The Great Filter Rorschach 

Fermi wondered why we have not met aliens. He recreates an equation which we are still just figuring out some of the constants. Part of it wonders how many civilizations wipe out themselves. This Great Filter makes people concerned any time life on our planet is threatened.

During the Cold War, the concern was a nuclear war would wipe out human civilization or even all life. Olivia Butler’s Xenogenesis series is a little dated as it concerns this period. I heard about the Fermi Paradox back then. A distant second was an asteroid impact. Lately a popular concern is global warming being the Great Filter. Artificial Intelligence seems a close second.

Whatever is our current social concern for how we are going to kill off ourselves seems to be what we think killed off other intelligent species. We wonder how they could have survived it or why they died off in failing to.

At least these Great Filter concerns get us discussing how humanity can survive. Though, I wish we are further along in space travel as we need to spread out in the universe to survive.

Should we rebuild after hurricanes?

Over the years, I have thought about owning a house a Mexico Beach, FL. However, I knew that hurricanes are inevitable. So, there is no way I would own one on the beach because it would likely get destroyed by a hurricane. However, I felt better about a house well back from the beach, like a fifth of a mile. Michael’s storm surge leveled even half of the houses that far back.

Over a decade ago, I had a conversation with a coworker about this question. I think where I landed was a buffer zone. I would love the Florida coast to be a series of state parks. Towns can start a tenth of a mile back. The state parks could build sea walls and encourage the development of sand dunes over them. Hopefully, such a plan would better protect them from a storm surge.

The trick though is Mexico Beach is built on a barrier island. The town has not expanded much inland because bay behind the island has mostly filled in to create wetlands. Building there probably means more flooding from rain. So people would go from flooding from storm surges during the occasional hurricane to flooding nearly yearly. So, they would have to still build higher much like New Orleans.

Also, as the sea levels rise, places like Mexico Beach will need to move inland as well.

A Rant on Complexity and Stock Markets

Zoran Perkov is one of the heroes portrayed in Flash Boys. Someone liked my review of the book, which made me re-read the review and setup a Google alert on him. This video was one of the first hits on a search for him. His thing is:

Failure is feature of complex systems.

Basically when you build a complex system, you risk failure. Complexity allows us to more easily adapt to customer need. Complexity also increases the risk of novel failure. Things we did not even know could go wrong (unknown unknowns) probably will. The trick is, responding to them.

Something he mentioned I want to study more of:

Ashby’s The Law of Requisite Variety: The larger the variety of actions available to a control system, the larger the variety of perturbations it is able to compensate.

Basically, we should have mechanisms in place which act to reduce the effect of performance spikes. The more options we have to deal with these events, the better we will be able to handle them. The smaller the toolkit, the less capable we are to respond.

The delivery is not that great, but the ideas behind it is something I’ve agreed with for a long time.

TED Talk: The magic of Fibonacci numbers

I first encountered the Fibonacci number series around 10 or 11 taking a class at the university offered to kids to make them excited about learning. In addition to math, I took rocket building, speed reading, and others. About this time I hated school, but I really enjoyed these because those teaching it always approached the material like Arthur Benjamin in this video: Look at this amazing thing!

TED Talk: Jennings v Watson

Deep Blue versus Kasparov was an pivotal moment for me. At the time I was playing lots of chess on the computer. (And usually losing.) So the prospect the best player in the world cannot beat a computer was a depressing prospect.  Maybe it is a sign of how much I had matured (or immatured) to think a computer could beat someone better than me at trivia. Maybe it has something to do with routinely using computers to compile things for me in minutes that would take me days.

If you have not seen anything about IBM’s Watson, then start with NOVA’s Smartest Machine on Earth. Even better, here is Day 1 of Jeopardy.

If the below video does not play, then try Ken Jennings: Watson, Jeopardy and me, the obsolete know-it-all.

Dodos, Maltese Falcons, and the Art of Obsession

Kudos to Lindsey for recommending this. I had watched it before he said something, but I was surprised that I had not posted it on this blog because…





I’m not this obsessive when I get interested in something. Like Adam though, I never feel I know have or done enough.

MythBusters co-host Adam Savage gives a fast-paced presentation on personal obsessions. Savage explains how his fascination with dodo bird skeletons eventually led to his designing of an exact bronze-cast replica of the titular statue from the 1941 Humphrey Bogart movie, “The Maltese Falcon.”

50 Years of Americans in Orbit

Space Ship One Fifty years ago today, John Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth. For some reason, Alan Shepard, Jr. being the first American in space did not impress me as a kid. Going up and coming back down did not count. Achieving orbit was realer space. Glenn was the American response to Yuri Gagarin being the first human to orbit the Earth on 12 April 1961.

