Dinosaurs Rising From The Ashes

We’re all fascinated with the story of the end of the Dinosaurs, which corresponds with a really big impact, and possibly other catastrophes. The death of the dinosaurs is not only a puzzle, it is the event that made room for mammals and puny humans to evolve.

But there was also a mass extinction that cleared the way for the great adaptive radiation of dinosaurs. At the end of the Triassic period, about 200M years ago, there was a massive extinction of animals. The dinosaurs rose after this catastrophe.

This month a team of British scientists published new evidence that there was a huge sequence volcanic eruptions at that time, which would have been devastating for living things. This event has been suspected from other evidence of huge lava flows, global cooling (due to volcanic material in the atmosphere), and, of course, mass extinctions.

The new study uses a new techniques which measures mercury (Hg) in the rocks. This element is highly correlated with volcanic activity, which spews Hg into the air.  The mercury falsl out and is incorporated into rock, where it persists for long periods of time–hundreds of millions of years.

Careful measurements indicate high levels of mercury in the period between the extinctions at the end of the Triassic, and the beginning of the Jurassic. In other words, a very clear suggestion that the volcanic disaster caused the extinctions, and the end of the episode was followed by the rise of the dinosaurs.

A key aspect of this work is to trace mercury deposits to many locations around the world. Furthermore, the deposits should be temporally aligned, rising and falling at the same time.   These signatures are consistent with large volcanic “pulses”.

The researchers report that the “Hg excursions are recorded in five of the six sections studied”, and that “The onset of Hg enrichment occurred synchronously across the globe, coincident with the end-Triassic extinction and associated global carbon cycle perturbation.“ (p.5)

In other words, there is clear evidence of very widespread effects of volcanism at the precise time of the mass extinctions.

As Rebecca Morelle puts it, “The onset of Hg enrichment occurred synchronously across the globe, coincident with the end-Triassic extinction and associated global carbon cycle perturbation.

And, evidently, ancestors of the dinosaurs survived this catastrophe, and “once the volcanoes had simmered down, few of their competitors were left, allowing the age of the dinosaurs to begin.”

The dinosaur age began and ended in world-wide catastophe that wiped out most living species, clearing the way for another burst of speciation.

The “age of mammals” started with the catastrophe that killed off the dinosaurs.  It is ending now with the sixth extinction, and, most likely, a spike in global temperature.

  1. Rebecca Morelle, Volcanoes ‘triggered dawn of dinosaurs’, in BBC News: Science & Environment. 2017. http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-40333902
  2. Lawrence M. E Percival, Micha Ruhl, Stephen P. Hesselbo, Hugh C. Jenkyns, Tamsin A. Mather, and Jessica H. Whiteside, Mercury evidence for pulsed volcanism during the end-Triassic mass extinction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, June 19, 2017 2017. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2017/06/13/1705378114.abstract

Local Digital Currency in Spain: No Blockchain Involved

Cryptocurrency enthusiasts cite many potential benefits of Nakamotan cryptocurrencies (e.g., see [5]). Many of the claims are nonsense (e.g., many of the alleged virtues of “trustless” systems) or based on emotional anti-authority appeals.

Some of the more compelling use cases, though, are about empowering the 99.999%, by enabling access to low cost financial services for everyone, and generally enhancing local economies. These are attractive goals, though little progress has been made to achieve them.

My own view is that blockchain-based systems can be used for such purposes, but are neither necessary nor sufficient. There are better ways to skin that cat.

A case in point are the growing number of local currencies. For example, Aaron Fernando reports on the establishment of a local currency, the grama, in Santa Coloma de Gramanet, Spain. This purely digital currency is created by the local government and is pegged to the official Euro, However, the digital tokens have additional features designed to encourage them to circulate in the local area, rather than immediately fly away to distant banks or corporations.

