Saturday, January 30, 2010

Pumping Heat

For about twenty years, I've been talking about someday having geothermal heat instead of the oil I was burning in the basement. A few years ago, we (Peter Darby as contractor, and I as customer) applied for the appropriate permit for an open loop system and the Village of Hamilton declared a moratorium on well-drilling in the village. After they debugged the new permit process on us, we went ahead, and a week ago we started the heat pumps. Day before yesterday the household hot water started coming through a preheater (fed by the heat pump's desuperheater).

Well, the temperature yesterday at 7PM was 9F, and this morning at 7AM it was -15F. (My wire-through-the-wall thermometer didn't believe that, but the three thermometers that are not in contact with the house did. So I guess I do.) In that time range, the old oil furnace was on three times, for a total of 2.1 hours, meaning that the heat pump couldn't cope and the sitting-room temperature was dropping well below its target of 69F. Usually the target is 65, but I don't think it made much difference.

Actually we have two heat pumps, each of which will extract 9 to 10F from 12 gallons per minute from our well (one gallon weighs 8.34 pounds, so one degree-gpm is 60*8.34=500 BTUs/hr, so this is about 54K BTUs/hr for one heat pump, plus the waste heat of compression and circulation, total about 70K BTUs/hr.). Unfortunately we can only run one heat pump at a time for now; the pumps are about 75 feet down in a 208-foot pipe, and more than 14 gpm evidently brings the water level down below them. When the weather moderates, we'll pull the pumps and put them down deeper, so this probably won't happen. In fact the burner started again at 10:30AM, with outside thermometers 7F in bright sun; one of the timers on the system said that the thermostat had been requesting the second heat pump for 84 minutes at that time.

Overnight, the heat pumps more or less alternated. I generated a time-lapse movie of the readouts with an ASUS 901's webcam under Ubuntu running

vlc -I dummy v4l2:// -V image --image-out-width 450 --image-out-height 338 --image-out-ratio 288 --run-time 129600 --image-out-prefix img vlc://quit 2>/dev/null

This collects the images, about one every minute and a half, and then I put them into a movie with

mencoder mf://*.png -mf w=450:h=338:fps=4:type=png -ovc lavc -lavcopts vcodec=mjpeg -oac copy -o output.avi

I got this from How to create a time lapse video with Ubuntu at Code Blip and googled to find hints for a couple of error messages; the main thing was to change the vcodec but I did have to say

ln -sv /usr/share/fonts/truetype/ttf*a/Vera.ttf ~/.mplayer/subfont.ttf

(I don't remember where I got that one.)

It works well enough, and I see that last night the left heat pump turned on at 7:43PM, the right turned on this morning at 7:40AM, and in between we saw


That's a total of 588 minutes on and 126 off: only 82% on, even while it was asking the burner for two hours of help. When the thermostat calls on the boiler, the heat pump keeps going; in fact the heat pump is just trying to bring a storage tank to temperature, and then it's up to circulators to get that heat through the new highly-insulated carriage house and the old re-insulated house, both of which are pretty large.

It works! Future oil usage will be pretty low.

Or then again, maybe not.

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Painting the Future

A paint-focussed sister, indeed a sister who long ago handed her ten-year-old brother (or was I eleven? or am I misremembering altogether?) a copy of Clarke's Tales from the White Hart, adds a comment to my paint-focussed previous post:

When we were children we devoured science fiction. Among the many books or stories that we read there was one about one's social obligation to use things, so that people could go on making things. I suppose that the painters who are displaced by robots could find meaningful employ assembling robots but I suspect that in your world the robots are self replicating.¿Que no?

Indeed there were some like that; I'm vaguely remembering a guy who is born to a middle-class family meaning that he has to consume rather heavily, but invents or adapts robots to do the consumption which is a crime until he shows that the adaptation involves getting the robots to enjoy consumption in a controllable way, so he gets to be a hero and live in a sparsely-furnished apartment...something like that. I took this as ironic let's-invert-everything rather than serious world-building; Clarke himself commented somewhere that in a wealthy world (long before "post-Singularitarian" was a phrase) people would do art, science, literature, mathematics... I think he left out sports. I really don't think there's a problem here: for a couple of centuries we have developed an ethos of job-identity, which has been key to making the Industrial Revolution work, but humans of a few hundred centuries back had nothing of the kind and I don't believe humans of a century hence will either. We'll have better things to do.

