Thursday, April 21, 2016

Friday Thinking 22 April 2016

Hello all – Friday Thinking is a humble curation of my foraging in the digital environment. My purpose is to pick interesting pieces, based on my own curiosity (and the curiosity of the many interesting people I follow), about developments in some key domains (work, organization, social-economy, intelligence, domestication of DNA, energy, etc.)  that suggest we are in the midst of a change in the conditions of change - a phase-transition. That tomorrow will be radically unlike yesterday.

Many thanks to those who enjoy this.
In the 21st Century curiosity will SKILL the cat.


“Faster sharing is part of an open science movement changing biology. Instead of keeping results under wraps for a year waiting for a big Nature paper, biologists have started to follow the lead of physicists, who are popping papers onto “pre-print” servers so everyone can have a look and offer feedback.”

The Scientific Swap Meet Behind the Gene-Editing Boom

“The industrial approach to leadership places a heavy emphasis on the formulation of intentions and plans and then communicating them as action points to be implemented by others. The starting point for change then involves leaders conceiving a picture of the future that is somewhat different from the picture of the present.

There is a different approach to this need, which is made possible through the Internet, cooperative platforms and new social technologies. The question asked is: “How can more people participate in ways that things develop and change over time?”

The strategic logic is temporal rather than spatial. When following a spatial metaphor, there is a territory that can be explored and understood by the leaders, but in a temporal logic the territory is seen as being under continuous development and formation by the exploration itself. “It is impossible to map an area that changes with every step the explorer takes.”

People inhabit a complex world of emergence, uncertainty and continuous change. Corporate life is improvising and learning together. It is an ongoing continuous exploration, a movement that is open-ended and always incomplete.

Leadership is communication. The leaders, people worth following, raise bottom up. There is always going to be hierarchies, but hierarchies in network architectures are dynamic, contextual heterarchies. In fact, this is the only way that there can be leaders in democratic systems. But we need what complexity scientists call enabling constraints, the new rules. This is what algorithms can do for us in four areas: (1) volume and (2) value of contributions, (3) reputation of contributors and (4) diversity of thinking.”

Esko Kilpi - Network leadership

“So pervasive has neoliberalism become that we seldom even recognise it as an ideology. We appear to accept the proposition that this utopian, millenarian faith describes a neutral force; a kind of biological law, like Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the philosophy arose as a conscious attempt to reshape human life and shift the locus of power.

Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counter-productive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.

We internalise and reproduce its creeds. The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that may have helped to secure it. The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances.”

George Monbiot - Neoliberalism: ideology at the root of all our problems

I wonder why this approach can’t be implemented in cities - everywhere? Why must we be kidnapped by incumbent telephone-cable companies so they can continue to ‘rent-seek’ by making bandwidth and access artificially scarce.

RS Fiber: Fertile Fields for New Rural Internet Cooperative

Tired of Waiting: Farmers Build Their Own Fiber-Optic Co-op
21st century farms require 21st century connectivity. Denied access by telephone and cable companies, they created a new model.
A new trend is emerging in rural communities throughout the United States: Fiber-to-the-Farm. Tired of waiting for high-quality Internet access from big companies, farmers are building it themselves.

Communities in and around Minnesota’s rural Sibley County are going from worst to best after building a wireless and fiber-optic cooperative. While federal programs throw billions of dollars to deliver last year’s Internet speeds, local programs are building the network of the future.

In “RS Fiber: Fertile Fields for New Rural Internet Cooperative,” the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) and Next Century Cities documents a groundbreaking new model that’s sprung up in South Central Minnesota that can be replicated all over the nation, in the thousands of cities and counties that have been refused service by big cable and telecom corporations.  
The report can be accessed here

This is a wonderful compilation of some great descriptions and definitions of what a ‘hacker’ is - in these comments are the brief history of the birth and rise of the ‘hacker ethic’. This is worth the read for anyone interested in a comprehensive understanding of this term and the motivations driving ‘hackers’.
“A hacker approaches everything in the world for what it can be, not what it is, and colors outside and over the lines.
A hacker is someone who loves to make stuff and is fascinated by complex systems, which they enjoy creating, extending and subverting.”

