Little Burrowers Are Important

The long history of the Earth includes periods of warming and cooling, including times with no ice and at least one “snowball Earth”, with ice covering the whole surface.  If nothing else, the geological record should teach us that in the long run, things can change a whole lot.

One of the interesting large scale events was the Cambrian explosion, a bloom of life 500 some million years ago.  At the time, the atmosphere was dominated by CO2 levels much higher than today, followed later by increased levels of Oxygen, presumably the byproduct of the spreading life. Some of the oldest lifeforms known were cyanobacteria which breath CO2 and emit O2 as waste.

These long term trends have reversed several times over hundreds of millions of years.  The levels of CO2 are, of course, linked to global temperatures.  But CO2 and other chemicals dramatically affect the chemistry of the oceans, which, in turn, favors different life forms depending on conditions.  (Today we are seeing a trend toward higher CO2, with concomitant effects on the oceans and global temperatures.)

The evolution of the atmosphere is no trivial matter of breathing out.  As we know today, chemicals from the atmosphere react with rocks and water, pulling constituents out of the air.  In the case of Oxygen, it reacts strongly with many elements, not least Iron, forming many oxides.  It also mixes with ocean waters, changing the acidity of the liquid and then reacting with yet other materials.

This summer a group of European researchers report a new analysis of yet another factor: the activities of sea bottom burrowers [1]. Today, these little critters have a surprisingly large role in the chemistry of the ocean and atmosphere. They only burrow a few centimeters, but this mixes up the sediments, letting in water, letting out chemicals, and generally causing a lot of biochemistry.

The new research pulls together many geochemical studies of the Earth’s past with a model of “burial, weathering and degassing processes, which transport chemical species between the atmosphere, oceans and sediments over geological timescales” (p. 4 ) The basic idea is to explore alternative scenarios with different assumptions about the amount and intensity of burrowing.

The fossil record indicates the evolution of ocean bottom burrows in the Cambrian period, with increasing evidence in the ensuing hundreds of millions of years. The research uses different assumptions about how active these diggers might have been, and then computes long term estimates of the global abundance of various chemicals.

The results suggest that even the early “moderate levels of shallow bioturbation have a large impact on sediment geochemistry”. (p. 8 ) Even the smallest entity can change the course of the future.

The authors also speculate that these animals may have a role in some of the complicated events in geological history.  As areas the ocean bottom became strongly anoxic, this could have led to extinction of burrowing species, which in turn dampened their effects, amplifying the climate change.

“There is a strong correlation between ocean anoxia, positive δ13Ccarb excursions and extinction events, and it is possible that the interactions between burrowing macrofauna, biogeochemical cycling and ocean anoxia may have contributed to these patterns.”

To paraphrase Lady Galadriel in the movie, ‘Even the smallest entity can change the course of the future.’

  1. Sebastiaan van de Velde, Benjamin J. W. Mills, Filip J. R. Meysman, Timothy M. Lenton, and Simon W. Poulton, Early Palaeozoic ocean anoxia and global warming driven by the evolution of shallow burrowing. Nature Communications, 9 (1):2554, 2018/07/02 2018.

Book Review: “Meddling Kids” by Edgar Cantero

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

Yes, it’s a twisted update to that silly show that we all remember so well. In this take, those meddling kids are older and the world isn’t so innocent anymore.

Thirteen years after their last case, the gang is scattered and badly damaged.  They are pulled back to the scene of their finale, haunted by the fact that they caught the wrong man, and that something was and still is badly wrong.  They need to fix it, and, along the way, to fix themselves and others damaged by their earlier mistake.

Unwinding the mystery leads to all sorts of Lovecraftian horror, which is not to be trifled with as I have said before. The kids are a bit more grown up now and a bit smarter. This time they try hard not to split up, eschewing the time-honored plot device. They also carry firearms and other weapons, and aren’t really expecting a silly man in a costume.  The danger is real and overwhelming.

