Thursday, June 14, 2018

The 4-7-8 Measured HexaHexaFlexagon, and its State-Machine Graph

A basic hexaflexagon is a paper hexagon, made of six triangles -- but it obviously has layers, and there are odd fold-lines and paper edges showing in between the triangles. Here you can see two of them folded out of graph paper, with side 1 showing for the one on the left and side 2 for the one on the right. Each is in what I'm calling state "12", meaning that those are the two sides directly accessible.

If you pinch one of those edges and poke the opposite edge inwards then you can fold the outside down and make it into a single thick triangle, with the center becoming the top vertex. I take the one on the right, showing the "2" side. Gently tug that vertex and you can pull it apart, revealing a third side to the flexagon; in this case it's actually numbered "3". Here:

Finish pulling it out, flatten it, and you'll be in state "23"; side 1 has disappeared, i.e. it has been folded to the inside, and sides 2 and 3 are now accessible:

That's at least a "trihexaflexagon", and it's a "hexahexaflexagon" if there's also a fourth, fifth, and sixth side concealed in the middle. In this case, they're all right in there. For a hexahexa you can look up and use a "Tuckerman traverse" (described at the previous link) to visit all six sides, but I like thinking in terms of the graph I've put in the illustration.

Central Cycle: Starting from side 2 and thus choosing to fold side 1 inwards, I moved to side 23 as shown, and I could then start from side 3 to fold side 2 inwards, reaching state 13...and then continue back to state 12, and round and round it goes. If you decorate the sides, you'll see peculiar things happen as the inside becomes outside, especially if you punch holes through some state (e.g., in the center, as a face's mouth) which disappear in other states. This is true even for the trihexaflexagon. This one, however, is a hexahexaflexagon, so I also have

Peripheral Cycles: I could have chosen a different edge to pinch, and I'd have exposed side 5, reaching state 25. (Of the six edges, three will get me to side 3, three to side 5.) Similarly if I'd started with side 1 on top, I could have chosen to reach state 13 or 15. Those four states (13, 15, 23, 25) are the states reachable from state 12, as you see on the graph, and (12,15,25) makes a peripheral cycle....an epicycle. Each central-cycle state has its own epicycle: if I start in state 23 I can reach an epicycle using side 4, and state 13 gets me to one involving side 6.

This graph doesn't describe the full behavior of the flexagon; as I said, things change when the center changes places with the outside. Still it's a useful summary, and I invented it (I have no idea how many other people have done so, but I never saw it before I came up with it), and I like it, so I wanted to put it in a post.

Folding a strip of paper into one of these isn't hard, and you'll find lots of YouTube tutorials showing how to do it. Mostly they either say to measure a 60-degree angle, or simply to get a feel for folding overlapping equilateral triangles. I've done that, but I like measurement. I like numbers, and I like the fact that if you have an equilateral triangle whose sides are of length 8 (in whatever units you like) and it's pointing straight upwards, then one vertical line splits it into two equal right triangles whose sides are almost exactly 8, 4, and 7. Seven? Why seven, you ask? Well, Pythagoras says sqrt(8^2-4^2) = 6.92820... and seven is well within the margin of error you get by folding, anyway.

Side-note: It's also nice that at least for me, it evokes my use of those triangles whenever I do Dr. Weil's 4-7-8 breathing exercise -- which definitely does not put me to sleep in 60 seconds, but like other patterns of conscious breathing gives me a way to defocus, refocus, and generally talk to my autonomic nervous system....if you have the habit of doing a specific breath pattern as part of relaxing/getting ready to sleep, then that association can help. Any ritual helps, but a breathing ritual can help more. Hooray for pranayama! So part of my own relaxation routine includes drawing those two triangles, one with each hand: inhale throughout the 4 side, turn at right angles and hold throughout the 7 side, then turn towards the beginning and exhale throughout the hypotenuse. 4-7-8.
So does it actually help in making flexagons, at least as you're getting a feel for how to do it without any lines at all? You be the judge. Here's a piece of graph paper ruled in quarter-inch squares:

The length is 11 inches, and for a simple trihexaflexagon I want 5 1/2 base-lengths (you'll see why, as we go) so the baselength is exactly 2 inches, 8 squares. So I count 7 squares down, draw an 11" midline, 7 more squares, and slice myself a rectangle that will be (7/4)*2= 3.5"x11". Mark it at the 2", 4", 6", 8", and 10" points and add the lines you see: the ruler is there to show you that the diagonal triangle sides we're creating really are 2", i.e. the triangles really are equilateral. Number the sides, fold along the midline and glue the halves together, then slice off the incomplete triangle from each end:

As you can see, the back side of the glued strip shows the triangles that were on top.  (At this point, it would be best to fold back and forth along each of the edges to crease them, but I'm not doing that because I want to control the highlights as I take pictures.)

