A Question of Scales

August 28, 2020

Interesting insight from the mathematician and theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson:

“The destiny of our species is shaped by the imperatives of survival on six distinct time scales. To survive means to compete successfully on all six time scales. But the unit of survival is different at each of the six time scales. On a time scale of years, the unit is the individual. On a time scale of decades, the unit is the family. On a time scale of centuries, the unit is the tribe or nation. On a time scale of millennia, the unit is the culture. On a time scale of tens of millennia, the unit is the species. On a time scale of eons, the unit is the whole web of life on our planet. Every human being is the product of adaptation to the demands of all six time scales. That is why conflicting loyalties are deep in our nature. In order to survive, we have needed to be loyal to ourselves, to our families, to our tribes, to our cultures, to our species, to our planet. If our psychological impulses are complicated, it is because they were shaped by complicated and conflicting demands.”

From here.


The Perfect Plastic Bag

October 5, 2015

From the BBC (Business) News:

The number of plastic bags given out by major supermarkets in England has risen by 200 million in the past two years to exceed 7.6 billion last year – the equivalent of 140 per person and amounting to 61,000 tonnes in total…

Many shoppers in England will have to pay 5p for plastic carrier bags from Monday (5 October 2015) in a bid to slash the 7.6 billion handed out every year…

The government hopes the English scheme will cut use of plastic carrier bags by up to 80% in supermarkets, and by 50% on the High Street. It also expects to save £60m in litter clean-up costs as well as generating £730m for good causes over the next decade.

I have to admit that I’ve loads at home and this nudge is what’s needed to get me to change. It’s really odd that it’s not happened before and even odder that there’s not been a technological (biodegradable) solution (although I’m sure there have been many attempts).

On the radio today, as it’s topical, there was a discussion on the challenges of developing ‘the perfect plastic bag’. The main problem seems to be to find a polymer that efficiently degrades in very different environments, those with oxygen and those without (such as landfills).

Carl Boardman, from the Open University, was interviewed and he’s optimistic that they’ve found a suitable candidate.

A team at the OU’s Integrated Waste Systems (IWS) research group is working on an ambitious partnership worth around £250,000 with a UK SME, and funded by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to develop a new type of biodegradable single-use plastic carrier bags that is recyclable, biodegradable and will have no harmful effects on plants or animals.

Egged on, he was asked ‘Come on, what can you tell us about it?’ and very sensibly replied with an alarmingly honest ’Nothing!’. Let’s hope it all works out, both technically and commercially.

More info here:


Coursera Courses

November 2, 2012

I noticed that there are some very interesting (free) courses provided by (US-based online university) Coursera:

We are a social entrepreneurship company that partners with the top universities in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. We envision a future where the top universities are educating not only thousands of students, but millions. Our technology enables the best professors to teach tens or hundreds of thousands of students.

From BBC News:

Online universities have become increasingly high-profile – with the California-based Coursera one of the emerging major players.

Coursera, backed by venture capital, offers a platform for universities to deliver courses on the internet, currently without any charge to the student.

In its first term it is offering more than 200 courses.

I’m thinking of signing up for the ‘Model Thinking‘ course given by Scott Page:

I start with models of tipping points. I move on to cover models explain the wisdom of crowds, models that show why some countries are rich and some are poor, and models that help unpack the strategic decisions of firm and politicians. The models covered in this class provide a foundation for future social science classes, whether they be in economics, political science, business, or sociology….

For each model, I present a short, easily digestible overview lecture. Then, I’ll dig deeper. I’ll go into the technical details of the model. Those technical lectures won’t require calculus but be prepared for some algebra. For all the lectures, I’ll offer some questions and we’ll have quizzes and even a final exam. If you decide to do the deep dive, and take all the quizzes and the exam, you’ll receive a certificate of completion. If you just decide to follow along for the introductory lectures to gain some exposure that’s fine too. It’s all free. And it’s all here to help make you a better thinker!

I’ve done alot of modelling in my time, mainly in the physical sciences. It would be interesting to learn how modern modelling methods are used in wider (and much more complex) situations – anything involving people!


Complexity Simplified

June 27, 2012

Last December I saw Manuel Lima‘s excellent talk on The Power Of Networks at the RSA, emphasising visualisation aspects and opportunities.

The video above is a very interesting summary animation based on it. There’s alot of ideas crammed into the fast-moving 10 minutes! A very nice approach though.

Part way through the video he mentions the network complexity of the cod food web – see the picture below for the level of connectivity we’re talking about!

