing it to make it at all practical to punish them all, so the laws get tossed.

This means culture will change massively - not just art and so on, but everything - A heck of a lot of our society is shaped by fear and if the Hobbsian Levithan becomes a perfect deterrence to violence, that goes away.
Talk to strangers! Why not? Let your kids roam! Flirt!

58:

I'll give the environmentalist take on this, because this got me thinking about the ecosystem of both the objects and their data.

Where we live, we're already in an era where I can't throw out light fixtures or electronics. Rather, I have make an appointment to take them to a collection center, or wait for a non-profit to hold an e-waste drive.

I'll admit my ignorance as to where e-waste goes. The last I heard, it goes to China where it's broken up by hand, and stuff gets scavenged. What gets scavenged, what gets discarded, and who bears the costs are what I don't know.

There's a general problem here, which is when the waste-to-resource (or burial) cycle can be summarized as "ummm, that happens somewhere else," that's a warning sign of a problem. Where I live, there's a thriving industry dealing with the industrial contamination of the last 100 years, usually at public expense.

So, if we're going to make e-waste ubiquitous, we're going to have a huge waste problem, especially since it's difficult-to-impossible to get new toxic waste landfills opened in many first-world countries. Entrepreneurs will rightly regard this as a huge opportunity, but currently they make money when their waste inputs are relatively homogenous, and I seriously doubt we're going to see that. Everything from microdrones to smart watches to whatever will be hitting their intake bins. All that crap will have to be sorted out, and what can be recycled will have to be recycled efficiently and cheaply enough to make it worth doing.

Getting to the point where we have a cradle-to-cradle computing ecosystem is about the only way we'll ultimately solve this, and I have no idea how we'll get there from here. Any thoughts.

There's another ecosystem out there, which is the data ecosystem and data as a waste product. Already there's more data than any human brain can fully process, and it's going to get worse. At what point does "too much data" go from a nuisance to an active problem? US intelligence agencies have dealt with this for years with regards to threats to the US, and they've been consistently unable to find the useful data amongst the noise. The TSA is another classic example: dumb policies and dumb people coupled with high-powered technology does not lead to smart outcomes. I think we can make a good argument that more data, even more automated data analysis, won't necessarily make people smarter or more informed. I also think I can make a good argument that all of us have lots of data lying around that we don't need and will never use, but which we can't bear to part with for whatever reason. It's normal, but it's not necessarily good.

So my prediction is that, if we get a tidal wave of data rolling out of ubiquitous, cheap devices, most of that data will be archived somewhere and never used. In other words, it's another kind of waste. That massive data center that the NSA is building in the Utah desert may turn out to be the US' first giant data dump, not a useful resource. Cloud servers may end up being the same, especially where municipalities pay to keep data in perpetuity, as a record that they were, in fact, performing their monitoring duties. How are we going to deal with all this waste, beyond erasing memory and filling it up with something else? Will we be even able to do that?

Ecosystems work by creating feed-forward loops, and I don't know how you turn data into a real ecosystem.

59:

A computer system that knows were everybody is (in the public space) can make predictions were people are going to be at some point in the future how they are going to interact and the consequences of those interactions. a part of policing is going to be taking out domino bricks preventing a sequence of events resulting in a major crime or riot.
another major role for the police is gonna be domestic violence as it's gonna be one of the few places of anonymity.

I can imagine in the morning instead of checking your email you tell a computer your plans of the day and it will to a reasonable degree predict how your day will develop. based on your history and all the telemetry that's been bouncing around. It will tell you which people you better avoid that day, better not go to Cafe Nero's today as there is a change such and such will be there or the queue is gonna be more than five minutes.

60:

An alternative to this smart 1-3mm^3 things are dumber .5mm^3 things that communicate with smart nodes. A street light node might be fairly smart to deal with real time traffic and such. One or a few nodes in your house might be smarter to handle scheduling, your habits, etc...

Mainly due to software. I can see this setup being easier to implement than the distributed setup along the lines CS proposed. But neither will be easy from a software point of view. Hardware always seems to be at least 10 years ahead of the software when it comes to distributed and/or large scale computing.

Anyway I see the computer dots/dust noticing the strongest local node and coordinating with it. And after a while in urban area this dust gets to be ubiquitous. I see issues similar to the controversies relating to containing genetically modified crops. How do you contain it?

62:

Bingo!

"
A six-year-old chasing a ball towards a street may result in the local nodes notifying the autopilot of an approaching car to apply the brakes before the child runs out from between the row of parked vehicles ahead. "

You've just made totally robotic cars possible.

On the negative side of things the omnipresence of sensors could push North America into an even greater adoption of the car culture. Building a Faraday cage around the passenger area and within the general structure of a mass produced car is a rather trivial affair compared to designing crash-crumpling zones and airbag-filled passenger areas.

With the coming of age of an even stronger suburban-based car culture all of the downtown areas in North America would end up looking like the blasted-our remnants of a downtown in Camden N.J. instead of Portland, Oregon.

Oh well, at least we'll see interesting things come out of this, with the coming of vastly different suburbs having things like the ecosystems giant mall parking lots filled with intelligent shopping carts talking to each other and trying to initiate useful conversations with relatively close-mouthed robot cars.

63:

I wonder what some of the unintended consequences would be? My mid sized city recently replaced the traffic lights with LEDs. Last winter we discovered that the LEDs did not generate enough heat to melt snow which since we're in the upper Midwest of the USA led to a lot of obscured traffic lights. Streets division workers had to manually clear them

64:

Ubiquitous cheap processor technology would make the production of cheap insect-like (or slug-like) robots very possible indeed. Slug-like bots would perhaps be a better analogy; such things would never quite stop operating unless in a complete energy blackout (slugs don't hibernate as such, they just burrow into soil and slow right down).

Such devices would have a lot of uses. Litter, for instance, would be a thing of the past. Scrap metal once again would be rare; you'd be able to detect scrap by the presence of numerous recycler bots busy trying to eat the useful elements to take back to their bases.

A more sinister use of such things would be the removal or disabling of public surveilance nodes. To that end, rooting normal litter-picking and recycling bots to use them to temporarily create blackspots in the city intelligence network would likely become commonplace; once the spybots were mostly down, crime could take place in the new blackspot.

65:

Nancy,

The pressure is towards less efficiency. When I programmed 8 bit embedded systems I frequently counted the number of cycles required to execute different solutions to a given task.

Compilers have gotten less and less efficient as the underlying hardware has gotten cheaper. Who cares if a 50 cent supercomputer is used in a wasteful manner?

66:

Umm, robot cockroaches? What could possibly go wrong?

On problem is stoichiometry. For instance, a silicon-based roboroach can't turn a paper candy wrapper into more roboroaches. The issue here isn't just the elemental composition of the trash, it's the ratios of the elements in the trash. One way to avoid this is to establish "microdumps" where the roboroaches can take the digested trash, but then you've got to have a system for taking stuff out of the microdumps and doing something useful with this partially recycled trash. Homogenate of nanocircuits, candy wrappers, used chewing gum, and dog poop? That's what I call a high quality resource. Oh yeah.

Another problem is that trash is a low-quality resource. Biological roaches are wonderful recyclers, and have been for hundreds of millions of years. Thing is, like the rest of us, they prefer to eat high quality resources when they can get them, which is one reason why they are such a nuisance in our homes. I don't know how you program a roboroach to determine when something is trash and when it is still being used, but I'll bet that's going to be a non-trivial problem.

To put it simply, you really don't want the roboroach recycling system eating your computer, or your backup hard-drive, or your refrigerator, or the infrastructure. If you can't find the smart phone you dropped because the roboroaches have eaten it already, you are not going to be happy.

67:

I think you mean "spimes". Also, will have to check out that book. Looks interesting.

68:

an iPhone is 12 orders of magnitude faster than a Cray-1?


Cortex A9: 20ns ( 32 bit multiply )

Cray-1: 12ns ( 64 bit multiply )

That's about 1 third of a magnitude slower, for half the precision.

It is about 6 orders more power-efficient though.

Which is still a good million times less than your claim.

Pls be more precise.

69:

He said orders of magnitude more powerful, not faster. If you're an engineer doing code that is vectorizable, I agree with questioning it; if you're a random user trying to type into a text editor, not so much.

I would like to see some clarification of the point, however.

70:

Particularly since it's more efficient in every measurable way - it uses less silicon and less power, executes faster, and is quicker to write the code for.

It's just that it's (say) 10% of the theoretical maximum efficiency for that platform, instead of 90%.

71:

BTW, a Faraday cage has to take into account the wavelength of the EMF. Ordinary light, of course, has an extremely short wavelength compared to “radio” waves; if you want your identity hidden from monitors you'll need to wear clothing that lets no light in — say, a burqa.

72:

If these devices can be damaged by magnets will we see government try to control magnets in the name of protecting the civil infrastructure? We're already seeing magnet makers such as Zen Magnets being threatened with being shut down in the name of protecting children, what to stop general magnet sales when it interferes with what will become considered basic city infrastructure?

73:

Microbiome sequencing does not linearly scale with single-species sequencing.

74:

Ian Smith @ 31
currently the efficiency of your common or garden solar panel is 20%
Really?
In that case, why isn't the planet covered in them? I thought it was still around the 4.5-6& mark...
And why do we have an energy generation problem, at all, if this is so?

I very recently saw (here? strom refuge? somewhere else?) a scary link to a remote sensor using IIRC just-outside-the-visible scanning, airport-style, capable of reading "stuff" off from several tens of metres - including chemical exudations - already in limited / test production.
Anyone else remember it/seen the link?
Coupled with this rfid panopticon it could be very sacry - assuming, of course, that there is enough TIME to read all this vast amount of data, most of which is going to be garbage.

75:

I suspect that we might well progress beyond Athena to something like a living God[s]. There doesn't have to be a centralized intelligence, just many distributed programs running with the ambient data input and prediction engines. Life might get quite capricious, with the world apparently quite "alive" to you, steering you well on most occasions, but also steering you in bad ways in others. Society could regress back to superstitious propitiation of the god[s] (or software bots).

76:

If these devices are going to be so small, I do hope they are no longer made of silicon, or they are going to potentially contaminate the food supply when they get mixed into processed foods. Carbon/organic components and must be digestible.

77:

Problem is, if we can digest them I'd lay good odds that there is a plethora of fungi, bacteria and insects that would jump at the new food source. But if they aren't embedded in the surface in such a way that removing them is a non-trivial process this will indeed be a concern, the easy solution is embedding them in some top layer that can be added to, or replaced, regularly and with ease for those thunderstorms(not to mention static electricity and other mishaps): I don't see asphalt doing well in this job.

78:

Particularly since it's more efficient in every measurable way - it uses less silicon and less power, executes faster, and is quicker to write the code for.

But you don't get the cool bench or water sculpture.

79:

"In that case, why isn't the planet covered in them? I thought it was still around the 4.5-6& mark..."

No, around 20% for Silicon, and up to 40% with more exotic stuff. As for the planet not being covered in them, it will be. Manufacturing capacity is expanding 40% a year and prices have halved over the past 18 months.

80:

Streets division workers had to manually clear them

So the question is "did the energy savings pay for the ice/snow removal?"

I was surprised when I first saw a traffic light up close. About 3' tall with 500 watt incadesent bulbs. With 2 lights facing each direction that gives you a little over 4KW/hr plus the control system. If control system is 10 amps @ 120V (wild guess) that gives you another 1.2KW/hr In the us at about $.1 per KWH that means the old style lights would run about 5.2*.1 = $0.50 per hour. or $4555 per year for power. If LEDs cut the lighting load by 2/3s then you're looking at about $2220/yr.

Most new shiny things come with secondary effects that most folks don't care to admit might exist. Much less plan for.

81:

In that case, why isn't the planet covered in them?

Efficiency here is defined as light energy in vs electricity out. Has nothing to do with cost. Others have mentioned it but for example if a panel is 100% efficient but costs $2/kwh over the life of the panel for electricity generated then it will make no economic sense to use it. There might be other reasons.

82:

But are people who kill or rape now in their right mind to begin with?

83:

Oh yeah - more portable.

84:

Details, details....

85:

Ach, why dream small.

I think I will upload myself into that mesh of nodes and become the city.

http://www.amazon.de/Centauri-Knights-David-L-Pulver/dp/1894525876

86:

But how can the washing machine call me if my phone is in the washing machine?

87:

The reason rape is a relatively common occurence is not that rapists are common - it is because most rapists reoffend. Over and over. Very few murders are the work of serial killers, but most rapes are the work of serial rapists. Perfect enforcement would make it a very rare occurence.

The murder rate in, oh, Sweden, would probably not drop a great deal from catching the last 5% that currently escape justice, but Sweden is presently an outlier, and, well, it has a murder rate less than a fourth of that of the US, and the nigh-total certainty of getting caught is probably not entirely irrelevant to that.

88:

42:I'm always bemused by tales of countries where crossing the road any old where is actually illegal.

Jaywalking isn't often prosecuted in the States, but it really does illustrate how this country was built for cars, not pedestrians (with the exception of a few cities, especially in New England).

89:

79 on solar cells: Manufacturing capacity is expanding 40% a year and prices have halved over the past 18 months

That's good, but exponential growth always hits a limit and levels off. At this point, it's hard to say whether exponential improvement in solar cells will start to level off next year or 30 years from now. If the growth lasts, it's a revolution. If it doesn't, it's a sideshow.

90:

With regard to rape, one of the big problems is that a lot of rapists rationalise rape, or believe that what they do is not rape. Interestingly, people will self-report as rapists as long as you don't call it "rape".

http://yesmeansyesblog.wordpress.com/2009/11/12/meet-the-predators/ (discusses a fascinating survey-based study, with lots of interesting links)

I would also like to point out (not directed at anyone in particular) that for some of us the subject of rape and sexual assault is not a hypothetical debating point. Thanks.

91:

Did nobody mention Rudy Rucker yet? Self-modifying evolutionary software algorithms and cellular automata ftw. Or Diamond Age; swarms of micro-miniature attack drones defending your gated-community burb.

92:

There are still more TV sets being produced than PV panels, so the exponential will continue for some time. The industrial capacity for increasing PV production by a factor of 10x is still quite modest.

93:

That argument is spurious. PV will grow if demand grows (which seems likely in many regions), which in turn will depend on how cost effective it is compared to alternatives. If a hypothetical energy generating widget were to appear tomorrow, that had a 10x better energy/cost ratio to solar PV, I would think that solar PV production would follow a truncated growth trajectory as the new widget became the dominant technology.

There are also a host of factors that could derail solar PV as it becomes more widespread. One thing I could see is people objecting to large swathes of land being covered in PV panels.

94:

Obvious SF reference - Bob Shaw's Light of Other Days has 'slow glass' which can absorb light for hours, days, or forever and play it back on demand. Which in the final story (rot 13 for spoilers) gheaf vagb n cnabcgvpba fbpvrgl jura gur tbireazrag pebc-qhfgf infg nernf jvgu zvyyvbaf bs gval tynff ornqf, rnpu znqr bs praghel-guvpx fybj tynff. Va gur rirag bs n pevzr gurl whfg cynl onpx ornq erpbeqvatf hagvy gurl svaq gur erpbeqf gurl arrq. Abg erny-gvzr ohg nyzbfg nf vainfvir.

95:

The numbers (wrt. "memory diamond" at least - I didn't read the rest), are way, way, way, way, way, way, way off. (In my opinion each order of magnitude deserves one "way" :-) 12.5 g of carbon contains 6*10^23 atoms, so 1 g of this notional "memory diamond" would store 5*10^22 bits. That's 6*10^21 bytes or 6 billion terabytes, i.e. 6 million petabytes, not 0.5 petabytes.

96:

I am also sceptical of extending Moore's Law by going 3D.

Too late, it's already happening. However, it's not at a closely-packed level, but with through-silicon vias and stacked layers of silicon.

http://www.xilinx.com/technology/roadmap/ssi-technology.htm

The most complex ICs currently in production is an FPGA using the above technology... (6.8 Billion transistors in a Virtex-7 2000T)

97:

Charlie, what the hell is going on with your blog template and why am I seeing a folder graphic superimposed mid-window?

98:

Ignore me. My fault for using Windows. It obviously hates me.

99:

Not to be confused with Clarke/Baxter's own “Light of other days”, which has a (physically implausible) democratic panopticon, and is an instructive look at a society without privacy.

100:

Tiny ubiquitous electronic devices has been an SF trope for some time, but I'm sceptical that they will be economic. Consider: Moore's law has lasted for several orders of magnitude now, but over that period, the economics of the semiconductor industry has pushed products towards more integration, rather than division, of devices. The cost of a chip can be though of as a polynomial in its size. If I recall correctly its has a nonzero coefficient of x^3, maybe even x^4, which explains why chips only get so large. But it has a nonzero constant term too, which is why your tablet or phone is made from 5-10 chips, usually with one big or two ones, rather than being made from a million chips. Up to a certain point, there is a saving in replacing two smaller chips with one bigger one.

This overhead is also not subject to Moore's law, which is why the number of chips in electronic devices hasn't increased over the period (if anything, they have fewer now)
It includes the analogue parts - transceivers, modulators, and the like - and physical parts - pads for connecting wires or antennas to the chip. There is also the additional overhead of hardware to communicate between chips, which is removed when you combine them.

So, most of the worlds CPU power is not today in the tiny chips like RFID tags, it is in large chips in mobile devices and (mostly ) in server farms.

Nevertheless, RFID chips do exist. This is because despite the fact that their tiny CPU power is bought with a large price in overhead, they manage to serve a useful purpose with it. And the CPU power in RFID tags and maybe Charlie's Solar Tags, will increase along with Moore's law. But they will only represent an insignificant fraction of the worlds CPU power, unless the growing CPU power of the tags manages to overtake our ability to find things to do with it. Otherwise it will always be more economic to mostly use fewer, larger chips.

101:

Honestly, I'm most excited by the implications of extremely low cost monitoring of the empowered and corrupt. GWB had his staff submit absolutely nothing in archive-traceable forms about how the regular political game of brokering sponsor interests against each other to determine American policy actually works, and this works against FOIA requests. When your tele-surveillance kit is made out of invisibly small black dots blocks away and they really can't do anything about it even with Faraday cages because you're listening to the product of compiled sound analysis to figure out what they're saying this makes it possible to use fifty bucks of sensor dust to listen to anybody, anywhere.
Of course it will be used against "the people" primarily; private investigation and surveillance of unofficial investigation targets will largely be so commonplace as to be below discussion, but the veil of secrecy and the myth of majesty and impartiality around those entrusted with public power may at last vanish sufficiently to pull down the whole deck of public corruption cards.

102:

So what you're saying is that it might be economic to, oh, run a small server farm off the solar power on an apartment roof, then use cogeneration off the heat of those servers to heat some or all of the water in the building, and the servers act both as the control center for the building, the back up, and possibly as a source of income? I forget for the moment where I saw the idea of data furnaces (Boing Boing, I believe?), but we could see something like that.

Incidentally, I'm thinking an interesting scenario out about the future of Big Pharma in an era of tiny chips. Probably I'll post it on my own blog, since it's a bit too complex for here.

103:

Checking the back of my envelope...

Wheat: 200 plants per square metre

Which is 20 Euro per square metre at one processor per plant, 10 Euro-cents per processor.

1 Hectare is 10,000 square metres, which means 200,000 Euro per hectare. 1 Hectare can yield 10 tonnes of wheat, which is about 2500 Euro per Hectare this year. A couple of years ago, you would have got about half that.

Also, I assumed a constant yield. I expect, after the last couple of months, that this year the grain yield will be lower.

So one processor per plant, in agriculture, doesn't make sense to me.


104:

U are all too serious ;) the meme forever alone will change to Never be alone. You will have voices in yout head but no One is going to call you crazy. W'll dreaming together and the strongest mind will be the bee-Queen of the human population

105:

The American Army wants to lay down a whole network of
sensors across Afghanistan to keep am eye on things after they leave.

http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/05/spy-rock/

107:

didn't read the whole article, but found the video of the talk referenced in the first line

The future social effects of Moore's law
Charles Stross, Science Fiction-Autor
Munich, Germany, June 2012
http://www.techcast.com/events/bigtechday/max-05/?q=max-05

and for people interested in other talks given there might browse through
http://www.tngtech.com/de/events.html

:cheers:

108:

Dirk@92:There are still more TV sets being produced than PV panels, so the exponential will continue for some time.

That strikes me as essentially a non-sequitur.

Currently, photovoltaic prices are dropping, both because new capacity is coming online and because engineers are making large productivity enhancements in PV manufacture. As the technology matures, productivity enhancements will drop off and prices will (eventually) stabilize (there may be some industry booms and busts in the meantime). The big question is how low the prices eventually go, which ultimately depends on how many tricks a bunch of engineers can come up with, and that is essentially impossible to predict with any confidence.

109:

@Dave Bell: even very slow processors would be able to deal with multiple wheat plants. Plants don't act very fast so there's lots of time available.

Wheat is also a fairly bulk crop - it's grown on big, flat, homogenised blocks of land and more attention is paid to getting everything the same than in dealing with microvariation. I see that continuing, perhaps by using very limited processing to boost or retard small areas, more likely via a drone (land or air) so that everything is ready for harvest at exactly the right time.

Horticulture is where I think we'll see plant-by-plant processing, because we already have per-plant irrigation feeds so the physical infrastructure is there to bolt a per-plant processor to (and it has something useful that it can do right now - control the exact amount of water added). Those units are not cheap - on the order of $AUS1 per plant now including pipework, so adding 20c for a processor/sensor and some sort of servo value would not be a huge impost. Add a smart (land) drone that tours the orchard reading the sensors and applying fertilisers/sprays only where required and you've solved two more problems (spraying is toxic and therefore expensive both to buy and to apply). A decent spray vehicle, BTW, is an expensive toy - over $100,000 for full filtration, positive pressure cockpit and better than milliletre per minute application accuracy. Increasing the automation in that vehicle is how I think this is likely to progress.

110:

Something I didn't want to riff on with the other too-long thread, but this plays into the pros and cons of infrastructure development.

The immediate first-order effect is that land rights and right-of-ways become much more complex in a ubiquitous computing environment. Canny developers lease (that's lease, not cede) EM right-of-ways. Public buildings and thoroughfares get the once-over, of course. But the distressing fact is that infrastructure development doesn't work so well when confronted with unknown and ill-placed dead spots. Expect the usual and usually ill-advised workaround of appeals to public safety, placing power in the hands of those least-equipped (institutionally as well as historically) to wield it to best effect.

Also, cheap(er) space exploration!

111:
Probably I'll post it on my own blog, since it's a bit too complex for here.

Where would your blog be? Always willing to be educated (for free).

112:

As far as ubiquitous sensors go, I suspect we're going to see totalitarian countries try very hard to suppress or ban EMP devices and RF noise emitters purely to stop people disabling the sensors. I am slightly surprised that we haven't already seen someone like Anonymous building EMP-in-a-suitcase devices purely to knock out security screening at airports. Do that a few times and the US at least will introduce pre-screening screening where they try to stop people bringing luggage into airports. Can you imagine trying to explain to a minimum-wage worker that the external battery for your tablet is not an EMP device? Well, you don't intend to use it that way, at least.

One interesting way to get arrested very, very quickly in most cities is to put a spraycan on a pole and start painting surveillance camera lenses. That crime is treated rather more seriously than the nominal charge would suggest.

Ahem.

Smarter hacks involving spoofing will also be fun. One thing I think would appeal to Anon and a lot of others is just picking an RFID value and everyone using that on everything all the time. It may even work as a DDOS against the lookup systems as whatever holds that value gets hammered.

I've also noticed quite a number of active RFID readers in places I wouldn't expect them to be. Not just shop doorways, but mall entrances and one possible false positive at a mass transit entrance (only one entrance out of ~10, so very weird. But repeatable). The tool for detecting them is fairly cheap and readily available (search: RFID detector), but I can't see any need to add one to a phone so unlikely to become ubiquitous the way wifi detectors have.