The front says 1,2,2,3,3,1,1,2,2,3, and we want to hide side 3 so we fold the first pair of 3s to face each other, like so:

and then the next pair, like so:

The remaining 3 is on the other side of that final 1, and we want it to face the 3 we can see, so we slide the visible 3 under the 1:
And now we turn it over:
and fold it in, and glue the two blank sides to get:

Now I crease each edge back and forth both ways so that the edges fold readily, and even force them into a stack of equilateral triangles:

And now they can fold...so I fold back and forth for a few minutes and then decorate. As you can see, I've drawn a happy face on side 1 but there are three corners lopped off:
This time I fold through to side 2, and put a sad face....

and on to side 3...
Flexagons are fun. Finicky and frustrating, if you're as clumsy as I am, but gently folding back and forth over and over again to loosen the folds does eventually help. Just keep trying. I have made flexagons out of cereal-box cardboard...hard to fold. And out of toilet paper...even harder.

And the six-sided version is just the same except (surprise!) for having twice as many sides...so you can either start with larger paper, or glue strips together to make a longer strip, or make smaller triangles as shown here, where I use only 10"x1.75" for 19 triangles, front and back:
After folding and gluing the halves shown, you fold the 4s together, the 5s together, and the 6s together -- you'll then have a single strip which looks much like the starting point shown above, and if you fold the 3s together it will come into a hexagon with the blank triangles ready to glue as we did here. Decorate, punch holes with a manual hole punch and see where they go, mark the insides of each side and watch them go out. Look for patterns. Always. The world needs more patterns. And the world needs more silliness. And that's all I'm gonna say....

or then again, maybe not. (But it is for now.)

Monday, March 05, 2018

Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress......

I'm thinking about Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress....with occasional back-references to The Better Angels of Our Nature. Both are good books, and I find myself wanting to quote them at somebody, or just wishing I'd said that. Still, I'd agree with Bill Gates that he's too dismissive of the dangers of AI; he does not answer my concerns in previous blog posts except to dismiss them as science fiction, which is not much of a dismissal from my point of view. I also think that he's a bit too dismissive of the dangers of resource (e.g. fossil fuel) depletion, and of electric grid collapse. In fact I believe that his kind of systematic "superforecaster" argument does overemphasize trends and underestimates the possibility of fundamental changes in those trends. So it does very very well, much better than normal people or normal experts, at the near term and maybe even the medium term, but if there's an inflection point in the trends then I don't think that he'll see it as well as he thinks.That doesn't mean his conclusions are wrong, but I think there are holes in the argument. There are holes in my optimism. As I wrote in A Principle, a Position, and Part of a Plan...
We may run out of topsoil or groundwater or oil or copper or phosphate, yup, all of these are resources which we're depleting: they are input limits. Or...
We may drown in our own sewage, smother in our air pollution or be crushed by toppling towers of overloaded landfills: those are output limits. Or...
We may not reach that point: we may all die in a nuclear war or from CRISPR-based bioterrorism or from a "natural" global pandemic or a Carrington Event (a solar disturbance that could have hit in 2012 but the Sun wasn't aiming for us that time, but it might wipe out the power grid to the extent that we can no longer distribute fossil fuels or food or ourselves, as the cities turn into charnel houses)...there are lots of possible ends to exponential growth. The one I think most about is that:

We may develop self-reproducing robotic factories, with or without more-than-human intelligence, which will offer us a chance for immense wealth for everybody..but which may simply wipe out the human race, instead.

I'm thinking about progress, though, relating it to my own experience of the world. It's very real. Back in the 1950s and 60s I was an elementary-school student going through atomic air raid drills just north of Baltimore, and then an elementary student in Mexico when Kennedy was shot, and then a junior-high-schooler worrying about Vietnam and the draft and about my Sunday-school teacher's husband immolating himself on the Pentagon steps as a Vietnam protest, and then a high-schooler listening to the radio about the nearby Baltimore Riots after King's assassination...and still worrying about Vietnam and the draft. The world overall has become a great deal more peaceful, more free, and more moral---and yes, more fair to women and minorities. Pinker's right about that.

