Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Productivity--but not mine, of course

Over a year ago, I see, I was writing stuff that I've said for years: that "productivity growth is a process of learning how to produce goods and services with less labor." And that's a question of

increasingly automatic production of the means of (increasingly automatic) production.

There's an obvious natural limit to that, namely 100% automatic production of the means of 100% automatic production, i.e. self-reproducing factories. This is my limited version of Kurzweil's Singularity. He goes far beyond that, he mingles it with nano-this and artificial-intelligence-that and general transhumanism in a most entertaining way. He may well be right, but for productivity concerns it doesn't much matter if the self-reproducing factories are the size of cells or the size of aircraft carriers. (It does make a difference in the sort of dangers you have to face and the sort of society you create, but not for productivity as such.)

And this past fall, there was a Scientific American 50-years-ago item that had an image which I remembered from childhood; it was an image of self-reproducing machines, aquatic ones. Hmm...I was four; I don't suppose I read Scientific American then, but it's likely that I came across that issue some years later. Or perhaps I read some science fiction based on it. I dunno, but I guess I've always assumed that productivity, in the sense of output value per input labor for a large range of kinds of output value, was headed towards infinity within my lifetime (except that, as I've said, I didn't actually expect the human race to last as long as it has.)

At any rate, though as a PhuDdy geek myself I have talked a lot about Moore's Law, maybe that's sloppy: what I might call the productivity-singularity doesn't necessarily even stay down with Moore's Law because it's more hyperbolic than exponential. I'm sure this is not an original thought, but I don't remember reading it anywhere; so it's probably wrong. But I don't see why. If you think of the productivity growth rate as the rate at which we learn to produce stuff automatically, then that's a rate at which we solve the remaining problems. Of course we can always think up new problems, and maybe we will, but hey, think about food, clothing, shelter, communication, transportation, energy. You may come up with wonderful improvements in food ad infinitum, you may enjoy putting your own labor into cooking, but some of us will be happy with "Tea, Earl Grey, hot!" from the replicator -- or the self-reproducing robot. Any given production problem will be solved, and once it is solved by relf-reproducing robots then it stays solved. (Until they take over, of course, and decide whether to keep us or not, but that's another thread altogether, where Bill Joy and Ray Kurzweil can argue forever.)

So I expect self-reproducing factories, whether desktops or submarines, to handle most of our production problems and I suppose I expect self-reproducing factories that produce solar-engine balloons (or something better) to indirectly supply our energy, and quite possibly extract carbon from the atmosphere, and so on. And I worry that all these productivities will also supply the opportunities for terrorism; I'm worried about too much "empowerment", not about too little.

Every few months, it seems that the RepRap project is significantly closer to a replicator; and this month I see Cornell has an Open-source Replicator project:

The Altair 8800, introduced in the early 1970s, was the first computer you could build at home from a kit. It was crude, didn't do much, but many historians would say that it launched the desktop computer revolution. Hod Lipson, Cornell assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, thinks a little machine he calls a Fab@Home may have the same impact.
Well, I think he might be right. (And the Altair was a bit more than twenty doublings ago. But maybe I should stop thinking in Moore's Law terms.)

But the economics profession is still doing its productivity-growth projections, as I noted in the aforecited post a year back, in a linear way. That does make productivity exponential, doubling in a couple of generations, assuming that some magical productivity-growth pixie-dust parameter will keep it growing at the average rate it's been growing at. And this doesn't make sense at all.

Just for the fun of it, I go back to my grandfather's Economics text (Shorey Peterson of the University of Michigan, publishers Henry Holt and Co., NY, 1949.) And he does talk about technology, but it is not so much an information structure for him: he's thinking about increasing specialization on the one hand and increasing capital goods on the other, but he's certainly not thinking about factories reproducing themselves. Well, actually he's concerned throughout with Capitalism and Collectivism;

With respect to the development of productive power and its efficient use, socialists have their arguments, but it is here that the defenders of capitalism can be most emphatic. The sensational progress in production of the last two centuries has been achieved through a private capitalism that, broadly, has been competitive and free of government restraint. It remains to be seen whether state industry, as in Russia, will be more than imitative in its development of methods...
and so on. Yes, it's fun, and I wish he were still around, but I think that the arguments he laid out for undergraduate consumption in 1949 have mostly been settled. And I should probably produce some code.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Exercise, Diet, Self-experimentation

Today I weighed 179; two days ago I weighed 177; at this rate, I'll be over 300 pounds by Christmas. Oh, well.

I was a skinny six-footer back in 1971, and decided to make heavy use of the weight room at St. John's College of Santa Fe. I remember I weighed in the upper 160s and bench-pressed 180 when I started as a banquet waiter (and set-up guy) at the Santa Fe Hilton Inn, a while later. My weight, but not strength, very gradually rose as I went on through graduate school and the first few years of being an asst prof of geekery, so when I stopped teaching in the early 1990s, I'd weighed within a couple of pounds of 183 for several years. (I know that, because I was routinely teaching simplistic statistics and modeling with spreadsheets, and a starting questionnaire included weight and height -- along with questions about how many of your classmates will refuse to answer this honestly even though the identifying questions are separated from these. It's fun to be able to ask simple questions like "Look at this table comparing means, medians, and modes for the past few years; the means and medians are quite stable, but the modal height jumps by several inches and then jumps back. Why?")