What is a Hacker?

Genius? Vandal? Wizard? Trickster? Problem-Solver?Maker? Thief? Here’s how some special people define that radioactive word.
It’s not that hackers used to be good, and they somehow turned bad. No; it’s that hackers have always been human, and, at first, they just didn’t have many real temptations. Nowadays they do. After three ardent decades of digitizing the planet, alluring opportunities abound to fleece the ignorant and helpless.

To be fair, it’s actually the off-shored, ultra-wealthy oligarchs who set this example of global misbehavior — black-hat hackers didn’t invent all that. But they get it, and boy do they every deploy it.

It took a while to drift from the free, bright, open-ended enthusiasm of early hacking to the frank, amoral nihilism of contemporary cybercrime, cyberwar, and cyber-spying. However, thirty years was long enough. The hacker ethic could never control its unethical dark side. Ethics can also be hacked.

In depression-ridden, warlike 2014, we’re getting the “hackers” we deserve. The situation’s bad because our times are bad. However, the clock still ticks. One of these days, it’ll be 2034.

Hacking and the domestication of DNA? Here’s where they converge - soon the home-genome-genetics kit has a corresponding mail-order catalogue.

The Scientific Swap Meet Behind the Gene-Editing Boom

How one nonprofit’s mailroom is making tinkering with genomes as easy as shopping at Amazon.
The gene-editing technology called CRISPR is probably the fastest-spreading technology in the history of biology.

Here’s one reason why: each weekday at 8 a.m. at the offices of AddGene in Cambridge, Massachusetts, interns start loading UPS packages containing the raw DNA material needed for gene-editing, sending it as far away as Zimbabwe and Croatia.

AddGene is a nonprofit that exists to help scientists share their DNA inventions. Think of it as an for biological parts. Anyone can submit one—or order someone else’s part for $65.

Easy access to gene-editing technology is what has allowed labs everywhere to get into the game. Last year, there were more than 1,300 scientific papers on CRISPR, and it’s been used to do everything from curing muscular dystrophy in mice to making super-muscled beagles.   

And remember those Chinese scientists who set off an ethical firestorm by editing human embryos? They got their ingredients by mail order from AddGene, too.
AddGene was started in 2004 by a graduate student, Melina Fan, who got tired of trying to beg and barter for key materials she needed. Why not create a central repository to which everyone can contribute?

Here’s how it works: the language of DNA is a code, but it’s physical. It’s made up of strings of chemical bases labelled A, G, C, and T. To ship it, AddGene mails out vials of E. coli bacteria with the valuable bits of DNA spliced into mini-chromosomes, known as plasmids.

There are about 45,000 plasmids to choose from. Want to make a mouse’s brain cells react to light? That’s plasmid number 20298, deposited by Karl Deisseroth, the famed co-inventor of optogenetics at Stanford. Need to turn off every gene in a fruit fly, one by one? That’s number 64750.  

This is another amazing advance in the human-computer evolution - we are technology. This is still very early days but will continue to advance rapidly.

Seeing my hand move for the first time was really exciting

After being paralysed six years ago, Ian Burkhart is now able to swipe a credit card and play the computer game Guitar Hero, thanks to a device that uses machine learning to read his thoughts and stimulate his arm
I’m the first quadriplegic person in the world to use my own thoughts to control my own arm. It’s a pretty neat experience.

It was about six years ago that I had an accident where I broke my neck from diving into the ocean. I was diagnosed as a quadriplegic then. Being told you’ll never be able to walk again or use your hands when you’re 19 years old takes a big adjustment.

I have a little bit of movement in my shoulders, but nothing from the elbows down.
Right now in my everyday life I need a lot of assistance, even for little things, such as getting out of bed and into my wheelchair, brushing my teeth or cutting up my food. But I kind of always knew that there would be something that would benefit my life, with the way that technology and medicine were progressing.

When the Ohio State team approached me as a possible candidate for their research study, I got really excited. Initially, they were just doing some testing on my muscles. Then it came down to the million dollar question – did I want to undergo brain surgery that I did not need?
And here’s a 2 min video of this.

