3D printing and fab tech: what are the economic forces?

Dr Manhattan didn't need a 3D printer

A company is shipping files for 3D printers rather than replacement parts. Shipping costs are apparently 'prohibitively high'. A chap from 3D print design site Shapeways says:

If they were to make all replacement parts and add-ons downloadable and 3-D printable, they might not need to even manufacture the parts themselves; they can simply release the file and the synthesizer owners can 3-D print at home, or with a 3-D printing service like Shapeways. In this way they do not need to mass-produce, hold inventory or distribute their products; they only need to design and release.

I saw this just after a conversation about whether it's possible to plan for reducing transport costs by changing where production takes place. (This actually happens in some sectors - I'll come back to that in another post.) Here's another example of much the same enthusiasm.

Just assume for a moment 3D printers and fully equipped fablabs (let's call it fab tech for short) were capable of making more or less anything. (There's a nice little fictional account here.) The design process happens entirely in software and can be torrented like any other file (with all of the IP implications that would have). This isn't a realistic picture: material input into something like an iphone is very specific, and you'd have difficulty printing a nuclear bomb without enriched uranium (though it appears guns are less of a problem). As with any industrial revolution, fab tech would be more likely to change the commodity landscape, not product-for-product replace our current one.

Even if that world of a perfect split between software design and hardware printing were possible, what does it look like? It's a beguiling question, and I can imagine two opposing forces: an increase in Jacobs-like innovation dynamics and a rather more mundane 'weight of stuff' and production cost problem. As a first guess, I think the latter is probably by far the most important, but it'll be fun to think through more.

GRIT: 'geospatial restructuring of industrial trade'

Our new grant. Intro write-up also up at the Talisman blog. There's a link in there to this interactive viz of the UK's trade flows - a starting point for working on how best to make the spatial economy visible.

Alison Heppenstall, Gordon Mitchell, Malcolm Sawyer (LUBS) and I have been awarded an 18 month grant by the ESRC through their secondary data analysis initiative. Titled 'Geospatial Restructuring of Industrial Trade' (GRIT), the motivation for the grant came from a deceptively simple question: what happens to the spatial economy when the costs of moving goods and people change?

That's a good old fashioned location theory question, but 21st century challenges are breathing new life into it. During the next few decades an energy revolution must take place if we're to stand any chance of avoiding the worst effects of climate change. What price must carbon be to keep within a given global temperature? How long will any switch to new infrastructure take? (Kramer and Haigh 2009; Jefferson 2008) In fact, will peak oil get us before climate change does? (Wilkinson 2008; Bridge 2010) In a time when we're discovering costs may go up as well as down, do we have a good handle on the spatial impact this may have? Can we use new data sources and techniques to answer that, in a way relevant to people and organisations being asked to rapidly adapt?

GRIT will focus on two jobs. First, creating a higher-resolution picture of the current spatial structure of the UK economy. Second, thinking about how possible fuel costs changes could affect it. We'll examine the web of connections between businesses in the UK, looking to identify what sectors and locations may be put under particular pressure if costs change. There is a direct connection with climate change policy: the most carbon-intensive industries (also very water intensive) are also those with the lowest value density, and so most vulnerable to spatial cost changes.

Most economics still works in what Isard called a "wonderland of no dimension" (Isard 1956, 26) where distance plays no role except as another basic input, in principle substitutable for any other. Some economic geographers believe that because energy and fuel are such a small part of total production costs, "it is better to assume that moving goods is essentially costless than to assume [it] is an important component of the production process" (Glaeser and Kohlhase 2004, 199). At the other extreme, social movements like the transition network privilege the cost of distance above all else. They make the intuitive assumption that if the cost of moving goods goes up, they can't be moved as far – so localisation is the only possible outcome. They are making a virtue of what they see as economic necessity imposed by climate change and peak oil. At the extreme, some even argue that "to avoid famine and food conflicts‚ we need to plan to re-localise our food economy".