Of course, we're not nearly smart enough to appreciate most of the math and science that have yet to be invented, or even much of what has been, but we can take care of that. As Charlie Kam's fairly famous song, I Am The Very Model of a Singularitarian, puts it (about 50 seconds in), we'll expand our mental faculties by merging with technology. Consider a few of the links here.

Or just think about the past, when we first encountered the future, in the school of, well, José Azueta:

José Azueta, hero of the act of April 21, 1914 in the Port of Veracruz, who, together with a handful of men from the town and students of the Heroic Military Naval Academy, defended the national dignity and sovereignty with his blood, was the son of Commodore Manuel Azueta Perillos and Josefa Abad. He was born in the Port of Acapulco, Gro. on May 2, 1895. When his father was sent to the port of Veracruz due to the service, the family established its residence in that site of the gulf. José studied his elementary instruction in the Municipal School of Veracruz, José Miguel Macías, where he had a very good behavior, a distinguished performance and a notorious learning in all his courses.
He had a notorious learning in all his courses. I tried (and I remember being rather unhappy when Dad explained that the Mexican-War history I was getting in Mexican public school was probably less slanted than the version in Calvert Correspondence school), but I don't think I managed notorious learning in Mexican elementary school. Maybe you did.

The past was very interesting, but if we can survive a reasonable ways into the future, I expect to like it better.

Or then again, maybe not.

Update: perhaps I should have mentioned that I recently got your elder niece to read Tales from the White Hart -- as a neuroscience graduate student, she ought to be familiar with his 1950's insights into what she's trying to do now. And just a moment ago, your younger niece went off to the orthodontist (missing school for the appointment) and I noticed that she was taking a copy of The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Rating Birds and Birders

In early December, my brother Pete sent a link to a Birder's World article about BirdsEye, his new iPhone app. Well, his along with a few collaborators. I Googled a bit and found that Kenn Kauffman, who wrote the guide, said in a Birder's World interview that

I got involved because one of the principal people doing this project is an old friend of mine. Pete Myers was one of the three guys running the project. He’s been a friend of mine since the mid-1980s. We were both working for the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia at the same time, and then he went on to National Audubon. There was a period when I was the associate editor of American Birds magazine, back when Audubon was publishing that, and Pete was the Vice President for Science at Audubon. So I got to go out in the field with him frequently. He’s one of these scary intelligent people. [Laughs] Sort of existing at a higher plane and, you know, just frighteningly intelligent but also a really nice guy, fun and down to earth....

I have not yet found what crimes Kenn Kaufman has committed that Pete must be using for blackmail, but I'm working on it. Meanwhile, Pete just sent a Macworld review (4.5 out of 5 mice), which is nice, and he says they're working on an extension of BirdsEye that will allow birders to submit data as well as using the existing database. And I was thinking about that, and urging him to make it all available as RDF, e.g. via Triplify, and also to try to make sure that failure is tracked as well as success...just generally filling the role of Aggravating Younger Brother. But seriously it would be really neat to be able to say "species S seems to be disappearing from location L" simply because usually-successful searchers clicked to say they were searching, clicked (or closed the app, or just left location L) to say they were giving up, but didn't click to indicate success. And I was driving to the DMV to return some license plates, and spent a little time thinking. So, here is what I would try to do.

Version 0: let's say that the competence of a birder is measured as sightings per hour, and the difficulty of a species (in a given location) is measured as hours per sighting. Each of these are roughly normally distributed, I hope, so we can convert them into IQ-style scores (multiply by 15/stdev, then add 100-mean; you now have a mean of 100, stdev of 15 for competence(birder) and for difficulty(species,loc), respectively.) It's effectively a normalized score in a game of hide-and-seek, where birders seek and birds hide.

Now you can say that sightings and searchers are not all the same. Version 1: a normalized sighting is ranked higher if it's a hard bird to spot, lower if it's easy; just multiply the base value by difficulty/100. A normalized hour of search is ranked higher if it's a competent birder, lower if it's me: multiply the base value by competence/100. Now we can say that the competence of a birder is measured as normalized sightings per actual hour (you get more credit for harder birds), and the difficulty of a species in a given location is measured as normalized hours per sighting (you get more credit for being sought by more skilled birders). Put this in an equation-solver, maybe hand-coded 'cos it's too big for a spreadsheet but probably there's a package out there that will iterate to a solution.

What sort of data is needed? For each search (that's while the app is running in a particular location) you have a searchID, and you remember who the user is, where it is, how long it is, and what species are being sought--and found. That's a basic event. The rest follows. Maybe.

