Interconnected

All posts made in Mar. 2012:

Lucky meat

A concept for a vending machine for tea (or coffee).

I'm totally into the idea that witnessing is a key part of the experience of vending, maybe even that there's a fairytale world inside the machine.

But in particular I think that vending machines can be about experiences and stories.

So tea. Or coffee. Caffeinated beverages are about waking you up.

What you do is you make the entire front face of the vending machine glass, but it's a giant glass "V" shape that inclines into itself, so that at the top of the machine it's very wide, and lower down at waist height the "V" shape both narrows and pulls back into itself, tilting back into the machine.

Then when you choose your tea (or coffee), the liquid is shot as if through the barrel of a gun BANG directly at your face. We use facial recognition computer chips or something for this. It blasts, and splashes, as hard and fierce as possible. And then the tea (or coffee) is runs down the inside slope of the "V" and is channeled in and falls eventually into a cup at the bottom apex where it finally drips in. Then you have your drink. (But you don't need it, because you're already awake.)

The pretence that we tell people is that tea (or coffee) is better aerated, and the fire-hose of piping hot beverage straight between the eyes is integral to the process of making it taste awesome. Really it's about the experience of it and telling your friends. This is the vending machine I would like to make.

Also I have an idea for a restaurant.

Lucky meat.

Take 64 steaks, or better: 64 cows.

Divide the cows into two groups, 32 each, and name one heads and the other tails.

Flip a coin.

Whichever group of cows loses is butchered and the produce destroyed, rendered inedible.

Now take the winning group of 32 cows. Divide them in two. Flip a coin. 16 win, 16 are destroyed.

Repeat, repeat, repeat, you have 2 cows. Flip a coin, one wins, destroy the loser, make steaks out of the winner.

These steaks are from a lucky cow: it has won 6 times in a row, a winning steak from a winning streak.

By the magic of tapu - or, to put it another way, the Law of Association from the laws of magic - the lucky meat will carry with it the luck of the animal. By eating the lucky meat, the eater too becomes lucky. Imagine yourself being presented with, and eating, lucky meat, knowing that the meat has somehow been chosen, somehow won the lottery and ended up on your plate! Of course this is also a commentary on the wasteful nature of agro-industry, or maybe it's a commentary on what makes luxury items or the nature of scarcity and the tenuous non-existence of value, etc. Honestly it's about meat, when it comes down to it.

I think you could charge a lot more for lucky meat.

Some might argue that none of the cows are lucky.

A description of metabolism

This is the most straightforward description of metabolism I've read. I'm just going to quote it all. I look at what I might highlight, and there's not a wasted word.

One property of living things above all makes them seem almost miraculously different from nonliving matter: they create and maintain order, in a universe that is tending always to greater disorder. To create this order, the cells in a living organism must perform a never-ending stream of chemical reactions. In some of these reactions, small organic molecules--amino acids, sugars, nucleotides, and lipids--are being taken apart or modified to supply the many other small molecules that the cell requires. In other reactions, these small molecules are being used to construct an enormously diverse range of proteins, nucleic acids, and other macromolecules that endow living systems with all of their most distinctive properties. Each cell can be viewed as a tiny chemical factory, performing many millions of reactions every second.

The chemical reactions that a cell carries out would normally occur only at temperatures that are much higher than those existing inside cells. For this reason, each reaction requires a specific boost in chemical reactivity. This requirement is crucial, because it allows each reaction to be controlled by the cell. The control is exerted through the specialized proteins called enzymes, each of which accelerates, or catalyzes, just one of the many possible kinds of reactions that a particular molecule might undergo. Enzyme-catalyzed reactions are usually connected in series, so that the product of one reaction becomes the starting material, or substrate, for the next. These long linear reaction pathways are in turn linked to one another, forming a maze of interconnected reactions that enable the cell to survive, grow, and reproduce.