The return to the scene of youthful happiness is a poignant theme, even without the supernatural horror and soul sucking danger.  Who doesn’t sigh at the memory of the last days of innocent youth?  Who doesn’t regret the choices not made, the bonds allowed to fade?

The writing is pretty good, much more up-beat beatnik than dreadful pompous Howard. The characters are interesting, and much of the dialog witty.  I liked these kids, especially the twenty somethings they have grown to be.

The plot is dumb, but that’s kind of what is expected from those meddling kids, no?

The action in the TV show was childishly innocent, with lots of unrealistic running around, slapstick, and face gags (and a really annoying laugh track). Unfortunately, this story is post-video game generation, so the action includes slews of gratuitous, unrealistic, violence.  I don’t enjoy this kind of video game, and the written version is not interesting to read, not particularly funny, and generally not appealing.  (And, by the way, much of it could have been omitted without damaging the story.)

Overall, I liked it, even if I skipped as fast as I could through the pointless slaughter.

  1. Edgar Cantero, Meddling Kids, New York, Penguin, 2017.


Sunday Book Review

Measuring The Antarctic Ice

And one more review article on Antarctica.

The ice sheet mass balance inter-comparison exercise (IMBIE) is a global collaboration working to combine data from many different satellite measurements to create the most complete picture possible of the ice of Antarctica.  This matters because the ice hold enough water to raise global sea levels by tens of meters (and you, my friend, are far less than ten meters tall, and most of you live less than 20 meters above sea level).

The question “how much ice is there?” is not easy to answer because the ice ebbs and flows, with new ice forming from snowfall, old ice melting, and remaining ice compressing and flowing.  So the question is, how is the ice changing, and what is the overall trend?

In the past three decades, there have been many satellites observing the Southern ice, amassing large amounts of data.  Different satellites measure different things, each of which is only part of the picture.  Combining the data is not trivial for two main reasons.

First, combining measurements from multiple instruments must be done carefully, to know what should be aligned with what. How do radar echoes relate to measures of local gravity or the color of the ice?  These questions have to be answered carefully.

Second, this is even more difficult because the temporal and spatial granularities are often different.  If the temperature is recorded every hour on the hour, and the humidity is recorded every quarter hour, it will be necessary to make some interpolations to create a single estimate of temperature and humidity.  Similarly, combining wind speed at points every 100km and wind direction measured every km requires careful adjustments.  And so on, for dozens of datasets.

And, by the way, these interpolations have to be done extremely carefully, because seemingly minor differences can have radical effects on conclusions from the data.

This, then, is what IMBIE is up to.

This summer the team reported a short summary of “Mass balance of the Antarctic Ice Sheet from 1992 to 2017” [1].

The study includes some 24 estimates of the mass of Antarctic ice, spanning twenty-five years. These different measurements show considerable variability, so the combined dataset has a computed estimated uncertainty.  Similar combined data has been accumulated for surface ice (i.e., new ice from precipitation) and glacial movement (key contributor to the loss of old ice).

Overall, as noted elsewhere, these datasets show that there are areas where ice mass has diminished and other areas have shown little change during the period. Given the limitations and uncertainties in the data, this conclusion must be taken with the proviso, “so far as we can tell.”

The research team suggests some improvements in measurements, and again urges continuous and more detailed satellite measurements.

  1. The iMBiE team, Mass balance of the Antarctic Ice Sheet from 1992 to 2017. Nature, 558 (7709):219-222, 2018/06/01 2018.


Space Satruday

What is Coworking? It can be impactful

In recent years, coworking has come to be associated with a very corporate mind set, seen as part of “the hospitality industry” or the “Service Office Industry”.  The rapacious, debt-fueled expansion of WeWork has become the most visible face of Coworking.

But the truth is that coworking can be, has been, and still is organized in many different ways [2].  Coworking operations are organized as for profit, non-profits, not-entirely-for-profit.  Coworking spaces are organized as independent businesses, as franchises, and embedded in other organizations.  Coworking is even done in living rooms and other informal settings.  (For more on this, see perhaps Chapter 4 of “What is Coworking?” [2].)