113:

In most of the world, I think the inevitable end result of deploying panopticon monitoring devices in all public and business spaces will be a shift towards absolute cultural uniformity, along the lines of North Korea.

Governments will be part of the problem but most of the uniformest mandate will come from employers. We're already seeing this as employers use social networks to stalk their employees in search of subversive behavior.

Given the technological ability to track employees behavior in public spaces 24/7, it would only be a matter of time until employers demand their workers behave in a way that promotes the corporate image.

Be seen supporting a football club other than the one your firm sponsors? Get fired. Be seen with the wrong kind of people? Get fired. Be seen at a political event for the less business friendly party? Get fired.

Imagine that attitude spread over every sector of life and that's what the future looks like.

Provided global warming doesn't kill us all first.

114:
As the technology matures, productivity enhancements will drop off and prices will (eventually) stabilize (there may be some industry booms and busts in the meantime).

I didn't want to get into any thread derailment on the other posting, but "the cost of solar panels is dropping exponentially" is a myth, a fairy tale solar boosters like to tell each other.

Oh, I'm not quibbling over those much-posted trend lines (at least if you chop them off at the right points). The problem is what counts towards true long-term costs dropping. And imho, gimmicks like subsidies, or counting Chinese imports as part of the the mix, etc., well, they don't count. There is also the problem that citing the cost trends of but one component in a system as if that was the cost driver of the whole system is just a little bit . . . unrealistic. The cost of solar PV is a lot more than just the cost of a blank, uninstalled panel. Is anybody surprised that those other costs are the least likely part of an installed system to experience an exponential decrease ;-) Didn't think so.

I'll try to refrain from any further thread derailment despite the usual troll bait from the Usual Suspects that is almost certain to follow.

115:

I'm not arguing that solar PV will not grow exponentially, just that your reasoning is wrong. The Suntech article makes it quite clear that expansion will result in lowered prices that will increasingly meet grid parity. In California, the costs of the ancillary equipment and permits is becoming more important than the PV panels.

116:

The vast majority of PV growth will be in the developing world, not the West. There are probably 3 billion people who would find it cheaper than their existing mains suppliers, if they have mains at all.

117:

Something like this but even more advanced?

118:

I am also sceptical of extending Moore's Law by going 3D. Much more likely is some kind of large area printing process. The resulting sheet can be folded or rolled into a small volume. The brain does similar packaging.

The brain's reason for doing this is the slow transmission of signals along nerves, so there is a drastic need to shorten the paths of transmission. This doesn't apply anywhere close to as strongly to signals that move near the speed of light.

The problem with extending Moore's law by going 3D is that you need to radiate more wasted power per area of surface. this means that either you include some fancy cooling system in your chips (IBM has occasionally done this), some sort of fancy heat piping (some labs have used silver heat conduction columns) or you MUST reduce your power consumption. But even when that's the limitation, the speed of signal transmission enables chips to go 3D. You just need to include some space in between them, and a fan to blow air through. But it's often practical to fold the signal paths rather than the chips (i.e., do the inverse of what the brain does) because the signal paths are so much faster. OTOH, this probably won't be needed, because the problems with including surface mounted lasers are being solved. I expect that the early models will have many alignment problems, but it's not an intractable problem.

119:

Lack of minerals MAY be an intractable problem. It may also not. Carbon has been showing itself to be extremely flexible, being both an insulator, a conductor, and a semi-conductor. And there's LOTS of carbon. Specialized uses, like screens, may need rarer minerals. Or maybe not.

OTOH, I've been dismayed at the rate with which we have been using gold for industrial processes. I understand it's value, but it may well run out. And non-oxidizing contacts are vitally necessary as the circuits get smaller. But maybe carbon will work, as when carbon oxidizes it doesn't leave behind an insulating residue.

Ephemeralization is very important, but when the components multiply, and they use trace elements, it makes it hard to recover. OTOH, I understand that currently electronics scrap piles are a higher quality ore than most gold mines are processing. Presumably proper handling could recover more than just the gold.

120:

You have to be a little careful with the skepticism. One example is that we supply China with a vast majority of the raw materials they need for their panels. They provide us with a vast majority of the finished panels. It's a global industry.

The costs of permitting and installation *are* non-trivial, as is certain utility's grumpiness about dealing with rooftop solar in general. I'll happily repeat the line from a power company agent about how they're afraid that power line maintenance people will be shocked by solar panels during blackouts, so they want the ability to unilaterally disconnect them from the grid--as if this wasn't a standard feature in many home solar installations.

Nonetheless, solar panel costs are dropping rapidly. Personally, I hope it becomes affordable for people to convert a lot of otherwise vacant rooftops into miniature solar farms, simply because it
a) adds a bit to energy independence, by creating a more distributed power grid
b) will keep far more solar industry workers constantly employed than those huge deep desert plants will, and
c) will promote local politics. After all, if everyone's roof is collectively feeding the city, people are going to have to be involved in community-level energy politics. This can certainly get interesting.

121:

So... given the way government projects work, the ubiquitous mesh would probably wind up as at least half a dozen different systems that don't all interoperate with each other, built and maintained by two dozen competing low-bidder contractors of varying ability, with security ranging from good to "cracked long ago."

Who watches the watchers? WE do!

When every politician, every council member, every motor vehicle clerk, every sanitation employee, every lobbyist, every minister, every policeman or corrections officer is under 24/7 surveillance, when any information displayed openly on paper or a screen is visible to anyone at all, would give a whole new meaning to "transparency of government." Particularly in the fields of foreign policy, military action, bribery, and malfeasance... All the surveillance data is just as available to your enemies as it is to you.

It's a pretty picture, but the people who would be signing the bills to fund such a system are mostly the ones with the most to lose by it.

122:

You've already pointed out health benefits would be enormous by identifying contagion. Imagine 'dust' lighting up around infected individuals.

On other hand, the capacity to infect and disrupt will be devastating. Can only hope counter measures stay a step(s) ahead, but there will be 'mishaps'.

I suspect this dynamic will play out in other aspects.

Wrt advertising, suspect individuals will develop counter measures eg learn to recognize their behavioral weaknesses advertisers play to.

Still, for some period of time, as this rolls out, those with tech skills and knowledge, and ability to deploy will have advantage a la high speed traders, etc.

123:

Btw, I just learned to use Google spreadsheets importXml feature. Nice way to mine the web. I tested it on this post : )

Comment DateTime =importXml("http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2012/08/how-low-power-can-you-go.html"; "//abbr[@class='published']")

Comment Author =importXml("http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2012/08/how-low-power-can-you-go.html"; "//span[@class='vcard author']")

Comment Text =importXml("http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2012/08/how-low-power-can-you-go.html"; "//span[@class='comment-content']")

Replied/To Whom =importXml("http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2012/08/how-low-power-can-you-go.html"; "//span[@class='byline']")

I made quick summary as of comment #111 ...

Total Number Comments = 111
Total elapsed time since Charlie posted = 12 hours 45 minutes
Number commentators = 71
Longest Comment = 2714 characters
Shortest Comment = 27 characters
Comments with replies = 37
Median # char / comment = 483
Charting # chars vs elapsed time shows clustering / cresting of # chars in peaks and valleys.

Authors who got > 1 reply
Dirk Bruere 5
Greg Tingey 4
Bellinghman 3
Alex Tolley 2
Gavin Rondeau 2
Jay 2
Kdansky 2

Authors who made > 1 reply
David L 6
Bellinghman 4
Jay 3
Ms. Sunlight 2
Alex Tolley 2
Gavin Rondeau 2

124:

Greg,

Running the risk of the spam link checker :

http://www.sunpowercorp.com.au/homes/products-services/solar-panels/e20/

Actually most of the cost today is the monkeys who install them, and the red tape that has to be gone through to get things connected up. IMHO there is a lot to be said for saying all new builds have to have roofs made of solar panels - but the reality is the inducements to install have been going down, and the red tape up. Almost as if politicians don't want more solar...

125:

hmm. filter test post? maybe my last post was too long. testing.

126:

I think my post was too big. Breaking it up.


The big change I wonder about is breaking the advantage of incumbency, the first-mover advantage.

Size generally wins out until a given system is upended. Look at any industry and you see hundreds of start-ups and an eventual consolidation until there are only a handful of serious players.

Of course, there's also the inherent bureaucratic rot as competent founders are replaced by toadies and sycophants and idiot sons. This might cause the failure of one of the giants and make the field even smaller.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anacyclosis

Polybius' sequence of anacyclosis proceeds in the following order: 1. Monarchy, 2. Kingship, 3. Tyranny, 4. Aristocracy, 5. Oligarchy, 6. Democracy, and 7. Ochlocracy (mob rule.)

I think this can map to the life cycle of all human associations, from businesses to communities to civilizations. The last step, mob rule, is where things have gone so far to shit that the people are willing to accept a strong leader who will come in and take the necessary steps to resolve the crisis.

Generally, centralized power beats decentralized power. The individual village can't stand up to the kind of army fielded by a league of villages. This is how kingdoms are assembled. But once imperial rot sets in, the kind of village that once would be pickings for the legions becomes the source of the barbarians pecking away at the frontiers.

127:

Here in Oz we're seeing some of the same red tape being applied, but AFAIK it's still very easy to put solar on existing buildings. When we were looking at a new building it was almost easier to have it, because the energy rating stuff combined with the ability to pre-sell about 20 years of green electricity credits made the economics lean very much in that direction. It's double counting IMO, but that's the way the paperwork is stacked.

We have a lot of cheap, dodgy PV installers around so that cost is quite low. Keeping the cheap gear running after the dodgy installer has disappeared is not something to worry your pretty little head about. And AFAIK there are no penalties for not actually producing the electricity that you presold the greenness out of.

Most irritating to me on a selfish level is that battery recycling is now enthusiastic enough that it's hard to get usable second hand traction batteries for less cost per kilowatt hour of storage than new deep proper ones. In the old days I "rented" a couple of forklift batteries from a recycler for ~1/100th the cost of buying new batteries. I paid delivery and pickup plus a slab of beer every time he swapped them over. We both thought it was a great deal.

128:

...some cities are already using street lighting installations as convenient structures to support public wireless internet routers.

I once worked extensively with such a network, which was built on a linux-based technology that probably dated to 2005 or so. It was billed as a "mesh network" but in fact it wouldn't work at all if allowed to mesh; even without meshing there were routing loops, lost packets, and congestion, Congestion, CONGESTION! because a wifi network is a nasty collision domain. In practice, the whole network was one gigantic star topology.

We also had problems with the backhaul frequencies bouncing off leaves (the 5.8 bands don't work well around trees, and treetops are found at the same elevation as the tops of street lamps and telephone poles) and naturally any wifi network has issues with line-of-sight, (which includes hills, buildings, and anything metallic, plus some reflective surfaces.)

There were also major signal-to-noise issues, because license-free wifi technology only has 3 useful bands in the 2.4 spectrum, and 5 useful bands in the 5.8 spectrum, (the one that doesn't function well around trees.) This meant that omnidirectional antennas picked up on EVERYTHING within a kilometer or so, and the signal-to-noise ratio was razor-thin. If a householder nearby had their wireless router tuned to the wrong frequency it could bring down one of my network's wireless routers, plus every router downstream of that router.

One NA100 router would serve a 250 x 250 meter square (size and shape approximate) with the 2.4 bands, while communicating over a backhaul on the 5.8 bands. There was also a 5.1 band which served police and fire, but that also backhauled over the 5.8 band. A single LAN segment would include 5-10 NA100 routers, all of which reported to a NA200 router. The NA200 routers could each serve 3-4 LAN segments via 3-4 directional antennas. (The NA100 routers generally used omnidirectional antennas, which meant that decisions about which of their peers they would talk to could be implemented in software.) In practice, each NA200 router served approximately 20 NA100 routers.

Each NA200 was connected by wire (and shared a pole with) a long-range wifi router which ran a dedicated directional antenna. Usually 2-4 NA200s would be served by a single long-range wifi-router at one of four regional bases served by a hollow, fake flag pole and a Cisco switch. Each switch would therefore serve approximately 12 NA200s.

Put bluntly, the system sucked. Even when working properly, it was difficult to actually download a website from the system, and the whole thing required constant finicky maintenance. Note that we're talking about approximately 1000 routers serving a medium-sized city. Keeping things running required a bucket-truck and two full-time techs. When things got bad there would sometimes be 3 techs in the field and two at the NOC. Once I worked 85 hours in a single week.

The whole system could support perhaps 3-4000 people at a time. In areas with lots of wireless routers in houses and businesses it didn't work at all - there was simply too much interference.

You're proposing to take that many network nodes and compress them into the 3600 square meters that surround each street light. Even if I grant you 100 times the speed and reliability of the gear I worked with, plus vastly improved automated problem solving, you've created a maintenance nightmare; one million network nodes in a square kilometer, plus whatever is being worn, flown, or driven past that might interfere with the workings of your wireless, plus a similarly dense network in each of the surrounding buildings.

This would total perhaps 2-3 million wireless nodes in a square kilometer. Good luck. You're gonna need it.

(Apologies for posting anonymously. I still work for the same company, albeit in a different capacity. I've taken minor liberties with the network design, equipment names, etc., but the numbers and issues are true.)

129:

The old Club of Rome report said we would be in a deep hole we could not get out of by now. Running out of copper was one of the big ones. I think it was Buckminster Fuller who said we had scraped so much of the old copper by using less with new tech. were in no danger of running out. Back in the 70s at least.
The problem of solar cells or panels on homes is that banks saw them as something they would lose the loan money on. The only thing that's worth a loan is the land the home sits on. Not the home. Businesses go bankrupt all the time. What happens to the solar money. At least that’s what was said in the 60's and 70's.
That's why there are utility companies. They can use bonds and big low interest bank loans, that anything smaller could not get, to do things. (yes there is a lot more to it.)

130:

My blog is at http://heteromeles.wordpress.com. Look for it tomorrow.

131:

I was curious about this, as I'd heard the 4-6% (at least for products that could actually be taken to market) figure from a solar panel researcher ~8 years ago. Apparently this is the case now, though only in the last few years.

20% is close to top end right now, but that's more of a race between manufacturors than any particularly compelling tech. Solar has apparently very quietly gone from a pipe dream to rapidly approaching the cheapest power out there, without any of the big breakthroughs (or large supply of a very rare element) that were supposed to be needed.

I wonder what they *are* making them with... silver was needed for the cheapest panels last I checked. More exotic materials for others. *Something* is going to skyrocket in price in the next ten years though.

133:

(Some thoughts deleted. The CDC did a survey on rape/sexual-assault in the USA. The figures are horrific, and from what American aquaintances have said about their lives, I can believe them.)

Rape doesn't have to involve overt violence. (And that's going to be the A.I. problem on this.)

And then you can wonder what a rape-detector system would make of how me might act out our sexual fantasies. Likewise domestic violence detection.

Some of my fantasies, on my I-might-really-do-this list, would seem impossible to act out in that panopticon world. I would be rescued. My "attacker" would be whisked into a police cell.

This is always going to be tricky territory.

134:

I can see the numbers working out for the situation you describe, and you sidestep a problem I didn't mention.

Open-field agriculture: where do you put the processors, and are they re-usable? And, with machinery working at scales in excess of 10m, is per-plant data even useful?

135:

@Anony Mouse

Wifi is not the right tool for dense deployments with multiple transmitters in a small area. Broadly speaking, 802.11 DSSS is optimized for high bandwidth at the expense of low tolerance for noise and competing transmitters.

When somebody deploys a SerfNet[*], they will use a networking protocol that favors high tolerance for noise and nearby transmitters at the expense of individual device bandwidth. The protocol will, by necessity, be so different from 802.11 that existing experience with municipal wifi won't be comparable.


* A network consisting of ubiquitous devices used to enforce neo-feudal power relationships through the continuous monitoring of a population.

136:

Dirk @ 79
Thanks for that.
Again, though why hasn’t it really taken off here?
Vested interests against Si-power? Ditto for small power-generators (which I do know to be the case)?
Or will it all happen suddenly, in (say) 2015/16, and everyone’s roof gets a PV panel in a very short period.
Currently, in the UK it just is NOT economic to put up PV as a private householder.
Oh – David L @ 81 – that is interesting – question.
Is the up-front price artificially being kept up, I wonder? I note that there is a lot more PV in Germany than here, but not so in Netherlands & Belgium – which almost certainly means a tax incentive / disincentive difference.
& Jay @ 89
It doesn’t need to be exponential – it just needs to (approx) double the efficiency / halve the cost …. If it does both of those, as seems likely, then it will make a difference, but I suspect the UK will be one of the last to switch over.
Alex Tolley @ 93
But demand just will not grow, in the UK at least, because (it seems to me) that deliberate obstacles are being put in the way of going down the PV route.
Am I correct, and if so, why is this so?
Ditto Dirk again @ 106
And, if this bloomberg prediction is the case, then (again) why are the media/pundits so against it in the UK – I’m really smelling rats here, I’m afraid.

We still desperately need an economic method of storing electrical power.

David L @ 80
That is why all the developed railway systems are going over to LED-illuminated colour-light signals, about as fast as they can replace them.
Greater reliability, much lower power-throughput, and brighter
Ian Smith @ 123
Almost as if politicians don't want more solar...
and I wonder why that might be?

Marcus Rowland @ 94
gheaf vagb n cnabcgvpba fbpvrgl jura gur tbireazrag pebc-qhfgf infg nernf jvgu zvyyvbaf bs gval tynff ornqf, rnpu znqr bs praghel-guvpx fybj tynff. Va gur rirag bs n pevzr gurl whfg cynl onpx ornq erpbeqvatf hagvy gurl svaq gur erpbeqf gurl arrq. Abg erny-gvzr ohg nyzbfg nf vainfvir.
You what?

Me @ 104
Is probably a SPAMMER!
If not, then a random loonie.

That guy Moz @ 112
EMP devices are dangerous, anyway.
I devised a (separate-component) self-build – fits in a briefcase) for zapping loud jingle-jangles being played in trains, really simple stuff …
Lots of parallel-connected hi-cap capacitors with fast discharge rates, several batteries, a shorting switch operated by relay, and a parabolic o/p. But DON’T operate it in a room where other people have mobile phones, or heart pacemakers. So, you don’t actually want to go there, because the collateral damage will be too great.
Note the similarity to your suggestion?

Curmudgeon @ 113
Yes … but … that sort of behavior is always, every time, self-defeating.
Doesn’t stop the idiots from trying, though. Just like the idiots in “occupy” saying “But we’re not Stalinists, OUR communism will be different!” Oh yeah?


137:

Greg re: @94

http://rot13.com/

Comes in handy for posting 'spoilers', though I don't think it'll encrypt non-correct-thinking from the Governmental panopticon AIs :)

138:

"Again, though why hasn’t it really taken off here?"

No idea, esp with the subsidies (which are being cut now). Part of it is probably that most people think the UK does not have the right climate. S Europe is certainly a better place and PV is already grid comparable in (IIRC) places like Italy, Spain, Portugal, Cyprus.
Another problem is ripoff pricing for installation, although that might be less of a problem now. Certainly with solar water heaters a couple of years back I was seeing quotes of £2000, whereas if you bought the stuff direct from China it would cost about £400.

As for the rest of the world, grid comparable means "over 25 years" - which is a lot of money up front. When costs halve again the case will be overwhelming.

139:

"What would be needed would be to spoof the system."

Yeah... in general, "universal" identity regimes will probably have back doors for police, intel, witness protection, etc. As soon as you have back doors, you almost inevitably have exploits.

The 4GH code from Brunner's Shockwave Rider comes to mind.

(Idle thought I've had -- I wonder if the US already has such a code in the Social Security system. That is, a dedicated 3-digit prefix that's used only for "official" purposes. You'd think, with only 1000 available, someone would have noticed, but...)

140:

Greg, so many obstacles are being put in the way of PV in the UK that you get a huge subsidy for it and dodgy companies are putting leaflets through letterboxes offering to install it for you!

The biggest reason not to put PV in most of the UK, is the lack of sunshine. You simply don't get enough sun hours of enough intensity across much of the UK to make it worthwhile without a very large {much larger than any other form of renewable energy} subsidy. At least solar water heating will work even when it is cloudy; you should fit that first.
That is not to say that fancy new technology may make it possible to spray on a cheap and easy solar roof, but in reality just now it isn't worth it except in very sunny parts of England.

Plus not all of us have roofs facing the right direction, or we share roofs or they aren't rated for the extra load or whatever.

141:

The biggest reason not to put PV in most of the UK, is the lack of sunshine.

Yes, this.

We tend to forget that the UK is a long way north; in fact, Edinburgh -- where I'm typing -- is 50 miles north of Moscow (and I don't mean Moscow, Idaho). The only North American city north of here is Anchorage, in Alaska!

So we get a lot of sunshine in summer, but very little in winter. And our main energy demand is for heating in winter, not aircon in summer. (I have a mobile air conditioner for my office. It usually gets plugged in and used for about 1-2 weeks a year, in high summer; this year I haven't needed it at all yet.)

We also tend -- many of us -- to live in buildings with multiple households under a shared roof, and our residences are about half the size of equivalent dewllings in the USA or Australia, meaning we have far less area per person available for rooftop solar.

Solar is mostly useful in latitudes where there's reasonably steady, high-intensity insolation that coincides with peak demand -- I expect it to be a no-brainer for domestic air conditioning everywhere in the tropics and continental interiors within a couple of decades (and I hope that by then domestic solar-powered aircon will be available for all, because the heat emergencies we're beginning to see with increasing frequency will become major lethal events if it isn't). But solar makes as much sense in most of the UK as a tidal barage makes in the middle of the Sahara desert: yes, the moon exerts tidal drag in the Sahara, but there's a slight practical energy extraction issue ...

142:

Just to extend this comment, when USians talk of Canada as 'The Frozen North' the vast bulk of the boundary between the US and Canada is on the same line of latitude as Barcelona. That's in the South of Spain - so it's basically the length of two countries South of the South coast of England.

143:

The "smart dust" idea is a great one for works of fiction but there are a number of real-world problems which rather get in the way of practical implementation. One key factor is the nature and function of sensors. Let's take air pressure for an example, as one of those measurements that would be considered really useful for environmental monitoring.

Barometric pressure is measured electronically by a diaphragm buckling due to unequal pressures on either side of it. Sensors measuring "absolute" pressure use a sealed chamber at either vacuum (0 bar) or 1 bar; the pressure difference causes the diaphragm to distort. That distortion is measured by strain gauges, basically resistors which change value depending on how much they deform.

Modern microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) pressure sensors are quite small but they're still several mm on a side and there's no easy way to make them smaller since they require gross mechanical movements to work; halving the size would make the diaphragm much stiffer and correspondingly less sensitive. They also consume several mA of current when operating, a major fraction of a smart-dust sensor package's power capability.

As for video, the dream of HD-quality imagery from a barely-visible speck of intelligent matter is just that, a dream. Lenses and pinholes can only be made so small before the images they produce become too faint to be usable. The sensors are also dimensionally-limited due to noise, image quality and the limited number of photons that arrive on a given detecting site per image frame. A low-end cameraphone sensor might be 3 or 4 mm on a side; add in the optics, focussing mechanism etc. and it will easily bulk out to 1000 mm^3 and consume several milliwatts while operating, another energy management problem for such a sensor bundle.

144:

And most of the Canadian population live close to that boundary. Montreal for example is far enough south that a Brit can get quite painful sun burn in a mere hour or two. (Yes, I speak from experience - the open top bus was about to leave, and I didn't want to miss it just to go get some sun screen.)

But a quick note: Barcelona is in the North East corner of Spain.

145:

#141 Para 1 - As much as 50 miles? ;-) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moscow,_Scotland

Yes, Moscow, Ayrshire is the first place I think of when the name Moscow is mentioned.