Two opposing streams of chemical reactions occur in cells: (1) the catabolic pathways break down foodstuffs into smaller molecules, thereby generating both a useful form of energy for the cell and some of the small molecules that the cell needs as building blocks, and (2) the anabolic, or biosynthetic, pathways use the energy harnessed by catabolism to drive the synthesis of the many other molecules that form the cell. Together these two sets of reactions constitute the metabolism of the cell.

From the chapter Catalysis and the Use of Energy by Cells in Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th edition.

The Plague

I can say I know the world inside out, as you may see -- that each of us has the plague within him; no one, no one on earth is free from it. And I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody's face and fasten the infection on him. What's natural is the microbe. All the rest -- health, integrity, purity (if you like) -- is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter. The good man, the man who infects hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses. Yes, Rieux, it's a wearying business, being plague-stricken. But it's still more wearying to refuse to be it. That's why everybody in the world today looks so tired; everyone is more or less sick of plague. But that is also why some of us, those who want to get the plague out of their systems, feel such desperate weariness, a weariness from which nothing remains to set us free except death.

-- Albert Camus, The Plague (1947).

It says a lot, that quote.

I've been in bed sick the past three days. I wasn't reading The Plague, but in the odd hours I was awake I did finish reading Robison Crusoe.

Speaking of which, this article: Robinson Crusoe and the ethnic sidekick. The same archetype: Men in Black, Independence Day, Jerry Maguire, Crimson Tide, 48 Hrs., Pulp Fiction, even Field of Dreams. ... battling an alien economic system in order to save the Protestant Work Ethic.

Later: One of the crucial elements of that story that rewrote the world is how one acquires wealth. Until Crusoe, wealth was a dream peasants might have, but one they had little expectation of ever coming true. Most stories about acquiring wealth before Robinson Crusoe were stories like Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, or some variant of the Purse That Never Empties, or the story of Aladdin, where wealth comes from rubbing a magic lamp. Robinson Crusoe acquired his money the hard way. He earned it! Or at least that's how we perceive it. In truth, Crusoe got rich by entering a natural paradise and being the sole proprietor. He does not begin from scratch. The island is rich, has no owners, and needs improvement.

It goes from there. Gordon Gecko as Robinson Crusoe? Man Friday as apprentice white man, a new paradigm of racism? A cracking read.

Banksy, invention, and the six steps

Banksy does all that outdoor stencil art. He started work between 1990-1994, and switched to stencilling in 2000. That his style has become so imitated is a signal to me that what he started was something new, if not in the medium (stencilling isn't new, and nor is graffiti), but in the binding between his medium and his message.

There's a story Banksy tells about discovering stencils as related in his book Wall And Piece and repeated in this article:

I spent one night trying to paint LATE AGAIN in big silver bubble letters on the side of a passenger train. British Transport Police showed up and I got ripped to shreds running away through a thorny bush. The rest of my mates made it to the car and disappeared so I spent over an hour hidden under a dumper truck with engine oil leaking all over me.

As I lay there listening to the cops on the tracks, I realised I had to cut my painting time in half or give up altogether. I was staring straight up at the stencilled plate on the bottom of a fuel tank when I realised I could just copy that style and make each letter 3ft high.

I got home at last and crawled into bed next to my girlfriend. I told her I'd had an epiphany that night and she told me to stop taking that drug 'cos it's bad for your heart.

In Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics - which is excellent, go read it - McCloud puts forward a theory of artistic creation consisting of six steps, steps he likens to an apple. Surface is the skin. Idea/Purpose is the core.

Here are McCloud's steps:

  1. Idea/Purpose. The impulses, the ideas, the emotions, the philosophies, the purposes of the work... the work's 'content'.
  2. Form. The form it will take... will it be a book? A chalk drawing? A chair? A song? A sculpture? A pot holder? A comic book?
  3. Idiom. The 'school' of art, the vocabulary of styles or gestures or subject matter, the genre that the work belongs to... maybe a genre of its own.
  4. Structure. Putting it all together... what to include, what to leave out... how to arrange, how to compose the work.
  5. Craft. Constructing the work, applying skills, practical knowledge, invention, problem-solving, getting the 'job' done.
  6. Surface. Production values, finishing, the aspects most apparent on first superficial exposure to the work.