One idea that particularly interests me is that to benefit from this network-centric approach will be the ability to learn quickly and effectively from others in different disciplines and I’ve written on this challenge before: Interdisciplinary Mindsets.

For further information on networks, see for example here.

Other interesting animations from lectures at the RSA can be found here.


How To Gag Innovation

June 15, 2012

Never Seconds’ first school-lunch photo, May 8, 2012. The tubular thing is mashed potatoes in a crust.

Demoralising story in Wired yesterday relevant to the UK school food saga:

For the past two months, one of my favorite reads has been Never Seconds, a blog started by 9-year-old Martha Payne of western Scotland to document the unappealing, non-nutritious lunches she was being served in her public primary school. Payne, whose mother is a doctor and father has a small farming property, started blogging in early May and went viral in days. She had a million viewers within a few weeks and 2 million this morning; was written up in Time, the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and a number of food blogs; and got support from TV cheflebrity Jamie Oliver, whose series “Jamie’s School Dinners” kicked off school-food reform in England.

Well, goodbye to all that.

This afternoon, Martha (who goes by “Veg” on the blog) posted that she will have to shut down her blog, because she has been forbidden to take a camera into school.

I was greatly amused – and that’s the whole point of course – that they had to give an explanation (the tubular thing…) to go with the photo!

We anguish about getting kids to be enthusiastic about healthy, sustainable food — to not prefer the bad stuff, not waste the good stuff, and not be entitled little monsters who whine about when their next chicken nugget is arriving. And then a child emerges who, out of her own creativity and curiosity, does all of that, and gets other children around the world excited about doing it too. And then she gets told she is offending the powers that be, and is slapped down.

On a much more positive note:

If you’d like to tell the Argyll and Bute Council, who made the decision, exactly how idiotic they’ve been, their webpage is here. (And they are @argyllandbute on Twitter.)

If you’d like to send support to Martha, you can leave a comment on her final post. (Her email is on the same page.)

And if you’d like to honor her ingenuity by supporting the school-food charity she picked, the donation page is here.

It’ll be interesting to see how this all pans out.

Update. That’s fast – they’ve now rescinded the ban!

From The Guardian:

Less than two hours after releasing a strongly-worded broadside calling Martha Payne’s pictures of the sometimes meagre and unappealing meals on offer at her primary school misleading, Argyll and Bute council had a change of heart.

Roddy McCuish, the council leader, told BBC Radio 4 that he had ordered an immediate reverse of the ban, imposed earlier this week. He said: “There’s no place for censorship in Argyll and Bute council and there never has been and there never will be.

“I’ve just instructed senior officials to immediately withdraw the ban on pictures from the school dining hall. It’s a good thing to do, to change your mind, and I’ve certainly done that.”

 


It’s Not The Economy, Stupid!

June 23, 2011

“Humans have a tendency to fall prey to the illusion that their economy is at the very center of the universe, forgetting that the biosphere is what ultimately sustains all systems, both man-made and natural. In this sense, ‘environmental issues’ are not about saving the planet — it will always survive and evolve with new combinations of atoms — but about the prosperous development of our own species.”

Carl Folke (Science Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University)

A timely thought.

As an aside, here’s an interesting historical perspective (up to 2008):

Picture credit here.


A Demo Of Wireless Electricity

March 1, 2011

I’ve just come across this engaging talk by Eric Giler (CEO of MIT-inspired WiTricity ) at TED Global in 2009 where he demonstrates using wireless electricity to power up a TV and Google, Apple and Nokia mobile phones.

The idea is so appealing! There’s a basic overview of their approach here and also see the image below (click to enlarge).

A previous post on this subject is one of the most popular I’ve written, indicating a strong interest in the subject!


The Aurora Borealis

February 22, 2011

From Der Spiegel:

The aurora borealis, or the northern lights, are seen in the sky above the village of Ersfjordbotn near Tromsø in northern Norway, early in the morning on Monday. Aurorae are caused by the interaction between energetic charged particles from the Sun and gas molecules in the upper atmosphere of the Earth, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) up. A stream of charged particles, called the solar wind, flows out into space continuously from the Sun at speeds of 400-500 kilometers per second. Upon reaching Earth, the charged particles are drawn by Earth’s magnetic field to the poles, where they collide with gas molecules in the upper atmosphere, causing them to emit light.

A very impressive photo!

Picture credit: web link above.