The currency is only issued in the city, and some local business offer discounts. Most importantly, the currency has a “use by” date, or rather, a “use until” date.

a 5 percent penalty is imposed on exchanging gramas to euros before 45 days, with no exchange penalty after 45 days.

The whole idea is to maximize the value of local spending to the local community.

Personally, I like the idea.

I always try to patronize locally owned businesses, and hire local contractors whenever possible, so it is nice to see a digital system try to enhance this socially positive behavior.

Whether this sort of algorithmic game will have a big economic impact or not isn’t clear to me. For one thing, it’s kind of difficult to draw a boundary around a “local” economy. And however you draw the line, a city or locality is never a closed system.

But it’s better to try something, than to do nothing except complain.

I note that Spain certainly has been brutally punished by using the German controlled Euro [4]. Add in the longstanding nationalist aspirations of Catalonia, and there is a lot of motivation for local economic self-determination, and plenty of justification for experimentation.

The grama is inspired by the Bristol Pound and other contemporary local digital currencies. For that matter, local currencies predate digital technology, including famous case such as Ithaca NY.

So what does the grama tell us about blockchains and cryptocurrency?

I haven’t found much of a technical description of the Santa Coloma grama. I’m pretty sure they are connected to the conventional financial system, though I don’t understand the details.

If they are using a Nakmotoan blockchain, they never say so. I’m pretty suer they have nothing to do with any blockchain, and there is no reason why they would use a blockchain or Nakamoto-style “mining”.. The currency is baccked by Euros (a hated “fiat” currency) and issued by the local city government.

The Bristol Pound is not blockchain based, either, so far as I can tell. Nor are the other local currencies from Qoin.

In short, these leading local currencies could use blockchains, but do not. Why not?

You certainly could use a blockchain, or Bitcoin, or some other cryptocurrency to implement a local digital currency like the grama. But I think there is little reason to do so, and many reasons not to.

In these local currencies, the digital technology is designed to enhance face-to-face interactions among local people, which are inherently trustworthy. Furthermore, the local currency enhances trust in local institutions and businesses, and discourages dealing with anonymous, untrustworthy outsiders.

A local currency is designed to encourage face-to-face, non-anonymous transactions.

A local currency is trusted because it relies on personal relations.

Blockchain technology, in contrast, is designed to move money around the world with little friction, sucking money away from local economies. Transactions are not only not face-to-face, they are partly anonymous. And furthermore, public blockchains such as Bitcoin or Ethereum are “decentralized”, and have no one responsible for them, let alone no local control over decision making.

Cryptocurrencies are the opposite of “local currencies”.

“Decentralized” blockchains are the opposite of “locally controlled” systems.

Cryptcocurrencies are “trustless”, which is antithetical to local solidarity.

The bottom line is that digital technology, including cryptographic signatures, definitely are a good technology for empowering local communities.

However, blockchains in general, and global cryptocurrencies specifically, are really not the right technology for local currencies, and probably not for empowering people in any way.

The key to success for this kind of system is good interface design, local organizing (Santa Coloma has participation from local government and over 100 local businesses), and the backing of the public. It could have a blockchain inside or not—users would never know the difference.

If blockchains are not the right technology for a local currency, then it is worth asking if blockchains are the right technology for any kind of local self-government.

My own view is that, to the degree that blockchain-based systems encourage offshore finance and “autonomous” transactions, they are the perfect tools for the exploitation of local communiities, and likely to be very destructive of local economies.

  1. Bristol Pound Community Interest Company. The Bristol Pound – Our City, Our Money. 2017, https://bristolpound.org/.
  2. Aaron Fernando, How One City in Spain Launched a Local Currency Sharable.June 8 2017, http://www.shareable.net/blog/how-one-city-in-spain-launched-a-local-currency
  3. Qoin. Qoin – Money That Matters. 2017, http://www.qoin.com/.
  4. Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Euro: How A Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe, New York, W. W. Norton& Company, 2016.
  5. Don Tapscott and Alex Tapscott, Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin is Changing Money, Business, and the World, New York, Portfolio/Penguin, 2016.