(cf. Duffy/Brand's shearing layers of change, for buildings: site; structure; skin; services; space plan; stuff.)

In the subsequent pages McCloud tells the story of an artist learning by starting at step 6, and working their way back - with effort - to step 3. Beyond step 3, there is a choice: does the artist want to say something about life through his art or does he want to say something about art itself. Choosing the second route, step 2, the artist becomes an "explorer." Choosing the first, step 1, the artist uses art as a tool.

Banksy, I think, invented at step 3. The proof is in the train epiphany anecdote: the story he wanted to tell forced him to do something different. Stencils leapt from somewhere else into graffiti, and the electric arc went via the kite-in-the-thunderstorm of Banksy's eyes. Subsequent stencil artists may or may not have better structure, craft or surface, but they didn't invent at step 3.

I'm not going make a judgement whether doing what Banksy did is "better" or not. I don't believe which steps an artist (or creator) operate in has much relation to "better" or value. But maybe the six steps are one way into to talking about all of this stuff. The breakdown provokes interesting questions: when and where should invention occur, in multiple places or one at a time; what is the interaction between invention and culture and time; how these steps would look when distributed across an organisation including all kinds of people.

Two org charts

Apple's org chart under Steve Jobs can be seen in Adam Lashinsky's Fortune article Inside Apple (as Kindle Single), and in low resolution here. Lashinsky's book version of Inside Apple includes an updated org chart centred on the new CEO, Tim Cook.

I won't pretend to understand how large companies work, but in my understanding an org chart is a part map and part blueprint of a large variety of connections:

  • hierarchic responsibility for areas of the business
  • sensibility. I mean both a grouping of people in similar disciplines ("design", "engineering", "finance") and similar rhythms or mindsets: launch focused, continuous development focused, hackers, bureaucrats, and so on
  • ease of influence, for example when a CEO and a product design group are directly connected, we can assume that there is a flow of values and insight that goes both ways. It might be more appropriate to call this "close coupling"

What interests when I look at such charts is trying to find "the tail that wags the dog."

Let me explain. I am curious as to how products are invented -- how is the genuinely original incepted into an organisation, and how does this idea because real? I look for two clues in the structure of the org chart:

  • a flow downstream - a path of least resistance - from a concept toward a machine that manufactures, sells, and improves a product. The concept has to be in a form which has a tendency towards improving and not eroding as it moves down the gradient.
  • since the flow downstream takes most of the company (I believe), I look for a tail that wags the dog: a source of uniqueness; a harnessed singularity producing negentropy; a small enough group that invention can truly occur, but large enough that a sizeable number of information/possibility streams can be collided, and close enough to business strategy that the whole business can orient around the new ideas. Some parts of the company are intended just to feed this small group.

The group in Apple's case is said to be Jonathan Ive's product design group -- a dozen or so people who invent new products. The gradient from this group spelt out in a playbook called the ANPP. From the book Inside Apple:

Once the design is under way, the rest of the company kicks into gear. The two organizations that will be responsible for the product are the supply-chain team and the engineering corps. Thus begins the Apple New Product Process, or ANPP. The ANPP is the step-by-step playbook spelling out everything that needs to get done to make the product. The ANPP wasn't always unique to Apple. Xerox, HP, and others used a similar playbook in the late 1970s and early 1980s. A former Apple engineer described Apple's process, which began as a manufacturing aid aid for the Macintosh, as part art, part science. The goal of the ANPP "is to automate the science part so you can focus on the art," said this engineer. The process elaborately maps out the stages a products creation will follow, who touches it, how responsibilities will be assigned across functions, and when assignments will be completed.

