Festo’s Flying Wonders

I’m not completely certain what all the Festo company does, but they certainly know how to do an attention getting demo!

Their robotics people take bioinspiration seriously, as I noted in an earlier post about their butterfly robot.  I mean, was there ever a more attractive flying robot?

This month they showed off the butterfly and two other bioinspired flyers at a festival in DC. (Evan Ackerman still has the coolest job!)

OK, these are awesome!

Markus Schäffer says that these flyers are extremely energy efficient, no doubt partly because of the bioinspired designs. For one thing, they are capable of slow but exquisitely controlled flight, assuring long cruise times. These are not hunters (though they might soon be ‘prey’).

Obviously, the jellyfish thing (AirJelly) is the most interesting. (And it’s been around since 2009!)

Bioinspired? lighter than air? When can I get one that I can ride in??

Schäffer indicates that the ‘tentacles’ actually work like a jelly fish, steering up and down. And there is a pendulum inside that maneuvers the flyer with small motors. This is so cool!

Festo has a bunch of other wildly cool robot demos from their Bionic Learning Network group.


Robot Wednesday

Trending: Platform Cooperatives?

One of the hot trends in today’s economy are “platforms” which enable “peer-to-peer” transactions. AirBnB was a pioneer, Uber is the prime example. The “platform” in question is an internet service accessed through mobile devices which manages the matchmaking, taking a fee from each “peer” transaction. There are many examples of this concept, some more and some less successful.

Each of these cases packs together technology, a business model, and a cultural story into a seamless whole. But it is important to remember that these pieces are not inseparable, they can be combined in different ways.

For example, if we dislike Uber’s business model, why can’t we make a different Uber, one that is nicer to workers?

The first part of the answer to this question is that the technology is certainly available. No matter what the corporate press releases and ignorant journalists may imply, there is no technological wonder or genius in most of these systems. They are well-designed mash ups that take advantage of widely available technology to deliver a successful service, usually with a successful narrative that invites people to participate in the story.  This is very good work, but it is not technological wizardry.

As commercial competitors have discovered, the technology alone will not necessarily enable you to successfully compete with an established platform. If, say, Lyft, is “just like Uber”, then it is doomed from the start, because Uber is even more like Uber than Lyft. There has to be more to the story than just “not being Uber”.

So, what is needed? Not technology, but a better business plan, and concomitant story.

Platform Cooperatives

These “peer” platforms have been criticized for a variety of reasons, not least because the people who create the value in these networks bear most of the costs, reap little reward, and have no say over the business.

These beefs are all about the business plan (and legal structure) of the operation, not the technology.

Responding to these critiques, there is a movement to advocate “platform coops” and “platform cooperativism”. Think, “worker and rider owned Uber”, and you have the idea. Same great service, but operated by and for the benefit of the actual users.

In principle, this concept is straightforward. There are a number of internet resources describing and promulgating these concepts, and there are examples in operation.

This month Sharable published a nice little “explainer”, that gives a sketch of why, what, and how to do platform coops.  They comment that, “Even though the concept of a cooperative enterprise is not new, there are still relatively few of them in the digital services industry.” Looking at their explainer, we can see that legal structures and governance are probably more complicated problems than the technology. Co-ops are great, but creating a co-op is not trivial.

In earlier posts I have noted “The Internet of Ownership” which is a directory of technology, services, and organizations that implement these ideas. This directory has grown rapidly this year, and is becoming an interesting source of ideas and barometer of what is possible. Perhaps I can return to this site for future exploration.   I imagine that it will be interesting to observe how the suite evolves over the next few years.

I have also notedThe People Who Share”, a similar group with a variety of documentation and advocacy. This group also offers corporate consultancy.

While these folks share fundamental goals, it is important to say that there are many ways to skin this cat, and that is reflected in these sites. While user owned cooperatives are one approach, the same technology (and the same ideological goals) can be addressed by public sector organizations, private non-profits, for profit companies, and combinations. (The technology really doesn’t care about how the carbon based life forms organize themselves!)

I should also nod to Sensei Claire Marshall who has not only published a variety of links, but has also walked the walk in 2014 and continues to this day.  Sensei Claire reminds us that sharing is not about “platforms” but about people, and that sharing makes people happy.

It may be work pointing out that these groups and web sites are heavily invested in the third critical component I mentioned, the “story”. We now have a name for our discontent (we want better “platforms”), and a diagnosis of the evils of corporate monopoly “platforms”. The old ideal of worker owned cooperatives is actually a great match for this technology, and offers the usual benefits.