Change in the conditions of change - maybe that’s a definition of ‘the singularity’ at least the non-AI-accelerated one. One of the tectonic plates of this change are the historically unprecedented demographic changes that we are in the very midst of. Here’s a great article from Pew Research - that is worth the read.
“Young adult Millennials are much more likely than their elders to hold liberal views on many political and social issues, though they are also less likely to identify with either political party: 50% call themselves political independents
They are the most racially diverse generation in American history: 43% of Millennial adults are non-white, the highest share of any generation. And while they are on track to be the most educated generation to date, this achievement has come at a cost: Many Millennials are struggling with student debt. In addition to the weak labor market of recent years, student debt is perhaps one reason why many are still living at home. Despite these troubles, Millennials are the most upbeat about their financial future: More than eight-in-ten say they either currently have enough money to lead the lives they want or expect to in the future.”

10 demographic trends that are shaping the U.S. and the world

At its core, demography is the act of counting people. But it’s also important to study the forces that are driving population change, and measure how these changes have an impact on people’s lives. For example, how does immigration affect U.S. population growth? Do Americans feel that children are better off with a parent at home, in an era when most women work? How is the rise of the young-adult Millennial generation contributing to the rise of Americans with no stated religion? For this year’s Population Association of America (PAA) annual meeting, here is a roundup of some of Pew Research Center’s recent demography-related findings that tell us how America and the world are changing.

This is a nice summary blog post by Henry Mintzberg.
“Each of these species requires its own kind of structure, its own style of management, very different power relationships, and so on. I have no space to go into all of this here—an accessible reference, mentioned at the end, does that. Let me just add that these forms don’t just HAVE different cultures; they ARE different cultures. Walk into different ones and you can almost smell the differences.”

Species of Organizations

Our vocabulary for understanding organizations is really quite primitive. We use the word organization the way biologists use the word mammal, except that we can’t get past it. Imagine if this was the case in biology.

...the way we discuss organizations remains primitive. So let me offer my framework of four basic species of organizations.
The Machine Organization
The Professional Organization
The Entrepreneurial Organization
The Project Organization
Yet if you read the popular literature on organizations with these species in mind, you will find that the vast majority of it is about machine organizations, without ever admitting or even realizing it. The bulk of this is about how to become more machine-like: get better systems, do more formal planning, measure everything in sight, tighten up, become more “efficient”. And the rest is about how to compensate for the worst effects of this species—how to make the workers happier, or at least less miserable. Harry Braverman has referred to the human relations (now human resource) people who try to do this as “the maintenance crew for the human machinery.”

In discussing species - this is an excellent discussion of our looming dilemma - related to the domestication of DNA and human responsibility for the planet as a work of art.

The Extinction Invention

A genetic technology that can kill off mosquito species could eradicate malaria. But is it too risky to ever use?
Malaria kills half a million people each year, mostly children in tropical Africa. The price tag for eradicating the disease is estimated at more than $100 billion over 15 years. To do it, you’d need bed nets for everyone, tens of thousands of crates of antimalaria drugs, and millions of gallons of insecticides. But it would take more than stuff. You’d need things the poorest countries in the world don’t have, like strong governments, purchasing power, and functioning public health systems. So malaria keeps killing.

But what if, instead, you needed only a bucket full of mosquitoes?

A gene drive is an artificial “selfish” gene capable of forcing itself into 99 percent of an organism’s offspring instead of the usual half. And because this particular gene causes female mosquitoes to become sterile, within about 11 generations—or in about one year—its spread would doom any population of mosquitoes. If released into the field, the technology could bring about the extinction of malaria mosquitoes and, possibly, cease transmission of the disease.

The technology creates risks that society has never before had to consider. Would removing mosquitoes upset ecosystems? Are we risking a genetic epidemic if the selfish DNA should jump the species barrier to affect other insects? Most perplexing: what country, agency, or individual has the right to change nature in ways that could affect the entire globe? “This is why I hate the malaria problem,” says Kevin Esvelt, an MIT biologist who has been warning about the unprecedented dilemmas gene drives will create. “It makes the technology so tempting to use.”