(The passage that follows this gives more details from the ANPP. Two managers take over the product: one from supply chain, and the other from engineering. I don't know where software comes in, but I understand - from reading around - is that it's when the hardware features are more-or-less finalised. What little of the process that is public is fascinating, and I recommend the book.)

You could, I suspect, draw the ANPP atop the org chart - perpendicular to many of the lines of responsibility - and map out the gradient a product moves along on its route to market.

Now I don't completely buy Lashinsky's description. The iPod had a very different origin, where the market opportunity was spotted by one party, the project left dormant until another party spotted a technological opportunity in a new miniaturised hard drive appearing in the supply chain, the novel UI was spotted by marketing, and the person bringing the project at least halfway from invention to reality didn't join the project until many of these seeds were in place. The organisation which Apple has become isn't the organisation that created the iPod: there is no guarantee that its current form will be a true codification of previous success.

But still, interesting food for thought.

Disney's 1943 org chart is also fascinating, primarily because it maps out exactly the gradient: Walt, to story, to direction which coordinates a network of parties - the direction of flow here is wonderfully mapped - and finally the production flow narrows and the picture goes to market.

It's a lovely diagram and again, who knows how it well it describes the "at play" network of Walk Disney Studios. In particular the roles of marketing and technology are not well described -- but maybe this was unnecessary: perhaps innovation in the technology of animation was done in a sideways fashion, by running particular innovation pictures (such as Fantastia) that would introduce novel processes into these departments; and maybe product-market fit was part of Walt's genius and so it didn't need to be introduced elsewhere in the machine.

But to see the gradient by which an idea can be "plussed" and not corrupted as it moves towards market, well that's fascinating.

The user interface of Seldon's Plan

Seldon's plan is a future map of humanity, from the collapse of the first galactic empire to the establishment of the second, a thousand years in the future. It is developed according to psychohistory, and named after the father of this new science and of the plan itself: Hari Seldon. Psychohistory is a kind of statistical mechanics to predict the behaviour of large populations, and using the plan a secret organisation shapes the destiny of the galaxy towards this Second Empire. The seed of the future empire is a society named the Foundation, on a planet named Terminus, and the secret organisation - tasked to improve the plan and from its hidden vantage point manipulate humanity - is called the Second Foundation, unknown by the first and established by Seldon himself.

This story is told in the science fiction books of the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, a space opera classic.

What fascinates me is the user interface by which the Plan is read and explored by "Speakers" -- the secret members/academics/bureaucrats of the Second Foundation. It is projected on the wall as a network of dense, interlocking equations by a device named the "Prime Radiant," and manipulated using a combination of gestural interface and thought control. Black equations were part of the original Seldon plan; red is used for those added by Speakers; blue is where unanticipated deviations from the plan have occurred.

I've taken two extracts which describe the Prime Radiant and the visualisation of the Plan from the books Second Foundation and Foundation's Edge. Read the extracts here.

Air quotes, product

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Belief and desire

At the bottom of internal phenomena, whatever they are, the analysis pushed to the limit will never discover more than three irreducible notions: belief, desire, and their point of pure application, pure sense. - La croyance et le desire, Tarde (1880).

(Found in Mind that abides: panpsychism in the new millennium, David Skrbina, after a mention by Bruno Latour in last night's lecture.)

Belief and desire! As tempted as I am to reduce these to vectors - simple forces of the internal self, dual forces of the consolidating shady yin and the bright exuberant yang - I will resist, and instead attempt to retain an understanding of belief and desire as the lively, messy, complicated, massive things they are.

Versus

Tantek's 2012 SxSW Packing and Check List versus A list of every example actant mentioned in the first half of Prince of Networks by Graham Harman.

