Book Review: “Space Opera” by Catherynne M. Valente

Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

In the preamble, Valente discussed the Fermi Paradox (which he didn’t say, and isn’t a paradox, but nevermind).   She soundly rejects variations of the “Rare Earth” hypothesis:

“Life isn’t difficult, it isn’t pickly, it isn’t unique, and fate doesn’t enter into the thing.”  “Life wants to happen. It can’t stand not happening” p. 2

The problem isn’t really, “is there life?”, the problem is “who is sentient?”.  With bazillions of diverse species everywhere, the question is, “Who are people and who is meat?”

This question usually leads to war, genocide, and devastation.

There has to be a better way.

Give Peace Music A Chance.

When the Earth is discovered by the galactic civilization (not least by decades of blaring top forty broadcasts), it must be subject to the standard test of sentience and admission to the galactic community:

Before wiping out H. sap.(taking care to preserve as much of the innocent bystanding ecosphere as possible), the newly found species must participate in the Grand Prix – a Eurovision style contest of song. High production, glittery, sappy, song and dance.

Each new species must compete, and must finish better than last. Last would be bad—total annihilation of the species.

And thereby hangs the tale.

“Rock wants to happen. It can’t stand not happening.” P. 12

One act is selected to represent the planet.

The galactic committee call for Yoko Ono (dead), and several other acts not currently available (Tangerine Dream?).  Who knows how they picked this list—galactic taste is, well, alien, no?  Mega-super-alien-alien.

At the bottom of the list, and the only one available, is Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, a washed up, one-hit glam group who haven’t done much recently.  (Apparently their Raggity Dandy was a hit even off-planet.)

Humanity is doomed, unless these old rockers can pull it together and party one more time.

All they have to do is not finish last.

That’s the basic story here.  It doesn’t make any sense, but who cares?

It’s great. It’s fun. It’s insane.

“In Space, Everyone Can Hear You Sing”

Valente fills this book with a wonderfully imaginative galactic civilization, gloriously crazy story telling, weird characters, weirder dialog, and even weirder situations.  I loved it.

File this book under the category: “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, Rock and Roll saves the planet”.

  1. Catherynne M. Valente, Space Opera, New York, Saba Press, 2018.


Sunday Book Reviews

Study of Self Employment and Satisfaction

Sensei Tyra Seldon writes this week that self-employment leads to happiness [1].  From her own experience, she endorses the finding.

She says that the study “captured what so many of us know to be true: Self-employment can also lead to happiness.

She points out that self-employment provides many non-tangible rewards, including the personal satisfaction of doing good work.  She also notes that her standards as an independent worker are higher than when employed.

This study identifies some of these factors, including autonomy and especially “engagement”. Seldon refers to these as the intangible benefits of self-employment, which are at least as important as productivity and income.

Looking at the study itself, it compares the responses of professionals who are employed as managers, non-managers, and self-employed [2].

The researchers indicate that many previous studies show that self-employed workers are more satisfied than conventional workers.  This study goes further, to compare managers and non-managers, and to try to look at different aspects of “well being”.  In particular, they look at engagement, challenge, and workers’ preferences.

The overall findings are that self-employed workers are generally more satisfied than employees, but that the biggest difference is between non-managerial employees and both managers and self-employed workers.  (One interpretation would be that self-employees are their own manager, which carries the satisfaction of that role.)

Another interesting, if perhaps unsurprising, finding is that the misfit between preferences and job demands is lower for self-employed workers than for all but top managers.  In general, self-employed workers are choosing work that suits them, and have the autonomy to make that choice effective.

This study is fairly careful, but there are caveats to bear in mind.

The data is from an on-line questionnaire.  This means that these are verbal self-reports, which may or may not accurately reflect the feelings of the respondents.  The questions were administered carefully, and there are no obvious biasing factors, but there is always question whether respondents are interpreting the questions and answers the same way.  (For instance, just how meaningful are “average happiness” numbers, accumulated across multiple individuals reported “happiness”?)

A related challenge is that the sampling in this online study is rather opaque. It is difficult to know how representative the respondents may be.  It is a pretty big sample, but we really don’t know who was left out. Some workers may be less likely to volunteer information on this survey, which could bias the results.  For example, if discouraged, demoralized, or marginal workers are unrepresented, then the reported levels of satisfaction would be skewed.

This study did include a very large sample of managerial employees, which is important and often missing from studies of worker satisfaction.