Reality lies somewhere between those two extremes of ignoring spatial costs altogether or assuming a future of radical relocalisation. GRIT is taking a two-pronged approach to finding out: producing a data-driven model and talking to businesses and others interested in the problem. Our two main data sources both use the 'standard industrial classification' code system, breaking the UK into 110 sectors. First, the national Supply and Use tables contain an input-output matrix of money flows between all of those sectors. (I've created a visualisation of this matrix as a network: click sectors to view the top 5% of its trade links and follow them. Warning: more pretty than useful, but gives a sense of the scale of flows between sectors.) It contains no spatial information, however – we plan to get this from our second source, the 'Business Structure Database' (BSD). As well as location information for individual businesses, each is SIC-coded and also provides fields for turnover and staff number. It also has information on firms' structure: "such as a factory, shop, branch, etc". (There's a PDF presentation here outlining how we're linking them, though I'll write more about that in a later post.)

By linking these two (and adding a dollop of spatial economic theory) we have a chance to create a quite fine-grained picture of the UK's spatial economy. From that base, questions of cost change and restructuring can then be asked. The 'dollop of theory' is obviously central to that; we've tested a synthetic version that produces plausible outputs (see that presentation for more info) but 'plausible' doesn't equal 'genuinely useful or accurate'. I'll save those problems for another post also. This sub-regional picture of the UK economy is a central output from the project in its own right and it is hoped it can be used in other ways – for instance, for thinking about how industrial water demand may change over time.

Even before that, two big challenges come with those datasets. First, BSD data is highly sensitive. It is managed by the Secure Data Service (SDS) and can only be accessed under strict conditions (PDF). Work has to take place on their remote server, and anything produced needs to get through their disclosure vetting before they’ll release it, to make sure no firm’s privacy is threatened. These conditions include things like: "SDS data and unauthorised outputs must not be printed or be seen on the user’s computer screen by unauthorised individuals." So, no-one without authorisation is actually allowed to look at the screen being worked on. Crikey. The main challenge from the BSD, however, is getting any of the geographical information we want through their vetting procedure. The process of working this out is going to be interesting. To their credit, the SDS have so far been very patient and helpful. While genuinely keen to help researchers, they also have to keep to draconian conditions – it can't be an easy tension to manage.

The second challenge is really getting under the skin of the input-output data. On the surface, it appears to very neatly describe trade networks within the UK, but its money flows can't all be translated simply to spatial flows. For a start, as the visualisation clearly shows, the largest UK sector, 'financial services', gets the UK's biggest single money flow from 'imputed rent' – which doesn't actually exist as exchanged goods or services. This comes down to the purpose of the Supply and Use table – a way to measure GDP. Imputed rent is a derived quantity used to account for the value to GDP of owned property. That's only one small example, but it illustrates a point: care is needed when trying to repurpose a dataset to something it wasn't intended for – in this case, to help investigate the structure of the UK's spatial economy. It is hoped that less problems exist for more physical sectors, but that can't be assumed.

The second 'prong' is to talk to businesses and other interested parties to find out how they deal with changing costs and to see if the work of the project makes sense from their point of view. We plan to hold two seminars to dig into the affect of changing spatial costs on businesses. Anecdotal evidence suggests suppliers have been citing fuel costs as a reason for price increases for a while now.

A whole range of other groups are keenly interested in spatial economics, though it might not always be labelled thus. An example already mentioned, the 'transition movement' is taking action at the local level. It has, in recent years, developed strong links with academic researchers. A vibrant knowledge exchange has developed between locally acting groups and researchers, with the aim of making sure that "transition and research form a symbiotic relationship" (Brangwyn 2012). It isn't just about spatial economics: it's imbued with a sense that people can play a part in shaping their own economic destiny. It's hoped that GRIT will be of interest here also.

So that's GRIT in a nutshell. There are clear gaps in the project's current remit. Trade doesn't stop at the UK's borders and any change in costs will have international effects (an issue I've been pestering Anne Owen from Leeds School of Environment about). Many of the costs most essential to business decisions are either hard to quantify or to do with people, not goods. (Think about how much it costs a hairdresser to get a person’s head under the scissors from some distance away, e.g. in the rent they pay; this hints at the reason data appears to show the service sector may be the most vulnerable to fuel cost changes.)

Aside from the technical aspects of the project, there are two other things to write about I'll save for later: the nature of distance costs and the place of modelling in research and society. And on that last point, just a bit of brainfood to finish on from Stan Openshaw (1978). In theory, GRIT wants to tread both of these lines, but that's something far easier said than done. (Hat-tip Andy Turner for lending me the book.)