Trying to understand credit

I just visited the bank and had an impromptu tutorial in international trade -- good stuff. Recently they told me they'd lost a payment we were supposed to receive, and two weeks later it turns out they hadn't lost it at all. It was a mess, and I have to admit there was a bit of shouting in the meantime. The shouting resulted in me being handed up to a more senior "relationship manager" and this is the chap who ran me through the basics of how banks can help orchestrate aforementioned international trade. So all's well that ends well.

I have models in my head of how things work. In my model of how the business of BERG works, I model cash, attention, and risk. My model of credit encompasses things like overdrafts, 30 day payment terms, loans and whatnot, and my understanding of it comes from two sources: my personal experience of debt (my advances on pocket money, the slow repayment of my student loan, credit cards) and macro-economics, on which topic Ray Dalio's paper A Template for Understanding What is Going on is an astoundingly good explanation of the current global credit crisis. Dalio explains:

  • the difference between credit and money: credit is the promise to deliver money, and credit spends just like money. While credit and money spend just as easily, when you pay with money the transaction is settled; but if you pay with credit, the payment has yet to be made.
  • that while money exists, credit is created and disappears simply by belief: most of what people think is money is really credit, and it does disappear. For example, when you buy something in a store on a credit card, you essentially do so by saying, 'I promise to pay.' Together you created a credit asset and a credit liability. So where did you take the money from? Nowhere. You created credit. It goes away in the same way. Suppose the store owner justifiably believes that you and others might not pay the credit card company and that the credit card company might not pay him if that happens. Then he correctly believes that the 'asset' he has isn't really there. It didn't go somewhere else.
  • and finally, in two paragraphs so deft that they have to be read to be believed, a description of the game of Monopoly firstly in terms of property vs cash, and secondly a version modified to allow the bank to create credit, in which case the game starts exhibiting the same credit cycles as our actual economy.

He frames the credit crisis as a "deleveraging" - a kind of global disarmament of credit - and the essay is simultaneously illuminating and bleak, bleak stuff. So I get that.

On the other hand I have very little deep understanding of what my mortgage means. Is it good or bad to have this credit? What if I rent out my mortgaged house and rent somewhere else? Too confusing.

Credit

I used to understand credit as the swap of risk and cash, i.e. I promise to pay the bank some cash in the future in order for them to take a risk now. For example: they front me cash as a loan (or, more informally, an overdraft) and I pay it back plus some percentage. The fee I pay covers them not having the money in the meantime, plus the risk they take on me not returning the cash.

After my meeting with the bank I understand credit a little differently.

I now understand credit as transferring no risk. The bank may front me cash now, but I give them security in the form of my house or something else. I retain all risk, nothing is transferred. There is no risk to the bank in issuing the credit. What I'm paying the bank for is access to their proprietary marketplace to exchange forms of capital - in the case I mentioned, cash and houses - together with a promise that the exchange won't be finalised so long as certain conditions are met. So credit is possible not because the bank is able to absorb risk, but because:

  • the bank has an internal marketplace in which it is able to hold open many capital exchanges; and,
  • the bank is able to enforce - using the legal system itself - the fungibility of capital and obligation: if it gives me cash, it can get my house in return.

Yes, the bank does have risk here, but it's not the same risk as my risk. It's new risk.

Interestingly what this leaves available is a system in which risk and cash are exchanged, where risk is transferred. This is what investment is, and this is what Kickstarter does.

Anyway this seems obvious now I write it down, but I thought I'd share.

Ultimately where it leads me is to start looking for a relationship between risk and credit as if they are the same thing but one observed as static in time and the other in motion, in the same way that magnetism and electricity are the same thing separated by the speed of light.

Update: On a little reflection, a bank isn't quite a marketplace because the transaction types are highly limited. Cash flows in and out, and cash flows out transacted for security (a promise on other capital). It would be worth diagramming the systems of banks, individual lending, and investments in order to see where the thing called credit emerges.

Gobstoppers

I'm a fan of gobstoppers. (I don't know if you get these outside the UK: solid sugar sweet for sucking, no gum, brightly coloured.)

