Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Economy of Free

It is probably no surprise to anyone who has perused this blog even cursorily that I'm a big fan of Open Source software. I'm all about getting things for free.

Initially I saw open source as primarily an academic phenomenon - universities would innovate software and hardware using labor and resources provided for another reason (usually education), and eventually that free innovation would make its way to commercial companies who would bring it to market, for a price.

This was generally the model of Netscape, which came from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, and my new favourite blogger, Marc Andreesen. Today, the 36-year-old billionaire venture capitalist Mr. Andreesen is keenly focused on information technology and internet business issues. His blog is literally chock-full of insightful commentary and helpful advice about making money and building successful businesses. Netscape? Not doing so well. I think they merged with AOL.

But the Open Source evangelists have been preaching the economic viability of free stuff for years. The story goes that technology, Moore's Law and all that, will reduce the effective cost of traditional commodities towards zero, so that economic value will be created in new and different ways: think the second derivative of the service economy. There is a very interesting recent article from Wired that discusses this trend in some detail.

I'd been noticing the trend for a while, and have started to take the "freeness" of most information technology and services for granted. (Such as this blog. I cannot imagine paying for a blog service. I have a feeling our old provider, Blog-City, made a huge mistake in eliminating free blogs, and will likely disappear entirely soon.) The internet is clogged with zillion dollar companies who give away their services: Google, Facebook, YouTube, etc etc etc - many of which, apparently, Marc Andreesen invested in, and made large sums of money on.

Similarly processing power and bandwidth is getting more free as well. In any well-developed area you can find plenty of legitimately (as opposed to inadvertantly) free wireless bandwidth. Is inadvertantly, or indeterminately, free bandwidth a function or byproduct of this phenomenon? Bandwidth is so plentiful and cheap that people don't have to worry about sharing it with strangers?

The tiny eee pc that I'm using to type this blog entry costs $350 in 2007 dollars, and replaced a Fujitsu mini-laptop that costs $1500 in 2000 dollars, and had less than 1/3 the capabilities. I do not doubt that there will be a real $100 laptop soon, and it will outperform this amazing little machine.

There are a whole range of new terms and concepts that address the falling costs of information, and the technologies that are emerging to take advantage of the trend. I'm particularly interested in "Cloud Computing" and the related "utility computing", and "software as a service". Google (with Google Docs and the Google Filesystem) and Amazon, with their Elastic Computing Cloud (EC2) are, as usual, leading the field. The idea behind Cloud Computing is virtualization - your computer, or your computer and 1000 other people's computers, can be my computer, for a marginal cost that approaches zero. Virtualization, of course, is a hot commodity - VMWare did well in the market, but they are under a lot of pressure from Xen - which is free and does the exact same thing.

One of the recent events that really made me sit up and start thinking about the economics of free was when I saw a web ad for the Pirate Bay. Pirate Bay is a site primarily devoted to illegal free sharing of copyrighted material, using BitTorrent. Somehow it is profitable to advertise illegal peer-to-peer file sharing. I get the feeling that soon those peer-to-peer services may be more profitable than the entertainment industry's failed effort to control content via coercion with DRM.

In fact, the near-total failure of the industry best prepared, motivated, and financed to protect their intellectual property rights - the entertainment and mass media industry, aka the MSM - suggests that intellectual property as a traditional legal concept may be heading rapidly towards obsolescence. I don't know exactly what this means - but I do notice, as does Marc Andreesen, that the MSM is economically and strategically in deep doo-doo.

So all this epidemic of freeness makes me think about my favourite form of free 1's and 0's, namely open source software. How can open source be profitable? I'm still not completely clear, but obviously it can. RedHat has become a billion dollar business (gross, anyway) selling something that you can download for free from their web site. The quality and diversity of open source systems and applications increases significantly every year, and most of that code is not coming from universities but from businesses who are in the business of selling free stuff.