Without any formal guidance many planners who use models have developed a view of modelling which is the most convenient to their purpose. When judged against academic standards, the results are often misleading, sometimes fraudulent, and occasionally criminal. However, many academic models and perspectives of modelling when assessed against planning realities are often irrelevant. Many of these problems result from widespread, fundamental misunderstandings as to how models are used and should be used in planning. (Openshaw 1978 p.14)



Brangwyn, Ben. 2012. “Researching Transition: Making Sure It Benefits Transitioners.” Transition Network. http://www.transitionnetwork.org/news/2012-03-29/researching-transition-....

Bridge, Gavin. 2010. “Geographies of peak oil: The other carbon problem.” Geoforum 41 (4) (July): 523–530. doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2010.06.002
Glaeser, EL, and JE Kohlhase. 2004. “Cities, Regions and the Decline of Transport Costs.” Papers in Regional Science 83 (1) (January): 197–228. doi:10.1007/s10110-003-0183-x.

Isard, Walter. 1956. Location and Space-economy: General Theory Relating to Industrial Location, Market Areas, Land Use, Trade and Urban Structure. MIT Press.

Jefferson, M. 2008. “Accelerating the Transition to Sustainable Energy Systems.” Energy Policy 36 (11): 4116–4125.

Kramer, Gert Jan, and Martin Haigh. 2009. “No Quick Switch to Low-carbon Energy.” Nature 462 (7273) (December 3): 568–569. doi:10.1038/462568a.

Openshaw, Stan. 1978. Using Models in Planning: A Practical Guide.

Webber, Michael J. 1984. Explanation, Prediction and Planning. Research in Planning and Design. London: Pion.

Wilkinson, P. 2008. “Peak Oil: Threat, Opportunity or Phantom?” Public Health 122 (7) (July): 664–666; discussion 669–670. doi:10.1016/j.puhe.2008.04.007.

"We need to thread a path between anarchy and fascism" - MT.

Oo, another copy of a P3 comment following a brilliant one-liner from MT and Susan Anderson's skepticism about planetary management.

"I have trouble with the fundamental premise of “we need to manage the planet”. That seems to be exactly where we have lost our way..."

“We need to thread a path between anarchy and fascism, maintaining an unstable balance between two devastating equilibria.”

These could be read as saying the same thing. Elinor Ostrom addressed the same issue in her final article. It's the subject of J.C Scott's Seeing like a State, which does better at identifying the problems than any solutions. Stafford Beer tried addressing it but just designed a different kind of centralised system.

There are already global networks and systems. Transnational companies are so effective because they can reduce transaction costs internally and do away with many uncertainties. They are doing many things politicians tell us are impossible or dangerously socialist/technocratic. It's just they're doing it for their own aims, which is apparently fine.

Fundamentally, no - we can't 'manage the planet', can we? But are there any other routes to take other than to throw our hands in the air, concurring with Agent Smith that we're no better than a virus - or:

So far, we’re not doing any better than cyanobacteria. We consume resources and reproduce until everything is filled up and used up. Okay, we have a few successes, for example in controlling acid rain and CFCs. But on balance, we don’t do much better than the bacteria.

That's result of the extreme freedom end of the spectrum - that we can all act according to our own wills and somehow the best of all worlds will result. This treats our social structures like mystical gods - "as if correctly sensing the importance of sunlight for life on earth, we were to merely worship the sun rather than study astronomy or photosynthesis" (Desai 1994, p.47, talking about Hayek's take on the price system).

J.C Scott's point is all about the logical conclusion of the 'gaze' of top-down state planning, which is the other end of the spectrum.

I have no idea how we get from all this theory to new systems that can help. The problem with successful systems (like successful cognitive algorithms) is that they generally have to evolve through trial and error in a high-cost environment. I suppose we are increasingly going to face such an environment.

Human nature has a good trick though - this is a key Jane Jacobs point when she talks about the 'logic' of productivity in dense networks: "the process is full of surprises and is hard to predict - possibly it is unpredictable - before it has happened." She likens it to art: an attentive feedback by those creating. "At any rate, messages - that is, suggestions - afforded by the parent work seem to be vital to the process." [p.59, Economy of Cities 1969]

So there's this process of deliberative creation, fumbling, mistakes, recombination - as humans, we get to benefit not only from the power of evolution but of our own ability to be discerning as we feel our way forward. We then need to build platforms on platforms on platforms as we find what works [got a bit of a thing about platforms after reading Steven Johnson]

That's my take on the middle way anyhoo.