That lower-180s weight stayed put through the next ten years, even though my occasional exercise got serious again in early 1996, when I learned that we'd be having a late-life child, more than 20 years after our first. I remember when it hit me that I was going to be old for this kid...of course it has been a long time since I could carry my family (wife and two small children) upstairs, but I remembered taking her big sister to boarding school for fall 1995 and finding two young ladies, one of them my 15-year-old, greeting one another in the doorway I needed to get through, so I hugged them both and set them down out of the way. Would I be able to do that at age 60? Would it matter? I wasn't sure -- I can't help being a relatively old dad, but I didn't want to be an old and feeble dad. So I started to run on a regular basis. When my ankle gave way, I started low-impact stair-climbing, on actual stairs. My current routine is nothing for an athlete, but it's what I can make myself do: three times a week I do forty sit-ups, forty pushups, twenty minutes trotting up and downstairs for a total of 900-something feet up and the same down, and then twenty chin-ups or pull-ups on a doorway chinning bar. (Palm outward on odd-numbered days, like today.) Today my ankle did not feel good, so I used the cross-trainer for twenty minutes instead; same workout, even more boring, but zero-impact instead of low impact.

Curiously, no matter what I did gradually building up this routine in the late nineties and early naughties, and no matter how my diet changed, my weight stayed in the low 180s -- until two years ago (I was at fifty sit-ups and push-ups, twenty-five chin-ups) the doorway chinning bar came apart from my failure to do a routine check on the bolts, and I had to stop for a while. My weight rose to the upper 180s, for the first time ever. I actually wrote down "190" on a life-insurance form, which wasn't quite true but I told myself it soon would be. Then I resumed and my weight came back down -- to the lower 180s.

Meanwhile, I had read about a psychology professor's very strange diet (and a self-experimentation program that it came from) on a statistics blog I like, and then again on the economics blog which had, I think, originally recommended the statistics blog. Then it was discussed at the Freakonomics blog, which isn't as interesting but I did like the book so I've stayed subscribed to the blog. And I kept thinking about the diet, which I called the Mary Poppins diet because Roberts was claiming that a spoonful of sugar (or several, every day) could actually make you lose weight. I wasn't worried about the weight, now that I was back to the low 180s, but I was interested in the diet. So I tried it -- and found myself a couple of months later in the upper 170s, for the first time in at least 20 years. It really was as if my body had been at one setpoint and now had shifted to a new one.

So I tried larger doses; no further effect. I switched from sugar water to oil; still no further change. I dunno, but I am reasonably confident that this is not a placebo effect; I have many times expected changes that didn't happen. Indeed, the whole history of the diet industry suggests to me that long-term placebo effects just don't play a major role: people believe, and belief doesn't work.

So, this morning after exercise (and therefore an hour after coffee) I downed a shot glass of reasonably-flavorless walnut oil (high in omega-3, it seems; it's a bit more than two tablespoons).

And then I went out and shoveled snow, so my wife and our 10-year-old daughter could go to the mall on this particular vacation day.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Cooling the Planet, and Excuse Slips from War

Back in November 2005, I commented on Long Run Global Warming and Other Things I Don't Worry About, saying that long before 2100 we'll be able to turn the heat up or down as we wish, e.g. with a solar shade at the Lagrangian point L1 which could just stop the light or could redirect it via Fresnel lens. I am thoroughly unsurprised to find that this particular suggestion had been made long before; Technology Review reports that

But in 1989, James Early of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory noted the harbingers of global warming and proposed deflecting a measure of sunlight with a "space shade" located at Lagrangian Point L1--an orbit 1.5 million kilometers up, where Earth's gravity and that of the Sun are balanced so an object can remain stationary relative to both bodies. How big a shield was Early thinking about? One 2,000 kilometers in diameter and about 10 microns thick, with a weight of about 100 megatons under Earth's gravity. Early's shield would have been either opaque or else transparent in the form of a Fresnel lens...

Of course, the nanotube sheets I mentioned would make that easier (though I'm not sure how thin you can make a Fresnel lens; I think that thickness is irrelevant as long as the bands defining reflection and transmission are the right diameters, but I haven't actually passed a test on those equations since sophomore physics in Buenos Aires, back in 1970.) The current Technology Review isn't really talking about Early's work, it's talking about a plan to put dust (well, little bits of diatomaceous earth) in the stratosphere. That could work, but I still think that my Solar Silver Bullet will (in a couple of decades; maybe one) be better: we will be able to put half-silvered hydrogen balloons in the stratosphere with Stirling engines at the focal points of the half-silvering, and the balloons will collect solar energy (in the form of hydrogen, probably, to be compressed and sent to ground level) rather than just passively blocking it. Probably we'll have something still better, something that I haven't thought of, but I think we'll have something at least that good. (Maybe the balloons will store the energy in the form of ammonia or aluminum; maybe they'll be gigantic, and will beam it down to central collection points...maybe they'll be in space after all. But they will be able to collect power as well as block it.) So when Tom Barnett columnizes that "We didn't leave the Stone Age because we ran out of stones, and we won't leave the Oil Age because we've run out of oil." I basically agree; the price of oil is likely to rise quite a bit as we find replacements, but the replacements exist and will be cheaper in the end, we will not be running out. And I've got to admit my own vulnerability to his central charge that

Given our love of technology, it's no surprise that science, our modern god-machine, is viewed as our most likely salvation and/or curse: the right new gizmo renders this entire fight unnecessary or some looming disaster makes it entirely pointless.

The trouble is, that new gizmos do empower people both good and bad, and they do increase connectivity both good and bad. Therefore, they do good things but also they make terrorists more powerful and bring them close up, and that's what I've been describing as our Long War problem with a multi-part solution. Of course Barnett is not concerned with me; I'm not an important audience. He's concerned with (and replying to) the people who want an "excuse slip" from the war, and want to base it on technology. And as usual, mostly I agree.

But Barnett sees himself as a Grand Strategist who thinks across decades; I don't really believe him, because I see him as missing the central role of Moore's Law. Hmmm.