146:

Actually, I think farmers have been using GIS, GPS and very detailed maps of their large farms for years, and they even have GPS-enabled equipment for field crops (in the US, at least) so that they can vary fertilizer and other treatment regimes across the variation in their lands. I'm not a farmer, and I don't know how recent this development is, but certainly it's current tech.

The real question is the marginal cost of sensors. Farming is often a marginal activity at best, so unless the sensors are some combination of non-toxic, cheap (or reusable), provide readily interpretable data, and can survive all the equipment the farmers use, they won't get adopted.

The other thing is that sensors won't help with droughts, predators, pathogens (locusts, rusts), governmental policies, or market fluctuations, and these have the biggest impacts on farmers.

147:

"Modern microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) pressure sensors are quite small but they're still several mm on a side and there's no easy way to make them smaller since they require gross mechanical movements to work; "

Will that sort of limitation still hold when you're producing the mechanical elements using the same kind of technology you're using to produce the electronics? The sort of thing I have in mind here is something like the DMD chips you find at the heart of a DLP projector. As I understand it they consist of an array of tilting mirrors, each a few micrometres across mounted on torsion hinges and moved electrostatically by the charge held in a single cell of SRAM memory underneath them - OK it's not your pressure transducer but it is a pretty good example of a mechanical device working on semiconductor fab scales.

Regarding the video I imagine the trick to making this work may lie in that you've got lots and lots of tiny low quality sensors each with a handful of dodgy pixels with sufficient processing power (and memory, and I/O bandwidth etc) to combine their output into a single, much higher quality representation using (waves hand vaguely) something like the interferometry techniques used to make arrays of relatively small telescopes with relatively modest light gathering power and resolution behave like a single much larger instrument.

148:

DLP mirrors are actively manipulated by static charge; pressure sensor diaphragms are flexed by an externally applied pressure differential. The smaller they are the stiffer they become which makes them less sensitive. Make them thinner and the diaphragms rupture easily. It's the same with other MEMS sensors like 3-axis gyros; they still take up several mm^3 as they need a suitably-sized mass to use as a reference. Even using osmium wouldn't help much, and reducing the suspension system makes the entire thing very fragile, likely to fail hard if it sustains a minor shock.

As for interferometric video that would require producing positional and timing data for each sensor particle accurate to within a few nanometres and picoseconds; it's hard enough to build interferometric telescope systems when the individual telescopes are bolted to bedrock and optically connected via lasers in underground tunnels to provide that 4-space information. Sufficient quantities of Handwavium to fix the problem is sadly not available at this time.

149:

Funny, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moscow,_Idaho is what first springs to mind for me.

150:

Assume there's some publicly accessible version/subset of this network. Some organizations will attempt to use it to make sure that ideas they are not fond of are never voiced in public without immediate reaction and/or retribution.

151:

(re: solar power)

"No idea, esp with the subsidies (which are being cut now). "

As has been pointed out, subsidies are not unique to solar power.

152:

Yeah, well, my parents are from Ayrshire.

153:

Rule 35 If you can think of it, they will arrest you.

154:

Greg@74: I very recently saw (here? strom refuge? somewhere else?) a scary link to a remote sensor using IIRC just-outside-the-visible scanning, airport-style, capable of reading "stuff" off from several tens of metres - including chemical exudations - already in limited / test production.
Anyone else remember it/seen the link?


http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/132620-how-terahertz-laser-scanners-will-spy-on-you-in-airports

I think this is what you mean. It uses terahertz wavelengths as near as I can tell, although all the equipment described in the links operates in the near to mid IR. I don't know the subject area well enough to separate the reality from the hype.

I ran across it on Contrary Brin.

155:

It will still be a maintenance nightmare, but maybe that's what serfs are for - the bankers and Romney-bots can just chain someone with a CCNA cert to the every light pole. S/he will be glad for the job in our glorious corporate future.

156:

Point of note for Heteromeles: Dave Bell is (a) British and (b) a former farmer ...

157:

Actually Glasgow gets a disproportionate amount of sunshine – it is either raining/snowing or it's sunny, regardless of how cold it.

In fact a quick search shows that glasgow gets roughly 15 days less sunshine than London (and Glasgow only gets a few more hours sunshine than Edinburgh), so if PV is feasible in London it's feasible in Glasgow, where wind and tidal power can more than make up the difference.

Of course, getting off the... is there a word yet for the Generic thread topics that you mentioned all threads on your blog descending into Charles? Commemes? whatever, getting off the PV commeme to get back to the original topic...

You're somewhat missing a trick, which is that a solar powered sensor doesn't need much in the way of more sophisticated light or sound add ons – what you'd do is have say pavement sensors quite rightly treat drops in power output as someone passing over it, with the rest of the power supply used to run the inter-sensor communications, with some simple group algorithms, modelled after the consensus communications of bacteria and fungal colonies, to distinguish between people passing over them and cloud cover, as well as to track specific individuals or groups as they block light from sensor to sensor.

This would have the odd side effect, by decreasing the power drain from actively powered sensors, combined with maybe offloading the much decreased dataload to centralised servers that store information for long term retrieval, that you could probably pay for a large chunk of installation costs from the power supplied by emptier streets – you'd have maximum decrease in power during rush and lunch hour foot traffic along a small fraction of streets, with the rest of the roads during the rest of the day providing significant power at a time when work places use more power.

Problems I have with a lot of your setup however are that, afaik, you can't shrink some sensors down past a point; sound waves for instance need to have a receiver on the order of the wavelength of the sound waves they're picking up. Similarly genomic sensors are only appearing to follow moore's law at the moment, what's actually happening is a side effect of economies of scale that will plateau in a few years – basically you could have made something not much larger than the modern rice-cooker sized PCR kits that are key aspects of modern genetics labs back in the 80s, but there wasn't much demand for genomics back then, and certainly no real use for hour long turn around genetic analysis, so cutting edge researchers made do with these set ups which involved three sets of heated sinks and they had to manually operate and time. Nowadays rapid genomic analysis is widely used so it's been worth the time and money to develop more streamline and automated systems – which is what's driven the moore's law-esque improvements in genomics. but it'll plateau soon enough, and they'll still be "bulky" compared to your 5cm^3 sensors.

But that's actually a good thing, because if all you want the sensors to do is spot epidemiological threats you don't need to care about genomes, but rather you can just use very very tiny (µm sized using current technology) immunoflorescent microarrays, which'll be able to spot and identify pathogens based on cell surface/capsid characteristics fairly easily.
For security purposes, you also can build these sensors to also be sensitive to synthetic chemicals that you could use to mark and track people, with the solar tracking system you can only known that someone is walking around, though that's more than enough to track someone coming from a crime scene to their home, allowing quite rapid responses to crimes, but with a tracking system comprised of a molecular signal and a web of primed microarray sensors.

Match that idea up with teh concept of a tracking anklet and you've got a tracking mechanism for monitoring house arrests (and you could even fit doors on flats that would not allow a person so tagged to exit them during their curfews/at all, making house arrest a much more easily automated process, along with other expected advances in processing power), and you could even spray around custom and excise areas constantly and see how many illegal immigrants are entering the country fairly easily.

(of course wandering onto a commeme, you could also use it as an IFF for land based anti-riot/insurgency drone, ambient microarray sensors note the absence of "blue" molecules that are worn by "good guys" or the presence of "red" molecules sprayed onto targets via aerial drones, automated defenses or drones could then apply "appropriate force" to targets, wiht appropriate happy messages such as "YOU HAVE TEN SECONDS TO COMPLY")

I don't think the idea that you'd see an eradication of modern pavement/road distinctions as you suggest would come about as a result of all this though, if only because having dedicated automotive space is just more efficient than a mixed foot and car space. But you could get away with smaller roads as the stop/start phonons that cause traffic blockages would be eliminated quite easily with real time managed automatic-automotive travel plugged inton this ambient sensor-net.

158:

Just to extend this comment, when USians talk of Canada as 'The Frozen North' the vast bulk of the boundary between the US and Canada is on the same line of latitude as Barcelona. That's in the South of Spain - so it's basically the length of two countries South of the South coast of England.

But it doesn't have that big heat sink called the Atlantic ocean to keep it warm. If the big circulater currents in the Atlantic slow down or stop you'll have a lot of people wanting to know where to by space heaters and fleece coats.

Spend a winter on the US/Canadian border anywhere from NY state to just east of the Pacific and you'll see that latitude isn't the end all and be all of cold. August near Lake Placid I like to froze to death (or so it seemed). And the people in South Dakota talk about how colder North Dakota is.

159:

Just to endorse the continental climate effects, I spent 2 years in Toronto in the 1970's. TO is 45N, vs London at 52N. TO gets much more extreme temps, and even these are moderated by the Great Lakes, esp. L. Ontario. Head out towards Edmonton and it really gets cold in winter.

Add in the gulf stream to warm GB and there is the explanation.

160:

You have ignored the latitude effect on sunlight intensity. This not only reduces intensity, but the sun is also more likely to be shaded by other objects for a longer part of the day. Couple that with the point OGH makes about the timing of annual energy use and you can see that solar makes far less sense in Scotland than in the SW USA and other lower latitude, sunnier locations. IMO, California should become a no-brainer for solar, once costs and installation decline sufficiently. Leasing already provides potential payback well within a decade and should only get better.

My concern is that the electric utilities will eventually get the laws changed over "reversing the meters", making the systems less economic. My guess is that the costs local energy storage will become the major issue for disconnecting from an increasingly expensive grid. As OGH has pointed out in another post, the amount of energy stored in a battery (or equivalent flywheel) is enormous.

161:

... what socially beneficial uses can you think of for a billion loosely coupled, low power microprocessors and their associated sensors?

First a few of assumptions. The first versions of this stuff will be tiny but visible, mostly because people won't wait a product generation or two for the smaller-sized versions. Two, because they are bigger and will be somewhat reflective due to the solar cell, these things are going to look like glitter. Thus I dub this visible version of smart-dust: Glytter. Three, most of it will be either mechanically or chemically sticky (gecko feet tech?) so that it won't blow around and get into peoples lungs, gum up machines, etc. Four, Glytter will be customized for certain types of applications (bigger collectors, more power storage, more sensors, emitters, etc). Five, no one group is going to have a monopoly on Glytter. People are going to scatter it everywhere for lots of different reasons, some altruistic, some banal, some sinister.

So what I would do with Glytter is the following:

1. Slap LEDs & light sensors on them and create ad-hoc dynamic screens and signage everywhere. Couple with voice/gesture recognition and you get to walk through your computing environment everywhere you go. Think Siri + GPS is cool? Try walking a Glytter sidewalk that shows you convenient direction arrows and glowing/reflective dynamic signs where you are going, who lives in that house, and so on. Want to watch your favorite vid while eating a sandwich in the park? Dump a handful of Glytter on the sidewalk to display the show. Worse: advertisments on every sidewalk and building.

2. Scatter a bunch of "jammer" Glytter in an area where you want some privacy. If your Glytter substantially outnumbers all the other Glytter in the area, you can effectively overload and/or spoof the stuff that is there. Bonus points for making your Glytter non-sticky so that most of it blows away within a few days, thus hiding the evidence.

3. Throw some flying/gliding Glytter in the air. Let it float/fly around until it brushes up against its target. At that point it engages its gecko-feet and sticks to the target. Now you can track people, animals, vehicles, and so on. Lint rollers become MUST HAVE items. On the up side, the city rat problem just got much more tractable.

4. Paint. Mixed with a clear protecive binder, Glytter becomes the defacto paint for most outdoor surfaces. The fence can easily tell who comes into the yard and communicate that to the proper authority (or institute the countermeasures). When it gets cheap enough, a Glytter-covered roof becomes both a home's primary power source and its distributed computation engine. Glytter-covered interior walls, with external power, become Wallscreens able to display static "wall paper" pictures or dynamic images.

That is just scratching the surface (so to speak) of what smart-dust like computers can do.

162:

Oddly enough most of the main streets in central glasgow are east-west aligned, a side effect of the Clyde mostly – also I'm not sure how any of that is relevent, unless there's some other alternative power generation system that can be embedded in glaswegian streets, maybe tiny little windmills? Or maybe Glasgow's streets could even be flooded and tidal power system fitted?

Or possibly PVs make a very effective power generation system for pavement embedded sensor networks in general regardless of the effeciency of the system compared to putting the same PV systems in California. In particular, PV in Glasgow becomes a very efficient system when one's goal is to use PV as the power supply for embedded sensors in Glasgow, while in comparison the PV in California is actually very very inefficient once you take into account the loss of power from running a really really long extension cord from California to Glasgow.

(I will acknowledge that maybe tiny little nuclear reactors could be also totally for realsies be used instead of PV, but the anti-nuclear lobby would probably nix that)

163:

My concern is that the electric utilities will eventually get the laws changed over "reversing the meters", making the systems less economic

That really isn't the biggest issue they have. It's with keeping the system running.

With customers selling power back to the utilities in anything but trivial numbers various issues will start to appear.

First off selling power back to the utilities at the rate they sell it to you is a false equivalence. When they sell it they are factoring in their distribution costs. When you sell it back to them you're acting as if those costs are zero. Rate calculations will have to be made at some point. Especially if you want everyone to have solar with battery storage and only use the grid say 10% of the time. People who thought their power bill would go from $200 per month to $10 will be a bit upset if it only goes down to $75 and they were not really told the truth about what has to happen when everyone gets PV.

Also power isn't totally fungible. The power companies do all kinds of things such as load balancing between phases and power factor adjustments that will be thrown out of whack by taking power back from customers without some controls. All are solvable issues but not a zero cost.

164:

See, what you do on the Scottish coast is that you get a mucking great pipe, and you run it down to a big thermal unit at the bottom of the Irish Sea, and the top up to the roofs of the buildings, and you put a some sort of thermal radiator up there, and you fill it full of the worst rotgut scotch you got, the stuff even Americans won't drink, and you use the thermal difference between the air and deep sea to get a wee bit of power and a lot of temperature management. In the summer, the hot to cold gradient runs from rooftop to deep sea, but in winter it reverses. So you moderate your local climate, help keep the crappy brewers in business, and use locally available energy gradients. What could possibly go wrong?

165:

Depends. Would the fish drink this rotgut if there's a leak?

166:

For Glaswegian micro-sensors you want ones that can power themselves from raindrops hitting them.


(This is a joke, folks. But I seem to recall seeing such tech puffed up somewhere years ago)

167:

Just from pedantry, brewers don't make whisky, they make things you ferment (beer, ales and lagers). Distilleries make spirits, liquors if you prefer, such as whisky.

168:

I can't pin down the dates, but farmers were one of the early targets of GPS in the civilian market. I think a part of it was as research. It wasn't a good environment to put computers in, during the 1990s, with dust and vibration.

One of the problems of the early years is that you get the spatial data on crop yields, but the system doesn't know what it means. It that low yield down to variations in soil type, or drainage, or a nutrient shortage? It took several years of records to develop a useful context.

Shaky personal recollections suggest that GPS/GIS in British agriculture was known about before 1997 but didn't get widespread use until the new century.

What I recall, from a comparison between US and European farming, made by Johm Deere, was that European farming was paying a lot more attention to the sort of intensive, high-yield, methods that could benefit from the tech. Some farmers in the US were starting to look at the same ideas. The feeling I had from the reports was that we were using fertiliser and pesticides at higher levels than in most of the USA, and paying much more attention to the needs of the crop. More used, less "escaping" into the general environment.

169:

OK, came in late and haven't read/scanned much more than Charlie said, but as far as I see it the problem isn't processing power so much as networking capacity. "ubiquitous computing devices" need to talk to each other in order to be, erm, ubiquitous.

Which is to say I think our major problem will be not so much processor power but how to get those processors to talk to each other.

170:

tim@161: Slap LEDs & light sensors on them and create ad-hoc dynamic screens and signage everywhere

If Glytter is solar-powered, LEDs are probably too power-consuming. They can't be brighter than the light shining on the Glytter, just by conservation of energy (of course, if you stick a big enough battery on a Glytter it can hold energy until nightfall). Liquid crystal displays demand much less energy, and are probably much more suitable for this sort of thing.

171:

It's OK, Charlie. He's talking sense about the problems. Frankly, I'm glad I'm out of that business. Men of my lineage have been in farming for a good few generations, and the ones who could hang on to the money they earned were the ones who left farming.

172:

Almost a good nitpick, but the only booze known to not be drinkable by americans is Buckfast, which is also notable for being neither distilled nor brewed but deep fried.

173:

What could possibly go wrong?

Google on "Beaufort's Dyke". The environmental impact statement would be ... interesting. (Not to mention the life insurance premiums for anyone foolhardy enough to lay a pipe there!)

174:

Isn't that the crazy part of it? You
Can't get much more vital than food production and nobody wants to be involved with it for all the bother.

If I was living in the 19th century and some writer was imagining the recent now, I wouldn't believe it. No nation would allow food insecurity, surely! Why, that means you can control their fate with the dinner plate. And of course it's utterly ridiculous to imagine this proposed superpower as you call it, the united states, actually dismantling it's vast industrial base to send off to china of all places simply because some businessmen stand to turn a profit. Be reasonable, sir!

And if the oil is the basis of the entire international economy, how could the superpower allow major sources of it to remain outside of their control? It's obvious that they would exert every measure to take control of it and their well-trained forces would quickly subdue the local militaries. I can grant that the USSR would be a check to overt imperialism but you take them off the board by the end of the 20th century. I'm sorry, I just don't buy your premise. You need a rewrite.

175:

Thanks Dave. I did a bit of soils work for my doctorate, and along with most soils scientist, I would dearly love better instrumentation. My favorite dream gadget was the "cyborg nematode," to be used to study soil microbes, although the soil tricorder was a close second.

Basically, if you're dealing with an environment that can go from aerobic to anaerobic and hydrogen metabolism dominated in the space of a centimeter (e.g. from the outside of a hunk of wet clay to the inside), you need really good tools to study the life therein. We don't really have them yet.

176:

And I suppose the next thing you're going to tell me is that running it off the east side of Scotland would screw up some North Sea oil infrastructure or other...

Thanks for the info.

I suppose conning you for a story involving the Beaufort's dyke disposal area and subduing a Laundry-style Loch Ness critter is entirely out of the question.

177:

London at 52N

As someone sitting here almost on the 52N 0W confluence point, I have to point out that London is about 50 miles south of here. It's about 51.5 degree north. But that doesn't damage your point too much, since Toronto is about 43.5N, so the separation is a degree more than you thought.

178:

It is interesting to me that the discussion of solar energy is so dominated by focus on photovoltaics. In the more northern climes it makes sense to build houses so they can directly use solar heating in the winter time.

Use a substantial area of south facing glass and an internal wall of great thermal mass that is heated during the day by incident sunshine. Equip the windows with horizontal shutters that are closed at night to cut radiation loses and closed during the day in the summer to prevent overheating.

Depending how far north you are it won't do the entire job of heating the house but it will cut your costs. Yes, it does have the disadvantage of not being applicable to extant housing.

We have nine different climate zones in the US and a house needs to be optimized for the zone it is in to maximize energy efficiency. The UK certainly represents a less complex case to deal with.

179:

There are some pretty good reasons to think that transistors on Si aren't the end point of micro electronics.

If you had made predictions about power consumption and computing speed before semiconductors were invented you'd be completely off as that technology enabled a improvement of electronics that wasn't even dreamed about.

There are some emerging technologies (like graphene based electronics) that may extend the historical improvements to computing speed.

BSW

180:

Just watched video of Craig Venter talking Torino Italy.

http://edge.org/conversation/biology-at-the-speed-of-light

Charlie mentioned using ubiquitous sensors to do what Venter was doing trawling ocean to sample DNA.

Craig mentioned in his talk about how DNA generation would help create vaccines for new diseases.

The sensors could drive a constant creation of new vaccines based on sampling.

181:

Greg Young @ 154
That's it
Thanks.
Everyone remember "TeraHerz lase scanner" then?
Scary, if true & not hyped.

Jolly Reaper @ 174
Correct
Truly scary, especially since here (GB) we were in danger of running out of (imported) food TWICE in the space of 31 years (!)
And the RN is how small, now?
But then I hold the opinion that every PM we've had since 1979 is a traitor, and should be dealt with as such.

182:

I very much enjoy the idea that the city could be quietly crunching SETI data and the umpty-zillionth digit of Pi during the quiet moments.

With any luck it could come up with some really good drugs! For, uh, medicinal purposes, of course. Like a sugar pill disguised as a hallucinogen - whoa, the world these days seems like a horrible nightmarish acid trip, oh, that's right, I dropped a synthi-pill earlier, phew, glad reality isn't actually like this...

183:

Who do you hold your PM's are working for?

In the States, I think it's just obligate parasitism and greed. Does the shipworm care that the hull it's destroying is also home? No. The rich place no value on what comes after they're gone so consequences have no meaning. There's no collective sense of us, no team, just self.

The rich are insulated from the political process. They don't have to care what the rest of us think. The politicians work for them and are convenient, interchangeable puppets, targets for public ire. Make a policy go along, become the villain, then replaced and it's a brand new day! A new puppet promoting exactly the same agenda. This is why fiscal and regulatory policy between the two American parties is exactly the same and the only space can be found on social issues. Gay marriage, flag burning, abortion, let the masses squabble over culture war crap because it's a distraction from the theft that's going on and being ignored.

Obama is running the same playbook he inherited from Bush and McCain would have done the same. If Rmoney gets in they'll hand the book to him.

184:

The UK certainly represents a less complex case to deal with.

No it doesn't.

The problem with building energy-efficient homes in the UK is that it's a small bunch of islands with a lot of land that's not really suitable for building on. Housing lots are very small by US standards, even when the housing stock in question is stand-alone houses rather than apartments or terraced/semi-detached homes that share one or more walls. We have relatively little sprawling suburbia, and rather than quarter acre lots, suburban homes were built 10 or 20 to the acre. Finally, the average UK home is 75 years old; we build to last, and construction costs (and building codes) and land prices make new build construction relatively expensive.

To use an analogy, try to imagine how you'd retrofit the non-skyscraper bits of Manhattan for maximum solar efficiency, not Austin.

185:

Actually, I think that has it backward. A big part of the argument against a planned economy rests on the impossibility of (a) gathering all the data on the economy (billions of people with many different abilities and priorities, millions of classes of goods, multiple productive recipes, and so on) into one central location and solving the optimization problem for the whole thing with one big algorithm. Instead, entrepreneurs do smaller optimization problems locally and exchange minimal-bandwidth information packets to coordinate (we call them "prices"). The system you're envisioning, with distributed processing, is not so much central planning (where is the "center"?) as automated entrepreneurship.

186:

In mid-December in Edinburgh at latitude 56 deg North, the Sun is 10 degrees above the horizon at noon which means that even when there are no clouds in the way the sun's energy reaches Earth through a very long energy-sapping airpath as well as being spread over a greater
land area than it would in, say, Austin TX.

At that time of the year the Sun rises at about 9:00 a.m. and sets around 3:30 p.m. so it's dark 18 hours a day. It's usually cloudy too, and the air temps are around freezing on average. Solar heating isn't going to work in those conditions so we burn fossil carbon to heat our homes -- it used to be house coal, now it's natural gas. Even shifting to electrical heating in homes would mean burning more coal or natural gas; the existing non-carbon baseload generators, hydro and nuclear are maxed out. Wind turbine generation is a pittance and Scottish winters often have long periods of freezing cold weather with little or no wind.

The only real solution is to build out more nuclear power as the French did thirty years ago, resulting in them having the lowest per-capita carbon footprint in Europe as well as competitive electricity prices. The solar and wind king of Europe, Germany, has spent over 100 billion Euros on solar and wind generation in the past ten years; it still burns 50% more carbon per capita than France does and its electricity prices are double that of 80% nuclear France.

187:

The rich place no value on what comes after they're gone so consequences have no meaning.

You think this is a thought process that's confined to the rich?

188:

The other problem with building energy-efficient homes in Britain, and elsewhere, is that it's cold. Humans breathe, and housing with poor ventilation causes problems like "sick building syndrome". On the other hand, ventilation wastes heat, and heat is a major portion of the residential energy budget in cold climates.