But even better, “platform cooperatives” mash up the cultural narrative about the many advantages of participating in a worker / user owned co-op, with the exciting narrative about technological disruption and the new way of work. It’s good for you, but it’s sexy, too!

And it will make you happy, too!

What’s Next?

It looks to me like there is a growing base of technology that should make it easy for anyone who wants to, to create their own “platform”. It has never been easier to experiment with these ideas.

There are many questions I don’t think I know the answers to.

What are the best scales for these concepts? Corporate platforms win by growing as large as they can, but that doesn’t seem to be a reasonable model for a co-op. The self-government will work best at moderate scales, closely identified with cultural or geographical communities. But can these platforms be sustained at small scales corresponding to communities of use?

For that matter, what kind of communities might get in this game? Here I think about possibilities like religious groups that might want to boot up this kind of platform to meet the needs of their own, and to serve a public mission. There are plenty of precedents for such efforts (including labor unions and cooperatives), and the technology would seem to match some religious missions very well.

Should this kind of coop thrive, there could be many bloody legal battles as corporate platforms discover the merits of government regulation, and strike back. (The solar and wind energy sectors have experienced this kind of skullduggery in the past couple of years.)

Finally, living as I do in the “flyover” section of the US, I will be interested to see how these concepts play out beyond the dense megacities of the coasts. Ride sharing (perhaps without human drivers) may revolutionize the city, but what will it do out in the country? For example, if car ownership declines, the cost of owning a private vehicle will rise quite a bit. How will people in dispersed, low-density locations survive, if only the wealthiest can afford to have a vehicle?

New 3D Fabrication Techniques: CofiFab

From University of Science and Technology of China and collaborators, a cool hybrid method for fabricating 3D objects, called “CofiFab, a coarse-to-fine 3D fabrication”.

Using techniques familiar from large sculptures and architecture, they use 2D laser cutting to fabricate a snap tight space filling armature to support the object, and 3D printing to fabricate patches of the outer shell, rendering the fine surface detail. The algorithms do a lot of fussy work to come up with efficient sets of parts, and to work out the jigsaw puzzle construction.

This approach uses both techniques to their best advantage. The 2D parts are quick and cheap, and the snap tight structure is light and very strong. The 3D printing using models created from surface scans can render the detail beautifully, but is slow and expensive and fundamentally pointless for filling in large volumes (why lay down layer after layer after layer of unneeded plastic deep inside an object?).

By the way, the decomposition process is useful too, because it opens the way for parallel fabrication of the multiple pieces simultaneously on multiple machines. This allows a trade off of fabrication costs (i.e., number of machines, power consumption, material wastes, etc.) against time to delivery.

As I noted, this concept has been used for millennia to decorate buildings with carved panels over structural walls. It has also been used in large metal sculptures (e.g., the Statue of Liberty).

By Islander (Pentax ME) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
The algorithms are quite clever, working out the hidden snap tight structure, and then the visible 3D pieces to attach to it. I haven’t had time to really grok this work, but it is really, really neat.

The authors note that the current technique is mainly for “concave” objects, with quite a bit of space inside (to allow the snap tight structure). I’m sure this limitation can be overcome in several ways, including decomposition of objects into multiple “concave” pieces, and other combinations of 2D and 3D fabrication.

It is interesting to think about how this technique might combine with other advances in “origami”, foldable designs. I could certainly imagine fold-out-then-snap-tight structures. I’m not sure how to attach the shell, but let’s keep thinking about it.

In any case, the pieces produced by CofiFab are certainly amenable for “flat pack” shipping and assembly.   So, this could be delivered a digital plans to be fabricated on site, or pre-made and shipped in a light, compact container.


  1. Peng Song, Bailin Deng, Ziqi Wang, Zhichao Dong, Wei Li, Chi-Wing Fu, and Ligang Liu, CofiFab: coarse-to-fine fabrication of large 3D objects. ACM Trans. Graph., 35 (4):1-11, 2016.

Book Review: “The Underground Railroad” by Colin Whitehead

The Underground Railroad by Colin Whitehead

Like practically everyone, I heard of this book via Oprah, whose reach extends far beyond her conscious and deliberate fans. My tastes don’t necessarily coincide with hers, but she’s not the only one impressed, so I’ll try it.

I did read the story, and I did like it. Well, obviously, I didn’t like the horrible stuff. I mean I liked the story he tells about the horrible stuff.

It must take a certain amount of courage and/or fortitude to even think about this stuff, let alone try to tell first person tales about it. It hurt just to read it, even when I could close my eyes and put it down.