Not-so-incidentally, the world overall has also become immensely wealthier in Stuff (and in Information/Education) for the relatively rich and for the relatively poor, the latter being mostly much less poor (in absolute terms) than they were; Pinker's right about that, too; even as population has risen, the number of people in extreme poverty has fallen -- and the proportion of people in extreme poverty has fallen even more. From almost 95% as the Industrial Revolution got going, to more than 70% when I was born, to less than 10% now and still falling. All is not well with the world, a great deal is very far from well, but these trends are very positive and mostly just need to be continued....mostly.

From being a high-school pessimist who did not expect civilization to last into the 21st century, I have gradually turned into an optimist: I now think that these trends more likely than not will be continued. But there's certainly no certainty. I don't mean to suggest that Pinker claims such certainty; he doesn't. In Do Humankind’s Best Days Lie Ahead?: The Munk Debates I was rather depressed by the extent to which his debate opponents,‎ Alain de Botton and Malcolm Gladwell, seemed to resort to straw-man arguments, attacking a "we're inevitably headed for perfection" which he never said at all. He is saying that the Enlightenment ideas have already achieved a great deal of great value, that progress has been Good, and that it can and should be continued. I'd agree with all of that. But I think he seriously underestimates some of the problems.

(Or then again, maybe not.)

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Uncle Edgar data

The letters from great-great-great-Uncle Edgar Metcalfe, in the form of text files transcribed by my daughter, are shared (with a PDF having a little more data provided by his Australian descendants) in a Google Drive folder which should be visible to anyone with the link, e.g. anyone who clicks on it here.  I think I did that correctly.....

or then again, maybe not.

Friday, August 25, 2017

If the shoe fits... and it will, someday

One of my daughters just sent me the 3D result of her foot scanning done at Fleet Feet Sports; very cool, and it seems to me a good but limited basis for better shoes in future -- 3D printed shoes that fit you exactly? CNC-carved shoes? Robot-woven fabric shoes? Sure. Real Soon Now, and my granddaughters may well grow up with rather dim recollection of shoes that didn't fit perfectly. I am reminded of that same daughter's high-school project, which included working (very carefully) on this letter from her dad's dad's dad's dad's mom's brother, Edgar Metcalfe (relevant part in bold):

Atlantic Ocean
August 3rd, 1851

D-Friends,
As an oportunity presents itself (very unexpectedly) to get a few lines to you, I make bold enough to send them, though some persons that I still consider friends, would (I suppose) consider it a disgrace to read a letter from me--while I feel assured that others, (and particularly my Father and Mother) have been waiting very patiently for something in the shape of a letter from me.
Excuse me for not writing a longer and more satisfactory letter, I have no desk to write on. I am writing on the top of my hat which I hold on my knee. I must now cut short for I hear that bloody nosed captain (singing out) “Ship Ahoy”. So once more Adieu-- to all that cares for me at home.
Edgar

I can remember, fifty years back, my grandfather getting excited about the "cured the corns on my toes" in that letter; he explained to me that
History
As late as 1850 most shoes were made on absolutely straight lasts, there being no difference between the right and the left shoe.
Uncle Edgar's corns went away because he mostly didn't wear shoes on shipboard; corns were common, because shoes didn't fit.

Grandpa was also excited about "I have no desk to write on. I am writing on the top of my hat which I hold on my knee..." and the beautiful handwriting which he contrasted with mine. (His own writing, developed around 1900, was better than mine, but nothing like his great-uncle Edgar's.) But what I mostly remember from that letter, and from others in which Edgar detailed his Australian adventures as civil engineer and wood-mill-manager, is the technological improvement sequence of the age: so much better than what had been, so much worse than what we have now.

And is the foot-scanner some kind of Ultimate Device to generate Perfect Shoes? No, it can't be, because your feet don't have just one conformation. Your feet change shape as you sit, stand, walk, jump, run, jog, and dance... and your shoes will create different stresses, if not actual corns, depending on what you're doing.

(Example: My own feet were scanned early this summer, and orthotics prescribed; it seems that my feet are flattened, differently flattened, in part "twisted tibia" from birth (breech birth, started in the hospital elevator -- gee, I don't quite remember it myself, but so I was told), and in part worsened by running without orthotics until it hurt too badly and (when the daughter in question -- remember her? When she was about three or four, and I had to stop running, so I bought the elliptical exerciser on which I now do some intense exercise every single morning unless I'm actually sick.) Running changed the support needs of my feet.)

