Archive for July 2008

Wanted – John Maynard Keynes, Jr

is ploughing through “Godel, Escher, Bach”; I’m plouging through Polanyi’s “The Great Transformation”. It about how England became a market economy and a market society, the answers being the creation of markets, and the creation of insitutions and regulations to manage the social effects of those markets. That’s a hot topic right now, what with the general awareness that globalisation and the Washington consensus of “free markets good, regulation bad” didn’t work that well.

However, this is nothing new. Polanyi’s book was written in the 1940s and was one of the theoretical underpinnings of the policies of the 1950s and 60s – Keynesian, markets under government control. And let’s face it, the 50s and 60s were a great time to be alive, massive economic growth and radical social transformation. Unfortunately, those policies brought us to the cul-de-sac of the 1970s. The way out of the cul-de-sac was the butchery of the market reforms of the 80s and 90s.

So what now? What next? If the policy pendulum swings back to more restraint on markets then yes, we can expect less social damage but we’ll be storing up economic damage to erupt again in a decade or two. Is economic policy just a pendulum swinging between those two options?

Don’t look at me, I dunno. We need a new kind of thinking about economics, about growth, about national policies and about international systems. We haven’t got it yet. But I’m quite liking what Dani Rodrik has to say about the debate (articles, blog).


from B3ta, of course

Mitochondrion 3.3 Centre Board Redesign

And so, the version numbers tick ever upwards…

It occurs to me that every part I’ve made for the Mitochondrion has, at that time, been the hardest piece of kit I’ve ever made. Case in point – the new centre board. It’s a double-sided circuit board, 14 cm long, 2 cm wide, so the same area as half a Post-It note. It contains a computer about as powerful as a Spectrum, a separate 256k memory, a two-channel audio pre-amp with cross-over and rectifier, a regulated power supply and a battery monitor. And twenty off-board connections. Oh, and there’s a daughter-board taking up 40% of one side. That’s four chips and 35 other parts. Half a Post-It note. Yeah, it’s pretty packed.

I’m definitely getting better at the process. I started the design on tuesday, including picking up an entirely new circuit drawing program (DipTrace, I love you), and the design just needs an hour or so of more tweaking to be done. Then I’ll be spending at least a day checking over the design and modeling/breadboarding the bits that I can, coz I don’t want to have to make yet another. And then buying parts, which will involve me phoning up suppliers and saying:

“A MAX710 in so16 please?”
“How many thousands do you want?”
“Just the one, thanks.”
“Only one thousand?”
“Sorry, no, only one.”

And then, some time later, actually making it and seeing if my design works or not… But it’s not like the other parts of the Mitochondrion don’t need further work…

The next project is going to involve no electronics at all, just hand saws and hammers. Well, and maybe the Gimp. The next electronics project is going to involve no boundary pushing at all, just bits and pieces that I’ve used before and can put together and expect it to work. Well, and maybe lithium batteries, so I’ll need to investigate better battery controllers. But apart from that, nothing new at all.

*drowns brain with booze to stop all the new ideas*

Morning randoms

Serato Scratch – made in NZ

Sheep, an endless source of fascination – Some sheep are fussier eaters than others

Oh, happy days (2005) – BBC Q&A: What does $60 a barrel mean to you?

Silly me, I’d have thought that a press release mocking the RSNZ as “a harem of whores” and calling the Society “Floozies for Fascism”, “Tarts Against Technology”, and “Doxies for Despotism” was actually an ironic, if slightly unhinged, way of mocking the Climate Science Coalition (our main critics who, truth be told, are much more polite). Such mocking has happened before, with some style, by the Flat Earth Society.

However, given that the press release came from one of NZ’s few objectivists, it’s entirely possible that he’s being serious. You’d think an objectivist would have some respect for science, objectivism being based on the idea that there is an objective reality, that humans can perceive? Seemingly, no, ‘objectivism’ here means not much more than pointing and yelling “Statists!”.

Anyway, in other news, in the UK there’s a waiting list of up to twenty weeks for hybrid cars. I guess the Statist conspiracy to destroy civilisation by making us buy more efficient cars is doing quite well then?

Mitochondrion news – having got the driver boards working properly, I’ve been thinking about the main board. This has three bodges on it already, and there’s at least seven more things I’d like to fix, which is a fair bit for something that’s all of fourteen centimetres long and two wide. So I’m thinking of rebuilding that next. What, you wanted me to finish something?

Drugs and rhetoric, together at last

Drugs, ho noes!
Massey’s 2007 Illicit Drug Monitoring System report came out this week:

And there’s a fundamental problem with it – it’s a survey of people who are identified frequent drug users. People get included in the survey if they respond to flyers and posters about the survey, or if they are suggested by users already in the survey. So the survey is looking at caners.

The compensation for a hour-long interview is a $20 music voucher. I’d expect this survey to under-represent coke-sniffing lawyers who normally charge several hundred per hour, so the survey is looking at poor caners.

