Cool Tech, But Useless Solutions

We, the geeks, are nothing if not solution oriented.  We love solving problems, and we have a fabulous digital toolkit to build with. 

We are a culture of Hammer-makers, and, by golly, the world is full of nails.

But sometimes it is just embarrassing to see our people rush in to “solve” the problems of the world, even if they are the wrong problems.

For example, this spring researchers at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) report a handy app that analyses digital video and determines whether people are maintaining a safe social distance [1]. This app is touted as useful to fight Covid-19, especially in public spaces such as transportation hubs.

However technically clever—and it is a neat bit of kit—this app seems misguided to me.

Whether or not social distancing is needed at this time isn’t the point.  The point is, it is solving the wrong problem.

First of all, maintaining social distance isn’t difficult.  People have easily managed to do so with very simple methods.  (For example, if you can touch someone with outstretched arms, you are too close.  Don’t need an app for that.)

Second, maintaining social distance is mainly a behavioral issue. Anyone and everyone can do it if they want to.  It’s generally not a matter of information, and it’s really not something that can be enforced very easily by third parties.  Even if the airport police had this information, what would they do with it?

But the thing that bothers me most is that the app is solving the wrong problem.  The problem is not how to keep people visibly distant from each other.  The problem is to keep people from breathing each other’s breath too much.  What matters for this problem is good air circulation; social distancing is just a rough heuristic of “keeping our air apart”.

And I’ll note that the same journal alone has published a half dozen or more projects in the last year, all using digital technology to detect social distance in real time.  I’m sure other journals have published even more examples. 

It is safe to say that we have the ability to solve this problem!  Unfortunately, it’s not really the key problem, is it.

What we really need an app to do, and this would be really cool, is to accurately visualize the flow of our breath, so we can stay away from dangerous air.  This is a difficult problem to measure and model.  It involves the air flow in a space and the behavior of the people (e.g., masks, level of activity). The physics and phsyiology is difficult and the data we need isn’t easily measured in imagery or with simple sensors.

I have seen complicated visualizations based on simulations that show this, e.g., for an airplane cabin.  But I’d love to have a real time visualization for any space.

To be fair, the EPFL app is technically quite neat.  They deploy technology developed for autonomous vehicle navigation to rapidly infer 3D scene from imagery.  Determining the distance between people is actually a lot simpler than trying to drive a car in a city, so the tech works pretty well.

They also are well aware of the real problems here, and the app tries to be somewhat sophisticated about behaviors.  If you read carefully, it is clear they are well aware that this app is only a small step, useful only in certain situations.

Honestly, I understand that this is mainly a public relations exercise.  Researchers everywhere and their sponsors want to be seen to be helping out in a difficult time.   As the EPFL researchers comment, “We publicly share the source code towards an open science mission.” ([1], p. 1)

  1. L. Bertoni, S. Kreiss, and A. Alahi, Perceiving Humans: From Monocular 3D Localization to Social Distancing. IEEE Transactions on Intelligent Transportation Systems:1-18,  2021.
  2. Sandrine Perroud, 3D detectors measure social distancing to help fight Covid-19, in EPFL – News, May 7, 2021.

Book Review: “The Echo Wife” by Sarah Gailey

The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey

I liked Gailey’s “Magic for Liars”,  but I have to say that I wasn’t in any way prepared for The Echo Wife.  Gailey’s latest is pretty serious, pretty dark, and deeply twisted.  It is also compelling and has more than a few major surprises along the way.

The plot depends on the fantasy of a lab capable of ground-breaking cloning of humans, producing adult bodies in months with full blown personalities and memories of their life. In fact, the personalities are somehow tunable, so you can, for instance, make sure that the body double of a politician doesn’t believe he actually is the politician. 

I had to suspend my disbelief a lot to swallow this stuff.

But it’s worth it, because the cool part is the social psychology of cloning and being a clone.  And Gailey’s psychology is all too believable, as far as I’m concerned.  Spot on, and horribly, chillingly, realistic.

Here’s the question:  besides body doubles/organ farms for rich people, slaves, and maybe super soldiers; what would people want a clone for?

Well, Gailey shows us, men will want to make a “perfect” wife.  I.e., a docile woman, attending only to hubby, desperately eager to keep house and have babies.  Etc.

Ick!  Twisted doesn’t begin to describe it. I wanted to vomit.

But, of course, it’s what a lot of men try to do with non-cloned women they marry or rear as daughters. So, yeah. I see it.