This is indubitably a Bad Idea, but maybe a version 2 or 3 or more could have actual value.

Or then again, maybe not.

Update: (Jun 3) Notes on the Immense Importance of this, at Count your chickens (and robins and pigeons ...), urge researchers:

Dr Elizabeth Boakes, lead author of the study from the Division of Life Sciences at Imperial College London, said: "The lack of recent data on common species and areas of low biodiversity is extremely concerning -- we need people's help to record the birds they see, however commonplace, on bird-watching websites. We think this kind of citizen science will be key to future conservation research. "People may not think that they are helping much by recording the date they saw a pigeon in central London, say, but actually it could make a big difference as we do not know what threats species might encounter in the future. We also urge websites to standardise data entries, for example asking that sightings are directly plotted onto an online map -- it takes a long time to read through people's personal blogs!

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Monday, January 25, 2010

Health Care, Insurance, Insulation, Innovation

My primary concern about reform proposals is that I want innovation, profit-fueled innovation which bankrupts current stakeholders because they're making buggy whips, except when they move fast and make painful choices. I want more innovation than all the innovation we've seen so far. I want robotic nurses to take care of me. I want stem cells to fix my aging joints. I want painless dentistry. I want tiny robots inside my body -- among other things, to deliver the stem cells. Frankly, I want to over-consume health care like most of my fellow-Americans. The more government regulation handles things, the more the people with seats at the table will be guaranteed their "fair" share; that inhibits creative destruction. It also inhibits me from getting the health care insurance I want; I live in New York State, which as Reason Magazine says is Exhibit A in the case against programs like our proposed health care insurance "reform".

Okay, I also have secondary and tertiary concerns, mostly about politics and regulatory capture and crony capitalism and politics, and I'm not sure about any of this, and I keep meaning to note down all my current notions to see which if any survive the year. But mainly, it's about innovation, and if something resembling the current plans gets through then I agree with Megan McArdle that

We've just increased substantially the supply of unrepealable, unsustainable entitlements. We've also, in my opinion, put ourselves on a road that leads eventually to less healthcare innovation, less healthcare improvement, and more dead people in the long run.
(I don't think she actually means "more dead people", but rather "higher age-adjusted mortality rates".)

I like Will Wilkinson's analysis in Will Health-Care Innovation Survive Obamacare?, where I tend to think the answer is "yes, but at a seriously diminished rate." Or maybe not.

Provisionally, I'll just note down what I would now support, until the minute that I actually realize how silly these provisions are:

  1. Require transparent pricing, uniform no-bargaining pricing, from all licensed health care providers.
  2. Allow unlicensed health care, wherever it's clearly labeled as such; it won't get public support but people can choose it.
  3. Take away the employer-based tax exemption; health care shouldn't be an employment issue.
  4. Add a universal tax-funded "insurance" policy: if your expenditures for "proven procedures" from licensed health care providers exceed the overall 16% (of GDP) average, then the taxpayers contribute. In particular if your cost is 16--32%, say 30%, then the taxpayers kick in (30-16)/2=7%, half of the overage, and the maximum you can pay is 24% of your income whether that's $0/year or $10M/year. Or something of that general magnitude; I wouldn't fuss about adjustments to these figures. The point is to combine protection from catastrophe (but not necessarily from financial pain) with making sure that market prices are set by people or groups who are actually bargaining in that market, i.e. the better-off people for whom procedure X will not be covered.
  5. If you want "unproven procedures" and you can pay for them, that's fine too; the licensed health care providers should have a strong motive to come up with new stuff and document/publish that it works. The FDA should not be able to keep you from paying for weird medicines, but it should keep you from charging it to the rest of us. If procedure X has no accepted studies supporting it, then it's up to you to pay for it.
  6. Whatever additional insurance you want to buy for proven or unproven procedures is just fine, and can be bought across state lines. It's your problem. You want to save your money in a special bank account? Feel free.
  7. Any care that has been paid or partly paid by public funds goes into an anonymized public database. (Yes, that's hard, but I am more willing to risk failures in privacy than failures to learn about what does and doesn't work.)

And that's my plan, as of today. I'm sure it would be perfect.

Or then again, maybe not.