It’s also a survey of key experts who have professional contact with frequent drug users, including people from needle exchanges, the Prostitutes Collective and so on, so the survey is looking at screwed-up, poor caners.

As you might expect, the survey reports that the majority of drug users in the survey have difficulties with health, the law, and money. What a surprise!

The people involved in the survey are thoroughly unrepresentative of the general population, and of most drug users. And that’s fine, coz this isn’t a survey of most drug users, just of the worst. I can see why it’s done this way, coz trying to survey the average person in the street, who may or may not be using drugs but wouldn’t admit to it if they did, would be a fairly fruitless task.

However, the problem arises when this information is used to inform the more general discussion on drugs and society. How we could get better information about the vast majority of drug users in society, that’s a tricky question.

Snark as a rhetorical tool
I’ve found someone who’s written style I love, mainly because his use of a particular rhetorical device, the concise and accurate snark. It’s Karl Polanyi, who’s book on finance and politics in the 19th Century I’m currently digging through. For example:

[On economists of the Austrian school]
“Vienna became the Mecca of liberal economists on account of a brilliantly successful operation on Austria’s Krone which the patient, unfortunately, did not survive.”

[On the effort to re-establish the Gold Standard]
“The effort, which failed, was the most comprehensive the world had ever seen.”

For the classical rhetoricians amongst you, would this device count as anacoluthon? Or is there a better term for spending most of a sentence in describing a thing, only to cut the ground from under that thing with a short, incidental clause?

Word of the week – “pantiwadulous”

The Royal Society of New Zealand released its statement on climate change last week. No, I didn’t write it, we have real climate scientists for that, but I did comment on the drafts. It says what the Royal Society of London, the US National Academy of Sciences and all the rest have said, namely that:

  • it is happening
  • we are causing it
  • we should do something about it

Here’s the response from our own bunch of skeptics, running roughly:

  • we don’t like the people who said this
  • we don’t believe the huge pile of very consistent evidence that everyone else believes, coz it’s just circumstantial
  • there has been no warming since 1958 (that’s a new complaint to me)
  • the climate varies anyway
  • you can’t predict the future with absolute certainty, so we’re not going to try at all, and nor should anyone else

So, when a small number of people have dug their feet in this much, it’s hard to see what possible evidence could ever change their positions. What can be done, other than (to paraphrase Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”) to be polite and wait for them to die?

Anyway, on to lighter fare, the Ministry of Transport’s report on “Surface transport costs and charges” (overview, full report.) The headline numbers are that, surprise, surprise, no-one pays the full costs of their transport:

  • cars directly pay 64% of their costs,
  • trucks directly pay 56% of their costs
  • buses directly pay 68% of their costs
  • rail users directly pay 77% of their costs

The main costs that aren’t directly paid for are building roads, congestion, deaths and injuries due to accidents, pollution, and noise. The main difference between road and rail costs are that rail users are supposed to pay back the cost of building the track; road users do not pay back the cost of building the road.

So those who travel less subsidise those who travel more, and taxpayers are subsidising road users more than they subsidise rail users, and truckers get more subsidy than anyone else. Of course, these figures aren’t entirely accurate and changes in costs can alter them (oops – $1/litre petrol drives NZ’s roading programme).

You can argue about whether this system is fair, you can argue about whether truckies should have to pay what they are asked to pay, you can argue how sustainable this is, and how sustainable it might be if there were no subsidies and every user paid the true costs, but please, at least start the discussion with the facts.

Radiohead – House of Cards

A while ago, I was waffling on about how the tools we’ve got let us capture 3D info, and very cheaply. Capturing 2D info is easy, it’s called a scanner.

I was impressed, coz the 3D scanners can now be got for less than 100 Euros. Yeah, well, that’s the home stuff. The professional kit can now capture 3D data in real time, and for large outdoor spaces. That kit was used for the new Radiohead video. It’s all position data. None of this is recorded using light, it’s all just points in x,y,z space:

This is how I see the world, when I’ve been doing too much design work – just clouds of point data, marking out the location in space of corners, edges, surfaces. It screws with your perception of reality.

Here’s how it was done. And that’s drooly-worthy in and of itself, but it may change the world. Kinda*.

Link a 2D scanner to a printer and you’ve got a photocopier. Ok, now imagine the step-change from early medieval times to today. Then, every page of writing had to be copied by pen, by hand, and cost astounding amounts of money, sufficient that books where rare, locked away in monasteries and, for all practical purposes, totally irrelevant to most people’s life. Today, I can copy and print text at essentially zero cost, my job involves not much but reading, everyone I know can read, and the written word rules the world.

Okay, right now, reproducing a physical object is expensive, tedious and error-prone. (I know, I’ve been making lots of error-prone physical objects recently.) But we’re heading rapidly towards the point where any physical object can be reproduced, anywhere, at ever plummeting cost. At which point, the techno-libertarian fantasy says “all your physical objects belong to us!”. Kinda.