189:

"You're assuming all the nodes in a city-sized network will be doing the same thing, running similar software as part of a single large-scale operation"

I wasn't making any assumptions. I was commenting on the fact that software is harder to make than most people realize, and it is much easier to conceptualize this sort of massive network of processors by waving a hand at the software problem and focusing on the hardware instead.

The Internet is a poor example to cite, specifically because it IS a collection of similar systems running similar software to a collective end. And it is extremely simple software comparatively speaking. And ultimately, the vast majority of systems on the Internet are just proxies for the human intelligences that are driving them. Your web browser isn't smart and knows NOTHING about surrounding nodes on the network unless you actively steer it to one of them, for example.

I'll grant that providing a common substrate (e.g., network, communications protocols, common processors, etc.) is an easy problem. What is quite difficult is convincing that common substrate to do anything useful. I submit that human engineering capacity simply cannot organize and execute on an effort as complicated as utilizing a billion processors in any coordinated fashion. That's why I noted the need for a software engineering paradigm shift from process driven, procedural software to something like a subsumptive architecture that allows emergent properties to be encouraged/discouraged rather than coded explicitly. Manually designing and writing software for this sort of system is just not going to be feasible. Humans can't write stuff that complicated.

Even coming up with a taxonomy for the data that would be generated challenges our institutions. The last version of the HTML standard took over 10 years to create with the typical standards committee process. At that pace, your city-wide processor mesh would have been spewing data for a millenium before we got our crap together and put names on all the stuff being logged. Much less wrote the software to use it.

190:

"an iPhone is 12 orders of magnitude faster than a Cray-1?


Cortex A9: 20ns ( 32 bit multiply )

Cray-1: 12ns ( 64 bit multiply )

That's about 1 third of a magnitude slower, for half the precision.

It is about 6 orders more power-efficient though.

Which is still a good million times less than your claim.

Pls be more precise."


That's quite wrong. The Cortex A9 can issue a 64 bit vector operation every clock, for two 32 bit results. That's 0.5 ns per multiply at 1 GHz, so the iPhone is indeed 2 - 3 OOM faster than a Cray-1.

Please be more accurate.

191:

"you can't shrink some sensors down past a point; sound waves for instance need to have a receiver on the order of the wavelength of the sound waves they're picking up."

Then how do ears pick up bass notes, which have wavelengths on the order of a few metres?

Your cell phone very likely has a MEMS microphone measuring a few millimetres on a side.

192:

Here are a couple of thoughts on the idea of energy-efficient buildings:

The first is, of course, that you're right. That *is* the best way to do it.

Then we get into the real issues. I had a recent example of that. A TV show had an episode on Earth Ships, and I told my partner that, if we won the lottery, I'd love to build one of those. What's not to like? They cost the same to build as a regular house on a per square foot basis, they recycle a lot of their own water, are passively heated, grow a bunch of their own food, and have been built all over the world.

Well, my partner didn't like the idea. Something about living in a curvy house made out of recycled car tires and recycled cans and bottles got to her. Her excuse was that she wasn't a hippy, and even though she loved the concept, she couldn't see herself living in there.

Social norms are one of the huge problems with rebuilding the worldwide housing stock. Charlie would, I'm sure, love to have some sort of Passivhaus or Earth Ship style apartment to work in, but he can't afford to build the thing, and neither can the city government or the building owners.

Where I live in Southern California, if and when Peak Oil hits, we're going to have to rebuild the entire city. It's not that my place is inefficient or even vulnerable to fires. Rather, it's that we have to drive to get our food and go to work. If oil gets expensive, we can't afford to live here. The problem is, this is *normal* for the US.

Fortunately, I'm cynical enough to believe that the problem will solve itself in the next few decades. With climate change, we'll get a plethora of nice, city-wrecking storms that will provide developers with the chance to rebuild ancient cities, and lots of debris to rebuild them with. And there's always the odd earthquake, volcano, or tsunami. The US may be getting out of the business of using its military to destroy country's infrastructures so that they can be rebuilt as US dependencies, but that only gives countries more opportunities to do it to themselves.

If we cared, we could revive the economy simply by gearing up to deal with climate change. Rich conservatives are showing an astounding lack of vision in opposing climate change. They stand to make much more money by enabling society to change and profiting from the exercise. It will be grimly humorous if the ultimate epitaph for the 1% is that they could have made a positive difference, but couldn't be bothered.

193:

What I described is not something that would be constructed in Austin. Last February we had a 92 degree day as part of a week when temperatures were in the eighties. Our air-conditioner often runs in any of the winter months.

The point is that there are ways to use solar energy in the latitudes between Austin and Edinburgh that don't involve solar cells.

I view the UK case as simple because there is not much you can do to improve the installed base you are stuck with. My experience is from the other end of the spectrum. When I was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma the state was only 40 years old. There were almost no buildings in the state older than 50 years.

194:

ventilation wastes heat

A proper ventilation system does not waste much heat at all. Most newly built housing in Northern Europe (perhaps even all new housing that is up to code) uses the heat of the outgoing stale air to warm up the incoming fresh air. Counter-flow heat exchangers are compact and efficient, especially for low-viscosity fluids like air. The pressure drop across the heat exchanger is negligible if you're already operating a blower to run the air through a filter, so once a heat exchanger is installed it's basically free to exchange warm stale air and cold fresh air for warm fresh air and cold stale air. This does assume you are in control over where the air goes in and where it goes out: whenever you have leaks —it doesn't matter whether it's warm air going out or cold air coming in— you do need to provide that much extra heat.

195:

Fred davis:
"you can't shrink some sensors down past a point; sound waves for instance need to have a receiver on the order of the wavelength of the sound waves they're picking up."

Francois:
Then how do ears pick up bass notes, which have wavelengths on the order of a few metres?
Your cell phone very likely has a MEMS microphone measuring a few millimetres on a side.

Fred simplified. The sensor either needs size, or a large stable mass that the air won't move much compared to the sensor diaphram.

196:

"Rather, it's that we have to drive to get our food and go to work. If oil gets expensive, we can't afford to live here. "

There is a simple, gradual, work-around for that. You change the building codes and other regulations to allow larger houses and/or more houses in existing lots. Or you could change the codes to force developers to only build on newly subdivided front yards and back yards. That way you slowly build a dense urban zone out of a low density suburban area.

It's already started in the province next door to mine, where a fresher building code allows the construction of "granny houses", little self-contained homes, for retired parents.

Cities could also sell "air rights" over roads, to build new office buildings over them.

197:

Not even. A sensor only needs a pressure differential to move the diaphragm, and there are many ways of getting there.

198:

The rich place no value on what comes after they're gone so consequences have no meaning. There's no collective sense of us, no team, just self.

Family... Some families, once rich, are successful at keeping the family finances going. Their biggest risk is breeding a firstborn idiot male with a gambling addiction.

I have a friend who inherited a few thousand acres of English countryside, including large house, a village, and farms with tenants. He and his wife work damn hard; they don't drive flash cars (not even new ones) or wear flash clothes, they don't go on flash holidays. What they earn gets pushed back into the estate - as their parents and grandparents did, and their children will do. Most of their actions are tested against the long term needs of the estate.

By any measure, they are rich. But they are also constrained by circumstance, and very definitely have a sense of community (as did his parents). Consequences matter to them, very much.

199:

Will pervasive processors make sense? Take the automobile example, once it's fully automated passenger cars (and unmanned utility robots) will have great sensors, doesn't that cover most pothole and general infrastructure monitoring? Will we need second to second human bio monitoring when there's daily or hourly contact from a sufficiently accurate monitor station? And what to do with all the rather repetitive data, gps location (74.nnnnnnn... yada very accurate) reports the expected 0.01 degree increase at 10:34:05, repeat that by several billion daily with virtually no difference between nodes and it's kinda wasteful noise.

What will the right balance be? Back to cars, will we need streetlights/stop lights/any sign? If you walk anywhere urban, dozens of cars/robots will know where you are and likely predict when you'll get where you're going. Will you need a billion bits of monitor? Now cars/bots will probably have an incredible number of processors, but quite low bandwidth except for exceptional circumstances. If every car 'knows' you're traveling at 30kph a certain vector why would that need to be updated unless there is a change? Leaves the bandwidth open for low latency radical change (crash or running child).

200:

You're right, Alain, but that's the low-hanging fruit. In fact, the long-term plans for the County already have similar ideas in place, not that the County has ever shown much inclination for following its own plans.

The bigger issue (vis a vis peak oil) is that our basic infrastructure is going to have to change, so that we recycle more and import less. We know this intellectually, but in practice, it's deeply disturbing. With water, people get extremely tweaked about "toilet to tap" and "gray water irrigation," even though we've had the basic technology around for about 30 years.

There are similar issues with most other big-scale infrastructure. I'm not aware of any insoluble technical difficulties with any of them. The problems mostly seem to be politics, the image of what it means to be prosperous and mainstream (as with my partner rejecting the idea of living in an Earth Ship above), and similar stuff. For example, we could divert half our water back to local agriculture simply by giving up lawns and only showering once or twice a week. Both options are deeply unpopular. Not having a lawn is forbidden by CCRs in some neighborhoods, and not showering can be grounds for getting fired, simply because your boss expects everyone to be squeaky.

The interesting issue is that we always seem to think that innovation is about technology. In fact, we really need social innovation far more right now.

201:

Which is why programs like the Young Foundationship's (the inheritors of the creator of the Open University) social entrepeneurship incubator are so interesting.

WRT toilet-to-tap squeamishness, some of that may be attributed to some communities' experience of the absolute horror that is "biosolid" disposal.
("Sewage is manure, kinda, and farmers have been using manure for fertilizer for centuries! What's the problem?" It's only mostly manure; black water is often a united human/industrial waste stream. I would prefer not to eat things fertilized with heavy metals, thanks. Hooray, Victorian sewage infrastructure design!)
My (tangential, belaboured) point: sometimes people are paranoid for a reason. ",)

202:

Another interesting consideration is that all of the freedom / security points raised so far have been intranational, and not international. If bandwidths are massive, then surely it is easier to hide information flow from one country to another country's intelligence and security communities? With pervasiveness, what effects are there on diplomacy, security, negotiation?

People talk about things - it would be interesting ensuring that all work discussions, document access, computer access happens within a sterile environment. If you know everything about someone, how easy is it to get their bank logins, passwords? How do you authenticate a user in such a way that the black hat can't get in afterwards, or see what the user sees, or hear what the user hears? A keyboard logger could be a physical device rather than a detectable program in the computer; the listening device or watching device and its data could be carried into a sterile area, listen passively, and be carried out again afterwards. Diplomatic negotiations would be... interesting.

Will we turn to more overtly formal behaviours in social situations - imagine trying to work up the courage to ask someone out on a date, if you know you're being filmed? Worse yet, what of the overcontrolling parent that can now monitor their child's whole life, with or without knowledge/consent? What impact on the ability of Social Services departments to show people how they behave, rather than how they think they do? Supernanny for every parent on an at-risk register...

What about adding tags to precursor chemicals for drugs and explosives, let alone lab equipment? Two or more tags of the wrong type meet up and they start screaming. What about health? Currently, the swallowable monitors are the size of a pill, what about having the ability to monitor the entire alimentary tract in real time. The truly paranoid could take a poison detector pill before every meal, or sprinkle inert poison detectors into the soup. Carried, swallowed, or embedded monitors mean fewer unidentifiable corpses; in the worst case, a "Black Box" recording.

203:

Your assumption is that the post-Westphalian state has a future in the post-ubicomp era.

(Do we still need embassies in the era of teleconferencing and ping-pong diplomacy?)

204:

I agree about the issues of getting the waste streams sufficiently segregated that they're useful. It's kind of embarrassing that 19th Century Koreans managed it quite well, but we can't now (although living in fields that smelled like sewage is a real issue).

Still, it's not entirely technological. The problem is that people can be stupid, careless, or evil in their disposal habits and get away with it (I'll label this all as stupidity below). We have a social norm that clean water comes out our tap, and unless we're working for the water provider, keeping that way basically isn't our problem. We may use a water filter, but fundamentally we're willing to trust the tap.

We also think recycling is a chore, and separating sewage from other stuff is frankly something we really shouldn't be thinking about. It's squicky. This bias allows us to be stupid.

You get the picture. All of this, to some degree, is politics. It's pretty clear that we don't have good technological solutions to human stupidity in this arena, but we don't have good social solutions either, although this is usually expressed as "we don't have the will to do it."

205:

No, but they are the ones with the means to shape policy and we see the direction they're pushing. The common man has essentially been shut out of the political process. But he doesn't seem to want to put any more solid thinking into things than the others.

206:

You are probably thinking of terahertz devices which are being evaluated for airport security. Wikipedia as more information.

207:

Point of information: in-keyboard hardware keylogger. The same company also sells USB passthrough keyloggers with wi-fi capability...

208:

Of course - who else will collect taxes? Given the difficulties encountered so far in the EU, I can't see greater political integration in the next few decades. Ubiquity may change data and mores, but politicians are hardly going to vote themselves off the gravy train.

As for Embassies, they handle so much more than just negotiation (Dad got posted to a British Embassy in Eastern Europe for three years in the 1970s). They handle back-channel stuff, face to face stuff. Each diplomatic community offers the chance to mix, talk, analyse across the accredited representatives of different countries. They offer the chance to add multiple data points on the "what is that country thinking", e.g your local Ambassador may get a different story from country B's political appointee Ambassador to country X, than your local Ambassador does from country B's career diplomat Ambassador in country Y. It also offers multiple data points when you suspect that your own Ambassador in country Z is a divot who is misreading things (see Le Carre).

Add consulates to the mix, and you have funded mechanism for providing political analysis, cultural expertise, and local liaison between the home country and local businesses. Stuff like "ooooh, stay clear of them, they're dodgy", or "that local politician is worth talking to, that other one is a laughing stock". Quite apart from the legal point of contact when young Johnny gets arrested and starts worrying about "Midnight Express".

Meanwhile, how else are you going to hide your "Legal Resident" from your external intelligence service?

Declaring Embassies redundant would be right up there with replacing HUMINT with satellite-based IMINT, or manned aircraft with missiles...

209:

I grew up on an Irish farm, where animal manure is often used as fertilizer: we're used to fields smelling of sewage. (And I know people able to identify the species of donor animal by the smell, but that's one of those skills one hopes never to develop...)

But yes. Technical solution upon technical solution being proposed for a problem is generally a sign it's a political problem and no-one wants to have to deal with it... c.f. the whole "federated social network" lark, where there are dozens of different products being put forward, when the problem (to my mind) is that very few people at all understand _anyone's_ mental model of "privacy," and therefore it's very hard to talk about and very easy to exploit.

210:
People talk about things - it would be interesting ensuring that all work discussions, document access, computer access happens within a sterile environment. If you know everything about someone, how easy is it to get their bank logins, passwords? How do you authenticate a user in such a way that the black hat can't get in afterwards, or see what the user sees, or hear what the user hears?

I think you're going to have to clear a couple of rather difficult hurdles before you even start to think of situations like these as anything close to relevant; there's some strenuous (albeit implicit) handwaving away of some rather astounding infrastructure buildup.

'Infrastructure' isn't just hardware, after all. It's coding standards and agreed-upon (and enforced) protocols and right-of-ways and easements. They're also the sort of things that don't happen quickly or easily in what are essentially extractive economies run by and for elites. The very best you can hope for is (of course) standards put into place that allow the more efficient implementation of police and government surveillance of the citizenry. That's pretty much a top-down sort of thing, not some sort of super-advanced P2P. Which is what you'd need to implement this sort of thing.

211:
Problems I have with a lot of your setup however are that, afaik, you can't shrink some sensors down past a point; sound waves for instance need to have a receiver on the order of the wavelength of the sound waves they're picking up.

Google informs me that the speed of sound is roughly 340 m/sec. I can hear 20 Hz waves, so that means my ears must be 17 meters across, right?[1]

Okay, enough with the funnies. What you're saying is true enough for transverse waves. Sound, however, is a longitudinal wave, and so does not suffer that particular restriction. I think someone has already pinned the tail on the donkey on this one - this is a fragility/rigidity issue, i.e., a materials issue. Not a physics issue :-)

And iirc, there are some tricks you can play with polarized light that could conceivably shrink a sound sensor quite a bit.

[1]My eyes are for shit, always have been. But I can still hear pretty good, even for an old guy.

212:

What is the projected or anticipated failure rate for these? Even with a very low failure rate, or a fairly high average lifespan, whenever you are talking about a billion or more components, you'll have failures throughout, constantly. So need to build in significant redundancy AND you need to consider service and replacement processes and costs.

Of course, failures need to be non-impacting as far as the system goes and ideally self-identifying. If you use a mesh structure for communications and some heartbeat mechanism, just keep in mind you are now consuming some portion of your processing power, energy and communications bandwidth just for system health.

If it is anticipated that this would be possible at a city-wide scale in a few decades, then where is the mid-point? At what point is this financially and technologically realistic for more conspicuous but still pervasive ability in a building? High security buildings or social infrastructure (hospitals, transit stations, etc.) would seem like natural starting points.

213:

In America police cars are getting car license readers. All they must do is drive slow and the car licenses they pass go into a computer. We have 7 cars. There was a story tin the paper that said our police had saved about 7 million license numbers but were not using them to solve crimes. Obama is paying for them and wants grants for more. He dose what experts say needs doing.
I bet the ID's of people parked around things that are unpopular will get there car license looked at. Anybody who wants can buy them and its said repo men are driving them around parking lots. Well that's OK with me, but whats next?

214:

Power utilities in Oz are already moving towards paying the same rate for local solar input as remote coal. Ie, they'll sell you electricity for 30c/kWh and buy it off you at 5c/kWh. Plus you pay the standard connection charge and a bonus "bidirectional metering" charge. We have a crazy mix at the moment, from the aforementioned ripoff to people getting paid 60c/kWh for gross generation who are buying brown power at ~20c/kWh (fixed for two years ~6 months ago).

Speaking of odd things, when that we introduced a carbon tax here the cost of carbon-neutral electricity went up in parallel with brown electricity. Despite a certain amount of media coverage (because the idea makes no sense at all), the suppliers have not backed down and AFAIK the regulator has not stepped in.

Also, it's illegal for us to sell electricity to our next door neighbour without a generation license. And despite the "smart" meter we have, we don't get time of day pricing, nor have I heard even rumors of that. Anything pushed into the grid is worth exactly the same to the buyer at 6pm in midsummer (our peak demand) as it is at 3am at equinox (lowest demand). I still get to pay for the whole grid to be upgraded despite our consumption being countercyclical. I'm told that renting solar panels to our neighbours instead might be lawful.

215:

Earthships... Social norms are one of the huge problems with rebuilding the worldwide housing stock.

But you don't have to do that. We can buy cross-laminated-plywood foam sandwich that is an insulated structural cladding material. In the UK someone is/has built an 8 story block using CLP because the economics almost stack up today (and making it 6 star gives them green cred to cover the gap). Using that to build a boring traditionally shaped house gives you a passivhaus certificate for ~10% more than the same thing made of stupid but it's hard to tell without taking core samples.

We're currently looking at building a sub 40 square metre "granny flat" (council rules hack) using precut foam/steel sandwich because it's cheaper. Then rent out our house. But, of course, we will pay extra to get R8 walls instead of R5 and blow more on passivhaus features (but unless we can get a very good price, no passivhaus certificate). Because we're freaky hippies we may well put the rainwater tank inside for thermal mass, but we're still working the numbers (4m2 floorspace chopped out of 36m2 total is a fair chunk to lose). What I like is that it looks as though we can use the same stuff for the roof, use a sawtooth profile to get the north face at optimum solar angle and have a high ceiling + loft bed without the council counting it as extra floor space.

216:

That really isn't the biggest issue they have. It's with keeping the system running. With customers selling power back to the utilities in anything but trivial numbers various issues will start to appear.

"trivial" in this case meaning "more than 20% of peak net grid demand". Less, obviously, for primitive or marginal grids like much of the US, but it's still not what most people think of as a trivial proportion.

The studies I've seen (www.beyondzeroemissions.org) suggest that Australia could go to about 50% instantaneous net peak demand (rather than aggregate) with fairly small, cheap changes, mostly to the way very local demand compensators work. If that doesn't happen, we might start to struggle with grid instability in the late afternoon on hot summer days. Mind you, we have that now because the PTB have been prioritising short-term political factors in their decision-making. That too is unlikely to change. But it does encourage people to buy islanding inverters big enough to run their air conditioning, which actually solves the problem too (albeit in a slightly more expensive way, as you need some local storage to make it work). If enough people do that the grid issues go away for everyone.

One advantage here is that peak demand occurs at a time of fairly high solar output, and there are moves to encourage north-west facing panels over N/NE panels to help with that.

217:

Would spark gaps be banned? I suppose that massively parallel architecture would help with signal noise, but it seems like anyone with a wimshurst machine or tesla coil would be frowned at.

218:

I'm not sure what point you're trying to make? The police already have the technology to look at number plates (the mark I eyeball for example) and look up the registered owner (currently a call back to base, but that's based on the former issues with data storage and access). If they think there's an suspect cluster they can still get the numbers and look up owners.

Automated license plate readers fitted in a police vehicle doesn't really change anything - it's when they're fitting them as standard on traffic lights or similar that you get the potential for real time tracking of movement. How prevalent that already is, I don't know. My belief is that in the UK we don't have such things - cameras are still and triggered on certain things, like triggering a speed trap - but I don't actually know. My even more tenuously established belief (based largely on US crime drama, but so widely presented I'm inclined to believe it's basically true) is that in the US there's more video cameras in more places that the police have access to.

And I suspect we might have Liberty and the like to thank for the lack of video surveillance of every junction in the UK. It strikes me as a classic of "If you're not guilty, you've got nothing to worry about" vs "This government might be nice about what it does, but what about the next mob?"

219:

My town — Royston — has Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras mounted on all roads entering the town.

It's not standard. As far as I know, we're the only place in the country that has this, though there might be something similar in the City of London cordon.

220:

Charlie: "Your assumption is that the post-Westphalian state has a future in the post-ubicomp era."

Ummm... Can we really have a state in the form we know it in this sort of environment? Even if they don't get down to the invisible dust particle scale these itty-bitty little computing and sensor nodes (let alone the information streams which flow between them) aren't going to know or care about geographical boundaries, the nodes will be floating on the wind, being carried down the rivers, drifting across the oceans, sticking to clothing, and generally getting anywhere and everywhere. Would the concept of geographically based states really work that kind of environment?

221:

Of course - who else will collect taxes?

Trouble is, they're doing a lousy job of collecting taxes right now; go look at how much tax a top 100 corporation in your country pays, for example! Globalization has put us in a situation where there's a huge glut of cheap [global] labour, hence the offshoring wave, and deflationary pressure on wages; but you can tax labour much more easily than you can tax abstract multinational entities. See for example Amazon.co.uk's offshore tax haven operation in Luxembourg to avoid VAT.

This sort of thing is intrinsically damaging to the post-westphalian nation-state system ...

As for embassies, my understanding was that while intelligence officers may be attached to embassies under diplomatic cover, they don't deal with intelligence assets in the host country; they deal with the spies in the country next door. This allows the embassy to positively affirm that no hostile intelligence operations are ever conducted against the host nation from embassy soil. ("The embassy in Berlin runs spies in Paris, London, and Rome; but never in Munich.")

222:

Might? I was under the impression that the London cordon was one of the earliest places to have ANPR. Presumably so that if you stole a van, packed it with explosives and drove into central London they'd spot your plate (if someone had informed the database in time etc etc).

Those of us who have watched police tv shows (at least UK ones) know that they've had ANPR in patrol cars for a number of years now. If you want to catch low level criminals, just sit by the side of the road with the anpr on, and it will flag up all the cars with no insurance or road tax. Sometimes the person with no road tax will also turn out to be a drug user or carrying some dodgy stuff or using red diesel as well or no insurance. Or just very stupid.
I'm just surprised they haven't hived off traffic to a profit driven division whose only job will be using ANPR to fine passing motorists; the more fines the better the bosses bonus at the end of the year.