The study reports the average age of the respondents to be around 40, though one wonders about the age distribution.  But there is no longitudinal data here.  How do these attitudes evolve over time?

Notably, the engagement and satisfaction increased with advancement in the organization, which surely correlates with longevity.  And are non-managerial employees less engaged because they are new or because they don’t fit or because their ambitions have been disappointed?

In the case of self-employed workers, one wonders what time frame their responses represent.  In the event they work from gig to gig, are they reporting the current or recent gigs, or multiple gigs over a longer period, or what?  I have to wonder if concepts such as engagement or satisfaction mean the same thing to people in a long-term position, compared to short term.  Engagement and satisfaction are probably not the same after several years in the same job as on the first day.

Finally, I’ll note that there are similar findings from the limited research about coworking:  coworking seems to make workers happy. (this  and see Chapter 6 and 7 of the new book “What is Coworking?”)

This study raises the possibility that coworking has nothing to do with happiness.  Given that most coworkers are freelancers, it could be the case that freelancing makes workers happy, and the workspace doesn’t matter.  I don’t know of any study that tests this hypothesis.

In the case of coworking, there is also a very strong selection bias in the studies.  Dissatisfied coworkers stop coworking, and are almost never sampled.  Reports that “coworking makes workers happy” must be taken with a grain of salt.

On the other hand, coworking spaces were invented to support independent workers.  In particular, they offer social support that conventional employees find in their workplace.  Therefore, it is very possible that self-employed workers who belong to a coworking space are even more satisfied than self-employed workers in general.  I don’t know of any study that tests this hypothesis, either.

Self-employment may not suit everyone, all of the time.

Overall, I would say that this study is more evidence that self-employment, freelancing, and coworking make some workers happy, some of the time.

As Sensei Seldon explains, this has a lot to do with things like setting your own standards, that lead to a stronger personal engagement and motivation.  For many freelancers, these psychological benefits even offset the uncertainty and financial struggles they may face.

  1. Tyra Seldon, A new study shows self-employment leads to happiness, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2018.
  2. Peter Warr and Ilke Inceoglu, Work Orientations, Well-Being and Job Content of Self-Employed and Employed Professionals. Work, Employment and Society, 32 (2):292-311, 2018/04/01 2017.


Flammer on Genteel Computing

The IEEE “Computing Edge” calls attention to an article from 2016, “Genteel Wearables: Bystander-Centered Design”. [1]  In this case, “genteel” seems to mean, “polite to other people in public”.

This seems like ancient history now—who can even remember what wearable tech was like in 2015-6?  But the basic point is, if anything, even more salient.  With the deployment of more and more sensors, connected to who knows where, accumulating who knows what data, the world is becoming ever less “genteel”.  Extending the IoT into wearables is only the last step in invasiveness.

“Compared to users, bystanders are often considered a second-order phenomenon; in other words, “human-centered design” really applies only to the user. I argue that bystanders have a decisive effect on the behavior of public wearable users.”

In particular, wearables must fit into social norms and customs.  To the degree that wearables provide new or novel capabilities, they must be designed with bystanders in mind, which is a challenge because there are no norms and customs.

Writing in 2016, Flammer was reacting in part to the then current experiences with Google Glass and similar devices.  These devices are potentially recording everyone in range, and potentially uploading to the Internet.  Yet they are designed to be “invisible” when in use, which is a bad idea.  (Hence the emergence of the now obsolete derogative term, “Glassholes”.)

“aiming for invisibility is actually equivalent to hiding what the users are up to from bystanders.”

Flammer outlines some of the key issues, which center on data collected about bystanders.  Wearable devices might accidentally measure people nearby, e.g., in an image intended for navigation.  Devices also might deliberately monitor and even identify people nearby, perhaps for social applications or threat assessment or more invasive uses such as “lie detection”.

As obnoxious as such short range data use, uploading to the Internet is much worse.  Advertising companies such as Facebook and Google are eager to obtain second by second traces of everyone, all the time.  So are governments.  So are criminals. So are teenage hackers down the street.  What could possibly go wrong?

Flammer gives some “design imperatives”, which are actually good advice for any human oriented design.

  1. Be concerned about the worst case scenario
  2. Engage in negotiated action
  3. Provide an Opt-Out Solution
  4. Avoid the Panopticon effect

The first point is just good design.  But in this case the opacity of the wearable’s actions mean that bystanders may have radically different perceptions of the situation, which may escalate rapidly.  Ignoring this possibility is a recipe for conflict and disaster.