Cryptocurrency Thursday

The Omnicopter is Cool!

Yet another wonder robot from ETH in Zürich (e.g., see this and this):

The Omnicopter.


Not a quadcopter, it’s an octocopter!

The advantage of this design is that it is way, way more maneuverable than quadcopters, helicopters, or blimps. It has full 6DOF movement.

The principle was described in a paper last year [2] and a neat little video:

This year they produced a cool demonstration, playing fetch with the omnicopter.

This is pretty amazing!

The description of the demo indicates that it works by evaluating large numbers of possible trajectories to select optimal one from a given initial state to a final state. They say that the system can generate 500,000 trajectories per second, resulting is a smooth, magical effect.

(This is very much a “brute force” search through all possible trajectories—computers don’t have to be “smart” if they are fast!)

As Evan Ackerman comments, this design has a lot of potential to be better than the conventional approach of trying to put a robot arm on a quadcopter. “[Y]ou could just stick a gripper onto an arbitrary face of it, and then have the entire robot serve as an actuator.”

Nice work, all!

  1. Evan Ackerman, ETH Zurich’s Omnicopter Plays Fetch, in IEEE Spectrum – Automation. 2017. http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/drones/eth-zurich-omnicopter-plays-fetch
  2. Dario Brescianini and Raffaello D’ Andrea. Design, modeling and control of an omni-directional aerial vehicle. In 2016 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), 2016, 3261-3266. http://flyingmachinearena.org/wp-content/publications/2016/breIEEE16.pdf


Robot Wednesday

Celibrate World Giraffe Day: June 21

June 21 is World Giraffe Day!

Visit a Zoo or explore information on the web.

I think the closest giraffes to me are in Peoria:

This celebration is organized by The Giraffe Conservation Foundation, which seeks funding to help preserve this iconic and beloved species. Their website has lots of images of giraffes, and invites people to “stick their necks out” to save the giraffes.

I have to say that I would not want to live on an Earth without giraffes.


Animastage: Tangible Interactive Display

From MIT Media Lab Tangible Media folks, an odd little interactive display: Animastage [2].

The idea is “Hands-on Animated Craft on Pin-based Shape Displays”, i.e., a system that lets you create animated 3D puppet like scenes that move.

The underlying technology is from earlier TML projects [1], which were inspired by player pianos and other pre-digital technologies. This particular system is heavily influenced by puppetry

The creator makes scenes and puppets, and places them on the pin surface. The vertical movement of the pins pushes the figure like a puppet. Programming the actuators animates the scene.

The neatest effect is the “Invisible String Control”, in which the animator wiggles his or her fingers and the animation responds as if they were connected by a string. This effect uses hand tracking via a Leap Motion camera, which is mapped to the actuators.

This effect is far, far more interesting for a viewer than the other more complicated animations.

I was immediately struck by the fact that this effect mainly works—and draws our attention—because the viewer fills in the story from imagination.

The finger motions aren’t necessarily related to the animation in an obvious way (which is also true of marionettes), and we can’t really tell if the hand movements are leading or following the animation. But what we clearly see is the hands controlling the puppets.

This is a general principle of visual interaction: humans unconsciously construct stories and fill in ambiguity form their own imagination. In this case, the design makes good use of this principle, creating a very compelling and entertaining illusion from the simplest parts.

  1. Hiroshi Ishii, Daniel Leithinger, Sean Follmer, Amit Zoran, Philipp Schoessler, and Jared Counts, TRANSFORM: Embodiment of “Radical Atoms” at Milano Design Week, in Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 2015, ACM: Seoul, Republic of Korea. p. 687-694.
  2. Ken Nakagaki, Udayan Umapathi, Daniel Leithinger, and Hiroshi Ishii, AnimaStage: Hands-on Animated Craft on Pin-based Shape Displays, in Deisgn of Interactive Displays (DIS). 2017: Edinburgh, . https://tangible-fmp.mit.edu/publishedmedia/Papers/636-OTEyO/Published/PDF

Book Review: “Touch” by Courtney Maum

Touch by Courtney Maum

Maum joins in the Revenge of the English Majors , with her latest novel. Obviously based on autobiographical experience in the “creative industry” and industrial design of devices and apps, Maum’s story is all too real to be satire. As I have said, these people self-satirize.