However on the security side of things it is clear that the Home office has a number of totalitarian technologies which are constantly pushed for by civil servants or outside contractors, and the politician has to be very strong to stand up to them. In fact none have done in the last decade or two, except for the condems one good policy, not going ahead with the ID card database.

223:

The London cordon certainly seems to have CCTV throughout. But I'm seeing less about whether all of those have ANPR functionality. Still, the congestion zone definitely does have it.

I once went for interview with a company that was looking for software engineers to work on ANPR. That was sometime in the mid '80s, so the technology has been around for a generation.

The way that crims get round it is to clone numberplates. Got a two year old red Nissan Juke? Find some else with one, note their numberplate, and put a copy on your car.

(I'm pretty well immune from that, since I have only once spotted a car the same as mine in the past 5 years. Oh, and a picture of another on the web.)

224:

There were stories a few years back about some enterprising Spanish folks caught selling domestic solar electricity back to the grid all through the night thanks to a diesel generator set. The financial return from the feedback tariff was more than enough to cover the cost of the fuel burn.

225:

I've had a couple of experiences of cloned number plates. One was a car used in a robbery, down on the south coast. It might not even have been a car that matched my father's, the Police checked with a phone call.

The other was a combine harvester in a supermarket carpark in London. Well, the vehicle I had owned was a combine harvester, and the last I had heard of it, it was being exported to Cyprus. I doubt that the vehicle in the supermarket carpet looked anything like it.

I doubt that ANPR has enough intelligence to recognise the difference between a Massey-Ferguson and a Lamborghini.

(OK, trick example. .)

226:

In those cases where a picture is also taken (London congestion zone, etc.), then you'd never hear that your harvester was apparently seen entering the zone, because that's the point where the mismatch becomes obvious.

If you're driving around in a vehicle with fake plates, and there's an obvious mismatch between it and the real owner, you might also get spotted. There's a local police van which sometimes parks itself on my route to work. It's got an ANPR camera in, but since it's all of 200 metres before one of the permanent ones, I think we can assume it's not trying to duplicate its work. What I guess it's doing is looking for mismatches: if the machine says "Blue Astra. Red Mondeo. Black VW Golf" , but the middle vehicle seen on the screen is actually a silver MX-5, they know it's suspect.

(One thing about working in the office over a weekend - the police check the car parks for open gates. Yesterday, the guy was in a van. Today he's on a bike. Same guy, 'cos I chatted with him partway through this reply.)

227:

Having just reread all the books on holiday I can't help but wonder at the implications for the Laundryverse...good and bad.

On a more serious note a world in which such widespread data collection occurred would have some interesting challenges along the lines of puddles of knowledge in oceans of data. I expect everyone from academics to advertisers would be mining decades old data and attempting to model them against other data for any solid understanding.

Lastly the implications for the social sciences are as huge as the evolution from alchemy to chemistry. Having such vast amounts of detailed data on hand covering social interactions would be so paradigm shifting I can't even begin to think of what socioeconomics might look like.

228:

The assumption that "because we can, we will" seems to be a theme of this post. But compare your essay on why we are unlikely to develop space travel as much as we could, or compare what 18th century England, 11th century China, and 1st century Italy did with advanced preindustrial economies. Or how many countries are keeping ubiquitous surveillance in check.

229:

"'The Frozen North' the vast bulk of the boundary between the US and Canada is on the same line of latitude as Barcelona. That's in the South of Spain - so it's basically the length of two countries South of the South coast of England."

The border is at 49 degrees for around half it's continental length. On the west it dips to 48.25, approximately the same latitude as Paris, but that's not on the continent but on Vancouver Island. It dips to 41.5 in lake Erie. That is below the northernmost boundary of California at about 42 degrees. Barcelona is just barely north of Canada's southern tip.

Ironically the parts south of 49 have much colder winters than Vancouver Island, which extends northward to about 51 degrees. Vancouver Island, on the East, can be thought of as a slightly cooler version of California, so far as climate goes. The West coast is about as warm, as the east but gets massive amounts of rainfall. This is all largely due to a spine of moderately high mountains which run all the way down the middle providing a convenient rain shadow to the East.

If you wish to travel from Windsor, Canada, to Detroit about a mile away, you must go NORTH.

230:

Chris Harrison has been doing some great work (http://www.chrisharrison.net/index.php/Research/Minput ) on what you can sense with tiny sensors.

231:

Charlie: (Do we still need embassies in the era of teleconferencing and ping-pong diplomacy?)

Where would they throw the parties? Who would come?

232:

"but what about the next mob" Well that was the point. Look up what was done in East Germany, it did not work only because of the manpower needed. Now there is technology to make it work. In fact for the best of reasons, England seems to laying the base for 1984. Not now, but later?

233:

Not only does all of London have automatic plate recognition but at least the City also has face recognition s/w running.

234:

Also, before everyone gets carried away with the notion of the state becoming irrelevant, there will always be men with guns taking their orders from someone.

235:

Spark gaps are already banned; at least, causing gratuitous RF interference will tend to cause someone to DF you and come round to change your mind. The anecdote I remember about this was someone in the Cambridge chemistry department running a replica of the Miller-Urey experiment as a third-year project and someone from the Mullard radio-astronomy lab turning up relatively briskly to tell him to stop ...

236:

Corporation Tax in the UK is now levied on a territorial basis, only earnings within the UK are taxed by the UK. It would hardly be reasonable to tax Standard Chartered on its total profits when (although UK head-quartered and having the 13th largest market capitalisation on the FTSE, making it the second largest bank after HSBC) the bank does virtually no business in the UK. A lot of these OMG look at all the tax a multinational isn't paying stories compare UK tax to total earnings ignoring that a large proportion of the earnings are earned abroad and have been taxed in the place they were earned.

Corporation Tax used to be levied on a worldwide system the last Labour government mostly transitioned to the territorial system. Some time after the election George Monbiot got rather exercised about the abolition of one of the last remnants of the worldwide taxation system, if a corporation did business as a branch in a country with a lower rate of corporation tax than the UK it would be liable to pay UK tax to top up the total tax to the UK rate. As it could easily be avoided by trading as a subsidiary this anomaly raised virtually no revenue.

237:

True, of course, and you also point out the other problem: it's more expensive. I used the example of the Earthship only because it was freaky looking but (reportedly) less expensive than the more conventional but expensive Passivhaus.

The bottom problem really is a social issue rather than a technical issue. Whether you're driving an electric car or building a Passivhaus (or an Earthship), you're making an identity statement, and that makes adoption of the technology a social problem, not a technical problem.

Fortunately, we're getting to the point where even conservatives drive Priuses, and that's ultimately where we'll need to go with conservation efforts. All such changes have to become mainstream, and unfortunately, that takes time.

238:

Yes, it was the same thing with advanced, safe and cost-efficient nuclear reactors.

It was "because we can we will" while advanced forms of space exploration seem incredibly far away or impossible in contrast.

You see, there are no launch pads, no major space projects in Scotland but there are nuclear reactors and nascent forms of ubiquitous sensors. And of course there is an incredibly higher than average level of computing power in his home.

It's a very human attitude.

You know what we say "loin des yeux, loin du coeur."

239:

Earthships are only less expensive if you can avoid paying for the labour. There's a lot of dirty, heavy work involved in building one. It's basically rammed earth held together with waste tires.

The cost premium is size-for-size, though, so for people who decide what space they actually need or choose to only build spaces they will actually use the green route works out cheaper. A lot of mcmansions have considerable unusable space that still counts for their total floor area. It's like the megapixel wars in cameras - eventually the market stabilises and we start chasing other numbers. Hopefully in this case greener ones.

Passivhaus actually gets worse the larger the house gets because the total energy budget doesn't scale. In Oz it's the opposite because the green rules don't scale properly. The move here has been to larger houses to take advantage of the "per square metre of floor" scaling because that'[s easier to sell than smaller, better built houses. Scary stat: 85% of new homes have defects that must be repaired before they can be lived in. But they're affordable!

For us it's the other way - the smaller our ecohutch is the cheaper it is to build, so we're saving until we can afford to build one big enough to actually live in. It's not microhousing, and by European standards it's actually quite generous, but the council rules here make building small houses tricky. Plus banks draw the line at 40m2 for lending. Since I'm a hacker and my partner is an architect we are actively looking for ways around the rules. Or we could do the Australian thing of just breaking the rules and hoping we don't get forced to knock it down when we get caught.

240:

That's good to know. Here in the US, the cost savings in the Earthships is held to be the materials cost, because it uses on-site materials and waste, rather than new wood for a conventional house. We don't have enough Passivhaus buildings here to compare.

241:

Horrible thought. There already exist "police detectors" based on their radios' emissions (car and handheld communications radios, not "radar detectors").

I can easily see gangs setting up meshes of cop detectors using advanced visual and radio frequency observation. Any time after that's working and before a panopticon arrives, smart bad guys become invisible to the police... By being alerted to not be doing anything suspicious, hide briefly, turn left here now, etc.

242:

"Gangs" are only organized enough to do that if there is a great deal of money involved on a regular basis. The only such supply comes from keeping drugs illegal. Robbing banks, extortion etc no nowhere near as cost effective.

243:

in the US, the cost savings in the Earthships is held to be the materials cost, because it uses on-site materials and waste,

From what I've seen they rely on having large amounts of cheap land and free transport. The smallest block I've heard of one being built on is a little under a hectare (~2 acres?) which gives a ludicrously low population density. The real green housing revolution is not "given unlimited resources...", it's "how can we make Mexico City greener". Insulating the outside of one Manhattan apartment building, even badly, does more than building 100 passivhaus country retreats.

Green architecture here is focused more on total lifecycle energy use, but still primarily for the structure (ie, payback times don't include energy source costs or commute costs). Zero Carbon Australia is working on an integrated analysis where the cost of the building is seen as part of the cost of the city rather than as an isolated structure unrelated to its surrounds. I'm one of their volunteers.

This does feed directly into how ubiquitous low-power electronics will be and how they will work. If you have to recycle (and prove that you have done so) every single electronic device you produce (as a manufacturer/importer) or purchase (as a consumer) the idea of dumping them wholesale in public places becomes a lot less appealing. I suspect it'll be funded by point-of-purchase fees like container deposits - the 10c device actually costs you $1 because there's 50c worth of prepaid recycling and 40c of bureacrazy. The alternative is seeing them become like toxic chewing gum - an expensive nightmare that clogs up everything and drives local government taxes sky high.

I can see automated out-of-the-roomba devices running about picking up litter. Your 10c device is perfectly safe as long as it has a registered RFID and responds with its permit number when queried. See a device you don't like? Drop it on the ground and let the authorities deal with it. Stick something unauthorised to a structure? Watch the owner's bot come along and sell it to the highest bidder on RecycleCave.com

244:

Dirk:
"Gangs" are only organized enough to do that if there is a great deal of money involved on a regular basis. The only such supply comes from keeping drugs illegal. Robbing banks, extortion etc no nowhere near as cost effective.

Prohibition certainly empowers organized crime, but the US mafia organizations rose between the end of prohibition and before the beginning of the war on drugs.

245:

A engineer working in the 3rd world for the USA to make things better, found their use of thermal inertia. He invented homes that used adjustable thermal inertia that worked great. He noted that ice had been made in very hot places by putting instigated pans of water out. In the night they radiated infrared into a clear sky. In the day they were covered. In time real ice was formed. He invented homes with water on the top in pans with something like water beds. In the night sliding roofs were pulled back and the days heat was radiated into a clear sky. When heating was needed they worked like any solar home with the water storing the heat. They worked but cost more to make than normal homes. I think his name was Hays and he was well known in the 70's. I will try and find it, but I gave up and dumped much of what I had in the second Bush's days.

246:

I wish I could say that was news, but the technique is detailed in a book I have, Solar Heating and Cooling (second edition, copyright 1982). The library surplused it a few years ago, and I got it for 50 cents.

The only reason to mention this is that a lot of the first-wave 1970s passive solar design stuff is still relevant and pretty cool. Or hot, depending on how you think about it. It's worth browsing the library bookstores, if they're going to keep selling it at a pittance.

247:

You may well be right. If you're going to build with rammed earth, after all, the earth has to be rammable, and that does have certain requirements. I'm not sure whether transportation is a relevant cost or not, because trucks haul concrete and wood to all developments. Still, I'm only trusting the brochure from the Earthship people.

As for city design, that is, of course, the next frontier, and I'd be thrilled if we could get somewhere between Arcosanti and the Tijuana dump slum (or Haiti) and find something that's safe, livable, and fairly recyclable.

As for recyclable low powered electronics, I still prefer Ken Macleod's solution in Cosmonaut Keep, but that's true blue-sky technology.

248:
he anecdote I remember about this was someone in the Cambridge chemistry department running a replica of the Miller-Urey experiment as a third-year project and someone from the Mullard radio-astronomy lab turning up relatively briskly to tell him to stop ...

Now that is a pretty cool story. Did you by any chance hear it in the White Hart?

249:
For us it's the other way - the smaller our ecohutch is the cheaper it is to build, so we're saving until we can afford to build one big enough to actually live in. It's not microhousing, and by European standards it's actually quite generous, but the council rules here make building small houses tricky.

I remember seeing the first house I grew up in and being surprised at how small it was. And then looking around the old neighborhood and seeing how small all the houses were. Bear in mind this was a WWII-era development; the sort of thing that was probably modeled on the original Levittown.

Then I walked around to the back yard. That was every bit as big as I remembered. The patio area was as big as the kitchen and dining room and living room combined inside the old house proper. There was a ping-pong table, a regular glass table, lots of lawn furniture, and one of those umbrella/round table combinations. Oh, and an outdoor fireplace/grill combo built out of native stone by my dad.

My question, obviously, is how much of time are you actually in one of these little ecohutches? Is it something you're confined to nine months out of the year? Or is it more like a central core you retreat to a couple of months out of the year when it becomes impossibly hot/cold outside? This is a sociological/lifestyle question, obviously. But it does have some relevance to question of just how feasible it is to get people to live in one of these ecohutches.

250:

Jolly Reaper @ 183
Almost, but not quite.
When the (Texas) Rethuglican party openly espouses a cause of education NOT being evidence-based, and on "respecting authority", then you know there actually is a difference.

Ronert Sneddon @ 186
But “nucular” power is EVIL, evil, evil I tell you, and we must all convert to vegans and live in green communes to be saved ……

Chuck @ 189
I submit that human engineering capacity simply cannot organize and execute on an effort as complicated as utilizing a billion processors in any coordinated fashion.
Couldn’t be more wrong if you tried – you have just said that any human society, living in cities of a million people or more is impossible.
You what?

Charlie @ 203
Assuming that the post-Westphalian state is dead in ubicomp-time, then what do you see as the coming major social structure(s) ??
Or was that the real point behind this discussion?
Will the “corporations” take over the world, as suggested ny many SF writers (shudder) or some other as-yet-unspecified structure?

Martin @ 208
“Difficulties with the EU”?
Like the (approx) figures that Britain paid £18.5 billion into the EU last year, and got, err …. just under £9 billion back, and it really is good value!
Um.

Stephen Hill @ 217
“Wimshurst Machine” … now there’s a retro-toy that I haven’t heard of for a long time!

Bellinghman @ 219
The London CC zone is completely ringed with APNR cameras as well as The City, so Royston (! – you what? Why? ) is not unique.

251:

One thing that bridged the gap was illicit gambling. Look up the numbers racket as one example.

252:

One of the primary purposes of a city is to provide mechanisms for negotiating the use of resources such as land, water, airspace, sunlight, public buildings, sight lines, etc. among the citizens. A massively parallel processor mesh covering the ground and exterior building walls can assist that in the same way that it can negotiate the paths of motor vehicle, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic dynamically and without physical traffic signals or lane markers (see the original post).

In modern cities negotiations on the use of space for, e.g., block parties, parades, LARP events, or venues for public performances may involve public meetings, license applications to bureaucratic agencies, and over-pessimistic requests for overtime for city employees to manage and clean up after the events based on unrealistic estimates of need. The approval process can take days or weeks, and involve multiple passes to propitiate the requirements and paperwork of various agencies, some of which may not even have an interest in the particular event, but are by regulation involved in the sign off process.

Large parts of that approval process could be replaced by negotiation among the smartphones of the group making the request, the local processors that can identify the current status and capabilities of the area and its contents, and the city computers that store and evaluate current policy and global requirements. For some requests, that negotiation could be complete in seconds, and not require any real-time interaction with city employees. For example, a group of LARPers requesting the temporary use of public space around a set of buildings, including some amount of dedicated cpu cycles and communication bandwidth to control and display the background and NPC activity in local AR space. Similarly, a busker group with a current license could request the use of space and virtual signage in a park for its performance, and be given a place as far from other such groups as possible to minimize interference.

253:

Dave Bell:
One thing that bridged the gap was illicit gambling. Look up the numbers racket as one example.
Which is still present some places where there are no legal or Indian Casinos or lottery. But prostitution, loan sharking, extortion, etc are also sources.

All of these benefit from an organized countersurveillance net, until you get a police panopticon.

254:

"Gangs" organized enough to do that sort of thing generally don't exist in the developed world; where they do exist, they're de-facto shadow governments who have, at a minimum, bought out enough local police and judiciary and politicians.

This is because criminals are functionally incompetent; they're entrepreneurs without the skill to engage profitably in a business model that is legal, so they end up in marginal niches (street corner dealing, burglary) that are illegal and so require huge amounts of effort just to stay in business (i.e. to keep out of jail).

(Note that this describes the kind of criminals we can catch. The competent criminals get themselves elected President then order parliament to legislate to give them retroactive immunity. See also Italy.)

255:

I'd be thrilled if we could get somewhere between Arcosanti and the Tijuana dump slum (or Haiti) and find something that's safe, livable, and fairly recyclable.

"Recyclable" when we're talking about buildings is a red herring, if you mean by "recyclable" that "we can tear it down and replace it without generating a heap of toxic debris we can't dispose of safely". I'd much rather see an emphasis on designing for permanence -- that is, for flexible buildings that can be re-purposed and that have a design life of at least 150 years at the time of construction.

256:

Detectors can be detected - or at least they can be outlawed and found in a search. In the UK it's illegal to listen in on police channels. I remember a wonderful story about a "Funkspiel" run by Sussex Police, where they generated a lot of radio traffic about a UFO sighting at a remote spot, then arrested everyone who turned up with a scanner tuned to their frequencies.

The same constabulary use fixed and roving ANPR to detect known drug dealers travelling to/from Brighton. (They also watch the rail route for suspects, so any bad peoples reading this can forget that, too.)

257:

Modern UK police communications, using the old fashioned technology of tetra on the airwaves system (Or something like that, I'm not a tech geek), is actually encrypted, so you can't use a scanner like you used to.
Far simpler just to bribe a civilian working in the police offices.

Although just as an aside, amazing how most of the high ranking ACPO level officers who messed up their job, as seen at Leveson and other enquiries, were accelerated promotion people with degrees. Maybe there isn't a direct correlation of educational attainment with competency after all...

258:

#162 Para 1 - Well, except for all the main North-South streets in central Glasgow (normally taken as being confined to the G1 and G2 postcodes) (USians note, since a typical code would be G1 9AA, this gives 1352 possible codes for about 1 square mile).

259:

It's also known to not be able to tell the difference between a silver Renault Laguna and a green and yellow John Deere, so always ask to see the photos!

260:

"Prohibition certainly empowers organized crime, but the US mafia organizations rose between the end of prohibition and before the beginning of the war on drugs."

Again, largely due to the illegality of gambling - more "protect you from yourself" laws.

261:

As for embassies, my understanding was that while intelligence officers may be attached to embassies under diplomatic cover, they don't deal with intelligence assets in the host country; they deal with the spies in the country next door.

The test of that statement would be the statement of "persona non grata" made against the UK embassy official caught maintaining a rock-like object in Moscow that happened to contain a disk drive, a battery, and a wireless link; a dead-letter box that you don't have to touch.

Or the large mob of Soviet officials declared PNG by the UK in the 1970s...

I would guess that the country next door could support operations at times of increased demand (after all, we are a small country that can't presumably afford fleets of intelligence officers in every embassy), or that several embassies could support operations by a particular "desk" in London - e.g. You might have a Russian desk, but also a South American desk...

262:

The issue of UK/Russia relations is unusual insofar as "next door" is a very long way away from London or Moscow (or there's a sea in the way). Ditto for the USA (only neighbours: Canada, Mexico -- with a lot of land and a border in the way). If we're looking back to the European "great powers" pre 1945, though, or even pre-1990, there's a lot of scope for it.

263:

Couple of years ago I was talking to the curator of our local industrial museum, where they have an example of a benz motorised carriage. They were quite bemused to get an automated fine in the post for driving in the London congestion zone, given that this particular vehicle hasn't moved from the museum in decades.

264:

The Soviet system tended to work this way. With tax rates of 180% (to pick one of the more obvious examples), the system was set up to make everyone guilty of something, for the convenience of the police who ran the state.

Where do you get this from? Which taxes? Income tax was nowhere near this.

From the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia "Income tax rates are progressive. They are lower for the first group of taxpayers and highest for the last. The maximum tax rate on the wages of production workers and clerical and professional employees is 13 percent. This maximum rate is applied to wages of more than 100 rubles a month. Significant concessions have been established for certain categories of income-tax payers. Low-paid workers do not have to pay income taxes. "

265:

I wonder if instead of decriminalising lots of laws we instead significantly reduce the penalties.

I think the logic for severe penalties for some crimes runs, “we can’t catch everyone who is smoking dope so when we do catch someone we’ll stick ‘em in jail for 3 months, partly as a punishment and a deterrent for them , partly to scare the 99% of the dope smoking population we don’t catch.”

If the detection rate for crimes like possessing drugs, IP infringement and so on goes up alongside the conviction rate to the point where you are pretty much guaranteed to be caught and convicted if you have broken the law then you don’t need to put someone in prison for trafficking domestic amounts of dope. You can just fine then £20, but it’s £20 every time anyone does it.

Or it’s a £5 fine every time you drive your car over the speed limit. Even if that’s 20 times in the run between your house and the supermarket. (With half a million cars in the London area, each one getting a £5 fine every day for speeding your £200m system would pay for itself in 80 days).

So we either stop smoking dope or we legalise it and we either stop speeding or we legalise it.

Basically, we get caught and slapped on the wrist Every Time We Do It. Which might focus our minds on whether we actually want prohibitions on certain behaviour or not but I don’t think necessarily implies that we would remove those prohibitions.

266:

Again, largely due to the illegality of gambling - more "protect you from yourself" laws.

Sex and protection were also big. Protection in particular was a big deal before credit cards and now computers made for much less cash in many businesses. It's hard to hand over $1000 or $10,000 a week to someone "off the books" when you only take in 1/10 that much in cash.

267:

Phillip@264: Where do you get this from? Which taxes? Income tax was nowhere near this.

The specific example was from an old news article on tax evasion by foreign corporations working in post-Soviet Russia. The more general claim was from _Russia As It Is_ by Matthew Maly, and is discussed at length by him there.

268:

>>>Great Soviet Encyclopaedia

Seriously? You are using this as a source?

Look, In USSR the government set the salaries. Whatever percentage of tax they claimed is meaningless. Soviet social contract was, in essence: "you pretend to pay; we pretend to work".

269:

Phil:
Detectors can be detected - or at least they can be outlawed and found in a search. In the UK it's illegal to listen in on police channels. I remember a wonderful story about a "Funkspiel" run by Sussex Police, where they generated a lot of radio traffic about a UFO sighting at a remote spot, then arrested everyone who turned up with a scanner tuned to their frequencies.

"cough" software-defined radios.

One might even have an app for that...