The second point is basically, “don’t be opaque”. One way or another, obtain permission—tacit or explicit—from bystanders.

The third point is a variation of one of Bob’s Design Principles:  Every interface must have an “Off” button that works.

The final point is obvious to me, but apparently not to Silicon Valley.  Major advertising companies such as Facebook and Google, not to mention every kind of retailer have actually made a Panopticon the crux of their business model.  As we see today, when people become aware of this fact, they tend to strongly dislike the companies and services, all the more so when deceived by the same arrogant snoops.

One approach Flammer advocates is “Peacock Design”, in which wearable actions are materialized and thereby announced to bystanders.  This is tricky to get right, because the wearable device generally needs be unobtrusive for the user, so it is counterproductive to have to telegraph every action.  I would add that exactly what kinds of signals might be used, and how well they would be understood by bystanders is not completely obvious.

He also suggests using a “privacy dashboard” such as already used for web browsers and phones. The idea would be to check with nearby users’ devices, and honor their preferences. This approach has a lot of challenges, including mere ability to recognize of bystanders—and what if they don’t have a cooperating device?

This “solution” also requires action on the part of everyone, unless the default is set to “no permissions at all”.  It seems far fetched that everyone will take time to fiddle with their permissions.  It’s more likely that they will simply be left off, and the genteel wearable will probably be rendered useless.

I’ll add that this kind of privacy profile suffers from many fundamental logical flaws.  For one thing, the semantics of the “permissions” are hazy at best.  What exactly am I permitting?  This is especially problematic because different people may have different interpretations of the settings, leading to misunderstanding and conflict.

Also, if the permissions are defined by the requesting device, then they don’t necessarily even reflect the bystanders interests at all.  For that matter, most permissions should really be on a case by case basis, “who, what, where, when, why”.  Who is going to mess around dealing with thousands of encounters, case by case?  It is more logical to set “denied” and forget about it.

Worst of all, the bystander has to trust the invasive device to honor the permissions (whatever they mean). Since the wearable device is operating in its own interests and under the control of its user, should it be trusted to honor the interests of bystanders (assuming they are even understood)?  Probably not.

This article raises lots of important challenges.  But I don’t think the suggested solutions are viable.

As a historical note, we were thinking about these things a long time ago, before the iPhone and Android got everyone on the net all the time.  We recognized these problems and considered these solutions back then.  It is important to note that they have not happened yet, which suggests they are not going to happen.

The only solution I know of is to design devices to not be intrusive in the first place.

That hasn’t happened either.

  1. Ivo Flammer, Genteel Wearables: Bystander-Centered Design. IEEE Security & Privacy, 14 (5):73-79, 2016.


Cryptocurrency Is Evil: Part 47

Aside from the corrosive social effects of “disrupting” money, the cosy relationship with gray and black commerce, and the gnawing insanity of the rhetoric about how trustworthy “trustless” systems are supposed to be, cryptocurrency has another major evilness:  it is wickedly bad for the planet.

As I have said before, cryptocurrency “mining” is intentionally designed to suck computational power, which is not only a waste of perfectly good cycles, but also consumes vast amounts of electricity for no reason other than to make cryptocurrency “cost” something.

Most cryptocurrency enthusiasts ignore this issue.  Some actively deny it.  And some offer dubious apologies, invoking the costs of other systems they perceive as comparable (e.g., the resource consumption of world banking system).

It is getting bad enough that we see headlines like, “Another Washington County Puts Freeze on Bitcoin Mining”, and we know without reading further that this means that local power authorities are losing patience with crypto miners gaming their pricing schemes to overconsume.

It’s bad enough that crypto miners are sucking power, raising consumption, and, sooner or later, pushing up rates for everyone.

It’s much worse.

Miners are embracing the dirtiest power supplies they can get.

This month we read about a company in Australia that is working to acquire a decommissioned coal fired power plant, with the plan to reboot it to support their crypto mining operation [1].  This is supposed to offer cheaper electricity than from the public grid, and is said to be a trend among the bigger miners.

Given the ideology of crypto enthusiasts, I can’t help suspect that they also aim to be “off the grid”, and therefore avoid pesky regulations governing emissions and safety.