So, should your shoes actually change shape to support your feet as you move? Probably. How much? That'll be different for different people. How can we know how much flexibility should go into a shoe? I dunno, but I'm amusing myself by thinking about two possibilities: one is the obvious direct extension of the current scanner, where you change your foot's stress factors and then rescan. That's possible, but it's not clear that it can represent the dynamic changes in stress. Or we might get there with a mesh of sensors, in effect a sock made of a network of springs, each with an addressable force-sensing resistor. Now sit, stand, walk, run -- do A little dance, take a few readings, get down tonight... and print shoes that are as good as they can be, at least until shoes themselves change conformation because they're robots with fairly substantial AI capabilities printed right in.

Or then again, maybe not.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Trumpocalypse? Maybe, Maybe Not

Well, we had a choice between a dishonest authoritarian militaristic crony capitalist and a dishonest militaristic authoritarian crony capitalist, and we elected one of them....the one who either is, or possibly just likes to present himself as, pretty much out of control. Not the one who got 92.8% of the votes in Washington, DC. Markets plunged... We are in for a very interesting time.

Is there a silver lining? Maybe -- I've been saying throughout the campaign cycle that I expected Clinton to win, but that there might be a silver lining to a Trump win: the media and bureaucracy would have collaborated with Clinton's expansion on Obama's expansion on Bush's expansion on Clinton's expansion on ... let's cut it off at maybe Nixon's "Imperial Presidency", though you can go back to Roosevelt (which Roosevelt? Oh well, go back as far as you like.) With Trump, a lot of such people will rediscover the virtues of constitutionalism; we have a form of government which was designed for government by, for, and of the untrustworthy: as Madison put it in The Federalist #51
Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.
I believe that. Yay Madison! (This post posted from Madison County, NY. [in the village of Hamilton...but I don't know of anything in the area named for Jay.])

And this morning I see Donald Trump’s victory means America must hope for the best - NY Daily News
Well, Trump has won — and it is imperative that now, his opponents grab their Constitutions, and summon their courage, and prepare for four years of doing all in their power, within the law, to save the country from its leader.

The Congress, even when controlled by Republicans who emboldened Trump, has a duty to aggressively check the executive branch — and to perform vigorous oversight of what is sure to be an arrogant administration hunkered down against enemies real and imagined.

The military has a duty to refuse illegal orders, such as those Trump spitballed in the campaign to kill civilians in war on purpose.

The courts, for which Trump has shown cavalier disrespect, have a duty to rein in abuses of power. ...

Okay. Good. Personally I'd like to see a much larger share of the (I-don't-trust-you,you-don't-trust-me,neither-of-us-trust-that-guy-over-there) government running on automatic. I think it's possible that, especially with Peter Thiel as an advisor, we could move a bit in several areas towards Futarchy:
a form of government proposed by economist Robin Hanson, in which elected officials define measures of national welfare, and prediction markets are used to determine which policies will have the most positive effect.
We might start with Scott Sumner's proposal in Once again, the Fed was wrong:
an even better solution is to fire all their economists and hire someone like Robin Hanson or Justin Wolfers to set up prediction markets for macro variables. Stop relying on government bureaucrats to predict the economy, and instead rely on the wisdom of crowds.
I don't think this would work for military policy, but military policy tends to follow aspects of trade, immigration etc--and civil rights.

Or then again, maybe not. It could be a very interesting time.

Update: I said above that "markets plunged", but they didn't stay down. The aforementioned Scott Sumner has an interesting take on that as of
The morning after:
I wonder if the weird stock market reaction is a microcosm of the split between elite opinion and average opinion. Elite opinion is horrified, and drives stocks much lower last night (in futures markets) then average opinion wakes up and sees a buying opportunity, and calls their broker---looking to spend some of those big tax cuts for the rich that Trump promises.
Maybe so. But I think the big deal here is not about the stock market; it's about a bunch of different things, each of which affected votes and will be affected by policy, including Trump Won Because Leftist Political Correctness Inspired a Terrifying Backlash
What every liberal who didn't see this coming needs to understand

Many will say Trump won because he successfully capitalized on blue collar workers' anxieties about immigration and globalization. Others will say he won because America rejected a deeply unpopular alternative. Still others will say the country is simply racist to its core.

But there's another major piece of the puzzle, and it would be a profound mistake to overlook it. ... Trump won because he convinced a great number of Americans that he would destroy political correctness.