These questions need answers soon. Only 12 months ago, gene-drive technology was still a promising theory. Not anymore. Rapid-fire technical advances are occurring thanks to CRISPR, a new gene-editing technique.

This is a fascinating idea - a fractal like scaling of microbial profiles - an individual, a household, a city a country.

Germ Study Finds Each City Has Its Own Microbe Signature

Toronto has the CN Tower, San Diego its parks and waterfronts, Flagstaff its pine-covered mountains. Each city is distinguished by its landmarks, weather and people.

And, it seems, by their germs.
Researchers who were looking for the best way to measure germs in an office were surprised to find that it's easier to tell apart samples of microbes based on what city they were taken from than any other factor.

This week there seems to be lots of press on solar energy.

Solar is now cheaper than coal, says India energy minister

Energy minister says power realities are changing fast, predicting a fast uptake in solar energy despite concerns over baseload and storage
India is on track to soar past a goal to deploy more than 100 gigawatts of solar power by 2022, the country’s energy minister Piyush Goyal said on Monday.

“I think a new coal plant would give you costlier power than a solar plant,” he said.
“Of course there are challenges of 24/7 power. We accept all of that – but we have been able to come up with a solar-based long term vision that is not subsidy based.”
In the past financial year, nearly 20GW of solar capacity has been approved by the government, with a further 14GW planned through 2016 according to the Union Budget.

Capital costs have fallen 60% in the past four years and could drop a further 40% reports Deutsche Bank, which said in a report last year solar investment would overtake coal by 2020.

Solar energy prices hit a new record low in January with the auction of 420 megawatts in Rajasthan at 4.34 rupees a kilowatt-hour. In comparison coal tariffs range between 3-5 rupees/kWh.

The transition in energy paradigm seems to happening ever faster - and likely to continue at this pace despite and/or because of the increase in oil prices. Oil prices rise that help oil producers - but hits consumers and solar is zero-marginal cost for energy.

The solar industry is creating jobs 20x faster than the rest of the US economy!

Now twice as many solar workers as coal workers
A few years ago, the words "green jobs" were on everybody's lips. Yet now that they're actually here and growing fast, it seems like the issue has fallen off the radar screen. That's too bad, because last year the number of solar workers passed the number of coal miners, and this year there are now twice as many solar jobs as coal mining jobs! At 173,807, the number of solar jobs in the US in 2014 is actually closing in on oil and gas extraction jobs (213.1k jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). That's also a 21.8% rate of growth since the 2013 numbers, and growth for the next 12 months is expected to be above 20% again.

That's 80,000 jobs created just since 2010! And solar is still a relatively small part of the U.S. energy supply (though growing fast). When the industry matures, and other countries start adopting the clean source of energy too, we can expect it to be significantly bigger than it is now. Remember, the U.S. could easily power itself 100x over with just solar power!

By comparison, US businesses have grown the number of jobs at 1.1% in the past year, making the growth in solar jobs around 20x faster!

And solar isn’t even near being optimum yet - the images and video in this article are worth the view.

IBM solar collector magnifies sun by 2,000x (without cooking itself), costs 3x less than similar systems

Cleverly combining solar PV with solar thermal to reach 80% conversion efficiency
Concentrating the sun's ray onto solar photovoltaic (PV) modules requires walking the fine line between optimizing power output and not literally melting your very expensive super-high-efficiency solar cells. A team led by IBM Research seems to have found a way to push back the line. They have created a High Concentration PhotoVoltaic Thermal (HCPVT) system that is capable of concentrating the power of 2,000 suns onto hundreds of triple junction photovoltaic chips measuring a single square centimeter each (they even claim to be able to keep temperatures safe up to 5,000x). The trick is that each solar PV cell is cooled using technology developed for supercomputers; microchannels inspired by blood vessels but only a few tens of micrometers in width pipe liquid coolant in and extract heat "10 times more effective than with passive air cooling."

How long will it take for this to spread?