I’m not always pleased with fiction that plays around with recorded historical or scientific facts, especially stuff that aims to be “truer than fact”. But this novel does a really good job on this front. It can’t be mistaken for either history nor simulated history, but it is as true to history as can be.

Did Whitehead open my eyes, or teach me some lesson I didn’t now? Not really.

I’m pretty well educated, and already pretty damn hard line about America’s racist history (up to the present), slavery and its apologists, domestic terrorism, and oppression in general. Nothing in this book surprised me, or changed my attitude.

But Whitehead does a marvelous job of giving voice and substance to these intense moral arguments. Nicely done.

Even better, there is an underlying sympathy for all the people, even the evilest monsters, but especially for the countless people who, through weakness, ignorance, or blindness, participate in evil. Everyone suffers from these horrors, and anyone can act morally. (But it may be difficult to know how to act, or if you have done right.)

One real question about this story is whether Whitehead is calling for action, and if so, what? I think this is ambiguous and unresolved in the novel. My own reading does not find hate (other than a hatred for all kinds of wrong), though others might be moved so.

I wasn’t sure I would find something to write about this, but I guess I did.

By the way, in this summer of the most outrageous regressive political rhetoric in a generation, I think you could do far worse that reading this novel. It’s an antidote and answer to a lot of the racist BS filling the airwaves.

  1. Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad, New York, Doubleday, 2016.


Sunday Book Reviews

Hot Times Under Greenland’s Ice

Over the past two decades, we have been documenting the vast changes in the Earth’s cryosphere, as ice caps, sea ice, and permafrost warm, melt, and shrink. NASA and other agencies have provided critical assets for remote sensing these continental and global phenomena.

Intense interest is focused on Greenland, which has been covered with a permanent ice cap for millennia, and appears to be rapidly melting in recent decades. Setting aside worries about the causes and consequences of this sudden melt off (which cannot be good news for land based animals, such as H. sapiens), can we even measure what is really going on?

One of the more difficult things to measure is the bottom of the ice cap. Where ice rests on bedrock, it may be frozen solid (there the rock itself is cold) or melting (where the rock is a little warm). The latter case may lead to faster melting in the summer, and also enables the ice to slide easily, e.g., downhill to the ocean coast. It isn’t easy to directly measure conditions down there, and without this data it is difficult to model what is happening with the ice overall.

Over the past decades, there have been dozens of borehole studies, but these are a sparse (and unsystematic) sample of the whole continent. These studies indicate that in some areas the bed is frozen solid, and in others it is thawed. But it these measurements could not provide a complete picture.

This month NASA published new research that created the first attempt at a comprehensive map of conditions under the ice for all of Greenland.  (As a first try, one of the authors called it a “piñata”—certain to be beat up by subsequent analysis and criticism.)

This study is another example of the value of remote sensing from space—which gives continent wide coverage—airborne, and surface studies, combined through careful computational modeling. The multiple data sources are essential, because none of them alone can really give enough information.

The satellite data used includes measures of the movement of the ice over time and the roughness of the ice surface (which is an indirect indication of ice sliding over thawed bed). This is combined with radar studies from aircraft, and computer models of the physics based on theory and other data.

The resulting map “… identifies distinct regions, where the bed is likely frozen (24% by area) or thawed (43%) and where this basal thermal state remains most uncertain (34%).” [1], p. 1347

This first-of-a-kind map, showing which parts of the bottom of the Greenland Ice Sheet are likely thawed (red), frozen (blue) or still uncertain (gray), will help scientists better predict how the ice will flow in a warming climate. Credits: NASA Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen

Assuming these estimates are generally correct, the significant areas of thawed bed are certainly melting, and liable to melt much more rapidly in the coming years. This finding is consistent with other observations that suggest that many parts of Greenland’s ice is melting rapidly, and may disappear in a few decades.

  1. J. A. MacGregor, M. A. Fahnestock, G. A. Catania, A. Aschwanden, G. D. Clow, W. T. Colgan, P. S. Gogineni, M. Morlighem, J. D. Paden, S. F. Price, and H. L. Seroussi, A synthesis of the thermal state of the bed of the Greenland Ice Sheet. American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, 2015 2015. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/2015JF003803


Space Saturday

Hybrid Aircraft Airlander 10 First Test

Helium heads (I’ve been a Helium groupie for decades) are excited to see the Airlander 10 complete its first civilian test flight. (One thing this craft is not, is stealthy!)

Much is made of the size of this craft at 91m long, bigger than the largest jumbo jets, but it is nowhere near as large as rigid airships in the twentieth century. Still, she is big, and she does fly.