In fact, the current highly corporate vibe belies the peer-to-peer, community development spirit of early coworking, clearly reflected in the Coworking Manifesto [1].  The “Coworking Movement”, loosely inspired by open source software, is about workers banding together to reinvent the future of work, improve cities, and bootstrap a new, sustainable economy.

“We are reshaping the economy and the society through social entrepreneurship and innovation. Our communities are coming together to rebuild more human scale, networked, and sustainable economies to build a better world.

“We are the world coworking movement!” (from [1])

This vision is hard to discern in something like WeWork, which “offers companies of all sizes the opportunity to reimagine employees’ days through refreshing design, engaging community, and benefits for all.” (quoted from WeWork website).

Regardless of conferences or corporartions, coworking still is whatever workers want to make it.

This summer Ruby Irene Pratka writes for Sharable about coworking spaces that “positively impact local communities” [3].  Not just low cost, on-demand workspace, these organizations connect with their local community “by launching scholarship programs, offering space for local groups, and hosting public lectures.”

Her list is:

  1. AllGoodWork — New York City, New York
  2. Co+hoots — Phoenix, Arizona
  3. The Coven — Minneapolis, Minnesota
  4. The Beahive— Beacon, New York
  5. Spacecubed— Perth, Western Australia
  6. 312 Main— Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

These examples are mostly, but not all, non-profits, and they have quite a variety of participants.  It is telling that in the write up most of them view their coworkers as a “typical” coworking community, though they are pretty diverse in many dimensions, reflecting their different locations.  (The major exception is The Coven in Minneapolis, which is self-described a community of women and non-binary identified workers—their work is probably “typical”, if not the demographics.)

The common thread is that all of these organizations have a major focus on having a positive impact on their local area. This means different things to each, but obviously goes far beyond “reimagining employees’ days”, to reimagining a better world outside the doors.

Besides the potential good for the world that these collaborations may do, there is also an important benefit from having these contemporary workers visible and engaged with their city, especially with local kids. Kids need to know about what working is like, and to be inspired by adult examples. If coworking is where the future of work is happening, then kids (and everyone) need to know people who are doing it.

This commitment to community impact is also an asset for the both the coworking organization, and for the workers. The workers are invited to participate in a narrative about work and life, and take up a larger purpose as part of a like-minded community.  Going to the office is much more than just showing up, it’s helping make the world better.  (I’ll also speculate that when you are worried about helping other people, you are a lot less likely to be depressed.)

(For more on these ideas, see perhaps Chapter 7 and 8 of “What is Coworking?”, the book.)

  1. Coworking Manifesto: The Future of Work. 2012,
  2. Robert E. McGrath, What is Coworking” A look at the multifaceted places where the gig economy happens and workers are happy to find community. (in preparation), self, 2017.
  3. Ruby Irene Pratka (2018) These 6 groups are showing how coworking spaces can positively impact local communities. Sharable,


What is Coworking?

Hey, hey!  My new book “What is Coworking?” is (finally) available at online stores.

Check it out


Blockchain support for local solar power generation

Let’s combine two of my interests, Solar Power and Blockchains. The use case here is a peer-to-peer microgrid, buying and selling power from local small scale solar generation. This idea is scarcely new, power cooperatives and co-generation schemes have been around for a long time, and there are a lot of contemporary variations on this theme (and not just for electricity). <<link>>


The blockchain wrinkle is to use a blockchain to track the transactions among the participants.  The idea is that the distributed ledger is an inexpensive and robust way for people to buy and sell power they generate in tiny amounts.  In addition, the decentralized blockchain protocol kind of matches the decentralized group of generators and consumers, so neighbors can share without the overhead or interference of third parties.