Stephen Emmott's 'Ten Billion': "in truth, I think we're already fucked"

planet3.org jeremiad of mine bouncing off Stephen Emmott's 'Ten Billion'.

Jeremiad: liking that word! h/t MT for providing my first sighting of it.

New Green Party leader on GM and Rothamsted

Robert Wilson and Mark Lynas picked up on a Pod Delusion interview with the new leader of the Green Party, Natalie Bennett. James O'Malley spoke to her about GM and the Rothamsted trial (that me and Sue responded to at the time with this open letter). Natalie’s response is troubling, for reasons I’ll discuss below – and not just her position on GM. Many of the usual tropes appear (some of which me and Sue targetted in the open letter), especially regarding corporate control. I’ve transcribed the key bits here with the time location for the mp3. Discussion after the transciption. She notes to start with that:

The Green Party doesn't whip. We allow divergent views and if something does come up I don't agree on, I just need to say, my personal view is that but the party line is that and the party has no problem with it.

But of course, she’s the leader of the party now and so her views on this stuff do matter – not least for my own choice at the ballot box. I’ve voted for the Greens in the past, but with recent events over Rothamsted? This interview as it stands, I think, rules me out of voting for them again – though there’s `dialogue’ mentioned, perhaps that could change. Somehow I doubt that, but we’ll see.

Anyway – James gets straight into the Take the Flour Back protest. Natalie’s first thoughts (14'):

My first degree is agricultural science, so that's where I come to from this. I think that GM crops and the release of GM crops into the environment is the wrong way to go because the fact is GM crops as currently instituted represent a further expansion of industrial agriculture, enormous scale corporate agriculture that's just utterly the wrong direction to be going in, in terms of the future of farming that we need.

I have a particular obsession with soils, and we're utterly trashing the planet's soils. Soils are absolutely critical and essential and we barely understand what's going on with them. We can't replace them easily, and huge industrial scale agriculture that's just ploughing across the landscape in huge fields that relies on a very small handful of seed companies who don't allow farmers to save their own seeds - it's entirely the wrong model of agriculture. So GM for me is tied up with an entirely wrong model of agriculture and is entirely the wrong way to go. // And there are safety concerns in terms of the risk factors - what you could be releasing without really understanding what you're doing.

Asked about the Rothamsted trial in specific (15'30''), James points out that you can oppose corporate control of the food system and support GM. Natalie skipped straight past that:

The nature of that experiment was, you were letting loose something into the environment. There'd been experiments in greenhouses that no-one had a problem with, but it's a genie that once you let it out of the bottle, it's out there. I know the scientists were claiming there was a very very tiny chance of cross-contamination, but actually there were some other figures produced from different peer-reviewed papers published in journals that said the figures were a considerable order of magnitude higher than they were saying. And there simply wasn't the evidence that this was necessary or pointing us in a direction that was useful.

Asked the specific question (16'15''): "would you align yourself with Take the Flour Back? If they had succeeded in smashing the experiment up, do you think they were doing the right thing?"


Nice and clear. James also read out an email question from ‘a Rothamsted scientist’ specifically for her (16'25''):

Agriculture uses land, energy and other natural resources. With increasing demand for food and other agricultural products, its environmental impact will increase. To avoid this, improved crops that give better yield using fewer resources like pesticides, fertiliser and water can help. How can the Greens and GM science folks find a way to dialogue so that a case-by-case applications of GM could be evaluated for environmental benefits?

Natalie's answer:

I'd certainly be very happy to talk to them and I think I've got the foundation so that we can talk the same language, and I'm always happy to talk to scientists and people of good will who are coming from a place where they want to solve the sort of problems he's talking about. What I'd say is, plant breeding is terribly important, but there's also issues of the way you manage the land, the way you ensure you haven't got soil erosion - huge numbers of issues that simply aren't being tackled. And that focus simply on plant breeding comes from a very strong commercial focus.

So. The first thing that leapt out at me was her getting straight in there with her scientific credentials: coming at from an agri science background, she claims to be not just your average crop-trashing reactionary. It also gives her, she says, a common scientific language to talk to Rothamsted with. On Rothamsted’s arguments about contamination (e.g. in their Q&A), she references “some other figures produced from different peer-reviewed papers published in journals that said the figures were a considerable order of magnitude higher than they were saying". That’s something to follow up: no-one expects actual references in an interview, but I wonder what she’s talking about? At any rate, again, she’s keen to present herself as an agricultural scientist who accepts the validity of peer review. I wonder where these papers will turn out to be directly relevant to the Rothamsted trial, or the same contamination arguments you can see on Take the Flour Back’s own website? (Also, I wonder how many orders of magnitude she has in mind?)