Difficile est saturam non scribere.”

The story follows Sloane, a trend “forecaster” who is famous for once saying that having children is “ecoterrorism”. She is returning to New York City from France for a consulting gig at Mammoth corporation, maker of all things digital. Roman, her partner of ten years, has gone so virtual that he now eschews touch and is writing an article that turns out to be a declaration that sex is over.

As the title suggests, Sloane isn’t so sure about that.

Much of the story takes place in the high-pressure design process at Mammoth corporation. The designers are tasked with creating the next billion dollar consumer device or app, whether it makes sense or not. As Sloane becomes more and more convinced that the future is “personal interaction”, not more “connectivity”, her gig goes south fast, and lasts about a week.

““But what if we pushed this further”? Sloane asked, truly excited now. “What if it wasn’t an app? What else could it be?”

“Sloane watched eleven faces fall. People looked at one another uncomfortably, waiting for someone else to speak.”

“After a disheartening lag, Jared spoke up again. “Well then”, he said, shrugging, “That would just be life.”

“Everyone remained quiet, so Jared shrugged again.

““An no one would buy that.” “(pp. 170-171)

Of course, the rest of her life explodes, too. She has unresolved issues with her mother and sister. She tosses out Roman (good riddance!), falls in love. All in a few days. (Unlike certain people, Maum moves things along!)

I’m sure Maum had a jolly time savaging the barbarians who create more and more “addictive”, anti-human technology. One suspects that she has sat through many awful design meetings and seen many appalling corporate decision making. If this book is a bit of revenge, more power to her.

Parts of this book are sappy and sentimental, not to mention Sloane’s anxiety over the approaching big Four Oh. In this case, these family and personal dramas are actually part of the point: this is what real life is made of.

Sensei Maum makes some accurate observations about the corrosive effects of constant connection. This isn’t exactly new (e.g., see Sensei’s Greenfield and Turkle and Lanier and Kelley and Ebling.  And so on.) . But Maum contribute with some extremely sympathetic portraits of the addicted, and a clear prescription for getting happier.

Her prescription: 1. Turn it off, 2. Be here, now, 3. Hugs.

I like her sketches of how industrial design might try to create, e.g., more hugs. And she forecasts a trend toward “disconnection”. This hasn’t come true, but it’s certainly starting to happen.

I can’t disagree, not one bit.

I myself have been beefing about the general gormlessness and anti-humanity of corporate digital design (e.g., this, this, this, this, this, etc.)  As a historic note, I’ll point out that I called attention to this issue a long, long time ago, before iPhones or Bitcoin (but we did have high-speed nets and VR goggles).

In the end, though, commerce is not culture, and digital communications are cold and impersonal. A home page is no substitute for a home or a hometown. If digital commerce does not offer support for a decent way of life, what good is it?” (Cain & McGrath (1995!), p. 39)

To sum up:  I really liked this book, and not just because of the social commentary.  It’s a nice little romance, well written.

I recommend purchasing the paper edition from a local  (human) bookseller.  Have a chat with the clerk when you by it.  🙂

  1. Courtney Maum,, Touch, New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2017.
  2. Adam Cain,  and Robert E. McGrath, ““Digital Commerce on the World Wide Web”. NCSA access magazine.1995, National Center for Supercomputing Applications: pp. 36-39. archived at: http://hdl.handle.net/2142/46291


Sunday Book Reviews

Remote Sensing Penguin Guano

There is so much we don’t know about the Earth and the biosphere. Even for relatively big and easy to see species such as birds, it is hard to know how and where they live, or even how many individuals exist. There are only so many biologists, and humans can only go and see so much.