Gailey also gives us a grippingly sympathetic view of how it would feel to be one of those clones.  I wanted to weep when Martine asked, “what was I made for?”

A lot of this story is pretty dark.  Gailey makes the brutal and horrid psychology dubious morality of cloning align really closely to abusive relationships of many kinds. 

I’ll note that Gailey doesn’t over-simplify this picture.  While I personally think that he got what he deserved, there is no escaping the moral flaws in the victimized women as well. Nobody is perfect or beyond moral judgement.

Bottom line:  this is a gripping story with a really dark morality tale.  It’s not necessarily pleasant to read, but I think it’s going to be unforgettable.

1. Sarah Gailey, The Echo Wife, New York, TOR, 2021.

Sunday Book Reviews

Osiris-rex coming home – with samples and a heck of a lot of imagery

The Hyubashu-2 has returned with its cargo of rock and dust from asteroid Ryugu, and now NASA’s Osiris-rex spacecraft is on its way home from asteroid Bennu [3].  If all goes well, the sample will land on September 24 2023 in Utah.  (After delivery, the spacecraft will continue past Earth and fly by asteroid Apophis in 2029.)

Since the surface sample collection, Osiris has been orbiting Bennu and imaging like crazy. I mean, it’s a long way to go, and humans may never visit this particular asteroid ever again.  So while we’re there, we have to science the heck out of it.

Well done, all.

  1. BBC News, Nasa craft carrying 4.5bn-year-old asteroid dust begins long trek home, in BBC News – US & Canada, May 11, 2021.
  2. Kenneth Chang, Bye-Bye, Bennu: NASA Heads Back to Earth With Asteroid Stash in Tow, in New York Times. 2021: New York.
  3. Daniel Stolte, OSIRIS-REx Bids Farewell to Asteroid Bennu, in NASA Space Science -Asteroids, May 11, 2021.

Apple iOS Opt Seems to Have Huge Effect

I’m not a giant fan of Apple iOS because it is a tightly closed system and pretty hostile to small and non-commercial developers like me.  It’s also grievously complicated and prescriptive and expensive to develop for.  In general, it’s Apple’s way or no way, which sucks.

But autocratic rule (as well as billions in the bank) has advantages, and one of them is that Apple can, and just did, screw the biggest sharks on the Internet. 

As an old grey head who was around while we were booting up the Internet, I have to tell you that secret third party tracking is definitely not what we intended to be the primary use of the Internet.  But today most of the business and a ridiculous chunk of the bandwidth is taken up with surveillance systems.  It’s exactly how Facebook makes its zillions:  spying on it’s customers, and selling them out to anyone with money to pay.

It’s wicked and sinful.

I think that in recent years, a new circle in Hell must have opened, just for Internet advertisers.

There, the guilty spend eternity clicking on misleading user interfaces, “agreeing” to infernal terms of service, and attempting to opt out of torment.  And, of course, the torment is highly tuned to each individual, whose behavior is tracked in extreme detail, “in order to serve you better”. 



Apple folks might end up in hell, but perhaps it won’t be that circle.

Because Apple did what everyone should always have done; which is block third party tracking unless the user specifically opts in.

And, amazingly enough, when given the actual choice, most people choose not to be spies on and resold as digital cattle.

One report suggests that 96% of people don’t opt in [2]. Even if that number is high, we can be sure that a vast number of people will not opt in.

As Samuel Axon put it, this “exceeds advertisers’ worst fears” [1].

Of course, Facebook is suing Apple about it, because Facebook would seem to be out of business in this model.   I’m having difficulty seeing what Facebook’s case might be. They have a right to rip off their users, and Apple doesn’t have a right to stop them?

Anyway. It will be very interesting to see the impact on online ad revenues. 

Also—when will Android give me the same option??

  1. Samuel Axon, 96% of US users opt out of app tracking in iOS 14.5, analytics find, in Ars Technica, May 7, 2021.
  2. Estelle Laziuk, Daily iOS 14.5 Opt-in Rate, in The Flurry Blog, April 29, 2021.

Spring Follies in Nakamotoland

This week I looked through one of my slush piles, a collection of headlines about cryptocurrency, blockchain, and related “Oopsies”.  The great land of Nakamoto seldom disappoints on this front! : – )

Oopsies R Us!