270:

guthrie:
Modern UK police communications, using the old fashioned technology of tetra on the airwaves system (Or something like that, I'm not a tech geek), is actually encrypted, so you can't use a scanner like you used to.

You don't need to listen to what they are saying. You just do signal strength mapping with distributed sensor nets (and for the honors students digital device ID signature mapping, RDF, detector nets near police stations to correlate cellphone IDs to figure out which phones are cops phones, etc etc).

Listening in is useful but unnecessary.

271:

Charlie:
"Gangs" organized enough to do that sort of thing generally don't exist in the developed world; where they do exist, they're de-facto shadow governments who have, at a minimum, bought out enough local police and judiciary and politicians.

The larger drug gangs have intel operations, and track cars around their core neighborhoods. Using walkie talkies and PTT cellphone nets for local alerts has been observed. Police in multiple jurisdictions have to use novel ingress route strategies for raids and surprise patrols, and undercover officers often have to shift cars around metro areas regularly. Some gangs have competent ( in or outsourced ) IT.

Also political groups ( IRA before that calmed down, in its neighborhoods ).

I'm extrapolating, but not very far, and from already observed behaviors. Yes, not every 1-block gang could do this, but if MS-13 offered an android app to tap in to their copspotter net...

272:

The specific example was from an old news article on tax evasion by foreign corporations working in post-Soviet Russia. The more general claim was from _Russia As It Is_ by Matthew Maly, and is discussed at length by him there.

Matthew Maly's book is long on psychology and rhetoric, but short on actual facts. There is nothing in there about 180% tax rates as far as I remember.

Anatoly,
Look, In USSR the government set the salaries. Whatever percentage of tax they claimed is meaningless. Soviet social contract was, in essence: "you pretend to pay; we pretend to work".

Yes, but the specific figure of 180% tax is obviously bizarre - it means you would owe money for every rouble you earnt. Now, perhaps that was the case in the USSR, but it certainly wasn't the case in the Eastern Bloc countries I have some personal knowledge of (GDR, Poland, Yugoslavia) so I'm surprised at it being the case in USSR.
So I'm just asking for some evidence.

273:

About 5 or 10 years ago there was some commentary by companies having trouble setting up in Russia. Especially if they were competing against home grown enterprises. Tax authorities from various levels and divisions would show up and explain how they were owned some percentage of something. And at times the various tax bills could wind up as more than 100% of your profits. What I read about it generally took it as a left over from the days of the state protecting state industries and so when there was a threat to them various means to nullify the threat would appear.

274:

I used to be in favor of permanence too.

Problem is, we're locked into global climate change, and probably not at the minimal level we'd all like.

What that means is that climate will get warmer and more chaotic for centuries, perhaps a millennium or more, and sea level will continue to rise for a century to 1500 years, depending entirely on how much CO2 we dump into the air (yes, it does matter). Also, we're likely to have bigger storms, in any season.

Basically, this means that we'll have to rebuild ports every century if not every decade, as low-lying facilities get swamped. We'll also have to deal with massive floods hitting rivers, and many cities have rivers running through them. This is a big problem, because most people live near coasts. Similarly, we're likely to have more cities trashed by hurricanes, monster snow-storms, or monster floods, and we'll need to rebuild these places quite a lot.

In this situation, I'm in favor of recyclable or reusable. One of the easier ways to make things permanent is to make them toxic (for example by adding copper sulfate to wood to make it bug-proof, and that doesn't gibe well with such material ending up as disaster debris and people needing to reuse it.

The Japanese may be a good model in this. They've managed to have both forms of permanence and lots of recycling.

275:

a £5 fine every time you drive your car over the speed limit

Surely, a system with as much distributed computational and observational resources as we've been discussing can do better than a simple threshold for a speeding fine. At the very least, I would expect fines to be replaced by continually metered "road use fees". These would be on a sliding scale, without a hard limit, where driving faster (or slower!) than reasonable gradually gets expensive and then gradually becomes prohibitively expensive even for the very rich. But really, what is the most reasonable speed depends on a lot of factors, and the road would know all of them and be able to quantitatively evaluate, for each road user individually, how things like danger to other road users, wear and tear on the road, and traffic congestion depend on that user's speed. Those things also depend on weather, road condition, current and future traffic conditions, vehicle condition, driver experience, driver alertness, etc..., but in principle all that information can be available to the road, since it can be measured, predicted, or kept track of by the ubiquitous sensor network. Most vehicle users would leave the driving to the vehicle anyway, and just let their personal area network negotiate with the vehicle how quickly the user wants to get to their destination and how much that is going to cost. Traffic rules will be the starting point for right-of-way negotiations between road users, but people with urgent need or desire to get to their destination ---if they can pay whatever it takes to make the plebeian road users get out of their way--- will basically be able to disregard traffic rules. On the bright side, they'll also pay the lion's share of the road use fees, subsidizing the infrastructure for everybody else.

276:

"I wish I could say that was news," WHAT WAS THE GUYS NAME SO OTHERS CAN LOOK IT UP? Yes!! Just about everything solar was well know in the 70's. But judging from the posts here its been forgotten. In President Carters time there were many ref. books on US government book lists. I know many were pulled in Ronnie's time. But the truth is out there. You just have to look it up. Some books may still be in your local libraries. No need to reinvent it.
I America once there were towns that were called speed traps. Auto clubs warned about them. They were just about imposable to go past without a costly ticket. It got so bad that most states now have laws about how much a town can make from tickets. From what I've read in other places, that's needed over there.

277:

It was probably Frank Kreith, based on a search for the title and year....

278:

And did I say short on facts? It's downright wrong on some of the bare few facts he does provide - he claims 350,000 Russian dead in the battle for Berlin because "the Russians wanted to suffer some more, they wanted thousands more of their solders to die days, hours,
and minutes before the ceasefire."
The actual number was about 80,000, with 260,000 wounded.
I'm wary of anything Maly claims.

279:

Oh, the supermarket car park incident was almost amusing, though nobody seemed to be interested in the knowledge that that those plates were "fake".

Thing was, the DVLA record included the model number. Google on John Deere 1085. I understand they have to pay a fee to get my name and address out of DVLA, and they pretty quickly realised that they hadn't a leg to stand on.

280:

how much of time are you actually in one of these little ecohutches?

Our hutch is likely to be ~25m2 living/cooking area, 4m2 bathroom, 12m2 bedroom for two people. Plus the roofed verandah out the front. Not really big enough to have 12 people round for dinner or much of a party, but 3-4 guests is quite doable.

The hutch really works best as part of a larger development where there's communal facilities for stuff like entertaining. That's where "how much do you use it" really starts working for you rather than against you - one communal kitchen big enough to cook for all 40 residents, "great hall" to seat those 40 plus a spare lounge (with TV) etc. I'd rather pay for 1/10th of all of those than have to decide which one I can afford to have all to myself.

Unfortunately those are really best started by someone with a lot more capital than we have (there are a couple of groups in Melbourne but they are either low income with capital from the government or still in the "where will the money come from" stage. If the money fairy gave me a couple of million dollars I'd go the coho route.

281:

Minor nitpick: SARS was in 2002/03, not 2006.

282:

Radio traffic mapping is easy to beat although it's yet another turn of the wheel in escalation. You simply set up a false traffic network or two on the same frequencies carrying dummy data which the police and security forces will ignore (as in their receivers will screen it out due to the packet data being transmitted being tagged as false) but the scanners will see lots of false positives and won't be able to differentiate between them and the real traffic without being able to decrypt the packets.

The spoof nodes can be mounted at fixed points and also suitable vehicles like buses, taxis, garbage trucks etc. in urban situations so that they appear to be moving around.

283:

IIRC the top marginal rate of income tax in the UK during the second world war was raised to something like 103%, as a deterrent to business owners taking too much money out of their operations. Food and clothing and fuel were notionally available only via ration books, accommodation could be requisitioned, everything was on a war footing, conscription was in force for civilian jobs as well as the military (e.g. Bevan's Boys, who got sent down the coal mines) so what were wages for, anyway?

284:

"...become like toxic chewing gum". "So for the cost of removing chewing gum...", "...per year on removing chewing gum..."

CHEWING gum? ...what other kind of gum is there? why the insistence on writing CHEWING gum instead of simply GUM? #easilydistractedfromactualissue

286:

A very interesting sojourn into our potential near future.
However, it is a little overly Orwellian. And as Orwell missed the fact that the Corporation which manufacturer surveillance cameras for the State would eventually realize that they could make much more profit selling cameras to the Public, so as our world fills with sensors it is almost certain that we will develop an Industry of personal devices/apps that will be capable of jamming these sensor-grids, or disguising your identity ... although they could still probably workout where you live and work.
Personally, I look forwards to the time when a "smart-communicator" could advise me on how to avoid certain unpleasant individuals. I also expect that petty crime would be almost impossible as the grid could trace the criminals to their "hide-out".

287:

SOLAR HOMES THAT COOL. GOOGLE Harold Hay solar homes for info on just about the simplest solar heating and cooling. I think the man is still ahead of his time in terms of being practical. They have adjustable thermal inertia. Solar with room and cheap cooling. With a clear night sky that is.
Any radio receiver can be found with another receiver set right. Didn't I once read of cruising radio vans finding illegal TVs over there Works on receivers if you spend the money and time.

288:


IIRC the top marginal rate of income tax in the UK during the second world war was raised to something like 103%, as a deterrent to business owners taking too much money out of their operations.

That actually sounds like the Excess Profits Tax.

"An Excess Profits Tax introduced for business raised further revenue (£508 million in 1944-45). It compared war-time profits with pre-war or ‘standard’ profits, taxing the difference initially at 60% and then at 100%. It was repealed in 1946. "

Not quite 103%, but I guess 100% would do the trick too.

289:
Any radio receiver can be found with another receiver set right.
I don't actually know how it works, but I imagine it is because some components, as part of a tuner, must resonate at a frequency that is either the same, or one related to, the frequency of the broadcast it is tuned to.

So it's true for a traditional receiver, with all those analogue parts doing what they do. But not necessarily true for software-defined radios, where you pull in a broad spectrum – basically, the antenna plugs directly into an analog-to-digital converter and all "tuning" is done with filters in software – there are no analogue parts to pick up! (Well, according to my understanding of the whole thing, anyway. And you still need the right antenna.)

And SDRs are either already in, or are going to be in, every phone. It might be more expensive, but it should speed things up for handset makers and let them customize things more easily. (Less mucking around with different radios for different markets / carriers, basically.)

Or one could hack a TV receiver dongle and use that.

290:

magetoo:
Or one could hack a TV receiver dongle and use that.

That technique has been around for at least a decade; a medium-scale radio-to-web transcription site I am aware of did that exact thing (in PC-sized hardware, rather than a dongle, but it's the same trick). In 2001 (testing earlier than that...).

It may or may not be good enough to fingerprint cellphones in real time. (cough)

It is clearly good enough for audio capture.

291:

Any radio receiver can be found with another receiver set right.
not necessarily true for software-defined radios, where you pull in a broad spectrum

It's all about the right settings, and even for analogue radios it is pretty theoretical. The easy case is a simple heterodyne receiver, where the internal oscillator leaks/broadcasts pretty much no matter what you do, and the range of likely frequencies for that is small (say, valve-based TV tuners). Move into solid state and the IF can be anywhere from 1-1000MHz, making it tricky to find. Efficiencies also go up as better materials and designs enable miniturisation, which both causes and enables lower power designs. Other technologies, like a crystal set only re-radiates a tiny fraction of what arrives at the aerial, and anything microchip based you'd be better off looking for the clock frequency than anything to do with the radio side. And if we're talking about a tiny, low-power receiver... you'd find it more easily using reflectance of the visible part of the EM spectrum.

But for picking up the trash/filtering out the hostiles, I think a modified tape demagnetiser is going to be the tool of choice. Run the hose of a vacuum cleaner through a demagnetiser and simply EMF the devices out of existence. And possibly use their conductance to pull them out of the flow for recycling.

I'm wondering whether we'll see a new round of asbestosis/silicosis type diseases as dust-sized machines get filtered out of the air by lungs.

292:

@249:
My question, obviously, is how much of time are you actually in one of these little ecohutches? Is it something you're confined to nine months out of the year? Or is it more like a central core you retreat to a couple of months out of the year when it becomes impossibly hot/cold outside? This is a sociological/lifestyle question, obviously.
---
And a valid one. I'm on the trailing edge of the Boomer generation. We always lived at home. Maybe every couple of weeks my parents would go somewhere, or someone would come over, and they'd play cards or visit. Other than work, school, or shopping, we lived at home.

I also live at home. I have everything I need here. Maybe once every couple of weeks I'll visit a friend, or he'll drop by. Otherwise, I don't leave unless I have a reason to be somewhere else.

It wasn't until I was reading some anthropology books written in the 1940s and 1950s that I realized this wasn't universal. One book had some interesting figures on how Americans lived before and after WWII. According to that book, most (presumably urban) prewar Americans spent a majority of their non-working hours at church, lodge or club meetings, organized sports like baseball or bowling, etc. The book lamented the huge fall-off in church attendance and lodge memberships by the mid-1950s, attributing it to "mobile lifestyle" and that new "television" thing.

I realized that a number of younger people I knew lived this way - "home" was a place to sleep and room for their 87 pairs of shoes. Most of them rented rooms or had housemates, and had never lived in a house by themselves, and they might chance accomodations several times a year. They don't live where they sleep; they live in clubs, malls, and other people's houses or apartments, occupying time between shifts at work.

293:

Probably not.

It is true, of course, that drug retailers use planning and advanced technologies. It is also true that any given set exists on the suffrance of the authorities.

I have a cousin in the youth department of the NYPD. The things these morons put on Facebook has to be seen to be believed. Going from that to sophisticated gaming of surveillance technology --- well, it could be done, but not often, and only by those the authorities don't care about.

I'll add that MS-13 does not exist. As a centralized organization capable of planning, that is.

294:

Charlie, I'm confused.

Low corporate taxes are a policy decision. You seem to be claiming that the Laffer curve kicks in at low levels for corporations. That would be a controversial claim. Am I misunderstanding?

295:

Noel Maurer:

Probably not.
It is true, of course, that drug retailers use planning and advanced technologies. It is also true that any given set exists on the suffrance of the authorities.
I have a cousin in the youth department of the NYPD. The things these morons put on Facebook has to be seen to be believed. Going from that to sophisticated gaming of surveillance technology --- well, it could be done, but not often, and only by those the authorities don't care about.
I'll add that MS-13 does not exist. As a centralized organization capable of planning, that is.

Several people have made similar comments.

The average criminal just needs to see enough value in this to pay for the app and service and use it.

The number of people required to have the vision and competence to make this work is one, maybe two hands worth.

296:

While I cannot speak for Charlie, I think he's saying that there is a race to the bottom in respect of corporate tax rates (and effective rates) among different jurisdictions. This is not the same thing as the Laffer curve, which relates to productivity of taxed actors in a single economy under various rates of tax - corporations are not making decisions about productivity when they move their headquarters to a brass plate in the LuxIreHamas.

(Also, the Laffer curve is a crock of shit. Revenues are multidimensional in nominal rate, enforecement activity, social context, electronic versus cash transactions and no doubt a whole bunch of other stuff: there is no guarantee that any given two-dimensional slice through the sheet is even a function parameterised by tax rate, let alone being convex in tax rate. It's a Jordan curve, sure, but that's much uglier in general, and maximising revenues is certainly not a question of sliding the nominal rate back and forth to some magic figure.)

297:

I have a cousin in the youth department of the NYPD. The things these morons put on Facebook has to be seen to be believed.

I believe this to be the law enforcement wave of the future. Oh, the panopticon network may be technologically feasible - and someone's probably going to even push for one, probably as a sock puppet for network makers. But the obvious limiting factor is the amount of time and money police departments have to haul in offenders, and once you hit your moron handling capacity there's not much need to find more. (We can assume that the major crimes are still handled much as they are today; the sea of petty crap is what consumes the most cop hours.) So instead of an Orwellian panopticon, there may be a few keyboard monkeys watching for one of the usual suspects to do something stupid.

And, yeah, I'd probably believe the Facebook stories. I ran a register a while and accumulated a few of my own. (Note: if you must shoplift, don't do it at a store where you're a regular customer. For example.) The criminal masterminds are few and far between; the painfully stupid are all over the place.

298:

Sensor networks:
- Who owns and operates it? Telecoms? Local councils? The state? Sensordyne Ltd?
- Telecoms of today don't like infrastructure competition. Cue massive lobbying efforts to make publicly funded public networks illegal.

Uses:
- Clean streets: Detect litter as its thrown, sends robotic bin / sanitary worker to pick it up.
- Ubiquitous post office: Put box to send on street, smart bin picks it up and routes to courier infrastructure.
- Boomerang items: Drop some personal effect of yours, bin picks it up and routes to you.
- Frictionless shopping: Put items in bin, walk out of store, sensors know who you are, billing happens in the background, bin carries your purchases home.
- Frictionless hotels: Walk into a free room, stay for a few days, walk out, they know who you are and how to bill you.
- Life coach: Analyse your movements, suggest extra exercise, suggest meeting friends and family.
- Avoid people who you don't want to meet. Find people who you do want to meet.
- Fewer "Missing X, please contact me if you have seen X"-posters.
- Thefts become easier to solve.
- The street can answer your questions.
- Route pedestrians more optimally ("Congestion ahead! Alternative route ->")
- Detect sick people on the street, minimise contagion.
- Avoid rowdy mobs.
- Route supporters of opposing football teams via different routes.
- Find places devoid of people, send all robots there to foment rebellion.
- Detect flooding, send pumps.
- Detect fires, send firefighters.
- Detect approaching rain, tell people to take their brollies.
- Shelf shops. The shop knows who you are so it doesn't need a special buildings to protect its goods from theft. Just grab a sandwich from a shelf on the street.
- Tourist guide built into the city.
- Deliveries on the go. Order a pizza, walk to a park, pizza is delivered to where you are.
- Stronger ownership. The city knows where your things are, how to get them to you and who to bill for the loan period / breakage.

299:

Where I live in Southern California, if and when Peak Oil hits, we're going to have to rebuild the entire city. It's not that my place is inefficient or even vulnerable to fires. Rather, it's that we have to drive to get our food and go to work. If oil gets expensive, we can't afford to live here. The problem is, this is *normal* for the US.

I'm not convinced. If/when the price of oil goes through the roof, personal transportation will be the least of our worries, and the other problems will affect people in dense urban areas too.

For transportation: Your average suburbanite can already buy a Nissan Leaf at roughly the cost of those behemoth SUVs and charge it off the electrical grid. If there were demand, I'll bet something like a plug-in Smartcar could be made for roughly the cost of a Honda Civic. That would be fine for commuting from the suburbs or driving to the supermarket.

The electrical grid can be run off coal or nuclear, so peak oil isn't such an issue for electricity. If electricity prices do go way up for some reason, affecting both cities and suburbs, a suburban property probably has more possibilities of adding PV panels to run the house and/or charge the aforementioned electric car.

If the price of oil goes up so high that food production/and or shipping is badly affected, then it won't matter whether you take a city subway or an electric car to the supermarket. Cities will be screwed too.

300:
That technique has been around for at least a decade; a medium-scale radio-to-web transcription site I am aware of did that exact thing (in PC-sized hardware, rather than a dongle, but it's the same trick). In 2001
Right. The newsworthy thing about that link above is really just the size and the price (around 20 USD) which now puts it at the "fun little project" level of any old hacker.
301:

Sounds like a perfect terrorist weapon to me.

1. create glass bead with a years storage capacity.
2. dump 100W into it for a year (desk lamp + foil)
3. smash the bead to powder and watch 3e9 joules get released in a few seconds.

you could build the mother of all exploding bullets, and depending on the "speed" of the glass and how much time you have to feed it you could keep an area hot for days.

302:

How much does fuel have to increase in price before it actually becomes a survival threat to suburbanites? In the UK I pay around $10 a gallon. I *could* pay $30 but it would severely restrict my use of the car. However, not enough to prevent me using it to stock up at the supermarket. Prices like that (in the USA) would probably correspond to oil at around $500 a barrel.

303:

Being your average suburbanite, I bought an early 90s toyota for a $1000 and plan to drive it towards a half million miles, if I can. Most of the cars around here aren't those bronto-mobile SUVs.

The bigger problem is that our existing power grid (which I do actually know quite a lot about, because I'm in the environmental community that comments on their projects), probably couldn't sustain recharging all those cars every night. We're getting daily warnings to prepare for rolling brownouts, although none have happened yet. They are worried about peak load on the system right now, because it's hot enough for people to use their air conditioners.

Still, the basic problem is that here on the West Coast, we were built too spread out. That is changing and will continue to change. The power supply is one problem driving this change. Maintaining the existing roads and other infrastructure is another. I'm not alone in this perception, either. When I testified in front of the county board of supervisors against low-density housing throughout the county by saying that we couldn't maintain the infrastructure we did have, let alone double it, most of the supervisors nodded agreement. And they're mostly conservative republicans, who proceeded to vote in quite restrictive development plans, with more houses clustered closer together in fewer spots. Many ranchers who were hoping to get rich by developing their spreads are very upset.

And I won't even get into the stew that is projections of how much useable coal and natural gas we have. Basically, if you believe I'm a future millionaire because I play the lottery occasionally, that's only slightly less accurate than the projections of how much coal and natural gas the US has in the ground.

304:

Nova, I take it you've never heard of bubble gum?

305:

Yes, you're misunderstanding: go look for the words "Laffer curve" in anything I've written. (Shorter version: I believe Laffer was blowing hot air.)

What I'm actually talking about is tax avoidance on a massive, international scale, made possible by the lack of consistency between different nations' tax systems and the ability of multinationals to choose which jurisdiction to nominally transact business in.

306:

Dirk, if fuel prices here tripled, fueling your car would be the least of your worries; think about how the supermarkets fuel the trucks that keep them supplied, or how the farmers fuel the tractors that plough their fields. Agriculture is heavily fuel-dependent, as is distribution: you'd probably see food prices doubling or tripling as well.

Right now food in the developed world is dirt cheap, as a proportion of our per-capita expenditure -- time was when urbanites' spending on foot was up to 50% of their income. Now it's down around 10%. Think about where we'd be if a kilogram of potatoes or rice spiked to £25 ...

307:

... I'm on the trailing edge of the Boomer generation. We always lived at home. Maybe every couple of weeks my parents would go somewhere, or someone would come over, and they'd play cards or visit. Other than work, school, or shopping, we lived at home....

It wasn't until I was reading some anthropology books written in the 1940s and 1950s that I realized this wasn't universal. One book had some interesting figures on how Americans lived before and after WWII. According to that book, most (presumably urban) prewar Americans spent a majority of their non-working hours at church, lodge or club meetings, organized sports like baseball or bowling, etc. The book lamented the huge fall-off in church attendance and lodge memberships by the mid-1950s, attributing it to "mobile lifestyle" and that new "television" thing.

TV was a big changer. In two waves. First when it appears for the masses outside of cities like Chicago and NYC. Then when cable TV showed up. With over the air we kids still played outside in the 60s and 70s. But with cable kids had stuff to watch 24/7 and that really changed things.

And with that, in the US, especially in the south, there's air conditioning. Now I can deal with 90F up to about 105F (32C/40C) if the relative humidity isn't over 70%. But to be honest I can deal with it. But most people I know have acclimated to cooler temps. Going out to the movies just to have AC isn't done anymore.

And yes you can work outdoors in 105-110F if you drink plenty of water and wear long sleeves and pants. But it is hard work. Hotter than that you have to really have grown up in it and likely been bred to some degree for it.

We can also go down the rabbit trail of that planned town in Florida and how it was a flop at getting people out on their porches like in the "good ole days". The front porches didn't have AC or TV which is why people where out there way back when.

308:

I doubt whether the fuel as a percentage of food cost is greater than 5%. If that went to 15% food would still be dirt cheap. I am old enough to remember when the EU trashed millions of tonnes of food due to overproduction. We pay farmers not to produce.