Germany Builds A Solar City That Produces Four Times More Energy Than It Consumes

We have known cities to be great power-guzzlers, having a huge appetite for consuming electricity to power its homes and buildings. To generate electricity for such cities through renewable sources like solar becomes a difficult task given the vast amount of area required to place the solar panels. But a city in the heart of Germany has achieved something more incredible. It not only has made itself self-sufficient in energy, but in fact has become a net producer of energy – all thanks to a localized approach for adopting solar power.

The Sonnenschiff and Solarsiedlung cities located in Freiburg, Germany are modern, planned habitations that were worked upon with solar power in mind. Literally meaning Solar Ship and Solar Village, the Sonnenschiff and Solarsiedlung cities were specifically designed and built to be solar cities, balancing size, accessibility, green space, and solar exposure. Each of the fifty-two homes along with some commercial buildings is fitted with large rooftop solar panels that double-up as sun shades. The panels are perfectly aligned to point in the right direction of the sun, and the buildings follow the Passivhaus standards of green building technology.

Here is another signal of the looming shift in energy geo-politics - and toward the smart-city.

San Francisco just became the first big US city to require solar panels on new buildings

The new rules don't go into effect until January 1, 2017, after which any construction that falls under the state law to include solar-ready space will have to actually install it.

If a developer isn't happy about adding in solar, Wiener has a backup plan. He's also introducing legislation that would allow people to add a living roof like a garden on top instead of the solar installation.

And maybe we can already see the impact.

UK emissions lowest since the 1920s as renewables overtake coal

UK CO2 emissions fell to their lowest level since the 1920s last year as renewables generated more electricity than coal for the first time ever, provisional statistics from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) show.

The figures, showing a 4.1% reduction in CO2 emissions between 2014 and 2015, confirm Carbon Brief analysis published last month, which estimated a 4.3% fall. DECC also reports a 3.3% reduction in UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2015.
Carbon Brief has extracted the key figures from the latest DECC data.
Last year’s reduction in emissions was almost entirely down to a continuing collapse in coal burning, particularly in the electricity sector. Coal-fired power generation in 2015 fell to its lowest level since the 1950s, down 24% since 2014 and 47% since 2012. EnAppSys, an energy service provider, says coal generation is the lowest since 1951.

I remember in the mid-2000s the meme was peak-oil - now the meme is morphing into ‘peak-oil-demand’. It seems that the next decade or two will be a playing out of the ‘end-game’ of oil and coal - with the aim of how to make the most money before the advent of ubiquitous, cheap energy.
“...producers are coming to realize that oil under the ground might soon be less valuable than oil produced and sold in the coming years. This dramatic shift in expectations is changing the operating environment for the future of oil and gas.
Countries with large, low-cost reserves, such as Saudi Arabia, are rethinking strategies and will have to think twice about delaying production or development of reserves, in case they are unable to monetize those reserves over the long run.”

What happens when demand for oil peaks?

Since the First Industrial Revolution, oil and gas have played a pivotal role in economic transformation and mobility. But now, with the prospects that major economies like the United States, China and European nations will try to shift away from oil, producers are coming to realize that their oil reserves under the ground – sometimes referred to as “black gold” – could become less valuable in the future than they are today.

Of the four scenarios for the future of the industry outlined in a new set of white papers from the Global Agenda on the Future of Oil and Gas, three of them envisage this type of world. Factors such as technological advancements, the falling price of batteries that power electric vehicles, and a post-COP21 push for cleaner energy could even drive oil use below 80 million barrels a day by 2040 – 15% lower than today.

This is totally fascinating - a new form of propulsion - that has had quite a bit of controversy - may now have a theoretical explanation.

The Curious Link Between the Fly-By Anomaly and the “Impossible” EmDrive Thruster

The same theory that explains the puzzling fly-by anomalies could also explain how the controversial EmDrive produces thrust.
About 10 years ago, a little-known aerospace engineer called Roger Shawyer made an extraordinary claim. Take a truncated cone, he said, bounce microwaves back and forth inside it and the result will be a thrust toward the narrow end of the cone. Voila … a revolutionary thruster capable of sending spacecraft to the planets and beyond. Shawyer called it the EmDrive.