Specific question for Natalie then: what peer-reviewed papers are you referring to when you claim Rothamsted are wrong about the contamination risk by `orders of magnitude?’

This illustrates a point that climate 'skepticism' also shows very clearly: you'll rarely hear people say, "I think x, but there's absolutely no scientific basis for it. I just happen to think that." Science is like motherhood and apple pie in that respect. But doing as Natalie has done here - say "I am scientifically literate" - doesn't make you scientifically literate. She clearly thinks its important, getting straight in there with "I have a science background, so..." But how does she do on her substantive science knowledge? And, actually, can we prise the science from the politics on this one? I'd argue yes, but...

There’s also a murky confusion here that was present in a reply I got from Caroline Lucas too (haven’t checked if I can use any of that publicly yet): there are x, y problems with GM or the corporate food system ; therefore I support trashing the experiment. It’s weak and unreasonable. I’ve said before, I fully support the need for direct action, but – as with James Hansen (and notice that wasn’t even destructive of property) – you need to be putting a helluva lot more work into your reasoning than any of the Rothamsted attackers or attack-supporters have mustered. It’s perhaps what I find most annoying about Green Party members supporting the destruction of the crop: you’re making arguments about problems with the global food system. How did you get from there to “let’s trash their experiment?" (This was roughly Caroline Lucas’ take as well: here are x,y arguments about the food system. Also, direct action has a valid place in a democratic society. None of which I disagree with.)

The key argument, though, is one that many of us have headbutted repeatedly: “GM for me is tied up with an entirely wrong model of agriculture and is entirely the wrong way to go." Her whole argument pivots on that – but is it true? The point me and Sue made says no – any more than computer code is tied up with entirely the wrong model of computing. Obviously, code is dominated by corporate players – we live in a largely capitalist world. Does that mean we should attack all coders, open source as well? The coding I’m doing at the moment is to help understand the economic impact of energy cost changes. Am I microsoft? Am I Apple? No. Obviously. This isn’t a difficult point, is it?

Equally, does the existence of Monsanto mean we should attack all GM? Right now, Natalie appears to say, unequivocally, “yes". She has, however, said she’ll talk to Rothamsted and other scientists, and that’s something I’d love to see happen. Take The Flour Back notoriously refused to openly debate the scientists. If the Green Party takes a different approach, perhaps something will come of it. We all have a network of ideas and unquestioned assumptions and they don’t change if they’re not challenged. Ben Goldacre nailed this one perfectly (and of course this applies to me as much as anyone else):

People make mistakes. What distinguishes you from the morons is what you do when the mistakes get pointed out.

She attacks the focus on plant breeding also: it ‘comes from a very strong commercial focus’ that, she believes, neglects other agricultural issues. My first thought on hearing that was: ‘as if good yields were only a capitalist concern’. There are, of course, complex issues of access to food and the way in which scale and profit-making may effect the structure of food production – but we need to remember how many mouths there are to feed, and that the need for scale isn’t going away. I think the approach people like Natalie want is what economic geographers would call `Jacobs externalities’ – a rather bland and mathematical description of the fact that certain kinds of localised production networks can produce more than the sum of their parts. That is true, they can. But they’re not the only way to be more productive, and Jane Jacobs fully recognised the vital role that standard, boring economies of scale can play. It’s an interesting abstract question whether those different kinds of scale outcomes must be at odds with each other – I would argue not. But at any rate, this ‘small is beautiful, big is evil’ heuristic is not going to help us understand how to progress.

The same applies to GM and many, many other things we need to try and keep our minds open about. So much has to change, and so rapidly, our body politic needs to be developing a much stronger ability to properly assess all options. We don’t seem to be showing much sign of doing that – possibly the reverse, in fact. Trite arguments about corporations and “GM is further expansion of enormous scale corporate agriculture that's just utterly the wrong direction to be going in" = major fail. We need to start by understanding GM as one technology among many, including (some links here) the history of mutagenesis and the way we’ve historically introduced plant species into different ecosystems. (Some more of my starting questions here, the first two being the most relevant; no closer to answering them, perhaps.)