First up, we see that “Crypto Lending Platform BlockFi Attacked With Flood of Fake, Abusive Sign-Ups[3].  Apparently spammers, likely bots, swarmed ths site, creating bogus new users, with naughty names. Tsk. Very grown up.

This issue actually has nothing to do with crypto, per se, except that this is a major “crypto lending platform” with millioins of dollars in play, which apparently lets anyone just create accounts.  You have to wonder about just who might be using this service and for what. And what other details are they blowing off.

Last fall, we heard from the ever controversial MakerDAO (how are they still around?).  I’m not really sure what all MakerDAO is up to, but apparently one of it’s “features” is, as James Creawley’s headline puts it, “MakerDAO Loans Can Be Gamed to Hold Out Funds From Liquidation[2]. The details are obscure to me, but the gist of it is that it is possible to avoid repaying some loan, apparently due to a wrinkle in the complex and vague protocols.

Hmm.  Software that has bugs because it is complex and ambiguous?  That’s never happened before. : – )

And, of course, there is a never ending parade of just plain theft.

For example, the perhaps too aptly named, DODO decentralized finance platform was “Drained of $3.8M in DeFi Exploit [1].   DODO is a lending service, providing instant, poorly secured loans of cryptocurrencies–unencumbered by human oversight.  What could possibly go wrong?

The exploit is question was–wait for it–a bug in an executable contract.  The bug allowed hackers to create “counterfeit” tokens, and then loan them to themselves, and cash out.  With the magic of blockchain, the heist was executed in seconds.  (I ti s reported that a lot of the stolen funds was traced and recovered.)

I think the thing that ties all these oopsies together is that they all are pretty normal software bugs.  Hey, all software has bugs.  It should not be trusted. 

But, the fundamental tenets of Nakamotoism hold that cryptocurrency eliminates the need to trust other people and institutions.  Essentially, Nakamoto replaces people with software, with the implicit claim that software can be trusted more than people.

OK, I’ll grant you that software can be trusted differently than people.  In particular, software may be more predictable than people, and maybe more transparent.  On the other hand, people can use common sense, and generally possess a butt to be kicked if necessary

Nakamotoan software is no worse than most, possibly better than average.  But when there are zillions of dollars involved, and things move at zilloflop speeds, the implications of bugs are gigantic.  So, no matter how “trustworthy” platforms and “smart contracts” may be, even small oopsies can drain millions in a few seconds.

Finally, note how these bugs were handled:  actual humans took responsibility and intervened to make things right.  If Emperor Nakamoto aimed to eliminate humans from the trust equation, he has not succeeded. 

  1. Jamie Crawley (2021) DODO DEX Drained of $3.8M in DeFi Exploit. Coindesk,
  2. William Foxley (2020) MakerDAO Loans Can Be Gamed to Hold Out Funds From Liquidation, Startup Finds. Coindesk,
  3. Sebastian Sinclair (2021) Crypto Lending Platform BlockFi Attacked With Flood of Fake, Abusive Sign-Ups. Coindesk,

Cryptocurrency Thursday

Mars Copter Still Flying!

Hooray for intrepid little Ingenuity, the first copter to fly on Mars!

After the initial “if the dog dances at all” flights, the copter on Mars did a third, more realistic flight.  Flying at 5 meters, Ingenuity completed a 166 meter out and back in 117 seconds, capturing color imagery for the first time [1]. This was a demonstration of a “scouting” mission.

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter’s fourth flight path is superimposed here atop terrain imaged by the HiRISE camera aboard the agency’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona) (From [2])

With this success, Integrity is cleared for a fifth flight, a one-way trip to reposition the copter on the future path of its rover [2].

At this point, the copter has not only passed the initial “can we do it at all”, but is out performing expectations.  It’s only supposed to last 30 days,  but who knows how long it can keep going? 

Well done, all! (And well done, Illinois Alum Aung!)

  1. MiMi Aung, Ingenuity Completes Its Fourth Flight, in NASA Science – Mars Helicopter Tech Demo, April 30, 2021.
  2. Josh Ravich, Why Ingenuity’s Fifth Flight Will Be Different, in NASA Science – Mars Helicopter Tech Demo, May 6, 2021.

Bioprinted Artificial Leaves

I was pretty skeptical when I saw Chris Young’s headline, “3D Printed ‘Artificial Leaves’ Could Provide Sustainable Energy on Mars” [2]. Right.