309:

I think the Laffer curve is real. But anything can be taken to the point of being nuts. Like it has been by our R/W. In fact they don't talk about it now days. They just keep saying the more tax cuts the better.
Oscillators in radio receivers act like weak transmitters and make a HOW(?) at a set frequency depending on the frequency in use by the receiver. This was used in the Cold War and maybe now in places. And by your government looking for unlicensed TVs. Over here a company was going to use the vans to find out truth about who was watching what TV show. It was dropped fast then. Most of the country did not have cable TV until not that long ago. So I am not as sure as some how big a deal it was.

310:

The main aspect is that the good analogue circuits depended on local oscillators which leaked a certain amount of RF through the aerial. And the frequency had a fixed relationship with the received signal.

Even software radio uses a local oscillator at the initial stage.

The unresolved question is whether the signal leaking back out of a TV aerial, which is quite directional, puts out enough energy to be detected by equipment mounted on a passing vehicle. The nearest public highway, in the direction the aerial is pointing here, is a couple of miles away. And they would have to distinguish between here and the neighbours.

The TV Detector Van is possible, but a harder problem than it looks.

311:

The TV Detector Van is possible, but a harder problem than it looks.

It was my understanding that these were (are?) common in the UK/England as it was a tax on each TV that paid for the several BBC channels. They would drive through neighborhoods counting the TVs in each house/apartment and if there was an "overage" ring the bell or send a bill.

Has this gone away? Have flat screens and cable/satelite made this harder? Has the funding method changed?

312:

Not meaning to disagree, merely expand on the point a bit - but for some urbanites, the proportion spent on food is still in that region. I live in a small country and am admittedly somewhere near the bottom of the economic ladder. But in an average week, over 1/3 of my budget goes on food (and these are pretty basic foodstuffs). It wouldn't take much of an increase for me to have to make some very tough choices about which bills I could no longer afford to pay if I wanted to keep eating.

313:

Dirk:
I doubt whether the fuel as a percentage of food cost is greater than 5%. If that went to 15% food would still be dirt cheap. I am old enough to remember when the EU trashed millions of tonnes of food due to overproduction. We pay farmers not to produce.

Lest anyone go too nuts with this - just on first inspection, Canola (rapeseed) oil and soybean oil in bulk are priced currently almost exactly $1/liter (less than $4/gallon), and usable biodiesel...

Bulk methanol is less than $4/gallon, for gasoline cars you don't want to swap for diesel engines. Its feedstock is cellulosic plant waste, so all those ethanol plants using corn could be converted to methanol plants using cornstalks...

The "ZOMG $30/gal FUELZ" ... not likely. It would take total environmental collapse to wreck our ability to produce reasonably dense fuels that will run in current cars / trucks (possibly with minor mechanical mods, but not new engines required) and can be gotten for (roughly) current crude oil prices.

314:

Uh ... replacing current hydrocarbon production with biofuels is essentially impossible. So I'm confused, since any attempt to do so would lead to very large increases in transportation fuel prices. What's the argument?

315:

Charlie, I'd be stunned if food price tripled along with oil prices. It's just not that high a share of inputs, even accounting for fertilizer.

http://coststudies.ucdavis.edu/files/wheatsv09.pdf

Fuel is a high share of transport costs, but still not as much as you might think.

http://pedestrianobservations.wordpress.com/2011/07/20/quick-note-on-food-transportation/

I hate to say it, but the impact of $400 per barrel oil would be less than people think. And if it happens slowly, less so.

The implication, of course, is that it would be much easier to reduce carbon emissions than opponents want to believe.

316:

Here's the thing. The claim, if I understand it correctly, is that the existence of other countries places an effective ceiling on corporate tax rates. That's an argument for a Laffer curve.

I am not trying to rile you up by using the name. Laffer was not very smart. Nor was his curve new. It's just the accepted name for the idea that there is a revenue-maximizing tax rate.

Your claim is fairly controversial claim. It would require strong evidence. One kind of evidence would be declining corporate tax revenues in the absence of any changes in the tax code: I am not aware of studies that argue that such tax avoidance has increased.

In fact, U.S. states (like California) manage to levy substantial corporate tax rates, despite existing within a federal system that should make avoidance quite easy.

If a government wanted to levy high effective corporate tax rates, it could.

http://businessroundtable.org/uploads/studies-reports/downloads/Effective_Tax_Rate_Study.pdf

I think we should angry about the politics because I am not convinced that the lower cost of transacting across borders has in fact reduced the power of the state.

317:

The power of the state is what it always has been - the ability to make laws and enforce them using men with guns. I would say that the power of the state has been growing, not shrinking.

318:

Noel Maurer:
Uh ... replacing current hydrocarbon production with biofuels is essentially impossible. So I'm confused, since any attempt to do so would lead to very large increases in transportation fuel prices. What's the argument?

No. People often argue that, but the numbers don't hold up. This is all about cost and comfort. It's really not that hard.

Look up the quantity of waste cellulose burned or discarded worldwide now. It's PLENTY to produce a 100% cutover from gasoline to methanol.

Methanol's down the preferred fuels list because it's slightly toxic, but it's less toxic than gasoline.

Cellulosic ethanol is nontoxic, but requires a lot more processing.

It would be hard to grow enough stuff to replace all the kerosene and diesel, but jatropha's much more efficient at that, and it's not clear if it would be acceptable en masse worldwide as a 100% replacement or not. Yields approach a metric ton per acre / 200 tons a square kilometer. The US has 230,000 square kilometers under irrigation now, and something like 1.7 million square Km arable land. US current jet fuel use is 125,000 tons a day, diesel about 40,000 tons a day; figure 165,000 tons a day total. 60 million and change tons annually; 300,000 square kilometers worth of Jatropha crop. So about 1/5 of our arable land, or somewhat more than our current land under irrigation. Note that jet fuel use is dropping significantly, about 30% in the last 5 years, so as more fuel efficient planes keep coming online the usage there ought to drop further. Just the road diesel would be a fraction of our current land under irrigation, which is currently somewhat irregularly utilized and could support significant diversions (corn -> ethanol is very inefficient, about 1/10 as efficient at fuel output as Jatropha, etc).

319:

I think America signed a treaty about how low corporate taxes can go. It's looked on as a government subsidy I guess. Me, I'd like as low a corporate tax as possible and a very high tax on the earnings of the share holders. At the least it could get the corporate lobbyists out of the tax code. And I and a lot others want killer of a estate tax. Like CS the IRS has said there is "tax avoidance on a massive, international scale, made possible by the lack of consistency between different nations' tax systems and the ability of multinationals to choose which jurisdiction to nominally transact business in." Our IRS had some numbers a time ago.
Apple is in California. Next door is Nevada has no corporate or income taxes. So Apple and a lot of others has a corporation in Nevada that takes the money. Apple hardly pays any California taxes.
I always liked Methanol as a fuel. But it will blind you just like rotgut booze if its breathed or allowed into the skin too much. Gasoline will not do much. Didn't to me at least

320:

In a word, yes.

We don't need embassies for communication anymore. Countries would still be able to talk to each other without ambassadors. Or rather, we'd keep our ambassadors at home and turn them into professional Kremlin-watchers, experts on cities they never visit and politicians they've never met. Talk about the triumph of ELINT over HUMINT...

Anyway. It would probably almost work these days; communications are that good.

But until someone invents Niven's transporter booth, boots on the ground keep mattering when you have to deal with people. Data teleports. Money teleports. People don't.

321:

Two points.

1. Methanol is highly toxic -- if swallowed, you'll go blind and suffer serious neurological damage from even a smallish quantity. It's environmental hazard in bulk spills is a bet less clear and may be lower than gasoline, but it's still not exactly safe.

2. Your calculation about biofuels breaks down for two very simple reaons: (a) the land under cultivation is in use for growing food crops -- what you're suggesting, substituting biofuels, will cause spikes in the price of food and, potentially, mass starvation among the poor; and (b) if even the 2-4 degree climate change projection of the IPCC is correct, then about 50% of the USA's arable land is going to become arid desert over the next half century. (That 2-4 celsius average temperature rise corresponds to 10-15 degree above average heat emergencies every year that kill off most unprotected plants -- think in terms of this year's summer as the new normal.)

Finally, even if the US midwest and south doesn't aridify and lose agricultural productivity, we're looking at a world population ballooning towards 10 billion before the demographic transition begins to bite at a global level and our numbers begin to trend down. Don't you think that turning a large chunk of the most agriculturally productive land on the planet over to producing fuel for SUVs might be sub-optimal on a global scale ...?

322:

The jury is still out concerning algae diesel. In the worst case, nothing pans out. In the best case, algae is cultured in bioreactors that can be situated on marginal land, not displacing current crops. Feedstock for the algae is c02, water, and trace minerals.

But that best case is a bad case since what we're doing right now is wrecking the planet. If algae fuel is a runaway success, we're still wrecking the planet.

The problem, of course, is that our entire economy is predicated on endless growth. It's not engineered for a steady-state existence. This gets us back into the whole Club of Rome thing with Limits to Growth, our monkey-brained desire to have a bigger pile of bananas than the next chimp even if it's more bananas than we could possibly eat, and the necessity of that growth to pay the interest on borrowed money.

And of course any discussion of the topic gets polarized into "You either have to embrace everything from SUV's to suburbia and nuclear reactor meltdowns or you're a dirty hippie and want to junk all technology and go back to living like cavemen and dying of preventable diseases before you're 30." It's impossible to have an adult conversation about keeping the good parts of modern, high-tech society while discarding the junk, downsizing our scale of living while maintaining a civilized standard.

323:

Richard Feynman was mostly known for his work in physics, but he did do some work in computation as well. He did a series of lectures that are not really widely known, but available on Amazon called Lectures on Computation. In it, he discusses just how low power we can go. The answer, surprisingly, is all the way. Computation can be done for zero energy expenditure. The only catch is that it would be arbitrarily slow. So energy expenditure can be completely dedicated to speeding it up.

One of the consequences of that for your vision I would guess would be no need to really 'gather' power of any sort. The things which are being monitored, whether wind movement or contact with a microbial genome or whatever, could provide the energy necessary for its own monitoring.

I think the way to bias things so that such technology is used for good rather than ill is the same as it always is - open it to everyone. Let us track every microscopic detail of the life of any person put in a position of power before those in power are permitted to do the same to us. Technology opens amazing possibilities for governmental transparency that simply are not being pursued because those in power with to maintain their ability to deceive and manipulate the public. Why aren't government officials required to use computer systems which offer read-only access to the entire public? It would be easy enough to do. Every vote, every discussion they have with 'colleagues', etc should be as easy to access as any citizens own email. There is no legitimate justification for keeping their work secret, but it would pretty much require their advocacy and approval before such a system could be implemented...

324:

Good point, and it's one I wish more SF writers would deal with. The point about small-scale computation being fast only if a lot of energy involved is one that usually gets thrown out the window in favor of magic fairy dust that does everything for nothing. Even our gracious host has had issues with that.

One can point back even to Engines of Creation, where Drexler postulated a small cubic computer that could have the computational power of a human, provided that a much larger cooling system was bolted to it to keep it from melting while it worked.

Ubiquitous computing works more as ants do. While one should note that ants are extremely successful and individually smart for insects, it's worth remembering that an ant nest with as much neural mass as a human is not even close to being as smart as a human (and some of the bigger leaf-cutter ant nests get to the mass of a cow). Proximity of neurons matters, as does the small fact that we endothermic mammals are better at keeping optimal operating conditions at all times than ants are.

325:

I wouldn't say that endless growth was monkey-brained. Rather I'd say that it's part of the ideology of capitalism. During most of human history, most people have been perfectly content with steady-state. You follow the Way of Your People, you're born, strive, have kids, and die, all in the proper way. The idea that your future material prospects will be better certainly has some apocalyptic overtones, but it really depends on things like, oh, exploiting other people and dealing with interest-bearing loans. These latter two concepts really took off with the age of capitalism (founded initially on things like slaves in other countries producing cheap stuff for the metropole).

Part of the problem we're in right now is that capitalism has no real opposition, and we're so used to it that we like to think it has its roots in human biology. Not really. As you've pointed out, capitalism's problem, like it or not, is that it is its own worst enemy, and does best when there's something (unconquered lands, rival empires, or communism) that makes it look better by comparison. It really will be interesting to see how long dominant capitalism actually lasts, given the realities the world is increasingly facing.

I'm not a communist by any stretch of the imagination, but I have to point out that corporations are ultimately pieces of paper, most wealth consists of numbers in databases, and if either of these gets in the way of things like feeding people with enough power to doing something about it, they can go away very quickly indeed. They only have power because we give them power.

326:

Reversible computations can provide results at far lower power than existing theoretical limits for modern machines. However, all the intermediate steps are lost, which is not usually a problem.
Also, Human brains are at least 4-5 orders of magnitude away from maximal efficiency for non-reversible computers. So Drexler's 1 cubic cm brain may draw far less power than your mobile phone.

327:

I wrote an article for Zero State on limits to growth. It's not as doom laden as one might expect:
http://transhumanpraxis.wordpress.com/2011/11/28/limits-to-growth/

328:

It's impossible to have an adult conversation about keeping the good parts of modern, high-tech society while discarding the junk, downsizing our scale of living while maintaining a civilized standard.

Sure we can have that conversation. All we have to do is agree on the definitions of the good and the junk.

329:

Then it's decided! A bell must be placed on the cat! Who now shall we delegate to perform the task?

330:

jollyreaper@322: The problem, of course, is that our entire economy is predicated on endless growth. It's not engineered for a steady-state existence.

That's not capitalism. That's evolution. Evolution rewards those who copy themselves until they hit a hard system limit and can't make any more. Even when it seems steady-state, that's only because the the rabbit's attempt to spam the universe is contained by the wolf, whose attempt to spam the universe is contained by other wolves and by the limited amount of meat to feed its pups with.

Any serious attempt to go steady-state would start with population control, but any organism shaped by evolution will resist voluntary population control.

Aliens, if there are any, will also be like this.

331:

Whoa, please back off on using such normative and reifying terms as 'rewards' when discussing evolution.
Also I note that much of Europe is voluntarily resisting population controls so well that the birthrate is below the replacement rate!

332:

Our good host:
1. Methanol is highly toxic -- if swallowed, you'll go blind and suffer serious neurological damage from even a smallish quantity. It's environmental hazard in bulk spills is a bet less clear and may be lower than gasoline, but it's still not exactly safe.

We just had an extended rocket propellants safety discussion and research dive on the amateur rocketry mailing list a monthish ago. Without rehashing several dozen detailed posts...

Methanol is toxic, yes. It's not THAT toxic. Fumes and skin exposure are likely fairly harmless by industrial standards. There's no push on to remove it from industrial cleaning products, windshield wiper fluid, etc.

Gasoline - sold over the counter just about everywhere worldwide without the slightest precautions - is toxic, highly toxic, and carcinogenic. The evidence is not super great, but the best studies and metastudies seem to indicate that it's about 10% as carcinogenic as hydrazine (i.e., same damage rates at 10x exposure). It should never NEVER be used as a solvent or cleaning agent, not just because of the fire hazard but because it is in fact much worse for you than is commonly known. Whereas Methanol is mildly acutely toxic, Gasoline is slightly acutely toxic and highly carcinogenic by cancer risk standards. Overall health risk - barring idiots using it for drinking games - is highly weighted towards Gasoline being the worse risk.

Essentially, the evidence is that Gasoline is THE mother-of-all grandfather clauses on EPA environmental regulations - the thing they are now increasingly afraid of and aware they will never get away with adding additional use restrictions to.

If you own a gasoline car now, and are willing to continue operating one going forwards, and are willing to foreswear drinking your fuel, Methanol should not scare you. I have changed my car fueling behavior slightly in the last month and will never use gasoline again for utility purposes.

2. Your calculation about biofuels breaks down for two very simple reaons: (a) the land under cultivation is in use for growing food crops -- what you're suggesting, substituting biofuels, will cause spikes in the price of food and, potentially, mass starvation among the poor; and (b) if even the 2-4 degree climate change projection of the IPCC is correct, then about 50% of the USA's arable land is going to become arid desert over the next half century. (That 2-4 celsius average temperature rise corresponds to 10-15 degree above average heat emergencies every year that kill off most unprotected plants -- think in terms of this year's summer as the new normal.)

Finally, even if the US midwest and south doesn't aridify and lose agricultural productivity, we're looking at a world population ballooning towards 10 billion before the demographic transition begins to bite at a global level and our numbers begin to trend down. Don't you think that turning a large chunk of the most agriculturally productive land on the planet over to producing fuel for SUVs might be sub-optimal on a global scale ...?

I suggested a couple of things, one of which was cultivation on some irrigated land, and also the use of arable land not under irrigation / cultivation now.

For methanol production, it's a coproduct of foodstuff production. Corn and wheat stalks, etc. You gather them and other agricultural waste up, feed it into the digesters, out comes your methanol. Switchgrass - if you chose to cultivate specifically for cellulose - wins for a dedicated dense product, if you need to do that. But just using waste material (already several times the actual food volume) does not affect food production.

For Jatropha, it can be grown on non-irrigated land, on arable but not cultivated land, etc. It's really hardy. It's a weed, basically. Anywhere that gets enough water, it can pretty much grow there. The issue is harvesting it, which makes production locations somewhat of a tradeoff with food. But the US does in fact have a lot of flat agricultural land not used for food, and a lot no longer in production, which could go back into production for fuelstuffs.

As for what the environment is going to do to that (and other) land...

Yes, granted that's a wildcard, for which the current drought is a negative sign. It's not clear to me if that drought is going to be permanent (but for now, assume yes) or extend west of the Sierra Nevada mountains. There is a lot of arable land in California, Oregon, and Washington State, some of which is not under food cultivation, some of which is capable of gowing Jatropha without irrigation and being harvested reasonably.

Also, this was a US-centric solution proposal, but it's a worldwide problem and solution space. Rainfall worldwide is not down. Growing Jatropha the places that it still rains enough (and there are many MANY places it still rains enough that would love another crop they could sell to the US) is entirely reasonable as a global proposal.

The point isn't that there aren't problems. The "whole solution" is a large ugly complex problem. The point is, the catastrophist viewpoint (that it's orders of magnitude impossible and therefore not worth discussion) is demonstrably falsifiable. There's a difference between "it's just wrong to say we can't possibly grow enough biofuels" - which I just did - and working out all the kinks immediately to attempt a Hero project to replace US fossil fuel use with biofuels in the immediate future (much less sustainable one), which I am not proposing and would not support. Biofuels are technically and environmentally and scale-wise useful solutions. They're not the one true solution upon which we must immediately bet the world.

I believe the actual future holds a shift to much more electrified vehicles, particularly trucks (where the battery weight becomes much lower proportion of the gross mass and therefore practicality is higher), lighter cars with conventional engines, biofuels in cars and trucks, plug hybrid cars, if batteries get better enough then more all electric cars. Jets are getting more fuel efficient quickly, and the next generation (A320NEO / 737 MAX) are 15% better than the current ones, and the one after that another 15-20% more.

The precise shape of the transition is not clear, and not simple. But the potential solution space is expanding and firming up. The number of macguffins one has to propose to make a reasonably complete energy crash scenario now is high enough that it's highly implausible. Poking holes in catastrophist rhetoric is entirely justified.

333:

guthrie@331:Whoa, please back off on using such normative and reifying terms as 'rewards' when discussing evolution.

I used the phrase "evolution rewards" in an evolutionary context as a shorthand for "evolution results in increases in the fraction of a population with this trait". If my phrasing seemed normative and reifying to you, my apologies.

Also I note that much of Europe is voluntarily resisting population controls so well that the birthrate is below the replacement rate!

And you'll notice that those populations, as a fraction of humanity, are decreasingly numerous. Meanwhile, adjacent populations with strong norms against birth control are growing rapidly (Muslims in Europe, Mormons and Quiverfull types in the US). Effective birth control is a recent innovation, and its evolutionary effects may take a while to sort out.

Also note that I was talking about involuntary controls rather than voluntary choices. In America, such controls would almost certainly be opposed across the political spectrum as a covert means of slowly exterminating disadvantaged groups (which groups would be a bone of contention).

334:

I got a little fuddled in that last post. Ignore the last paragraph.

335:

If you own a gasoline car now, and are willing to continue operating one going forwards, and are willing to foreswear drinking your fuel, Methanol should not scare you. I have changed my car fueling behavior slightly in the last month and will never use gasoline again for utility purposes.

So if you are siphoning via lung powered vacuum which is worse? A ml of gasoline or methanol? I've had the gas version and you just feel like s**t and have an interesting burp for a day. Going blink would not be nice.

336:

Arrg. Blind

337:

Quiverfull types in the US

While they get a lot of press their numbers so small that I suspect that eliminating them from the census would change things by way less than the margins of error in both current counts and future projections.

338:

Since we're on hydrocarbon engines such, I've just skimmed an article about a company who have a commercial process for re-cycling used lubricating oil for use in heavy oil engines.

They're actually re-refining it and mixing 70/30% with new feed stock; implication on crude demand is obvious, and saving on CO2 is about 20%.

339:

Nor would cancer.

Oh wait, you get cancer from ingesting gasoline, not from methanol.

Yes, 10 ml of methanol, swallowed, can cause blindness, and consuming much more is fatal. But it shouldn't cause problems if you just spit it out.

1 ml of gasoline held even temporarily in the mouth increases the chance of cancer, because there are some extremely unpleasant (and persistent, unlike CH3OH) substances in it. Benzene is a really rather nasty substance, and nobody but an idiot should be using it as a mouthwash.

340:

And if you do swallow methanol, the first thing you should do is try and spew it up. The best method is to drink a lot of ethanol - it competes with the methanol for metabolic pathways. And keep drinking if you cannot get to hospital. Try not to die of ethanol poisoning.

341:

True. I only mentioned the Quiverfull types in that last post because Charlie had mentioned them in a book. Mormons, on the other hand, are about 14 million and growing, with significant showings in business and politics.

BTW, as far as I know, the Mormon norms are less a negative norm against birth control than a positive norm in favor of large families. I don't really know what the relevant Muslim norms are. All in all, they seem to have the effect of promoting large families, which is what matters.

342:

BTW, as far as I know, the Mormon norms are less a negative norm against birth control than a positive norm in favor of large families. I don't really know what the relevant Muslim norms are. All in all, they seem to have the effect of promoting large families, which is what matters.

Mormons, from personal observation, seem to have 4 to 6 kids per family. Muslims seem to have families that meet the cultural norms of where they live. And if in an enclave match the norms of the origins of the enclave.

But they reasons they have the kids is very different. Mormons are off the charts on this one compared to most any other religion on the planet.

343:

Nor would cancer.

I have to wonder how we all survived. Us boomers who grew up mixing explosives and playing with mercury in high school. Mercury was just plain neat to fool with. Of course the one time we filled the chem room with Chlorine gas while on independent time and didn't get caught and cause an evacuation we were just lucky. Decided to clean out a chlorine oxide from some beakers with gases and overwhelmed the fume hood. Which in hindsight was likely a good thing as spewing that much chlorine gas onto the roof might have caused other issues.

(My understanding of mercury is that the real issue is breathing in the vapor. The liquid form tends to not be absorb by living meat so much. Or so I'm blissfully ignorant.)

344:

I have to wonder how we all survived

The simple answer? You didn't.

The slightly more complicated one: much of the reason that life expectancies have been shooting up in recent decades is that not so many people are dying at early ages. And the reason for that is reducing the incidence of disease, whether by better sanitary conditions reducing infection, or by reduced pollution at work reducing industrial diseases.

345:

Nope, mercury can be absorbed through the skin. According to my old ex-toxicologist science teacher, it's bio-accumulative as well, so you're fine handling little bits of mercury... until you handle the little bit that tips you over into the "poisonous dose" box.