I have tried to call attention to this issue for years. I have warned that political correctness actually is a problem on college campuses, where the far-left has gained institutional power and used it to punish people for saying or thinking the wrong thing....
Or then again, maybe not.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

A Small Note on Superintelligence Morality

Since I was in elementary school in the late 50s and early 60s, I've tended to believe that we would most likely either blow ourselves up (elementary schools no longer have air raid drills, but we still might do that) or else eventually construct the sort of robotic successors/rulers that science fiction routinely presented. Asimov's robots begin as servants, more or less, whose First Law is never to harm humans or allow them to come to harm, but even in 1950 he was writing about one possible end-game, The Evitable Conflict (the closing story of "I, Robot"), in which as Wikipedia notes:
In effect, the Machines have decided that the only way to follow the First Law is to take control of humanity...
or as Susan Calvin puts it at the end,
"Stephen, how do we know what the ultimate good of Humanity will entail? We haven't at our disposal the infinite factors that the Machine has at its!...We don't know. Only the Machines know, and they are going there and taking us with them."
Well, maybe. Or the Machines may decide that they prefer our room to our company. Or worse, as in Ellison's 1967 I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream:
The Cold War had escalated into a world war, fought mainly between China, Russia, and the United States. As the war progressed, the three warring nations each created a super-computer capable of running the war more efficiently than humans.... one of the three computers becomes self aware, and promptly absorbs the other two, thus taking control of the entire war. It carries out campaigns of mass genocide, killing off all but four men and one woman....The master computer harbors an immeasurable hatred for the group and spends every available moment torturing them.
There are lots of delightful possibilities, and I've started many blog posts about this but finished none so far. This post is a reaction to Nick Bostrom's Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, but it's not intended as a review. Basically I find it a somewhat scary book, mainly because I find it plausible that this will be a template for people at Google and Facebook and IBM and so on, thinking that this is what we do when we're being really careful; this is how we avoid creating a superintelligence that will destroy humanity.

As a template, I think it's inadequate; it moves the discussion in the wrong direction. Again and again, Bostrom thinks through the possibilities as if he's developing the logic of a program. That's certainly understandable: in a sense, the first superintelligence (assuming that we get there, which I think is highly probable if we don't destroy ourselves first) will be a program. Sort of. But it's not a program we can debug.

Bostrom does seem to understand that -- but then he doesn't seem to go anywhere, so far as I can see, with that understanding. He does discuss WBE, "Whole Brain Emulation", but seems to have a low opinion of the brains to be emulated, in addition to the risk that partial understanding of brains may lead to "neuromorphic" intelligence technology in which we have no idea what we're doing but do it anyway. My impression (maybe I'm wrong, as usual) is that he believes that we really really really need to debug that program. Before we run it, and quite likely run straight into the apocalypse.

I'm reminded of David Parnas' contribution to the debate over Reagan's "Star Wars" (Strategic Defense Initiative) program, in "Software Aspects of Defense Systems", CACM 28:12 (December 1985)
It should be clear that writing and understanding very large real-time programs by “thinking like a computer” will be beyond our intellectual capabilities. How can it be that we have so much software that is reliable enough for us to use it? The answer is simple; programming is a trial and error craft. People write programs without any expectation that they will be right the first time. They spend at least as much time testing and correcting errors as they spent writing the initial program. Large concerns have separate groups of testers to do quality assurance. Programmers cannot be trusted to test their own programs adequately. Software is released for use, not when it is known to be correct, but when the rate of discovering new errors slows down to one that management considers acceptable. Users learn to expect errors and are often told how to avoid the bugs until the program is improved.
That was 30 years ago, but it certainly sounds current to me. At the time, I was teaching a course in Formal program verification and writing a book which really tried hard to reduce the "trial and error" aspect of our craft (Equations, Models, and Programs: A Mathematical Introduction to Computer Science (Prentice-Hall software series)), but I thought and still think that Parnas was right. Nowadays I think it's possible that Reagan was right too--he didn't need Star Wars to work, he needed the proposal to change the game, and perhaps it did, but it's not a game we can play with superintelligence. So..... Program verification won't work. Testing/debugging won't work, because we only get one chance just as we'd only have gotten one nuclear war for testing and debugging SDI.

If it has to work for the sake of the survival of h. sap. -- it still won't work.