Well. To me Glenn was the hero.

Cyborg Stephen Hawking

Stephen Hawking missed his 70th birthday party this past weekend. He was not feeling well. There has been quite a bit floating around the Internet about how he as survived decades after getting an estimated months to live. Even Intel talked up how they are working on a way to help him speak faster.

Speaking late Sunday on the sidelines of a conference celebrating Hawking’s 70th birthday in the English city of Cambridge, Intel Chief Technology Officer Justin Rattner said his company had a team in England to explore ways to help the celebrity scientist communicate more quickly.

There is a job available assisting him with the computer.

Given research into thought powered devices, I would really like to see a cyborg Stephen Hawking controlling things digitally. There are some cool bio feedback techniques to control cursors and pick out items from a screen. From what I understand, picking out the word he wants with where he looks from choices is getting slower from missing. Bypassing the eyes which used to be fast and going straight to the brain through electrodes could be very cool.

The problem is… Electrodes are invasive, often heal very slowly, and get infections. Too bad helmets which read our brain waves a la Macross proved much less effective. (Accuracy is paramount and anything sitting on a head is likely to miss.)

Elemental Nuclear Threats

I was sequestered in a war room for a month during which the Japanese earthquake and tsunami happened as well as the meltdown of the nuclear power plant at Fukushima. We projected on the wall video of the stories over and over.

It just occurred to me each of the Empedocles classical elements (air, fire, earth, and water) have threatened a nuclear power plant this year. True, only the one event resulted in a melt down. Still, it is interesting how a bit of everything has been a problem.

  • Air: “A nuclear power plant in Alabama that lost power after violent thunderstorms and tornadoes on Wednesday will be down for days and possibly weeks but the backup power systems worked as designed to prevent a partial meltdown like the disaster in Japan.”
  • Fire: “A raging wildfire in Los Alamos on Monday briefly entered the property of the nation’s preeminent nuclear facility, Los Alamos National Laboratory, a vast complex that houses research laboratories and a plutonium facility.”
  • Earth: Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. (Okay technically, seawater from the tsunami is what caused the worst problems.)
  • Water: “The head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been dispatched to a nuclear power plant in Fort Calhoun, Neb., where a berm collapsed Sunday…. The breach allowed Missouri River flood waters to reach containment buildings and transformers and forcing the shutdown of electrical power.”

Before you ask, no, the classical elements are not fighting back against the modern elements (Uranium and Plutonium).

Margin of Error

The Trojan Nuclear Plant on the Banks of the Columbia River Is Under Construction by Portland General Electric Environmentalists Strongly Oppose the Project 05/1973
Trojan Nuclear Plant from the U.S. National Archives

The New York Times article “Nuclear Agency Tells a Concerned Congress That U.S. Industry Remains Safe” had a curious statement from Gregory Jaczko, of the chair of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, in front of Congress.

“U.S. nuclear facilities remain safe,” Mr. Jaczko told two House Energy and Commerce subcommittees, which had originally planned to consider his agency’s budget for the coming fiscal year at the hearing. “We will continue to work to maintain that level of protection.” Reactors are designed to meet the challenges of “the most severe natural phenomena historically reported,” he said. For earthquakes, that means any that occur within 200 miles of the reactor, and a margin of error, he said.

Jaczko sounds similar to the planning the Japanese did. Earlier I read a Wired Science article, Japan Quake Epicenter Was in Unexpected Location, which said the Japanese looked to patterns in the past to determine the future. Therefore they expected a strong earthquake in the south where the Phillipine plate is overdue for a massive event.

Japan has been expecting and preparing for the “big one” for more than 30 years. But the magnitude-9.0 temblor that struck March 11 — the world’s fourth biggest quake since 1900 — wasn’t the catastrophe the island nation had in mind. The epicenter of the quake was about 80 miles east of the city of Sendai, in a strip of ocean crust previously thought unlikely to be capable of unleashing such energy. “This area has a long history of earthquakes, but [the Sendai earthquake] doesn’t fit the pattern,” says Harold Tobin, a marine geophysicist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The expectation was high for a 7.5, but that’s a hundred times smaller than a 9.0.”

It sounds to me like, if in the United States the most powerful earthquake in the area of a nuclear reactor was a 7.5 magnitude event, then a 9.0 could surprise those running it. Given a 9.0 is a hundred times more powerful and a broken reactor so dangerous, I would hope the preparedness is for the larger even where seemingly unlikely.

The Haiti quake was “expected“. However the Chilean, both New Zealand, and the Sendai earthquakes have all sounded unexpected. Of course, living on the Ring of Fire, how can any earthquake be unexpected?