Just to finish, Natalie does categorically say (following all the Jeremy Hunt kerfuffle) that homeopathy is 'a scientific nonsense' that only ever works because of the placebo effect. However, she then goes on to say that, actually, that effect gives it a place in publicly funded medicine, if all other approaches haven't worked and someone might actually benefit if that person "believes in it and trusts in it and, because of the placebo effect, it works... psychology is part of medicine".

Which is actually close to Jeremy Hunt's own take (see the link above): if you're focused on patient outcomes and - as she says, you've ruled out all other serious medical conditions with known effective treatments - a placebo might give you value for money. Interestingly, I'm having difficulty finding a flaw with that. Also, it implies that people saying “Jeremy Hunt believes in magic water" are wrong – at least going by his ‘patient centring is the point’ argument. To deny someone an approach that might help them because you want to wrestle their comforting illusions off them and cuff them round the ear might make you feel intellectually superior. But if that leaves them medically worse off, what's actually been achieved?

The answer might be - as James goes on to say in the podcast - that you've reinforced the message that evidence doesn't matter in health outcomes. But of course the evidence also shows this placebo approach can work for some, so it isn't quite as clear cut as that. It's annoyingly murky, not sure what to think.

However! To end on an emphatic note: dialogue between Green Party / anti-GM / scientists = yes, let’s see that happen please. And someone please record the outcome. It needs to be ongoing, not just debating-society point-scoring nonsense. The issues are hard, and changing one’s own assumptions is not always an easy or speedy process.

Look to yourself

Don’t look back or up; look inside yourself, where your own cunning, will and power - all the tools that life’s improvement may require - reside. (Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity p.30)

Krugman's piece on empowerment today bought that quote back to mind again from over ten years back. Events in the past couple of years have given it a new resonance, but it was Krugman's obvious point about medical care that leapt out:

If you’ve ever been in this situation you’ll understand what I mean by saying that empowering seniors to 'control their personal healthcare decisions' is very definitely not what you want right then.

I've had a related experience trying to organise home care for a family member. They were, in theory, 'empowered' with a budget to spend on that care. Of course, because they needed care, they weren't actually able to seek out their own care. You'd think that would be pretty obvious, wouldn't you? As it happened, I couldn't find any care providers with free availability. In the end, a separate process found a company I'd not come across. That happened once a professional social care worker who knew the system got involved.

Like so many things the current UK government are pushing further, that was all New Labour policy to begin with. There are such obviously sound economic reasons for having decent support structures rather than 'empowerment', mostly to do with boring information and transaction costs (which very drily sums up what's wrong with the situations above - there are costs that the idea of 'empowerment' ignores - a quite wilful ignorance, perhaps).

It would be a fine thing if those of us who want such support structures and were willing to contribute to them could separate from those who don't. I am happy to pay more tax to hand over a whole set of cost issues I would rather someone else organised. I would also rather that happened in a way that supported the obviously better-value options like state-led health (or some other non-state option that recognised the stupidity of purely insurance-based health care.) Perhaps there are good libertarian ideas that allow precisely this - after all, presumably, nothing would stop mutual societies being set up. But the difference between opt-in and opt-out rates for these kind of things makes the legislative route seem a helluva lot more straightforward.

One thought that occurred to me recently: in the US, large companies often provide health options as part of the job. As a whole, I think costs would be lower if healthcare was state-run, since in the US as elsewhere, most of the economy's activity comes from SMEs unable to offer such benefits, not the larger firms offering that kind of cover. It would thus make for a more stable workforce. But it's a picture of a very different political setup: fight your way into one of the corporate fiefdoms and healthcare will be provided for you and your family - but only if you remain loyal to the company. You can live inside those walls or, if you are not talented or hard-working enough (and thus it's entirely your own fault), you can scratch a living in the maquiladoras hunched up against them.

I'm sure that's a stoned vision of corporate sovereignty I grew out of 15 years ago, didn't I? But then, looking at what's happening here, in the US, in Europe, New Zealand, elsewhere, I'm not so sure.

World Wide What???

This is a nifty example of how reality works on the interweb. I saw the poster on facebook and, like many others, for a moment thought, 'well, that's the sun all over, innit?' However, I've been gotcha'd too often by the Guardian's April 1st stories. They generally aim for a core of plausible, while tweaking the average Guardianista's sandal-wearing liberal nipples in just the right way. More than once, April 1st has seen me having a foaming rant, before eventually realisation hits, followed closely by acute embarrassment and sitting in a corner sulking at my own stupidity. (Chris Martin openly supporting David Cameron seemed particularly likely, I recall.)