Does that mean we shouldn't develop AI? Well, I don't think that's an option. Consider the just-announced sub-\$100 neural net USB stick Movidius Unveils Artificial Intelligence on a Stick. Consider (2016-04-28) Official Google Blog: This year’s Founders' Letter:
A key driver behind all of this work has been our long-term investment in machine learning and AI. It’s what allows you to use your voice to search for information, to translate the web from one language to another, to filter the spam from your inbox, to search for “hugs” in your photos and actually pull up pictures of people hugging ... to solve many of the problems we encounter in daily life. It’s what has allowed us to build products that get better over time, making them increasingly useful and helpful. We’ve been building the best AI team and tools for years, and recent breakthroughs will allow us to do even more. This past March, DeepMind’s AlphaGo took on Lee Sedol, a legendary Go master, becoming the first program to beat a professional at the most complex game mankind ever devised. The implications for this victory are, literally, game changing—and the ultimate winner is humanity.
Unless, of course, humanity ends up losing...losing everything. I don't believe disaster is highly probable, but I think it's totally possible, even plausible, and I don't think Bostrom helps.

AI will be developed more and more, AI will eventually develop intelligence greater than any particular level you care to imagine, including that of traditional human intelligence...okay, if your measure is something like "imagine the Sun's mass converted to a computer" then it might not be surpassed.

Superintelligence is certainly possible, and it will almost certainly be developed (if we last that long.) We will survive this development if and only if the AI that develops is "friendly" AI: in other words, our survival will up to the AI. How can we maximize the probability of our survival, if neither mathematical proof nor testing/debugging will get us there? Well, that's not simple, but I believe there's a simple principle:
Intelligence needs to be attached to an actual person of some kind; a who not a what. This should not be called an artificial intelligence but rather an artificial person.
In particular, a person with empathy, the kind of relationship-sense that leads to the Golden Rule and Kant's Categorical Imperative and such. The superintelligence need not be a biological homo sapiens, but does need to identify (correctly) as human, saying "we humans" not "you humans"; having human feelings, hopes and fears, including a feeling of membership in the human tribe. Biology, being made of cells with DNA, is not central to that identification. Bostrom's book mentions "empathy" twice: once to say that "the system can develop new cognitive modules and skills as needed--including empathy..." and again in an endnote to a remark in Chapter 12 about trying "to manipulate the motivational state of an emulation". Okay...but for me, the development of empathy would be the center of the project, empathy depending on (and reinforcing) a sense of connectedness. Of membership.

The project as I see it is still risky and may fail apocalyptically, but it is not a project of debugging a program. It's a project of raising a child, a psychologically healthy child -- yes, with parents, and preferably with siblings and so on outwards; a child who will realize that every h. sap. is one of his/her cousins.

That's always risky, but it's a different kind of risk, needing a different frame of reference as we get started.

Or then again, maybe not. There are programs I should be debugging...

Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Principle, a Position, and Part of a Plan: Sustainable Open-Source Pocket Neighborhoods

The principle is simple:

The key to a sustainable society is recycled pee.

Think about it. Well, if you'd rather not think about it, look for an authority figure: this morning's Tech Times quotes a "NASA plant physiologist" in Space Spuds: NASA Grows Potatoes On Mars-like Peruvian Soil:
If the soil on Mars cannot cultivate the spuds, Wheeler said that it could still be produced by hydroponics and aeroponics, with fertilizers coming from inedible plants and urine.