I say that partly because coal plants are generally not economically competitive—that’s why this one was decommissioned.  So, the main way for this to work would be to either not use coal (which would mean rebuilding the plant, I think) or somehow cut costs by, say, ignoring pollution controls.

In any case, it is difficult for me to be excited about bringing a coal plant back on line, after it has finally been taken out of service.  If cryptocurrencies lead to not only more power use, but more dirty power generation, and investment in obsolete facilities instead of new, then Bitcion is not just misguided, it is actively bad for the planet.

Let’s put this note in as an early entry for the next CryptoTulip of the Year.

  1. David Floyd (2018) Miner Reopens Coal-Fired Power Plant in Cheap Energy Quest. Coindesk,
  2. Annaliese Milano (2018) Another Washington County Puts Freeze on Bitcoin Mining. Coindesk,


Cryptocurrency Thursday

Kirigami inspiration for wearable devices

As I have said before, Origami has become an essential tool for engineers and designers.

This month, researchers at University of Buffalo  report that yet another variation, Kirigami, is useful for the design of wearable electronics [1].  Kirigami is a version of Origami that includes cuts as well as folding.

The research is focused on developing flexible electronics suitable for use in fabrics and wearable materials.  Clothing must be flexible and stretchy, so rigid devices and wires do not work well in garments.

Traditional Kirigami techniques create paper objects that stretch and bend in amazing ways.

The image above shows an electronic circuit being increasingly stretched. Credit: Douglas Levere, University at Buffalo.


The new research uses the techniques with conductive “nanosheets”, to create materials that conduct electricity but stretch by 2000%.

“The primary challenge in this emerging field is to ensure the simultaneous achievement of macroscopic robustness, mechanical strength, high stretchability, and charge trans- port mobility in conducting material.”  ([1], p .1)

Kirigami techniques transform “rigid and even nonstretchable materials into highly stretchable form”.

This is not the first nanomaterial project inspired by Kirigami (e.g., here), and the same idea works at macro scales (e.g. here).

The contribution here is using the conductive material, to create stretchable sensors or circuits.

Nice work.

  1. Ying‐Shi Guan, Zhuolei Zhang, Yichao Tang, Jie Yin, and Shenqiang Ren, KirigamiInspired Nanoconfined Polymer Conducting Nanosheets with 2000% Stretchability. Advanced Materials, 0 (0):1706390, 2018.
  2. Cory Nealon, Ancient paper art, kirigami, poised to improve smart clothing, in Univeristy of Buffalo News. 2018.

New LIGO Data Analysis Technique

For many decades, one of the big questions for astrophysics has been how to confirm the behavior of gravity waves. Theoretically, they must exist, but they are awfully hard to detect amid all the “noise” of the rest of the universe going about everyday business.

In the last few years the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) project has successfully detected gravitational waves for the first time.  This heroic effort involves careful extraction of the interesting signal from a mass of noise.  Details are available in published papers and the data and code are available at the LIGO Open Science Center.

The basic goal of this software is to find needles in a messy haystack, which is actually a pretty generic task with lots of possible techniques that might work. Not surprisingly, other approaches have been applied.

The project has employed trendy “citizen science” techniques crowd sourcing “Gravity Spy” (via Zooniverse, naturally), and a variant of SETI@HOME (EINSTEIN@HOME).  The latter searches through masses of data to identify useful objects.  The former uses human perception to listen to the data rendered as sound, and classify it.  These human classifications are used as input to other software.

Over the last several years, a team at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications has applied machine learning techniques to this problem.  They are publishing their latest results this spring [2].

The project uses neural networks trained from the initial LIGO studies and the Gravity Spy classifications to train the nets, and then are able to create an unsupervised classifier that exceeds the capability of the original system.  I suspect that it probably exceeds the capabilities of the Gravity Spy crowd, as well.

Well done, all.

That this work is being done at a supercomputing center is a hint that it sucks a lot of CPUs, or, in this case, GPUs.  NCSA and other HPC centers have been developing ways to use GPUs for various numerical problems for a couple of decades (not even counting Illiac IV which was essentially a prehistoric GPU the size of a warehouse).


In one sense, this isn’t a surprising result.  Neural nets should be able to solve this problem, given enough training data.  But there is huge difference between should and really does.  Which goes to show you why you need the kind of multi discipline, full service HPC center that NCSA has pioneered for 35 years.