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Blowing Bubbles: everybody's wrong except me

Back in September I posted some of my Bubble Thoughts about the housing bubble pop which I had anticipated and the "resulting" crash which I had not, saying

Personally, I did see the bubble as such, earlier than some...I sent a message titled "Housing bubble warning" on June 5, 2003. Was I prescient? No, I was just quoting the Economist of that time...
I didn't mention (last September) that I'd become a semi-Sumnerite, a believer in much of the theorizing of Scott Sumner at The Money Illusion, who claims that
even a major misallocation of resources such as the housing boom of 2003-06 does not cause a big enough misallocation to create a recession. That’s why the initial downturn in housing was handled well, with only a minor bump in unemployment between mid-2006 and mid-2008. The big jump in unemployment more recently was caused by a sharp fall in NGDP, i.e. tight money.

I've come to believe him about that, to a large extent, so I owe both of them an intellectual debt of sorts. But today I think they're both wrong...well, also they're both right, and I think they both exaggerate the real differences between them. Sumner is saying in reference to the same article (I think) that I quoted,

Back in May 2003 The Economist said that many countries were in the midst of a housing bubble:
and that
in all 6 countries their predictions were wildly inaccurate for the 4 year time window they specified.
He really doesn't believe in bubbles. Or does he? As quoted above, he does believe in "a major misallocation of resources such as the housing boom." The Economist rebuts that they were giving "Good housing market advice", and that
the story The Economist was telling about what was happening was fundamentally correct

My current view is that the Economist was and is praiseworthily right to call "bubble", but the Economist of 2003 was mildly blameworthy in making the specific predictions it made (I didn't even take these seriously, remembering how "irrational exuberance" had gone on for years) and is mildly blameworthy now to evade the flat admission that anybody who believed those specific predictions and invested accordingly would have lost money. The 2010 Economist sounds like an astrologer or psychic claiming credit for being almost right, which is another way of saying wrong. But that doesn't mean bubbles don't exist; it just means that when markets are irrational it's really hard to outguess them (The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.) I mostly like Bill Woolsey's response:

I believe bubbles exist. Vernon Smith's experiments provide enough evidence for me. The basic problem is "momentum" traders. They buy into a rising market and sell into a falling market. They have naive expectations, projecting past price changes into the future.

Like Woolsey, I do think bubbles are real, like the Economist I think bubble-probability is worth thinking about from an investment standpoint.

I think Sumner could respond (and maybe has responded) that if you can detect this, then you're free to make money from it -- but I don't think that's an adequate response. I didn't and don't know any good way to bet that "I think this asset is priced above trend" apart from staying away from it: selling short doesn't work unless you have a time-frame in mind. I didn't believe the Economist's specific predictions, but I do think the Economist helped me (and my son) avoid losing money. We avoided investing in stuff which the Economist (and then Shiller) had suggested was risky. Shiller does better, trying to invent financial instruments which I've interpreted as ways in which to make money from such information, so that the markets will in fact become more efficient. But they're far from perfect, and always will be.

Or maybe not?

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Monday, January 04, 2010


I was just talking with Seth Rochford, busy putting paint and polyurethane in our not-quite-complete carriage-house. I mentioned some of my longer-range thoughts about the geo-exchange heating system (which may finally be turned on this week, yay!) and he replied that no matter what happened with that kind of technology, he figured he'd still be using brushes, slapping chemicals on walls. I disagreed.

Start from the fact that the surfaces will all be recorded in 3D modeling programs; I tend to take this for granted. That's easy. So the "painter" will stand with the customer in a virtual space, using graphics better than today's best, choosing colors/textures that will go with each other under various lighting conditions. At the end of this process there will be no more decisions to be made.

We now have a robotic framework which translates the virtual coordinates into physical locations; this can range from a robotic ladder which moves itself along, to a self-driving rented truck which drives to the indicated address and unfolds itself into a framework which covers the building (whether outside or inside). In either case, the framework has tracks. Now look at the inside of your printer, where the print-head rides on rails. (A variety of design options is available here; consider the series-of-2D-printings method for achieving 3D printing, as in Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories' CandyFab: "The X and Y axis motion control systems are based on belt drives and quadrature-encoded motors recycled from two old HP plotters, a large one and a small one".) In any case, for each point in the chosen virtual surface, there is some time-range within which that point can be reached by a robotically wielded "brush". The rest is software.

An alternative to the physical framework is a swarm of mini-robots which crawl or fly over the surface, printing as they go. An even more radical alternative would be mini-(or micro-, or nano-)bots which are the right color/texture, or can change, and which simply go to the right place and form a skin. Suppose that the nano-technology used for this is the nanotech getting most funding right now, namely human DNA: if your paint is made of modified human cells, and if it has a neural component to guide self-repair or calls for replacement, will it have rights?