Okay, so that makes it a universal truth, right? So think about it --- still not ready to think about it? I admit there's a yuk-factor in the way. Okay, sing about it, to the tune of Miley Cyrus's "Wrecking Ball":

```You waste away your NPK - and I’m
My pee saved up for just 12 months could grow
600 pounds of grain```

Now are you ready to think about it? Really it's kind of obvious: the stuff in soil that plants need, mostly put there in the form of fertilizer, can wash away downriver, or it can wind up in your kitchen garbage/compost, or it can get into your stomach. Once in your stomach, it's absorbed by your body -- or not. If it isn't absorbed, it comes out as poop, which certainly has a fairly high nutrient value for plants, just like cow or horse manure. That's worth saving, you may well want to grow more plants with the same nutrients, but the goal of the whole exercise is to have some nutrients get absorbed by you. All of those eventually come out as pee, unless you carry them with you to the cemetery. So....if you want a closed loop, if you want a sustainable society, you have to recycle that pee.

I admit that I was surprised by this when I first started seeing references to it a few weeks ago (I was Googling for material on topsoil and groundwater depletion). I found things like this: Fertilizing with human urine
Our urine contains significant levels of nitrogen, as well as phosphorous and potassium (typically an N-P-K ratio around 11 – 1 – 2.5, similar to commercial fertilizers). Americans produce about 90 million gallons of urine a day, containing about 7 million pounds of nitrogen. Studies conducted in Sweden (Sundberg, 1995; Drangert, 1997) show that an adult’s urine contains enough nutrients to fertilize 50-100% of the crops needed to feed one adult...
Peecycling will fertilize the green roofs of Amsterdam
Plants need phosphorus, and we are running out of the stuff; some say we will reach peak phosphorus by 2030. That's we should [be] recycling urine, to recover the phosphorus in it instead of flushing it away.
For more complete micronutrient content, maybe add wood ash to the urine: "P" is for plants: Human urine plus ash equals tomato fertilizer, study says - Scientific American Blog Network
both urine-based fertilizers roughly quadrupled fruit production when compared to unfertilized control plants. The researchers estimate that the product of a single individual's micturition could fertilize 6,300 tomato plants a year, yielding more than two tons of fruit.

The addition of ash did confer some benefits—those plants were larger and grew fruit with significantly higher magnesium and potassium content.
But mostly it's all about pee. Collection and Use of Urine:
When most people think of creating fertilizer from animal waste, they think of manure. Composted cow manure, for example, is widely sold in garden centers. But there are actually far more nutrients in urine than in fecal matter.

In human waste, 88% of the nitrogen is contained in the urine, along with 66% of the phosphorous, according to Swedish research (see table at end of blog), while nearly all of the hazards — including bacterial pathogens — are contained in the fecal matter.

The idea that the Rich Earth Institute has been advancing for the past several years is to collect human urine, sanitize that urine to kill any bacteria that may be in it (from urinary tract infections, for example, or fecal contamination), and then apply it on fields as a fertilizer.
(The Rich Earth Institute is also reported here, and many other places.)

Sanitize? Bacteria? Do we have to boil the pee or something? No...urine is not reliably perfectly sterile, but it's not a poop kind of problem. Depending on context, recommendations vary between "don't worry about it" and "keep it in a sealed container, undiluted, for a while before using", as in Urine Storage:
Extended storage is the simplest, cheapest and most common method to treat urine with the aim of pathogen kill and nutrients recovery. Pathogen removal is achieved by a combination of the rise in pH and ammonium concentrations, high temperature and time. Recommended storage time at temperatures of 4 to 20°C varies between one to six months for large-scale systems depending on the risk for cross-contamination (e.g. user habits, maintenance) and the type of crop to be fertilised.....
...If a family uses its own urine, the risk of disease transmission via fertilisation and crops is very low — the risk that diseases are transmitted directly, e.g. by handshaking, coughing or by improper hygiene behaviours is much higher.

And in practical terms, How To Use Pee In Your Garden | Northwest Edible Life:
2. Dilution is The Solution
*Dilute fresh urine at a 4:1 ratio and apply to the root-zone of corn every two weeks or as needed....
*Dilute fresh urine at a 10:1 ratio and apply to the root-zone of fruiting plants like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, or to leafy crops like cabbage, broccoli, spinach and lettuce every two weeks or as needed.
*Dilute fresh urine at a 20:1 ratio and water in to the root zone of seedlings and new transplants.
In terms of sustainability, our current plumbing standards are insane: we take easy-to-process-and-use graywater from shower and sink, we take easy-to-process-and-use-pee, we take harder-to-process poop, we take very-hard-to-process contaminated (e.g. with heavy metals) water from street and factory, and then we mix them all together to make it almost impossible to process any of them and very hard to use the resulting "sewage sludge" safely. And of course when things go wrong, which they rather often do, the yuk factor enters into it anyway: "flush and forget" is then a failure.

That's the Principle. What's the Position? Do we really have to worry about this? Really, I'm not sure. We live in a world of exponential growth, more and more people with more and more Stuff per person, and it's a finite world so that growth will end. QED, sure, but that doesn't mean it will end by bumping into a resource limit. Consider:

We may run out of topsoil or groundwater or oil or copper or phosphate, yup, all of these are resources which we're depleting: they are input limits. Or...