Meanwhile, the General Motors of the old information economy, AKA Microsoft, looks more and more like, well, GM. They simply don't appear able to compete in the market for delivering usable software, which is why they reportedly planned to bet heavily on "controlling content", via DRM and partnerships with the MSM. In the context of the economy of free, that doesn't look like a very smart play.

Kevin Kelly, formerly the editor of Wired, has an excellent article in which he discusses the economy of free. He says there are approximately eight "generatives", which generate value associated with free stuff. These include immediacy - the ability to get the free stuff faster; personalization, aka "customization just for me"; interpretation, aka technical support, which seems to work for RedHat; authenticity; accessibility; embodiment (not exactly sure what that means, but I think it means old-fashioned human contact), patronage (aka altruism or charity), and findability (the ability to locate the scarce or elusive free stuff). Supposedly these qualities make people want to shell out money for stuff that they could have for nothing if they wanted. Clearly sometimes it works.

So all this makes me think about what I spend money on... mostly industrial-era commodities, it seems (mostly gasoline lately). This kind of pisses me off. Technology could provide me with vastly more efficient transportation, but the old-world industries have gotten very smart about fleecing us customers. I put lawyers into this group.

Not much of my money gets spent on technology or information, because so much of it is free. Energy, food, government (i.e. taxes), transportation, lawyers (i.e. insurance) and other old-fashioned stuff gets most of it. So am I an exception? Are most people spending hundreds of dollars per month on iTunes and NetFlix, and I'm just an anomaly? I do notice that I pay for bandwidth - approximately $250 per month for telephone, cell phones, internet, and cable TV - and I feel like that is a rip-off. Of that $250, I think nearly 15% (it might be over 20%) is taxes. I think nearly half of the bill for my obsolete POTS line is tax - I have no intention of ever buying another POTS line, unless I am forced to do so in order to get internet bandwidth (e.g. DSL).

So while I am optimistic that the economics of free will make us all richer, I am not sure how that new, and likely very different, kind of wealth we derive from free stuff will help us pay the bills to the old-world industries that still claim most of our hard currency. I look forward, however, to getting more and more stuff for free. I'm hoping that all this free stuff will mean that I don't have to get into my car, and continue to pay the old economy more and more real money to do stuff I didn't want to do in the first place.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Hillary lies for political effect

I normally avoid direct political commentary, but this occasion is an exception.

This morning I saw this headline:

Clinton 'misspoke' about '96 Bosnia trip

WASHINGTON - Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign said she "misspoke" last week when saying she had landed under sniper fire during a trip to Bosnia as first lady in March 1996. She later characterized the episode as a "misstatement" and a "minor blip."

Unfortunately, she didn't just "mis-speak", she totally fabricated her account of what actually happened. Does she actually remember something that simply didn't happen, or did she deliberately lie to embellish her record? Either way, do we want such a person to be the President?

The reason this story caught my eye is because I was in Bosnia-Hercegovina when First Lady Hillary Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, and a USO tour arrived at Eagle Base in Tuzla for a USO show. I wasn't at Tuzla while Hillary was there, but I had been there the week before.

There was no sniper fire. The Dayton ceasefire had taken effect in December and the shooting had stopped. There was no nothing going on, in comparison to a few months earlier. There was especially nothing going on at Tuzla, which was a Muslim area without a large Serb population, and with overwhelming heavy US military presence. What was going on was the large scale and rapid US Army fortification and bureaucratization of the Tuzla area. It was demonstrably, statistically safer to be in Tuzla in March 1996 than in Washington DC.

But don't take my word for it - watch the video.

On the other hand, I haven't heard John McCain talk about, much less embellish, his experience in the Balkans.

I first met Senator McCain in 1993, when he was in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina with Senator Phil Gramm. The war was raging at that time - there was no ceasefire, and essentially no US military (there were less than 10 US military personnel in Bosnia at the time - I know because I knew them all personally). There was sniper fire, pretty much all over the place, as well as rocket fire, mortar fire, and heavy artillery fire.