But the article appeared in the awesomely titled blog, “Interesting Engineering”, so let’s have a look. : – )

This is a real thing from TU Delft, which is embedding living algae in a non-living structure that resembles the leaf of a plant [1]. It’s pretty neat.

The structure works like a leaf, taking in water, air, and light, and photosynthesizing sugars and Oxygen.  The former can be harvested to generate fuel, the latter is potentially useful on, say Mars.

One of the interesting things is that the “leaf” can be recycled, the algae regenerated.  This means that the material generates minimal waste and is potentially reusable many times—very useful features for use in space.

The researchers also note that they modified a low cost, DIY bioprinter.   The results are all the more remarkable because the techniques are relatively simple and cheap.

Nice work.

And, indeed, “interesting engineering”! : – )

  1. Srikkanth Balasubramanian, Kui Yu, Anne S. Meyer, Elvin Karana, and Marie-Eve Aubin-Tam, Bioprinting of Regenerative Photosynthetic Living Materials. Advanced Functional Materials, n/a (n/a):2011162, 2021/04/29 2021.
  2. Chris Young, 3D Printed ‘Artificial Leaves’ Could Provide Sustainable Energy on Mars, in Interesting Engineering, May 3, 2021.

Yet More on Glaciers

The ice is melting everywhere, and glaciers are receding almost everywhere

Glaciers are dynamic rivers of ice, and when they flow down to the sea they transport ice from inland into the ocean.  This ice melts, potentially raising sea level.  It also adds cool freshwater at these locations, changing the local chemistry and temperature of the ocean. 

These effects occur where the ice extends out into the ocean, and eventually crumbles into ice bergs.  This “calving front” may move out to sea and back toward land in response to the flow of the glacier and the conditions at the ocean front.  In many places, the calving front has noticeably retreated, indicating an overall loss of ice.

But it is not easy to measure the position and movement of these edges.  They are large, irregular and generally not easy to access for close observation.

To understand what is happening with the ice, It is important to understand this calving in combination with measures of ice mass and data about precipitation and temperature.  

This spring researchers at Columbia report a neural network system that has been successfully trained to identify the calving front of glaciers in Greenland from satellite imagery [2]. The neural network was trained using Landsat IR data from 1972-2019, along with Synthetic Aperture Radar data.

The neural net model developed was applied to test data, and agreed to withing 100m with manual estimates based on the same imagery. 

The overall time series are consistent with other data. Pretty much all the glaciers have retreated in the covered areas of Greenland, though two regions have seen an advance recently.  This pattern has been documented in other data.

Figure 14.Regional terminus advance and retreat over time.(a)Regional delineations (left) and terminus position graphs (right) for Green-land(b), as well as the northwestern(c), central western(d), central eastern(e), southeastern(f), and southwestern(g)regions. Note that the total Greenland mean advance and retreat is unadjusted and dominated by the trend lines of numerous smaller glaciers in CW and NW Greenland. Note that branches in the 66 studied basins are independently counted, for a total of 87 glaciers.
(From [2])

This kind of model is potentially quite useful, because most glaciers cannot be monitored frequently except by satellite.  Even in this limited dataset (66 glaciers in Greenland), the NN model has identified seasonal and multiyear trends that could be important input for theoretical models of climate.

I really don’t know how well this model would work for other parts of the world, or how much more training might be needed for it to give valid results outside Greenland.  But one way or another, I’m sure it can be done.

I’ll remark that these results are all the more impressive because Landsat data is not especially fine-grained:  for much of the data, pixels are 30m square.  Achieving + /- 100m accuracy isn’t bad, considering the resolution of the data.

  1. Daniel Burgess, An Artificial Neural Network Joins the Fight Against Receding Glaciers, in Columbia Climate School – News, May 5, 2021.
  2. D. Cheng, W. Hayes, E. Larour, Y. Mohajerani, M. Wood, I. Velicogna, and E. Rignot, Calving Front Machine (CALFIN): glacial termini dataset and automated deep learning extraction method for Greenland, 1972–2019. The Cryosphere, 15 (3):1663-1675,  2021.

Book Review: “The Vampire Genevieve” by Kim Newman

The Vampire Genevieve by Kim Newman

At this point, I’ll read anything from Mr. Newman.

This reprinted collection includes stories written for Warhammer game fans. I know nothing about Warhammer, but fortunately Newman’s stories stand up fine.

The stories span quite a period, from 1989 and forward (real world), and decades in the fictional world.