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Friday, January 01, 2010


Long ago I spent a lot of time doing 3D presentations on computer screens and projection screens (and Colgate invested in a fairly-portable non-depolarizing projection screen in large part so that I could give 3D talks where I'd pass out polarized glasses, showing both slides with a pair of matched slide projectors and simple animations with a pair of 286 PCs where I synchronized the Turbo Pascal programs with 2400-baud serial port connection code); it's mildly amusing that I've seen Avatar twice, but not yet as 3D because my wife doesn't care for 3D glasses.

(Spoiler?) It's a profoundly silly movie, which I think is fun -- in part because I like to think, after watching a movie or sometimes after reading a book, about how I would fix it. For example, the central combat scenes are poorly motivated: we want the high-tech space-traveling bad guys to attack the Soul Tree of the low-tech aboriginal inhabitants and get ambushed, but we don't get a real reason why they should put troops on the ground or even in the air. After all, they ought to be able to send a missile to a known location, or hit it from a satellite. So why expose themselves? The answer could be that all high-altitude stuff (and missiles) are managed by Earth's Space Navy, which may be mildly corrupt and subject to restrictive rules of engagement; they are happy to provide satellite-based mapping data and they are unwilling to defend the good guys from the bad guys but they are not willing to let the bad guys use ICBMs or kinetic strikes. Easy...with obvious directions to go in from there. (This would add some consistency to the "bad press" remarks; if the Company controlled everything, there would be no press apart from press releases.)

To make star travel work, you need one of the backgrounds that make it work: a few years of cryo-suspension will not get a substantial ship from one stellar system to another without either a really major advance in physics, which we magically label "warp drive", or a civilization that can collect most of a star's output. Either of these would then involve some changes. Hmm. Borrow from the Honorverse, which may not always be coherent but does have a worked-out theory, sort of.

There are other things, which I won't go into here, but I will mention my hope that future movies in the franchise make full use of the fact that Eywa, a superhuman (planetary) intelligence who has presumably thousands or millions years of experience but never had a reason to develop the notion of science, has absorbed Grace's memories. Hmmmm.

update:Well, I'll add two others, just in case I come back and re-read this a few years hence.

  • when I saw the bad guys approaching on the ground my first thought was, as mentioned above, "why would they do anything so silly?" but my second was "they can't possibly keep up with even very slow-moving fliers overhead." I've been in a jungle; you don't move fast. So I imagined jungle troop carriers for them. Start with a New York City bus, one that swivels in the middle so it can go around fairly tight corners. Now make it even longer but narrower and give it a bunch of swivel-points; one per passenger. Okay, it is now a snake, a series of pods, that could go between trees, but it still can't cope with ups and downs. That's solvable too: just look at the exoskeletons that some of the solders use, apparently brought over by Sigourney Weaver from the Aliens set. Put one of these in front; it can plausibly walk much faster than a human, without getting bitten by whatever's in the bushes. Fine, now each pod gets a set of robotic legs, with which it echoes the motions of the pod ahead of it (or of the lead exoskeleton, if it's the front pod). We now have a giant centipede which is fairly easy to generate with CGI and will look really cool and can drive through the jungle with soldiers inside, but is still possible for the Na'vi to ambush; if the fliers are going slowly, then having centipedes keep up with them won't look so ridiculous.
  • The Na'vi are much larger than humans so their hunting arrows are a threat to the exoskeletons and fliers, but not much of one. I'd have them (or one of the "good" humans use a library of antique military equipment; I'm trying to remember if The various and ingenious machines of Agostino Ramelli (1588) has super-crossbows -- I think it does). So you come up with a simple crossbow that not even a Na'vi can cock by hand, but their horses (under direct neural control) can. One warrior on a horse, one on foot, two huge crossbows being passed back and forth, and you might be able to really damage an exoskeleton, a flier, the shuttle, or of course one of my centipedes.
This is really, really silly. But it's part of why I like reading/watching things like this.

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Happy New Year

I have (almost) always tried to post serious things, so I hereby remark that this is 2*3*5*67 which is the product of 2 by an odd number, and is therefore not the difference of any two whole-number squares. In contrast, last year was 7*7*41 which is 45^2-4^2 as well as being 147^2-140^2 (and one easier pair, left as an exercise for the reader). Next year? Well, there's a whole year to think about it.

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