  1. Daniel George and E. A. Huerta, Deep Learning for real-time gravitational wave detection and parameter estimation: Results with Advanced LIGO data. Physics Letters B, 778:64-70, 2018/03/10/ 2018.
  2. Daniel George, Hongyu Shen, and E. A. Huerta (2018) Classification and clustering of LIGO data with deep transfer learning. Physical Review D,


Ocean currents are changing–probably

When the Antarctic icecap melts, that will mark the full beginning of the Anthropocene Age. A rapid rise of sea levels, and corresponding retreat of coast lines, will be an unmistakable geological marker.

However, before that happens there may be another significant geological event:  massive changes to the major ocean currents.

From grade school, we all know about the Gulf Stream, and most of us understand that the massive flow of warm tropical water north to the shores of Europe have a profound effect on the climate of Briton and other lands there.  At the same latitude as Canada, the UK and neighbors are much warmer and nicer for people because of the balmy and nutrient rich ocean waters.

For many years oceanographers have warned that melting ice is dumping fresh water into the northern oceans, which might change the behavior of the long standing circulation patterns.  I.e., the currents could change their paths or even cease to flow.  For parts of the world, this could result in catastrophic changes to the local climate and fisheries, and possibly larger consequences around the globe.

Studies of ice cores suggest that such changes to currents were associated with rapid shifts in climate during the last glacial age, so it is entirely conceivable that changes and their effects could occur very soon and very quickly.

This spring, a pair of papers in Nature report that in the North Atlantic, the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) seems to have weakened.

Figure 1 | The Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) and the subpolar gyre. From [2]
One study examined records of sea surface temperature combined with a high resolution climate model [1]. The work defined a pattern that they call the “fingerprint” that characterizes the AMOC.  (This kind of modelling is necessary because it is very difficult to measure the deep currents, and there certainly isn’t reliable data from a century or more ago.)

The study shows that the currents are quite variable, and their model shows a slowing that started in the 1870s, and accelerated since 1975.

A second study focused on the Gulf of Labrador, and found that the current has been slowing since 1860 or so—the end of a little ice age [3]. However, the “finger print” used in this study showed the weakening is small and steady, with little sign of a recent, presumably anthrpogenic effect.

While these two studies set the beginning of the downward trend at different times, they both point to the same cause—melting ice [2].  In that sense, it scarcely matters if the ice started melting from natural causes, and has accelerated form human activities, or whether human activities initiated the melt.  The result is the same, and the implications for the future are the same.

It is clear that this kind of computer modelling, however carefully done, is complicated and uncertain.  (I have to say I had difficulty fathoming exactly what the studies were doing, and I’m not ignorant about computer modelling.)  Most important, these ocean currents are a non-linear system, which means that they are very, very difficult to model.  Slight differences in data or assumptions can add up to huge differences in results.  The different results in the two studies almost certainly reflect the effects of the specific data used.

Nevertheless, these studies are very carefully done, and are consistent with data and theory, so they are worth taking seriously. They point to the conclusion that the AOMC is probably slowing, which means that the northern Atlantic will cool, and the southern Atlantic will warm.  How this will play out in the atmosphere and on land is hard to say for sure.

One thing we can say for sure is that it would be wise to get more and better data about the oceans. This will help refine the models, and also might give warning about the coming effects.


  1. L. Caesar, S. Rahmstorf, A. Robinson, G. Feulner, and V. Saba, Observed fingerprint of a weakening Atlantic Ocean overturning circulation. Nature, 556 (7700):191-196, 2018/04/01 2018.
  2. Summer K. Praetorius, North Atlantic circulation slows down. Nature, 556 180-181, April 11 2018.
  3. David J. R. Thornalley, Delia W. Oppo, Pablo Ortega, Jon I. Robson, Chris M. Brierley, Renee Davis, Ian R. Hall, Paola Moffa-Sanchez, Neil L. Rose, Peter T. Spooner, Igor Yashayaev, and Lloyd D. Keigwin, Anomalously weak Labrador Sea convection and Atlantic overturning during the past 150 years. Nature, 556 (7700):227-230, 2018/04/01 2018.
  4. Victoria Gill, Climate change dials down Atlantic Ocean heating system, in BBC News – Science & Environment. 2018.


PS.  I had never hear of a “Sverdrup”, which is a commonly used unit for the amount of water transported in an ocean current (1 Sverdrup i= 1 gigaliter per second).

PPS.  Obviously, this would be a great name for a band:
The Sverdrups 


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