This approach has been going for a while in at least a few cases, such as the Brooklyn Microgrid. TBM uses some proprietary technology to connect the solar generation hardware to the software accounting and trading system.  Much of the work is community organizing, recruiting people in the local community to participate and invest.  (This kind of thing is not really a good use of kickstarter or something to dabble in from afar.)

I’ll note that from the start the Brooklyn Microgrid has boasted that it uses blockchain technology.  But you would never know that from the web site, recruiting materials, and mobile apps.  And that is how it should be!  Normal humans should never see a blockchain!  TBM is a good example of just how little the blockchain matters to ordinary users—you could take away the blockchain and no one would know or care.

This summer, the Power Ledger is launching another such effort,  down under [1].  Actually, Power Ledger is more equivalent to the proprietary technology the BM is built on.

PL is actually built on top of Ethereum, which seems like a very plausible technical strategy—Ethereum’s executable contracts are just the thing for this use case.  PL plans to create their own tokens and run markets for electricity.  This would be one of many such token/market systems built on Ethereum, so again, a plausible engineering decision.

(While Ethereum has grievous problems, and is far from idea; for any serious long-term business, it’s better than making up your own blockchain solution from scratch.)

Power Ledger isn’t even in beta yet, so it’s impossible to say how well it might work.  Given the not-particularly-innovative technical path, we can be confident that they will have working software.  But how well will they deliver the dozens of use cases they are excited about, particularly, peer-to-peer solar production?

They seem to believe that what people need and want is some way to sell their excess production in a more or less open market.  Presumably, this is supposed to incentivize installing your our solar panels, and/or help defray the cost.  It’s not obvious how well this will work, or if there would be enough demand to matter.  (Is there really a use for lots of little dribs of electricity?  Is there much use to receiving tiny payments for such dribs?)

It’s not totally clear, but it looks to me like they intend to use the conventional grid, just as previous negative metering systems have done.  This concept depends on political action and, blockchain or no blockchain, is not popular with grid operators.

At this point, their most developed case seems to be aiming to operate charging ports for electric vehicles.  This sounds like a possible business, but doesn’t really require the full generality of the distributed ledger, or create a local microgrid.

As the BM project illustrates so well, the more important part is building the community of users.  And this effort needs well designed services and consumer apps, where “well designed” generally means no visible blockchain.  And, more than anything, it requires community organizing.  PL’s technology is neither here nor there for this part of the solution.

Worse, the project started with an ICO, which raised millions of dollars.   This has absolutely nothing to do with solar power at all.

Reading the tea leaves of Power Ledger’s materials, they call attention to a number of interesting possibilities down the road.  If the distributed ledger can do negative metering and trading among neighbors, then it might also do accounting for a Carbon tax or other offset system.  That would be a neat feature for a “smart meter”, and a blockchain might be a plausible way to do it (maybe).

In the end, though, these are neat ideas but it is far from clear that blockchain technology is the only or best way to implement them.  Yes, the distributed ledger is philosophically simpatico for the desire for peer-to-peer power trading.  But a real peer-to-peer system, a la BM, is about trust, and good service (which is about trust).  Making that happen doesn’t need a blockchain, per se, and, to the degree that the blockchain is “trustless”, it probably doesn’t help.  I’m pretty sure that happy Brooklynites are happy with TBM people and service, not with whatever software lies inside.

So, we’ll see.

  1. Jennifer Bisset, Blockchain helps us take green power into our own hands, in cNet – News. 2018.


Cryptocurrency Thursday

More Tensegrity Robots

Tensegrity + robots?!  This must have a coolness multiplier of “infinity times infinity”!

This summer John Rieffel and Jean-Baptiste Mouret report on a cool “soft tensegrity robot”  [2].  As they point out, the general approach called “tensegrity” is frequently seen in biological systems, which are primarily constructed of soft and flexible materials.  However, humans are just learning to design soft robots, and to date, have had limited success with tesegral designs. For one thing, soft, flexible, floppy materials are not easy to design for robotic “gaits”—methods of locomotion.