As the title suggests, these stories center around a period in the life existence of Genevieve Dieudonné, a 600+ year old vampire. She was turned when she was sixteen, and still looks that age.  (In this world, vampirism is complicated—Genevieve eats blood, but generally isn’t an insane killer.  She gets sunburned easily, but does not burst into flames in the daylight.  And so on.)

Genevieve lives (?) and interesting life (?).  When you last 600 years, you get to try a lot of things. But the most interesting thing is her enduring love affair with Detlef, the playwright, actor, and theatrical impresario.  Vampirism is complicated, and loving one is very complicated.

Now, I’m not especially a fan of “horror” or vampire stories myself.  Vampires and ghosts and what not are just silly nonsense.  Not even scary.

However, I am a big fan of Newman, and he is quite capable of making me really like a vampire story.

And this collection has lots of action, lots of dialog, really nasty villains, and plenty of campy humor.  A couple of the stories are basically CSI: Warhammer.  Genevieve’s vampire “grandmother” was changed when she was twelve, and acts like both a spoiled 12 year old and a spoiled granny.  Detlef’s theatrical productions are insanely over the top in a very theatrical way.  And so on.

To be clear—this is not all joking around.  There are a lot of interesting characters, tragic losses, and pyrrhic victories.  Some parts are really sad, too.

But most of all, it’s a love story between two amazing people.  I would love to have dinner with Detlef and Genevieve!

  1. Kim Newman, The Vampire Genevieve, Nottingham, Warhammer Horror, 2021.

Sunday Book Reviews

Glaciers Melting Faster Pretty Much Everywhere

The ice is melting everywhere.

We know that glaciers are melting in many places, it’s pretty obvious.  We have long assumed that glaciers are melting everywhere, though that’s hard to prove.  There are a lot of glaciers, many of them difficult to access, and they don’t all behave the same way. 

This spring researchers from Europe report a new study of glaciers around the planet [2]. They used satellite images from the early twenty first century to calculate the altitude of the glacier surface, indicating the thickness of the ice.  Specifically, they use NASA data from ASTER for the period 2000-2019.  This generated half a million DEM maps of glaciers in all regions, with a resolution of about 100 m horizontally.  (Some of the computation was done down the road from me at Blue Waters, which evidently isn’t dead quite yet.)

The ASTER data is actually pairs of images, which the study used as stereograms.  The DEMs generated from the images were validated for glaciers where other satellites have directly measured the altitude with radar or laser altimetry, as well as other available data. The resulting dataset is a high resolution time series of ice mass over this period for hundreds of glaciers.


The results show an overall loss of more than 250 gigatons of ice per year over the period.  The report notes that this is larger than the total loss from Greenland’s ice sheet, and double the loss from Antarctica’s internal ice.  The estimated melt water would account for 20% of the rise in sea level.  The data shows that the loss of ice is accelerating over this period (which is only 20 years!)

Within the global trend, different regions show more and less change in ice mass.  Not surprisingly, many non-polar areas are melting faster than close to the poles.  And the North Atlantic region saw a gain in ice mass in the recent years. 

But the overall trend is a large and accelerating melting.

“Together, the contrasting patterns and global-scale sensitivities consistent with meteorological conditions support the notion of a long-term, temperature-driven acceleration in glacier mass loss that is still subject to regional and sub-decadal precipitation-driven fluctuations of large magnitude.“

([2], p. 731)

This is an impressive study, heroic, even. The great advantage of satellite observations is that they cover pretty much the whole planet pretty much continuously.  NASA’s Earth Science folks have worked hard to amass a continuous record of our planet for twenty years and more.  This study is an example of what can be learned from this long term commitment.

If there is any doubt in your mind that this was a significant effort, check out the flowchart of their data processing:

(From [2]) Flow chart of the methodology.
Flow diagram describing the processing steps from satellite imagery to global glacier mass change time series. Processing steps correspond to sections in Methods.

  1. Jonathan Amos, Climate change: World’s glaciers melting at a faster pace, in BBC News – Science & Environment, May 1, 2021.
  2. Romain Hugonnet, Robert McNabb, Etienne Berthier, Brian Menounos, Christopher Nuth, Luc Girod, Daniel Farinotti, Matthias Huss, Ines Dussaillant, Fanny Brun, and Andreas Kääb, Accelerated global glacier mass loss in the early twenty-first century. Nature, 592 (7856):726-731, 2021/04/01 2021.

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