Shawyer’s announcement was hugely controversial. The system converts one type of energy into kinetic energy, and there are plenty of other systems that do something similar. In that respect it is unremarkable.

The conceptual problems arise with momentum. The system’s total momentum increases as it begins to move. But where does this momentum come from? Shawyer had no convincing explanation, and critics said this was an obvious violation of the law of conservation of momentum.

Since then, something interesting has happened. Various teams around the world have begun to build their own versions of the EmDrive and put them through their paces. And to everyone’s surprise, they’ve begun to reproduce Shawyer’s results. The EmDrive, it seems, really does produce thrust.

In 2012, a Chinese team said it had measured a thrust produced by its own version of the EmDrive. In 2014, an American scientist built an EmDrive and persuaded NASA to test it with positive results. And last year, NASA conducted its own tests in a vacuum to rule out movement of air as the origin of the force. NASA, too, confirmed that the EmDrive produces a thrust. In total, six independent experiments have backed Shawyer’s original claims.

For Fun
This is a very interesting game and game idea - great for everyone - and full of amazing evolvability. A blend of the literary, the creative, the social - sparking creative imagination and science-journalistic observation.

Elegy for a Dead World -- A Game About Writing

In Elegy for a Dead World, you travel to distant planets and create stories about the people who once lived there. Elegy's a game for PC, Mac, and Linux, available on Steam

Could the future of work involve playing games for the greater good?
“Sherson’s team got around 300 people to play this level a total of 12,000 times on a volunteer-research platform called ScienceAtHome. The researchers then fed the human solutions into a computer for further refinement. Not only were more than half of the human-inspired solutions more efficient than those produced by just computer algorithms, but the two best hybrid strategies were faster than what the quickest computers had been able to achieve working alone. “I was completely amazed when we saw the results,” says Sherson.
What abilities humans bring to the mix is unclear. Although an interest in physics seems to correlate with ability in the game, success did not correlate with years spent studying quantum physics. Sherson suggests that the superior human strategies stem from the mind’s ability to capture the essence of a problem. Quantum concepts may seem less bizarre to people in a game than they do in other contexts, because it is an environment in which they expect rules to be broken, adds Sabrina Maniscalco of the Turku Centre for Quantum Physics in Finland, who runs an event aimed at making games that might benefit quantum physics.”

Human mind excels at quantum-physics computer game

Revelation could have implications for how scientists approach quantum problems.
With particles that can exist in two places at once, the quantum world is often considered to be inherently counterintuitive. Now, a group of scientists has created a video game that follows the laws of quantum mechanics, but at which non-physicist human players excel (J. J. W. H. Sørensenet al. Nature 532, 210–213; 2016).

One implication of the team’s results is that efforts to use computer games to crowdsource solutions to science problems can now be extended to quantum physics. In the past, such gamification projects have been limited to challenging but less mind-bending problems, such as protein folding.

But the work also suggests that the human mind might be more capable of grasping the rules of the bizarre quantum world than previously thought — a revelation that could have implications for how scientists approach quantum physics, says Jacob Sherson, a quantum physicist at Aarhus University, Denmark, who led the study. “Maybe we should allow some of that normal intuition to enter our problem solving,” he says. Scientists studying quantum foundations have also long said that finding a more intuitive approach to quantum physics could help to crack outstanding puzzles, although many doubted that this would ever be possible without new theories.

The game, called Quantum Moves, is based on a real problem in quantum computing: how fast a laser can move an atom between wells in an egg-box-like structure without changing the energy of the atom, which is in a delicate quantum state. In the quantum world, speed and energy are a trade-off limited by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, so the trick is to find the sweet spot where the transition from one place to another is as fast as possible without disturbing the quantum state. Endless possible combinations of movement and timing exist, and scientists have designed computer algorithms to try to solve the problem.
If anyone is interested in playing this game - here’s the site

Quantum Moves

Play Quantum Moves and contribute to cutting-edge physics research. Your task is to find clever ways of manipulating and moving atoms. By playing, you help physicists in the epic task of building a real quantum computer. This is your chance to push the boundaries of science!

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