Airlander is a “hybrid” (a la the Deltoid Pumpkin Seed (circa 1971), with a bit of aerodynamic lift for take off from the airfoil shaped hull, and capability to hover as a blimp. The idea is to carry a large payload with minimal fuel and long flight durations, operating from small, simple ground bases. The trade offs include speed and ground space.

LAVs are, of course, the most romantic aircraft of all. But they have never really succeeded commercially, however cool they are.

The Airlander 10 has a history that is so typical of the LAV world. It was originally created as a US military project, aiming to provide airborne surveillance. I’m imagining that it might compete with older systems like AWACs, which must suck fuel like mad as they keep station, and also need long, fixed runways.

A prototype was built before project was cancelled in 2013. In keeping with the glorious romance of LAVs, the “Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle” (LEMV) as it was originally called, flew its test flight a Lakehurst New Jersey. With cost constraints, and perhaps second thoughts about the vulnerability of a giant gas bag in a combat zone, the DOD cancelled the project.

But this is Planet Helium, we cherish our airships and will not take no for an answer. The British contractor HAV bought the aircraft, and now has the rechristened “Airlander 10” up and flying.

Naturally, the test flight was at Cardington Sheds, the century old home of British airships!

By Iiboharz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
So, so cool!

Now, I admit that I have no clue whether this baby is useful for anything. It’s too big for personal use, too small for bulk cargo, too slow for passenger service, and way, way, too loud to operate in inhabited areas.

But it’s a real HAV, for goodness sakes! And those are real, historical Zeppelin hangars! The romantic coolness multiplier is huge.


Cryptocurrency Follies

The cryptocurrency scene has become a shambling wreck, as disaster follows disaster, and the gods are shown to have feet of clay.

There is, of course, the continuous drumbeat of news. Scanning Coindesk, we see regulatory jibber-jabber (Russia bans and then un bans Bitcoin, various jurisdictions rule that cryptocurrency is legally a commodity or else a currency or punts), a comprehensive collection of heists (both inside and outside jobs, and possibly even the police), and a long list of optimistic corporate announcements about blockchain services.


If one of the points of Bitcoin is to revolutionize money, to do away will all the crazy uncertainty surrounding “fiat” currency, it’s hard to feel confident that the mission is being accomplished.

While there are plenty of true believers whose faith will not be shaken by any adverse events (see also, “When Prophecy Fails”)  Others are beginning to notice that the edifice is built on sand, the foundations are cracking, and the Earth is quaking.

As I noted in an earlier post, both the Bitcoin scaling debacle and the Ethereum / DAO / “hard fork” disaster illustrate the limits and pitfalls of cryptocurrency “governance”.

Ariel Deschapell discusses fundamental questions about the notion of “decentralized governance” that underlies the entire concept of cryptocurrency. For one thing, the notion of the “decentralized” network is nebulous in itself. What is it exactly that is being distributed? Network nodes? Computational power? Legal ownership? Geographical location? Technological implementations? Something else entirely?

We don’t really know how to measure these things precisely, but we can get some idea of how “distributed” a network is. But, Deschapell comments, we have no idea at all what kinds of “distribution” actually matter. For one thing, we have little understanding of the “attacks” that decentralization is imagined to protect against.

I would add that we don’t even understand what “the network” is. The “core” protocols of cryptocurrencies offer a certain amount of security through cryptography, and the nodes of the network offer at least some comfort through their distribution.

But, as I have pointed out repeatedly, “security” or any other property must be considered end-to-end. So, the network must include user interfaces (“wallets”), financial interfaces (exchanges and other services), and even users (key management). The introduction of executable contracts (which generally aren’t especially “smart”) adds yet another extension to the network.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and we have seen that the edges of the cryptocurrency network are potentially quite vulnerable. Exchanges are hacked, exchanges are pilfered by insiders. Users mess up, users are robbed. Con games and dark commerce thrive. Tulip manias threaten to crash the whole systems.

Notably, we have little grasp of just how “decentralized” the whole network really is. Exchanges are certainly single points of failure. Each user is a single point of failure (lose or reveal your key, and your part of the network is toast.) “Smart contracts” and other add ons are hard to even understand, let alone analyze in this context.

And, finally, the entire “distributed governance” model itself has its own vulnerabilities, as we have seen this year. Distributed governance is relatively untried, especially compared to conventional organizations.   It usually sounds too good to be true to me, and, unfortunately, it probably is. As we have seen this year, when governance fails, the technology will face serious trouble.

“It’s a mad house! A mad house!”


Cryptocurrency Thursday

A personal blog.


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