* And here’s where I think this is far more complicated than anyone has worked out:

You may have noticed that, despite having zero-cost reproduction of writing, we still have a publishing industry, bookshops, and authors getting paid. The first we don’t need for physical reproduction, nor the second, and the third is the only essential part, but the current setup seems to do that part particularly badly.

Partly this is inertia, we’ve yet to reach the new equilibrium, partly the system is a response to the search problem of sorting the written wheat from the chaff, and partly it’s coz business models like 20th Century publishing have an inbuilt and strong resistance to being made obsolete (see copyright laws, DRM, and this XKCD toon).

However, 3D objects are not words on paper, or tunes, or movies. They are far more than just data to define the surface of a closed volume, that volume being filled with homogenous stuff. Pick up any manufactured object on your desk, think about what’s inside it. Okay, coffee cup, no prob, could reproduce it already with a sub-$10K 3D printer and a sub-$1K kiln. Mp3 player? Full of astoundingly complicated stuff, strange materials, patterned on a sub-micron scale. We’re not making that from a 3D printer till we’ve got nanotech, and when/if we have, then all bets are off.

So, making all the interesting objects is far harder than 3D printing allows. It makes it easier, but nowhere near zero-cost.

Also, the nefarious uses of 3D printers are sufficient that I don’t believe any government will allow their unrestrained use, just as colour photocopiers won’t copy bank notes. From a geek-libertarian point of view, I should be annoyed about this, but frankly, I think it might not be a great idea to give everyone the ability to make a zero-cost machine gun and bullets in their own garden shed.


Since I started on version 3 of the Mitochondrion, they’ve released a new version of the driver chip that I’m using for the outputs. I could fit 126 of them on the same bus, instead of the current maximum of eight. This would give me sixteen over a hundred times the bandwidth and sixteen times the total energy output. And the new model does a bunch of other funky stuff as well, making the software easier.

Okay, drawbacks being that the batteries would die sixteen times faster and there’s no physical room for the extra outputs. The pins on the new chip are 0.6 mm apart, not 1.2 mm, so I couldn’t actually solder it with my current setup, and I’d need to use a multi-level circuit board to fit the wiring in. The whole thing might melt at that power density and the psychological effects could render it unuseable. It’s borderline-incapacitating as it is.

Damn you, white heat of the technological revolution! Slow down, ffs!

(Actually don’t, just deliver to me a faster prototyping/manufacturing setup, for minimal cost. Cheers. Then I can add the Mitochondrion, Mark 4, onto the List.)

Hmm… quadrupling the power output looks feasible… and I think using a daughter board I could fit the third sensory input into the main bay… oh dear, can you hear my divorce impending?

The amount we’ve done at the section deserves a proper post. So instead, here’s a pic of a very tiny tatjna and a very large wood pile.

Australia invades NZ
Bwahahaha! Those ads would definitely convince me to invade New Zealand.

Oh, wait, … er …

You wot?

House progress

After three years, we’re finally starting on the house, though by “house” I mean section, and by “starting” I mean moving stuff so that we can start, at some point, in the future. But hey, progress!

With gratefully received assistance from Trevor and Daniel, I’ve been sorting out the wood in the gulley, and by “sorting out” I mean cutting into pieces that can be moved, then moving it as short a distance as I can get away with, coz ffs, wood is heavy when it’s in huge chunks. Yes, this gives me the excuse to wave a huge chainsaw around, and by “wave” I mean swear at whilst trying to start the bastard. Cliff’s big saw has a three foot bar and an 80cc engine, goes through a tank of two-stroke mix in twenty minutes, doesn’t idle, munches through bar oil, is far too loud, and far too smoky, but f’it, it cuts wood and that’s what it’s there for.


Yes, the pile of wood is above head-height. It’s seventy-year old macrocarpa and pine. Anyone want it? (Also, it is down a gulley and you can’t currently get in there with even a wheel-barrow.)

Cliff the Builder and Garth have finished off a retaining wall, and built another, so that we’ll have at least some flat land. Then they built a stand so that the huge posts and beams can be stored out of the way. Some of the pieces will weigh 300 kilos when they’re dry, so they’re heavier than that now, thus moving them has involved ropes, pulleys made on site with chainsaws, and Cliff’s Holder tractor, built 1950ish, “so ugly it’s cute”, and now on its third engine, from a Cortina. These are the little bits of wood:

And this week, there’ll be more of the same, with moving the really big bits of wood and getting ready to start hacking into the hill for the foundations.

And that’s about fifteen person-day’s work so far and we’re yet to break ground on the house. Holy crap, this is a lot of work…

As there hasn’t been a Mitochondrion progress update for a while:

Your bit-by-bit reporting here!