346:

Which reminds me of going to visit my Secondary (US High) School chemistry teacher 4 years after leaving, opening the fire door into the corridor his classroom was on, sniffing the air once, and moving rapidly to his room, knocking on the door and interuptign the lesson with "Excuse me sir. I think you'd better check what the 6th form (US Senior) are up to!"
The air I'd just let in reached him, he took one sniff and replied "Yes Paws, you're right. You lot read your notes until I get back" and left at a run.

The reason being that we'd both smelt a distinct volume of toluene in the air!

We got down there to find 2 pupils attempting to precipitate a salt from a toluene solutuion using a Bunsen burner and no fume cupboard or extractor!

347:

You might want to look at some historical demographics. Its very clear that most people in most societies had effective ways to control the number of children which they have, although latex condoms, IUDs, hormonal birth control, and abortion with anaesthetic are a lot safer, more fun, and more reliable. Otherwise, people in most societies would have had even more children than they did. Common methods include taboos on sex at certain times, late marriage, extended nursing, and various drugs and barriers. The problem is that when you change one aspect of the system, say vastly reducing childhood diseases, it takes time for the others to adapt, say by decreasing the customary pregnancy rate.

348:

Prolactin supresses ovulation so breastfeeding effectively works as birth control in hunter gatherer societies.

349:

It's hard to know much from population demographics, because with nutrition being relatively poor and prone to interruption in winter, miscarriages were probably very common in many of those societies.

350:

Females with high body fat were likely rare.

351:

David L:
So if you are siphoning via lung powered vacuum which is worse? A ml of gasoline or methanol?

Don't. Methanol, if you don't get a mouthful, isn't going to hurt you, and if you do and spit it out it's really unlikely to hurt you. But don't do it with either. Really. Ever again.

I've had the gas version and you just feel like s**t and have an interesting burp for a day. Going blind would not be nice.

Gasoline's acute toxicity is actually amazingly low, which frankly amazed me. But as someone else pointed out, that mouthful gives you a detectable elevated cancer risk. As do enough fumes from non-mouthful successful siphonings.

Don't do it anymore, with either.

352:

Jay, you've got your demographics wrong. Chunks of Europe are experiencing rebound increases in birth rate, towards or just above replacement; meanwhile first and subsequent generation immigrants from Africa and the Middle East are experiencing demographic transition towards the norm for the countries they settle in. Iran, TFR around 6 in 1984, has now crashed to a TFR of just over 1; they're producing fewer children per female than Japan. Elsewhere, the picture is similar.

Evolution doesn't proceed in a nice linear direction; rather, it conducts a drunkard's walk through the phase space of viable mutations, with a selection filter (die-offs) constraining one side of the graph.

The view of evolution you have seems to be skewed by ideology and lacking in scientific rigour ...

353:

"Chunks of Europe are experiencing rebound increases in birth rate"

But is that true of the indigenous population or a result of young immigrants having a lot of children?

354:

It's the indigenous population; birth rates among children of immigrants are meanwhile falling to converge with the indigenes.

Which is why the whole "Eurabia" scare story is basically racist claptrap. Ain't gonna happen.

355:

Well, given that there are 25m Muslims in the EU, and 475m of the rest of us an Islamic takeover facilitated by excessive breeding does seem rather... ambitious.

356:

Charlie @ 352:Jay, you've got your demographics wrong

I may have some of the details wrong, but here's the big picture:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population

My basic point is that it's not capitalism that drives our species' rapacious growth, it's our rapacious growth that drives capitalism. Moreover, we seem to be incapable of choosing to restrain our growth.

357:

Nope. World population started spiking well after capitalism was a global phenomenon. You've got cause and effect reversed.

358:

Evolution doesn't proceed in a nice linear direction; rather, it conducts a drunkard's walk through the phase space of viable mutations, with a selection filter (die-offs) constraining one side of the graph.

That's all true. It's also true that, from time to time, that "selection filter" can look pretty damn apocalyptic. It can include things like the Black Death, WWII, the Great Depression, and the plagues that devastated the American Indians. That "selection filter" can wipe civilizations off the map, and over time it tends to get tougher.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Queen's_Hypothesis

Furthermore, it's true that evolution has made us what we are, a mix of altruism, violence, self-sacrifice, cowardice, reason, deception, tribalism, and all the rest of our traits. It seems reasonable to assume that the future will continue to require all of these traits.

The view of evolution you have seems to be skewed by ideology

Pessimism isn't generally considered an ideology.

359:

It's almost impossible to disentangle the effects of industrialization, which changed the hard resource limits, from the effect of rising capitalism on a global scale.

On the other hand, a quick tour of the Ukraine or Easter Island will show that ecological devastation can exist without capitalism.

360:

There are natural experiments like the Carribean colonies before and after slavery (birthrates shot up with freedom). And we know that, for example, people in Italy 500 BCE to 500 CE were much better nourished on average than people in Italy from 1750 to 1950 because archaeologist have looked at their skeletons. Cato the Elder's frugal diet for slave field hands is better than many South Italian labourers ate.

361:

Less security = more children

362:

There's a couple of issues in there. One is that Rome did have a lot of trouble keeping the birthrates up, for whatever reason. The second issue is that maize, served as polenta, became very popular in Italy in the 17th-19th century. As you undoubtedly know, maize is more productive than wheat, but unless you treat it properly (nixtamalization), its nutritional value is pretty low. Nixtamalization didn't make it to Europe with maize, which is why polenta isn't nearly as nutritious as something like hominy.

In other words, if you switch from a Roman style wheat and barley based diet to a polenta-based diet, you're going to have serious problems with endemic pellagra, even if nothing else changes. That little nutrition problem is based on the intercontinental trade that sprung up coincident with capitalism...

363:

In general, I've gotten really suspicious of *anything* economists do when they invoke a bell curve.

Here's the problem: bell curves are based on assumptions of statistical normality (about how the numbers in the data set are distributed).

Unfortunately, there's nothing in real economic data to support the assumption that economic are normally distributed. Hence, it's worth being skeptical about anything that has a bell curve as the central idea. (I'll note as an aside that I'm collapsing a central thesis in The Black Swan into a couple of sentences to fit in a blog reply, not being comprehensive).

Of course, the little problem is that, if you get rid of normal statistics, a lot of economic theory also falls apart or becomes untestable. This seems to fit the ability of economists to actually make useful predictions, but it is unpleasant for most economists to read. Again, see The Black Swan for a detailed description of the issues.

364:

I still disagree with your thesis that population increases drove capitalism. Time-wise, it didn't happen.

I agree that you can't entirely disentangle capitalism from the rise in global capitalism (here's a graph of world population from 1800 on). However, populations were (crudely) globally sustainable around 1800 at 1 billion. If you look at the graph, you'll see that we didn't crack 2 billion until 1920, and then things took off. The point is that it wasn't a population explosion that triggered capitalism. Capitalism dominated the world long before the population started taking off.

If anything, I could make a better case that the population boom favored communism, which really did take off around the time the world population edged up towards 2 billion.

Yes, populations have boomed and crashed without capitalism anywhere in sight. However, the present population boom did not cause capitalism to come into being. I'd say, rather, that capitalism enabled it.

365:
Here's the problem: bell curves are based on assumptions of statistical normality (about how the numbers in the data set are distributed).

Unfortunately, there's nothing in real economic data to support the assumption that economic are normally distributed. Hence, it's worth being skeptical about anything that has a bell curve as the central idea.

I'm not sure exactly what you're objecting to here. The Central Limit theorem guarantees that the sample average distribution will be normal no matter what the underlying distribution. And while I'm as critical as the next math guy when it comes to how supposed professionals abuse statistics (at this point, it's something of a requirement :-), normal distributions are often assumed because the defacto assumption is that the underlying distribution is binomial. Binomial distributions, of course, can be skewed. But again, their sample averages cannot.

The Black Swan guy has much to answer for in disseminating bad information amongst the general public (basically, all that's really happening is that a very small number and a very large number are multiplied together to one of "reasonable" size. Then dealing with that number - and it's associated cost, surprise - is handwaved away by pointing to the very small probability of the event it's associated with actually occurring! That's it. That's Taleb's entire thesis in a nutshell.)

366:

heteromeles@364:I'd say, rather, that capitalism enabled it.

I think we're reaching agreement here. I'd say that world populations were pretty stable and limited by the carrying capacity of the land in the preindustrial age. There were a few deviations, like the collapse of the Maya which I've heard has to do with deforestation, but the overall population was stable even if the particular makeup of the population changed with each new wave of conquest.

With the industrial revolution and subsequent increases in technology, the carrying capacity of the land became (at least temporarily) much greater, and population has expanded ever since 1800 or so. Since technology tends to take the form of capital, capitalism and technology tend to rise together. I might go so far as to say that capitalism in a preindustrial economy would look much like late feudalism.

The experience of Communist Europe tends to argue against the view that rejecting capitalism without rejecting technology reduces our species' expansionist tendencies and the associated environmental degradation.

367:

ScentOfViolets:
The Black Swan guy has much to answer for in disseminating bad information amongst the general public (basically, all that's really happening is that a very small number and a very large number are multiplied together to one of "reasonable" size. Then dealing with that number - and it's associated cost, surprise - is handwaved away by pointing to the very small probability of the event it's associated with actually occurring! That's it. That's Taleb's entire thesis in a nutshell.)

Well, several effects. One, something like a psychological relative risk = (likelyhood x impact) x likelyhood calculation as you suggest. Underweighting pshychology. Two, a phychological (likelyhood very small) = 0 effect. Discounting psychology. Three, underinvestigation of risk factors beyond the immediate historical record. I do information technology reliability engineering a lot, and mistaking historical reliability for future dependability is a classic and pervasive error. Four, things out of left field that nobody really predicts.

People are good at short term risk assessment and very bad at long term risk assessment, and the "unskilled and unaware of it" effect is in play and made worse by being good at a nearby skill...

368:

The Central Limit theorem guarantees that the sample average distribution will be normal no matter what the underlying distribution.

The central limit theorem applies to the mean of a sufficiently large number of independent variables. If the variables are not independent, it doesn't apply. In real markets, this usually happens in a crash, as poor performance by the market undermines everyone's confidence in the market at once and everyone tries to sell. It has long been observed that during a crash all correlations go to one.

369:
The central limit theorem applies to the mean of a sufficiently large number of independent variables.

This makes no sense as stated. Remember, even for a process as simple as the flip of a coin, the observed distribution of heads approaches the normal distribution at the limit. Somehow I don't think you meant that "sufficiently large" means "one". Do you by any chance mean "trials" when you say "variables"? Your other statements are also hard for me to interpret.

370:
People are good at short term risk assessment and very bad at long term risk assessment, and the "unskilled and unaware of it" effect is in play and made worse by being good at a nearby skill...

Given the large number of operators who just happened to benefit from underestimating long term risks, say not fully funding pension plans, or insurance companies not funding proper coverage of flood insurance, well, let's just say I'm a little skeptical.

How long till we get to the point where some kid breaks a window and excuses himself with bland mea culpas about the underlying defects of his risk model and the hitherto unsuspected fat tail. Of which he had no idea of course ;-)

371:

The key word is "independent". What I mean is that it doesn't work if the outcome of each coin flip depends on the outcome of a previous coin flip, or if all depend on something else.

Real markets tend to be characterized by a mix of calm times and turbulent times. In calm times, everybody is doing their own thing and market movements can be modeled reasonably well with a normal distribution. When markets move quickly, they're moving on news, and that news gets reinforced by the news that the market is moving fast. Since investors are influencing each other, the normal statistical distribution goes out the window. Generally, this happens fastest when everyone is running for the exits.

By the probability distribution that characterizes calm times, the Flash Crash or the crash of 1987 are absurdly improbable, but in actual practice market crashes happen once or twice a decade. Statistics-based Value at Risk (VAR) methods work well in calm times and fail catastrophically in turbulent times.

372:
The key word is "independent". What I mean is that it doesn't work if the outcome of each coin flip depends on the outcome of a previous coin flip, or if all depend on something else.

Jay, coin flips are independent trials. Do you understand the difference? You made a claim about a sufficiently large number of independent variables. As I've already pointed out (and just a little bit of research will confirm if you don't believe me) "sufficiently large" just happens to be "one".

Your more general claim isn't true either; what you're looking for in this case turns out to be not "independent" but "conditionally independent".

Unless you have specific questions, I don't want to waste any more time on this subthread; my original point is that "fat tails" nonsense is for the most part bunkum[1] - worse, bunkum all too often used in the service of excusing financial malpractice.

[1]Some of Nissan's claims about fat tails are true. But he has this problem that the evidence for power laws (where his claims would have relevance) are weak to nonexistent. Otherwise, his claims are too general to be anything more than psychological special pleading.

373:

Keep in mind that I am replying to Jay's suggestion that effective birth control is a recent phenomenon and that humans are likely to develop memes against using it, and that historical birthrates are unreliable because poor nutrition led to frequent miscarriages. We don't actually know that the Romans had a problem keeping the birthrate up; we do have a lot of moralistic rhetoric about family sizes and population decline but its fairly evidence-free. We don't know whether the population of Italy was rising or falling when Gaius Gracchus was tribune, or whether Augustus ruled about 7 or about 14 million Italians. Similarly, whether the poor nutrition of 19th century Italians was due to changes in diet or a shortage of food, skeletal evidence suggests that it should have suppressed their fertility more than the Roman diet did Roman fertility.

374:

The things I got from The Black Swan were the following:

--many probabilities are calculated on the assumption of a bell curve, when there's no evidence that the real probability looks anything like a bell curve. One example are the one-in-a-century storms that we now get every year or two now. The problem is that someone calculated storm sizes and occurrences, found the average and SD for that distribution (e.g. storms of size X occur every Y years), and used that to project rare, damaging events. We can deal with the mathematical problem of not having a big enough sample to calculate those rare events, but the bigger problem is that such a model assumes that storms have a normal distribution in an unchanging climate, and these assumptions are problematic.


--In terms of market behavior models, Taleb points out that in fact the models based on normal statistics drastically under-predict extreme events, to the point of uselessness.

--Another point is how good we are at post facto explanations of the archetypal black swans. I'll use one of his examples: Bill Gates, the richest man when Taleb wrote the book. One might think that one could become very rich by precisely emulating Bill Gates. The problem is, by definition, someone has got to be the richest man on the world. While we can safely assume that any man who is that rich is some sort of financial genius, we don't know how much luck played a role in his being at #1 at some point and not, say at #23 or #123.

Yes, I happen to disagree strongly with you about Taleb. While I don't think he's entirely correct about everything, I think that he makes a lot of good points.

375:

Independent trials *are* independent variables: they are the special case where independent random variables have identical distributions.

376:

You can replace the word "variables" with the word "trials" in my statement with no loss of meaning. The outcome of a coin flip can be considered a variable. More relevantly to financial markets, a buy or sell order can be considered a variable (or a trial, if you prefer), and the price of the security is determined by the distribution of buy and sell orders.

More generally, when buy and sell orders are behaving independently of each other, the central limit theorem holds. When significant numbers of people place buy or sell orders based on recent market movements (which is to say, based on recent buy and sell orders), the variables become dependent and the central limit theorem fails.

378:

Sorry - Independant variables are the number of parameters which can take up different states during a single trial.

Independant trials are a number of tests, during each of which one or more variables may be held in a fixed state, or be varied.

379:

Good points, although it takes a better propagandist than I would have expected from the later Romans to start arguing about low birth rates without at least subjective evidence of few children around.

Otherwise, a technical quibble: I think we're on better standing with saying that pellagra was caused by a diet heavy on polenta (aka cornmeal mush). The problem is that cornmeal without nixtamalization is so low in niacin that, without some source of niacin in the diet, the people get pellagra. This was a problem both in Italy and in the American South. Note that, in Roman and Medieval times, polenta was made with barley, not maize. Simply switching maize for barley will make a diet less healthy.

380:

Variables don't have to be one-dimensional! As far as I can see, every independent trial under the same conditions is just a sample from an underlying distribution - it can't be anything *but* this - and is therefore synymous with "random variable" in the probability theory sense.

(In which sense, if you systematically change conditions from one test to another then they aren't independent any more, because the system is no longer memoryless.)

381:

For the purposes of the Central Limit Theorem, we're talking about statistical independence, which means that the value of any variable or the outcome of any trial does not influence the value of any other variable/trial. Coin flips and dice rolls are statistically independent, if done right. Card draws from the same deck are not quite independent; if one player draws a king, the probablilty of the next player drawing a king go down from (4/52) to (3/51).

382:
Independent trials *are* independent variables: they are the special case where independent random variables have identical distributions.

John, I think you have some definitions mixed up. Let me quote the wiki on the central limit theorem:

The central limit theorem has a number of variants. In its common form, the random variables must be identically distributed.

I suspect that what you're thinking of are Bernoulli trials, in which case you can say that binomial distributions can be decomposed into n distinct Bernoulli trial where each trial has the same probability of success. This however is a special case which by no means generalizes to all distributions.

I'm getting very close to my usenet quota of useless argument at this point, so consider this my last word unless you have a question as opposed to a disagreement - I teach this stuff for a living :-)

383:

Sigh. Jay, I'm not going to talk about this with you anymore because this is just so much disagreement that's not going to change anyone's mind (usenet is soooo last century). You're perfectly free to feel that you're right and I'm wrong, and I don't particularly care.

If you have questions - questions, mind you and not more argument - I'll be happy to answer them. Otherwise, I won't bother to respond.

384:
Sorry - Independant variables are the number of parameters which can take up different states during a single trial.
Independant trials are a number of tests, during each of which one or more variables may be held in a fixed state, or be varied.

Yes, that's pretty much it, except for a few special cases where you can decompose a distribution in a certain way. From the wiki:

What is defined above is independence of events. In this section we treat independence of random variables. If X is a real-valued random variable and a is a number then the event X ≤ a is the set of outcomes whose corresponding value of X is less than or equal to a. Since these are sets of outcomes that have probabilities, it makes sense to refer to events of this sort being independent of other events of this sort.
Two random variables X and Y are independent if and only if for every a and b, the events {X ≤ a} and {Y ≤ b} are independent events as defined above.

And that's it for me; I have to teach a section of probability and statistics yet again this semester (I think this will make it five times in a row I've been tapped now.)

385:

I wouldn't say propaganda as much as lack of evidence (reliable and comprehensive censi), lack of tools for evaluating that evidence (the science of statistics), and a profound belief that everything was better in the good old days. When you imagine politics in the age of the Gracchi, imagine the current British debate about immigration and economic inequality in a world where nobody knew how many immigrants there were and how much wealth the elite were swallowing up. In late antiquity you had a lot of bad things happening at once, and its hard to figure out which affected the population the most. Back to the OP, Imperial Rome might be one interesting model for an urban society with little privacy ...

386:

Without playing StatWonk for an evening...

ScentOfViolets:
[1]Some of Nissan's claims about fat tails are true. But he has this problem that the evidence for power laws (where his claims would have relevance) are weak to nonexistent. Otherwise, his claims are too general to be anything more than psychological special pleading.

We're talking about human perception and response to risk events and risk assessment. Psychological special pleading is pretty much the point, once you grasp some basic statistics...

387:
We're talking about human perception and response to risk events and risk assessment. Psychological special pleading is pretty much the point, once you grasp some basic statistics...

You know, if we're talking about excusing some everyday Joe buying a house on a floodplain and then taking out less than the optimal amount of insurance the strength of "psychological special pleading", I don't have much of a problem with that. In fact, I'm on record for watering down the high school algebra requirement and replacing it with a stats requirement for just that reason.

What really kills me - the bit where I first jumped in on this subthread - is when "elite experts" justify their absurdly high pay because of those 'leet analytical skills that few possess and fewer master ... and then refuse to take the hit when their 'leet decisions come back to bite them on the basis of that "psychological special pleading".

Not cool. Especially when all those innocent "mistakes" just happened to net them huge amounts of money time after time rather than a more plausible distribution of financial pain.

I guess one of the reasons I'm so angry on this one is that I'm still basically that teenage techno-optimist who believes in capitalism because of all that price-signalling bushwah theory, the techno-wonkery that allegedly makes it superior to a demand-style economy :-(

388:

Fair enough. I'm often surprised at how difficult it can be to communicate; people get hung up at strange points.

Good luck with the teaching. The last time I had to teach was in grad school. I found myself wishing all the students would get hit by a bus, which I interpreted as a sign that pedagogy wasn't for me.

389:

Fair enough! Clearly this kind of knowledge decays over time, so apologies for the confusion on my part.

5 times in a row? Ouch. You could always do a terrible job of teaching, and then you probably wouldn't get stuck with it next year?

390:

Archaeological evidence doesn't show any sign of a falling birthrate - in fact, it matches actuarial tables for modern developing countries. Similarly, there's not much evidence for a great wave of physical migrations actually happening during the volkerwanderung, and a lot of the military history of the time is implausible logistically.

I personally like Erik Lund's argument that what happened was ethnogenesis - it wasn't that there was a shortage of people, it was just that there was a shortage of people who wanted to be Romans. Something more like the end of the Soviet Union than the end of Nazi Germany, if you like.

given that the archaeologists also found that post-Romans were taller than Romans, it's very difficult to argue they were wrong.

of course, this raises the question as to why everybody insisted on being wrong about it for 2000 years, and especially for 100 years after the beginning of scientific archaeology...

391:

The low-power communication problem is something that I have been working hard trying to solve. I agree that RFID, or rather RFID-like, technology will play a key-role in the ubiquitous computing dream. But really, all this does is move the power-burden away from the computer to some other source (like the streetlight in your example).

We've recently built a device that transmits 96 Mbit/s at extremely low power levels using carefully controlled reflections (essentially an RF mirror that reflects back changes in signal amplitude and signal phase, independently). I think this type of "transmitter" (it technically speaking does not transmit anything) could eventually be scaled to THz (visible light, i.e. streetlight) technology, but the THz tech needs to mature some before we get there. Either way, there is some exciting stuff happening right now (as there always is, I guess).

I enjoyed reading this article as giving me some motivation to keep going! There's a lot you can do with a microwatt, we just have to keep exploring!

392:

Evolution doesn't proceed in a nice linear direction; rather, it conducts a drunkard's walk through the phase space of viable mutations, with a selection filter (die-offs) constraining one side of the graph.

It finally occurred to me what the disconnect here is.

Evolution is mainly a numbers game. There's no telling when the "selection filter" will send a plague or a war your way, so the best chance at long-term survival comes from as many offspring as you can feed.

In the absence of sufficient *differential* infant or juvenile mortality to offset the difference, a population that reproduces more than its neighbors will have its heritable traits become more common in successive generations.

In this respect, evolution is fairly predictable. The more offspring an organism has, the more likely it is that some will survive to have offspring of their own.

The view of evolution you have seems to be skewed by ideology

The nature of evolution speaks to what humanity is and what it is becoming. Nobody is unbiased about such things.

Of course, I'm pushing 40 and you're pushing 50. As far as I know, neither of us has kids. So that's pretty much that for the two of us, long-term survival wise.

393:

The more offspring an organism has, the more likely it is that some will survive to have offspring of their own.

A rather simplistic statement that needs 'all other things being equal' appended to it, as otherwise we'd be knee deep in cod, what with their millions of eggs each female each spawning.

Large numbers of offspring do not, in the wider world, necessarily mean an evolutionary advantage. Mammals and birds tend to follow a different path, that of quality rather than quantity.

394:

"Will we next create false gods to rule over us? How proud we have become, and how blind." - Sister Miriam Godwinson, "We Must Dissent"

(kudos to anyone who gets the reference)

395:

I can imagine the "cloud" would be the new computing paradigm. You computing hardware that you carried would simply be a terminal to access the cloud. What that means is,moors law may not exactly end,just change a bit. The computing hardware itself may not increase in power anymore,but since it will be reliable and last. long time the computing power available per person still increases. The increase continues until there is no more room to put computers. If you think about it,the increase in TOTAL computing power increases linearly. However,the power available to each person may not. If the amount USED does not scale with the amount available then to those who DO need more will have disproportionately more available to them.

Specials

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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on August 2, 2012 11:20 AM.

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