But Senators Gramm and McCain wanted to "visit the front lines", and "see the war for themselves". So I went out to the front lines, on the Croatian/Bosnian border near Bosanska Gradiska, with a company of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. We met with the local Serbs and Croats, who were shooting at each other when we arrived, and asked them to please stop shooting because we had to American VIPs who were going to be visiting the next day, and we didn't want to make a bad impression. The Serbs and Croats kept their word, were friendly to the Senators while they were there, and there were no incidents. Senator McCain walked up to within about 20 yards of the literal front line between the Serbs and Croats, who were in the midst of a very hot war at the time, shook hands, waved, and checked things out. That situation, however, was 1000's of times more dangerous than Hillary's visit to Tuzla after the war had ended.

I've never heard Senator McCain speak of that episode, and it's pretty minor and undramatic - particularly compared to 6 years in the Hanoi Hilton, the Forrestal fire, or 23 strike missions in an A-4 over North Vietnam.

In comparison, Hillary Clinton's contention that she is qualified to be President because she was the First Lady (married to only the second President ever to be impeached), is pretty uncompelling. That she needs to lie to embellish her record - as First Lady - is very, very embarrassing.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Has Osama Jumped the Shark?

I asked this question once before, in my old blog, but I'm thinking it is more true now than before.

Osama bin Laden has released two new audio tapes in the last week. He still seems to be badly wrapped around the axle about the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. My question is whether Osama is spun up about the actual Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed, or the faked versions distributed in the middle east by other radical Saudi clerics to inflame other Islamists?

Regardless, much of the analysis of the audio tape revolves around the notion that Osama is warning of an impending attack in Europe, in retaliation for the cartoons. ("You drew a picture of a guy who lived 1500 years ago, so we're going to blow you up" - is there any wonder this guy has jumped the shark??)

But Doug Farah makes the good point that if Osama now doesn't blow up some Europeans, he's done nothing but further undermine his credibility. He also points out that bin Laden is still trying to inflame more ecumenical or diverse congregations of monotheists by referring to blasphemous images of other prophets. Maybe Osama will let us know how that works out for him. I am not holding my breath for enraged Anglicans to take to the streets of London over graven images of Thomas Becket.

In Osama's second tape, he exorts his faithful to renew their efforts to defeat the infidels, as well as the faithful Muslim government of Iraq. My impression is that message has mostly lost its appeal among normal, non-homicidal-lunatic adherents of Islam in the Land of the Two Rivers.

He's also still trying to associate himself with the Arab-Israeli conflict, probably because he knows that theme resonates with most Muslims. But the endless "make war not peace" message is probably getting kind of old in a region that has seen even more than its usual quota of war in recent years. Everybody (well everybody except Osama, maybe) gets tired of war after a while, so I have a feeling that Osama's most recent message attacking the Palestinians for trying to make some limited peace with Israel.

So my extremely sophisticated analysis is that, as radical Islamist mass murderers go, Osama bin Laden may have jumped the shark. If he doesn't do something splashy to re-ignite his career as a bloodthirsty terrorist mastermind, people are just going to stop caring about him.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Screw-ups are the mother of innovation

In recent history I've needed to carry around a lot of strange tools and hardware when I travel, because I've been doing a lot of hardware installations and maintenance. So not too long ago I decided to make a bag specifically designed to carry the junk that I need.

The first bag was large - fully loaded it tipped the scales at over 75 lbs, and carried a very large range of strange gizmos, to include two Linksys wireless routers and an Odyssey 12-volt battery, plus tools, test equipment, one or more laptops, extra monitors, keyboards, pointing devices, networking gear, food, water, survival items, and random other flotsam and jetsam.

Experience with the Large Bag led to my desire to create a smaller, more streamlined and tightly integrated bag, to carry only exactly what I needed, plus add some of the key functionality I had wanted in the Large Bag.