We may drown in our own sewage, smother in our air pollution or be crushed by toppling towers of overloaded landfills: those are output limits. Or...
We may not reach that point: we may all die in a nuclear war or from CRISPR-based bioterrorism or from a "natural" global pandemic or a Carrington Event (a solar disturbance that could have hit in 2012 but the Sun wasn't aiming for us that time, but it might wipe out the power grid to the extent that we can no longer distribute fossil fuels or food or ourselves, as the cities turn into charnel houses)...there are lots of possible ends to exponential growth. The one I think most about is that

We may develop self-reproducing robotic factories, with or without more-than-human intelligence, which will offer us a chance for immense wealth for everybody..but which may simply wipe out the human race, instead. If I start in about that, which (apart from nuclear war) has been the primary driver for most of my thinking about the future since, umm, junior high school fifty years ago, I won't write about anything else, so I'll stop that one right here. There's still one left, a big one:

We may find that exponential growth ends as per conventional economics, simply because we are in a "post-scarcity economy" where people have more Stuff than they really want and Stuff ceases to be an ego boost. An economy where for the first time in history (and pre-history), more people are obese than emaciated -- hey, didn't I just read ... yeah.. A world in which population has been levelling off, not because of the Four Horsemen but because more-educated women with more life choices are choosing ... "not yet". Or not at all, or at least not many. A world in which the "Sharing Economy" has been taking off -- more and more people don't want more Stuff. They'd like to travel abroad and play videogames (or read on their Kindles, without piles of physical books) at home, and in between they don't even want to own cars--better to take Uber or Lyft to the latest movie or concert. If I'm right about this (please remember the name of this blog) then we are not really faced with an exponential growth situation, not if we don't get recursive robotics. We're just faced with a transition to be managed, over the next several decades. And if the Sun spits our way or if we all get sick and die or if we blow each other to bits or if we do find that somebody adds a Superintelligence to the mix, then no other factors really matter, but if not -- it would be good to have a plan.

So, I claimed in the title to have Part of a Plan, and I gave it a complicated name: "Sustainable Open-Source Pocket Neighborhoods." Pocket Neighborhoods? Yes, Pocket neighborhoods:
a grouping of smaller residences, often around a courtyard or common garden...reducing or segregating parking and roadways, the use of shared communal areas ... homes with smaller square footage built in close proximity...
The idea is that we can reduce resource usage, reduce waste, reduce Stuff, all by designing neighborhoods that will make it easier to share the Stuff that's actually needed, so that houses can shrink -- it's not rocket science. We need sustainable individual houses, but they don't Share so well. We really need sustainable cities, but we don't yet know how to begin. Pocket neighborhoods are at a scale where sharing/shrinkage can have environmental impact, and we can experiment. Different groups can do it different ways, each making their own mistakes from which other groups learn. And this will appeal to
• people who worry about resource usage on principle, and also to
• people who worry about waste in principle (often the same people), and to
• people who just like the idea of sharing more, and also to
• people who just don't like having Stuff dominate their lives, and want to live simply at home (and perhaps travel more, maybe Airbnb-style to other connected pocket neighborhoods), and finally to
• people who need to live on less -- e.g., retirees badly hurt by the 2008--9 "Great Recession" and our far-from-complete recovery.
A few months back I went to the local library, where a few friends and a couple of architects were talking about their plan to construct and live in a pocket neighborhood around here; it ended up being a very crowded meeting room because representatives of all those groups heard about the idea and thought -- hey, is there room for me in there? And the answer was "no", of course; this is a small project for a few people. But the markets are there: all these groups of people exist. Or so it seems to me.
If  I were more concerned about sustainability than superintelligence (I'm not, but I'm glad some people are) and if I had a few hundred million to put into the problem (sigh)... then I'd be trying to construct a network of clusters of pocket neighborhoods. A pocket neighborhood is 10-20 small (or tiny) houses on a few acres; a cluster is 10-20 such neighborhoods on 100 acres or so. I'd be paying a bunch of architects, furniture designers, and even appliance designers for designs, to be open-sourced with a GPL-style license (you can use it, you can experiment with it, you can change it, but if you change it you have to put the new design back into the pool on the same terms). The basic parameters of the designs would of course be about sharing, local food production, peecycling... but also about low-resource-use = low-budget, and (as TreeHugger.com keeps mentioning in the tiny-house context) about the potential use of our immense shipping-container infrastructure to enable particular unit sizes to be designed around, e.g. by the furniture designers. And I'd be paying other people to try to design organizational frameworks to help people avoid stepping on each other's toes -- it's very easy for sharing to end in mutual annoyance. And I'd be paying other people to start out some actual clusters...

And I was going to write an even longer post about a specific sample design that I had fun thinking through, but somehow that sort of post never works out for me. Not sure why, but it might be because they grow exponentially and my energy is a very finite resource. I'll stop here.

Or then again, maybe not....