To manufacture a one inch gobstopper takes two weeks!

It probably takes seven minutes to eat one. Every minute you suck that's two days. An hour a second!

A proposal for making a Moon city

Here's a fact about the Moon and space exploration that somebody told me a couple years back: If it costs $X to get to Earth orbit, it costs $10X to get to the Moon, and it costs $100X to bring something back.

One of the games I like to play is "there from here." For example, I would love for humanity to have cities in the Asteroid Belt. In this age of peak everything I have a preference to do belt tightening. The solution to not having enough resources on Earth is to not be constrained to Earth. Let's go mining in space. Cities in the Asteroid Belt then -- how do we get there from here?

The challenge being that technology develops stepwise. It happens in increments, and the reach of each increment is dependent on the incentive and the amount available to be invested. Sometimes a leap is made. So maybe the incentive is big. The Space Race between the USA and the USSR was one such incentive. Or the promise of finding a cheap route to the lucrative spices in the Indies spurred the Europeans to send ships west across the Atlantic. Or you can keep the investment required low. Citizen science projects use the coordinating technology of the internet to allow many low investments to make big progress. In order to develop technology towards cities in the Asteroid Belt, we need to find the steps to get there. We'd have to have cities on the Moon first. And for that, at the very least, we need to be able to easily get to and return from the Moon.

But why go to the Moon in the first place? There's nothing there. And space technology is so expensive. It would be a massive investment to develop cheaper space technology. No incentive.

Okay, so here's a thing. Technology evolves from where we are now. What are some things we're getting great at right now? Robot factories. Mining. Thank you Foxconn. Thank you rapacious appetite of the consumer society for hard to find rare earth minerals.

And to review: It's much cheaper to get to the Moon than to come back, so make it a one-way journey. And it's peak everything, so the value of mineral resources is only going to go up.

Two other thoughts: the X Prize (Revolution through Competition), and USA Homestead Act of 1862, whereby a system to grant land rights to individuals was set up, by which a person living on and improving the land was granted property.

Here's my proposal:

We build robot mining factories and send them to the Moon.

Once there, they extract and purify valuable resources, packaging it in an automated fashion to be picked up. Time passes. The piles of nicely packaged and purified minerals grow and grow on the lunar surface. Meanwhile commodity prices on Earth also rise. The piles steadily grow in value. And grow, and grow. A prize that increases in value the longer you wait. CEOs of manufacturing companies look lustfully through their telescopes. The CEOs eye one-another suspiciously.

Until suddenly it becomes worthwhile to develop technology to get to the Moon and bring it all back. Whoever gets to the pile first is allowed to keep it. There is a race! Mining companies make the leap to the next generation of space technology.

And as a spin-off we have a sustainable Moon-Earth shuttle service. Stick a few people on the shuttle, establish a permanent settlement, ta da, Moon city. Next step Ceres.

Wolfe+585

Every so often at work, we invite everyone we know to the pub and have a night of drinks. Each BERG Drinks has a theme on the invite: this most recent one was to celebrate the birthday of Wolfe+585, Senior, so called because he has the longest personal name ever used. It's in German, you can go read it if you like.

But if you dig around, you can find a translation of Wolfe+585's full name into English, which is:

Adolph Blaine Charles David Earl Frederick Gerald Hubert Irvin John Kenneth Lloyd Martin Nero Oliver Paul Quincy Randolph Sherman Thomas Uncas Victor William Xerxes Yancy Zeus Wolfe Schlegel Steinhausen-Bergedorf who before ages were conscientious shepherds whose sheep were well tended and diligently protected against attackers who by their rapacity were enemies who 12,000 years ago appeared from the stars to the humans by spaceships with light as an origin of power, started a long voyage within starlike space in search for the star which has habitable planets orbiting and whither the new race of reasonable humanity could thrive and enjoy lifelong happiness and tranquility without fear of attack from other intelligent creatures from within starlike space Senior.

So there you go.