Most of this functionality related to power supplies. The Large Bag had the Odyssey battery (more or less the same cell found in F/A-18C Hornets for backup avionics power), two small inverters and a power strip/surge protector, where I could plug in the Linksys routers and laptop. I wanted to make this more efficient, eliminating the inverters, because mostly what I was doing was taking 12VDC, converting it into 120VAC (and heat), then converting it back to 12VDC.

So the New Bag, in addition to being smaller, was intended to have 12VDC integrated into the design. By not using the inverters (most of the time), I was able to get rid of the 20 lb Odyssey battery and replace it with two tiny 1.2AH 12 volt cells to power the routers, and a larger 6AH cell for the laptop and any other application that needed the inverter. To keep the batteries charged, I included a jack for a 12v "wall wart" power supply.

The final configuration for the New Bag included room for the various tools, parts, and equipment, in addition to two laptops, and various different power options, including a small solar panel to charge the batteries.

This is what it looks like, plugged in and operating:

Notice the funny antennas... Those are the 6 db "homebrew" 802.11 "rubber duckies" I described in a previous post. Here's a better photo of the antennas themseves:

This poor photo shows the antennas with and without the 3/8" polyethylene tubing. The antennas themselves are made by soldering some plain copper wire to the elements of the stock Linksys parts.

So... despite all these cool gadgets in my custom-made backpack, I still left home without the power supply for my laptop. It is one of my pet peeves that laptops are power hungry. My Dell Latitude wants 90 watts, unlike the cool eeepc which only uses around 30. I had adapter plugs for the Dell, and an APC external laptop battery, just nothing that would make 90 watts at 19 volts.

I rooted around for a while, and this is what I came up with:

Its a 10-watt solar panel plugged into the APC external laptop battery. By charging the external battery from the solar panel, I could then transfer a little bit of charge to the laptop.

Did it work? Only a little bit. Charging all day in bright sunlight only got the APC battery up to about 25%. That 25% transferred to the laptop and got me about 40 minutes of use a low power settings. So the bottom line is I can run the laptop about 40 minutes per day on solar power alone - using this tiny solar panel.

What I want is one of those big roll-up or fold up solar panels that has a better chance of powering the laptop, but the biggest of those that I've found only makes about 40 watts. There are cool laptop cases with built-in solar panels that say they will charge a laptop, but it looks like they are going to take all day to get a good charge as well.

It's not like I am out in the boonies with no access to the grid... I'm staying in a Homewood Suites. 120VAC is plentiful. That got me thinking about where else I could harvest DC power in significant quantities. Most electronics are DC powered, even if you plug them into the wall, which means that there is a DC power supply somewhere inside. I doubt the Homewood Suites would appreciate it, however, if I took apart their TV.

What I really want is a small, light, hand-crank generator. I saw one at Micro Center, but it only produced 3 volts, for cell phones and the like.

The most obvious source of significant DC power is an automobile. I wonder if I could get the car to charge the laptop battery, without using an inverter... Stay tuned.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Yes, Virginia, There is Such a Thing as a Stupid Question

When I was a college freshman in Honors Chemistry, we had a very smart guy in the class. He went by his initials, and he was a bit of a pest, so I’ll call him DW. When we began the unit on Quantum Mechanics, we got into a lot more mathematical detail than a normal frosh Chem class. Most of the geeks who got into honors just ate this up with a soup ladle. We would sometimes digress into the philosophical implications of QM, including the Copenhagen interpretation and the anthropic hypothesis versus the Manyworlds theory.

As we progressed through the unit, DW made an absolute nuisance of himself. He had a constant chorus of “why”? “Why are we using this equation?” “Why is light both a wave and a particle?”. “If this is true, why isn’t that true?” DW was one of those Einsteinian “God does not play dice” people, and he was trying to constantly pick at the mathematical underpinnings that led to the Copenhagen interpretation. The problem was that he was a freshman Electrical Engineer. A bright one to be sure. But still. He seriously thought he was going to poke holes in the theory that people with names such as Heisenberg, Einstein, Schrodinger, Dirac, Pauling, and Fermi had green-lighted with only one year of undergrad to his credit? Sure there are arguments about QM – at the unified theory level - but you need to be well into graduate school in order to even understand the issues, to say nothing of posing intelligent questions.