Remote sensing of the planet from space has gives important insights about large scale processes that can’t be seen easily form a human perspective. For instance, a few images from space make absolutely clear how important dust storms in Africa are for the Amazon forests in South America.

In the past, it has been difficult to learn much about animal populations, because individuals are small and elusive. Biologists are getting better at detecting and tracking animals, especially mass movements of them.

This month NASA calls attention to a successful long term project that uses satellite imagery to locate colonies of Penguins [3]. Penguins are, of course, far too small to be reliably detected from most satellite imagery. However, Penguins live in colonies, and produce immense amounts of guano, which can be seen from space.

In fact, Penguin colonies could be seen from space 30 years ago [2], and space imagery and analysis have gotten a lot better since then.

The basic technique is to detect the color of guano covered rocks, and to infer how many Penguins live there from the area covered. Cross checking on the ground has confirmed that this indirect and remote measure is a pretty good estimate of and many Penguins there are and where they nest.

As the researchers note, Penguins live on sea ice, which means that they are a sensitive indicator of how ice conditions change. As sea ice is melting in parts of Antarctica, we can document how Penguins relocate in response. Penguins are also eat krill and fish, so they are a visible indicator of the health of these foods in an area.

Mathew Schwaller, Heather Lynch and colleagues have completed a global census of Adelie Penguins using imagery from several satellites [1]. They use machine learning techniques to identify the visual signature of nesting areas. Based on the very characteristic nesting habits of Adelies, it is possible to estimate the number of Penguins based on the area. Naturally, the satellite data is combined with on-site investigations and other reports, in order to validate the remote sensing and the estimation.

From [1] FIGURE 1. Map of extant Adélie Penguin colonies, as well as penguin colonies not found in imagery and presumed extinct. Solid bars represent sections of coastline in which populations are generally increasing in abundance, and dashed lines those in which populations are generally decreasing. Areas with no bar are either a mix of increasing and decreasing populations, are not changing in abundance, or do not have sufficient data to assess population change (see Supplemental Material Appendix A). Right: example of high-resolution imagery from Devil Island (−63.797°, −57.290°; location indicated by black arrow). Areas identified in the analysis as guano are shaded in light green. Imagery © 2014 by DigitalGlobe, Inc.
One huge advantage of the satellite data is that there is continued coverage of the whole world, so it is possible to track the changes in Penguin populations. For instance, the 2014 report indicates that over the last twenty some years, nesting sites in West Antarctica have dwindled. This is where sea ice is shrinking. In the same period, new nesting sites have appeared in East Antarctica, where sea ice has increased. Overall, the total population of Adelies seems to have increased in recent years, even as the birds have migrated to more favorable ice.

Ideally, the census can be maintained for a number of years to accumulate a much more detailed baseline, to improve the technique, and refine the understanding of the Penguin population. This census is only one species, so it remains to be seen how similar techniques might track other species.

  1. Heather J. Lynch and M. A. LaRue, First global census of the Adélie Penguin. The Auk, 131 (4):457-466, 2014/10/01 2014. https://doi.org/10.1642/AUK-14-31.1
  2. Heather J.  Lynch,  and Mathew R. Schwaller, Mapping the Abundance and Distribution of Adélie Penguins Using Landsat-7: First Steps towards an Integrated Multi-Sensor Pipeline for Tracking Populations at the Continental Scale. PLOS ONE, 9 (11):e113301, 2014. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0113301
  3. Adam Voiland, Penguin Droppings Are Fertile Ground for Science : Image of the Day. NASA Earth Observatory.2017,  https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=90372

PS.  Wouldn’t “Penguin Guano” be a good name for a band? How about ‘Adelie Census’?



Space Saturday

A personal blog.

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