The Ant Farm Story

February 9, 2011

Whilst making coffee this morning, I idly browsed a newspaper that was lying around. It happened to be open on the Obituary page and I started randomly reading about a certain Milton Levine who I had never heard of before, and quickly became fascinated.

There are many stories of unconventional ideas for successful large scale products but this one, an ant farm, I found quite hard to believe – I even double checked to see if it was a hoax of some form. As a niche offering I can understand it but 20 million sales is very impressive! Not so good for the ants used though as they all doomed to an early death.

From an innovation point of view I doubt if any number of company brainstorms would have come up with this as a viable commercial product. As sometimes happens, it’s one person who gets fascinated by something, wants to share this and then has enough enthusiasm to actually do something about it. It’s interesting that he started with small scale in mind but accidentally tapped into something quite extensive.

Here’s the part that caught my attention:

Levine got the idea for his ant farm at a Fourth of July picnic in Los Angeles in 1956 when he became fascinated by a colony of undertaker ants building towers, transporting crumbs and generally doing what ants do. Thinking that children would be fascinated by watching the ants, he developed a prototype “farm” using a clear plastic handkerchief box with a wooden base and filling it with sand. He then took some ants from a nearby field to populate his new world.

After placing an advert in a newspaper he found himself deluged with orders. Unable to meet demand, he eventually secured the services of a family of ant rustlers to collect red harvester ants in the Mojave Desert at one cent per ant. The breed was deemed best-suited for the ant farm because they are plentiful, are active in the daytime, are vegetarian, and do not thrive indoors if they escape.

Though the original sand was replaced with lighter volcanic gravel to make it easier to see the ants, the design of the farms remained largely unchanged until Levine’s son took over the business in the 1990s, when the ants had their digs upgraded with new modules. These included such novelties as tiny bungee ropes and ant-sized skateboarding parks. Half a century after Milton Levine’s Fourth of July picnic, more than 20 million ant farms had been sold.

All the same, some found the performance of the insects a mite disappointing. As federal law prohibits the shipment of the queen ants (which are necessary for a colony to survive), the colonies tended to be short-lived and, deprived of the pheromones that give the colony a purpose, sometimes seemed caught in an existential crisis. “After a while, they just start dying,” observed one reviewer. “They always bury their dead, and it gets a little sadder every day watching them haul the latest deaths off to where the other little bodies are. Finally there’s only one ant left, huddled up all by himself, with no one to bury him when he finally goes.”

Picture credit: top here and bottom here.


Just Do It

January 4, 2011

I run a blog for a local nature reserve, Fleet Pond, which, as the name doesn’t suggest, is a rather large freshwater lake (see picture above when it was recently covered with snow).

In relation to this I noticed a post on the Zoho blog that discusses open data sharing for a local nature reserve in the UK. I’ve been toying with Zoho for couple of years now as a handy way to share information across communities, both for  a charity, Fleet Pond Society, and more widely.

I’ve also looked at related systems such as Huddle (which is free for charity use).

Investigating the links in the Zoho post lead to a document written by Tim Berners-Lee on putting Government data online which is amazingly refreshing in it’s candour. Here’s an extract (see under ‘Just Do It’):

The chances are quite high that the data your department/agency runs off will be largely in relational databases, often with a large amount in spreadsheets.

There are two philosophies to putting data on the web. The top-down one is to make a corporate or national plan, by getting committees together of all the interested parties, and make a consistent set of terms (ontology) into which everything fits. This in fact takes so long it is often never finished, and anyway does not in fact get corporate or national consensus in the end. The other method experience recommends is to do it bottom up. A top-level mandate is extremely valuable, but grass-roots action is essential. Put the data up where it is: join it together later.

A wise and cautious step is to make a thorough inventory of all the data you have, and figure out which dataset is going to be most cost-effective to put up as linked data. However, the survey may take longer than just doing it. So, take some data.

A really important rule when considering which data could be put on the web is not to threaten or disturb the systems and the people who currently are responsible for that data. It often takes years of negotiation to put together a given set of data. The people involved may be very invested in it. There are social as well as technical systems which have been set up. So you leave the existing system undisturbed, and find a way of extracting the data from it using existing export or conversion facilities. You add, a thin shim to adapt the existing system to the standard.

The crazy thing is that this example of a no-nonsense and wise appraisal of a real-world situation is so, so true and yet it’s still the exception rather than the rule.  So, hopefully, more candour in text and conversations in 2011 for better results!

See also here.

Candour: the quality of being open and honest (OED 2008).

Picture credit: above (me) and below here.