“[Soft robots] are by their very nature high dimensional dynamic systems with an essentially infinite number of degrees of freedom. The elasticity and deformability that provide their appeal come at the cost of resonances and tight dynamic coupling between components, properties that are often avoided, or at least suppressed, in conventional engineering approaches to robotic design. “ ([2], p. 318)

The research developed a soft (indeed, squishable) tensegrity robot, with vibrating weights as motors on three struts.  The rather mind-blowing idea is that different vibrations will wobble through the structure in complex ways, some of which are useful gaits!  Huh!  What!  Wow!

“[W]e explore the hypothesis that the inherent resonance and dynamical complexity of real-world soft tensegrity robots can be beneficially harnessed (rather than suppressed), and that, if properly excited, it can resonate so that the robot performs step-like patterns that enable it to locomote. ” (p. 319)

To achieve this, the research deploys machine learning to discover these useful settings. Where earlier projects developed a gait through trial and error, the machine learning essentially automates the ad hoc search.

Using machine learning not only speeds up design and optimizes the robot, it makes it adaptive to damage or changed conditions:  another round of learning can discover a new gait that works for the changed situation.  It also makes the design robust, in that the vibrating motors and weights do not have to be placed extremely precisely—the algorithm adjusts for minor variations in the actual robot.  Cool!

Looking at the demo video, it looks like a bit of a bumpy ride, and it’s not obvious how well this would scale up to larger sized robots (e.g., that I could ride in myself : -))  The behavior is defined by the resonance of the structure, which depends on the specific materials and cross sections and so on.  I’m no where clever enough to work out how a big one of these would work.

But obviously, this is an interesting approach for something like NASA’s tensegrity lander concepts (deeloping over the past few years, here, here, here, here, here).  Get the power and control on board, and a sensor payload, and you’ve got yourself a pretty robust planetary explorer that can learn to “walk” on whatever alien terrain it encounters.

  1. John Rieffel and Jean-Baptiste Mouret, Adaptive and Resilient Soft Tensegrity Robots. xarive, 2017.
  2. John Rieffel and Jean-Baptiste Mouret, Adaptive and Resilient Soft Tensegrity Robots. Soft Robotics, 5 (3):318-329, 2018/06/01 2018.



Robot Wednesday

The Internet of Insecure Things

At the risk of restating the obvious, the Internet of Things is grievously insecure (and also poorly thought out in general).

I’ve blogged about this for several years (e.g., here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, to name fifteen times).  (And here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, to name fifteen more.)

But I wanted to bookmark a recent short op-ed piece from IEEE Spectrum, “6 Reasons Why IoT Security Is Terrible[2].   The heart of the piece is actually from a blog post from two years ago by Josh Corman,[1].

The main point is that “The Internet of Things bears little resemblance to traditional IT systems—and that makes it harder to protect”.  These difference are:

  • Consequences
  • Adversaries
  • Composition
  • Economics
  • Context and Environment.
  • Timescales

I have made the points myself repeatedly.

IoT devices are tied to real world physical systems, where errors or attacks are far more consequential than the loss of data.  IoT devices operated in real life contexts, such as a home or car, where there are no sysadmins, and how could there be a sysadmin for every tiny chip?  The ‘composition’ item refers to the fact that IoT systems, like most software, is composed of code from multiple sources, any one of which might be buggy or insecure.  And the last one notes that systems may be in use—and under attack—for decades, but IoT systems generally have little, if any, vendor support.  If anything is certain, it is that the longer a system is in use, the more likely it will have problems.

Anyway, this is all pretty obvious, and has been from the start.  But l wanted to have this note so I can refer to  it in the future when I need to say, “I’ve been saying this for years.”

  1. Josh Corman, 6 Differences in Internet of Things and Cyber Safety, in I am the cavalry. 2016.
  2. Stacey Higginbotham, 6 Reasons Why IoT Security Is Terrible, in IEEE Spectrum – Telcom. 2018.


A personal blog.

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