This is not to say that you should not ask questions when the material does not make sense to you. And engineers are famous for saying “give me the formula so I can crank out numbers” rather than understanding the deeper implications of the theories they are using – that is a major divider between the engineering mindset and the mindset of a pure scientist. But the kinds of questions you ask, and the attitude behind them are different from DW’s when you are trying to understand the subject, rather than trying to pick it apart.

New Agers and Creationists ask questions from the point of view of having a belief and then looking for phenomena or theories that might bolster that belief – the same thought process as DW, and just as wrong.

A good modern example was our C student back at the creation museum. He didn’t even understand the basic foundations of Evolution, he started from the proposition that evolution is untrue, therefore he did not need to understand the very good reasons why other people believe it to be true. So he turned his brain off during the units on evolution and got a C. By not understanding the debates that went into the formation of the theory, he wound up raising issues that have been dealt with decades ago. Giving a point-by-point rebuttal, such as I did, is an exercise in idiocy, because he is, quite frankly, a self-admitted idiot on the subject. And he’s not in the debate to learn anything. I actually went over Dembski’s probability papers in the original to see if I could learn anything from the other side. THAT is the scientific mindset in action.

I am a seeker after truth.

I am a scientist.

Unfortunately, those are not always synonymous, but they should be.

So here is the first problem I have with Creationists and New Agers who come up using lines such as “I’m not interested in the answers, I just value questioning”. We all value questioning. In order to play in the game and ask valid questions, you have to have read the history of your field. Most ascientific questioners are asking questions that have been answered multiple times in the past. Some relevant pontificating from Professor Dutch on how atheists do the same thing in religious debates:

Consider the following often-posed questions:

How can a good God allow evil to happen in the world?

How can religious believers reconcile war or capital punishment with the commandment "thou shalt not kill?"

Why can't evolution simply be God's way of creating new life forms?

If you have ever asked any of these questions, or if you can't summarize the major schools of thought on these questions, you are theologically illiterate. You have no business in any debate involving religion because you simply know nothing at all about the subject.

He’s talking to you, Dawkins.

But back to the subject of pseudoscience, the first counter I have to the New Agers who “value questioning” is – why do you question? Do you know anything about the subject you are musing about? The answer, in my experience is uniformly: NO. The scientifically illiterate are welcome to their bull sessions with like-minded people, but once they step on the public stage, they are fair game for my derision.

Scientists value questioning. Scientists go to bed every night intoning the agnostic equivalent of prayer that one of their questions breaks down an accepted premise in their field so that they can win a Nobel. But scientific questioning comes in 2 forms The first is that a new phenomenon is observed that can not be explained by the current theory. Back in the 17th century, Newton and Huygens argued over the nature of light, but Huygens’s wave theory had a lot more going for it that Newton’s corpuscular theory, so light waves were accepted. Then late in the 19th century, the photoelectric effect was discovered, and Einstein came along and said that both Einstein and Huygens were right. But Einstein didn’t come up and say “well, Newton seemed to like ‘light particles’, and I like the idea, too, so lets try to cherry pick all the evidence that points towards light particles and ignore the wave stuff”. Physics didn’t tackle the problem until the photoelectric effect could not be explained by the wave theory.

I’ve heard (especially from New Agers touting “ancient wisdom”) that the Greeks discovered the atomic hypothesis. Horse shit. There was so much unknown at the time that multiple theories could and did adequately explain all of the known physical phenomena in the ancient world. It was not until careful measurements (with the aid of precise balances) were made in the 17th and 18th centuries that someone could propose a scientific atomic theory. Before that, there was no reason to privilege atomic theory over other explanations. Democritus was right, but for the wrong reasons. His world view was no more “scientific” than bull session on Science Fiction tropes so prevalent in college dorms today.