It occurs to me, though, there's a parallel to how `markets' are talked about. To paraphrase Obi Wan, `market forces are are an energy field created by all living things. They surround us and penetrate us. They bind the galaxy together.' Which is to say, they're a mystical nonsense prayed to daily by people who believe in the confidence fairy. It's cargo cult gibberish. It's like turning up to some vital, knife-edge diplomatic negotiation teetering on the edge of war, cracking open a beer and saying, `chill - language will save us.'

Similar claims are made of the interwebs, and they're wrong for the same reason. There's nothing intrinsic to its structure that will produce truthiness or optimal outcomes. It can be used as a platform for doing that - but only if you actually develop tools to achieve specific aims. A trivial but suggestive example: guitar tab. The net's full of the stuff, and there are many sites with tabs for specific songs. But the vast majority of the time, they turn out to be precisely the same. That's not because they're correct, it's because the first person to dump it on the web got copied and recopied. No effective mechanism exists for improving the accuracy of particular songs. An echo-chamber is the unsurprising result, despite the fact that the net should be the perfect vehicle for some form of guitartab wikipedia. The machinery for that hasn't been built, though.

There are projects attempting to get meta on the net's inability to manage `peer review' effectively, like hypothes.is. That's got to be on the right track if there's no magic force that can do it for us. And the same applies to markets: effective ones are quite specific structures. Often cobbled together haphazardly, they can nevertheless be tweaked and developed for specific purposes, even though - just as with good code development - you'd best stay away from attempting all-encompassing gargantuan rebuild projects (compare the approach of NHS hack day to CSC's work on NHS records).

There's so much more to write about truthiness in the wake of current Republican goings-on, all the Assange gubbins and the ongoing mismatch between the physical and political reality of climate change... another time.

Total perspective vortex

Jonathan Jones has been staring at Mars (through the eyes of Curiosity) and getting a sinking feeling about Earth. I'm guessing he probably didn't write that daft headline. Mars has, still, given him a total perspective vortex moment:

Mars is a beautiful place, as this picture shows, but it is majestically dead. The universe appears to be full of places like that. What no one has so far found much trace of is a place like this: a planet that jumps with life. Earth is a miracle, quite possibly the greatest miracle in the entire cosmos. It is now proven beyond any reasonable doubt that we are playing dangerously with the very fabric of that miracle, endangering the biological balances of our amazing world. Endangering ourselves. In this picture we look on a dead world. Do those silent strata reveal the Martian past, or our future?

Commenters have been picking up on the factual accuracy of that last point, but that isn't what he's saying, I don't think. It's a specific sense of incredulity mixed with, maybe, a suspicion that this must surely all be a VR computer game simulation. There's a lot of it about at the moment as everyone wonders what possible curve the gradient of arctic sea ice extent is going to describe, given where it's pointing right now.

Curiosity's insane landing (still gives me goosebumps, that video) offered a vicarious sense of achievement: we did that! Humans, that is. I am technically of the same species as Jazz musician turned rocket scientist Adam Steltzner. I've been using every new pic sent back as my desktop like I'm about five. It's just mindblowing. This image of an open plain stretching to distant mountains is still my favourite - I can imagine setting off towards them, exactly as Curiosity is planned to.

But give it a hundred years, how will we see Curiosity? She'll still be sat there - likely long dead from wear and tear and the Martian weather despite her nuclear battery. Still, that human-made metal, wire, heatpump, code will be on the Martian surface for thousands of years. If she could look back to Earth in a hundred or two hundred, what would she see?

As Jones says, `Earth is a miracle, quite possibly the greatest miracle in the entire cosmos.' That miracle will still be seething with life; it's weathered plenty of extinction events as it will the latest one. But is there going to be any place for a species capable of putting robots on Mars? Are we capable of the seemingly impossible, stopping ourselves from unravelling the web of our civilisation?

Hmm. I appear to be developing a habit of going off on Jeremiads. I'll attempt to get some actual content into upcoming posts...