The second means of questioning in science is by taking a theory and using it to predict something that has not yet been observed. The very basis of chemistry is a classic example of this: the periodic theory of the elements predicted new elements as yet undiscovered when Mendeleev’s proposed their existence. But they were discovered.

Note that neither method of inquiry starts, as the New Agers do, with “well, this seems nice, so it ought to be true.” Take the effects of human thought on the physical world. We know a lot about how thought happens on a biochemical basis. We know a lot about the actual energy required to stir the chemical soup that comprises what we humans call “thought”. New Agers suggest that human thought can physically affect, among other things, the crystal structure of ice.

Let’s look at that hypothesis from both legitimate means of inquiry in science. First, what theory predicts such action? The known forms of energy in the brain – electrical and chemical, do not generate the kinds of electric, magnetic, or other fields that could even have an impact by direct action on anther part of the brain, let alone on external objects. So there is no prediction from the current theories of Neurology that would lead one to expect that human thought would influence external objects. One can argue that humans developed language as a thought amplifier precisely because we can’t influence the external environment with thought alone.

Most New Agers, because they have not bothered to do their homework, make do with the second method – experiments that seem to contradict prevailing theories. So then the question becomes: if you are making a claim that is not supported by current scientific theories, have you made an observation of physical phenomena – THAT CAN BE REPRODUCED UNDER CONTROLLED CONDITIONS - that can not be explained by science today? Scientists can make this claim. That is at the root of the debates about Unified Field Theory and String Theory. Can New Agers? The answer thus far is NO. James Randi will pay them one million dollars if they can.

However, “Dr.” Emoto claims that he has conducted such experiments. Why has he not applied for Randi’s million? Because he has ignored fundamental principles of chemistry and good laboratory and scientific practices in making his claims. Let’s rip that one apart, shall we?

First, one has to know something about how water crystallizes. The chart here shows a nice diagram of different types crystal formation at different temperatures. The claimed temperatures in the experiments do not match the crystal morphology in Emoto’s photos. That is enough to refute his entire experimental method and cast aspersions on his honesty, but let’s go on and give him the benefit of the doubt that he can’t read a thermometer correctly.

Other experimental problems include failure to control for humidity, aspirated air, and levels of pollutants in the “polluted” water – pollutants or air bubbles will seed ice crystals and have definite effects on crystal morphology. The experiment using music shows even more of this: loud low frequency vibrations in “heavy metal” will create more disturbances in ice crystal formation than lower intensity vibrations from classical music. All of this falls under the heading of “isolation of variables” a basic principle of experimental science of which Emoto seems entirely ignorant.

Finally, there is the macroscopic view of crystal formation. Ice is made of many tiny ice crystals. As an ice crystal forms, it spreads out until it meets another spreading crystal. In any pure water sample with beautiful crystals on aggregate, there will be portions of ugly interstitial regions - regions where 2 growing crystals meet, but don't match up their edges exactly - where the ice looks irregular or “ugly”. I guarantee you from personal experience that each sample will contain both ugly and pretty regions.

A genuine experiment would contain hundreds of photographs with a nice statistical algorithm to average some clearly defined measure of regularity (regular crystals are more beautiful, as defined by Emoto) of each crystal in each photograph, with an average of those scores into an aggregate score for each sample. In addition, each photograph would contain the focusing and camera setting data, as well as the time of exposure to the light that does begin to melt the crystal as it sits on the microscope.

However, this quote explains why I do not “value questions” from the likes of ignorami such as Emoto:

In fact, in the Maui News interview, Dr. Emoto specifically stated, “I do not require any blind tests on any samples,” but rather he believes that “the researcher’s aesthetic sense and character is the most important aspect when taking crystal photographs.”

So we are to believe that the photographer did not search for a crystal of the “correct” appearance in each sample.

Horse shit.