What’s the difference between a boxplot and an x-ray? Visualisation and Processing

A repost of my first blog entry on the Talisman blog, trying harder to understand visualisation and communication.
This article is the first of a few I hope to write about visualisation and Processing, a graphics tool created by Ben Fry and Casey Reas back in 2001. In this one I'll introduce Processing and get into some hard-core navel-gazing about visualisation. Next time I'll look at ways to use the Processing library as part of larger Java projects, where I'll assume some knowledge of Java and the Netbeans IDE. We can then move on to some fruitful combination of coding and chin-stroking. I'll also be attending the Guardian's data visualisation masterclass and will report back.

Communication and visualisation in research is both absolutely essential and mired in misunderstanding. It's essential, of course: all research needs to communicate its findings. Ideally, we want that communication to be effective. In some fields, communication is not only vital but fraught: the science of climate change faces concerted attempts to distort its output, and some wonder whether researchers are the best people to deal with this.

So what works? And, maybe more importantly, what doesn't work - and why not? The misunderstanding is perhaps quite simple: we think all images are equal. They enter the eye the same for everyone, don't they? Well, no. This post looks at some of these complexities by talking about four different static images: an x-ray, a box-plot, a mind-map and a simple graphic from the Guardian.

Cutting through the branch we're standing on

I didn't think this sort of thing happened in real life: an old friend of the family (who I haven't seen in many years and am banking on not reading this blog!) seriously injured his neck recently. He was up a tree, chainsawing branches - and chainsawed through the one he was standing on. Picture the moment where, as inexorable gravity took hold, he realised what he'd done.

We're doing exactly the same to the planet. See, I bet you saw that coming huh? An amusing little story twisted into a trite greenie parable. Well fuck you too. Here's another analysis showing how many different ways in which we're cutting through the branch we're standing on. But we're showing no sign of changing our behaviour. Obama's going pro-coal where it's a vote winner - and understandably enough, given the amount of jobs tied up in it. The Spanish coal mining strikes against subsidy cuts show the same thing. I'm not saying it's easily solved. But we're still cutting through the branch we're standing on.

General noises from the UK government sound like this: "going green is all very well, but not during a recession - we have to get our priorities straight." Upon attempting to alert the guy in the tree that he's cutting through the branch he's standing on, he shouts back, "that's all very well, but I can't stop now - I'm about to run out of fuel!" That's the logic we're dealing with. It's wrong on so many levels it's hard to know where to start.

As many of the previous P3 comments I've reposted here hint at, I'm not enamoured with the usefulness of declaring that we have to end growth. I think discussion of growth directly is probably a distraction - something that would take care of itself if we got the other things right. (Micro-thought-experiment: what would having a net zero growth target actually achieve?) But we're not even marginally addressing the scale of the problem, not even planning for the fact that we're not addressing it. Hansen's recent work on the shift in temperature distribution nails the problem: extremes are slowly becoming the new normal, and we're pushing that harder and harder as we continue to actually increase the yearly rate of emissions output. Genius!

It's a perfect storm of a problem and, as I've been wibbling about, having a go at climate skeptics is a complete cop-out. Einstein's quoted as saying (h/t MT): "I have little patience with scientists who take a board of wood, look for its thinnest part, and drill a great number of holes where drilling is easy." Arguing forever with people who think the concept of 'planet' is a deep-green-commie conspiracy, that the greenhouse effect is open to democratic vote, that people like me are just seeking rent from the st... (OK, that one's true. Shh, don't tell.) Anyway, yes: pointless and easy and we should have little patience with ourselves if we get too distracted by it - the hard problems are elsewhere. It's the vast majority of people worrying about it but (as the climate change idiots article says) just getting on with our lives. It's the businesses and policymakers and the fact that politics doesn't stop functioning the way it does just because we're driving its underlying operating system to burn-out.

The most complex of these is just so far beyond where we're currently at that, at the moment, I think it rules us out of the picture: long-term climate stability is going to require net-zero carbon, including a series of carbon sinks and any number of possible carbon sink technologies. How could we possibly achieve that on a global scale? It would appear to require a kind of global cybernetic equilibria. I mean, hmm - that doesn't seem very likely does it? It makes building the Roman Empire seem like assembling a Wendy House. I reckon we'll get to plain ol' Gaia feedbacks of the type described in the tipping point article above before we're anywhere near systems for managing our own feedbacks.

Getting ahead of ourselves a bit there. Need to start by keeping the carbon in the ground. Need to stop cutting through the branch we're standing on.

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