Book Review: “The Management Style of Supreme Beings” by Tom Holt

The Management Style of Supreme Being by Tom Holt

I’m a long time fan of Tom Holt, and this book was what I expect from him.

Freewheeling fantasy, with a very British flavor.  Gods and demons and supernatural powers. A large dose of social commentary, starting with the title. Snappy rom-com dialog.

What more do you want?

The overall plot revolves around a buy out of Earth’s local supernatural being (an English Standard Version to be sure). The new owners are a multi-planetary corporation with a distinctly different management philosophy, little interest in good or evil, and a lot more emphasis on profit.

It’s quite a shock to everyone, to say the least!

The denizens of the nether regions are redundant to the new regime, but kept on as a condition of the sale. However, they will now need to find a path to financial sustainability. “Hand Basket Tours”, anyone?

For good measure, there is a jolly old elf up round the North Pole who wasn’t covered in the purchase. He’s not nearly as nice as the PR would have us believe, though he apparently is watching everyone, knows who is naughty and nice, and does give out prezzies in December.

God’s second son isn’t happy, and chooses to stay on Earth, whatever the terms of the sale said.

Multiple supreme beings, tussling for control of Earth? What coul possibly go wrong?

As always, we identify with the little people are caught up in the affairs of the gods, who are called on to be heroes, whether they want to or not.

As I said, it’s Tom Holt.  Get it.  Read it.


  1. Tom Holt, The Management Style of Supreme Beings, New York, Orbit Books, 2017.

 

Sunday Book Reviews

Juno Red Spot Images

If you’re going to go all the way out to Jupiter, and spend months snapping pix, you really, really ought to get some pictures of the Red Spot. The Great Red Spot has been observed since 1830, but never from this close.

This week’s close flyby picked up the best pictures ever from this giant hurricane.

The visual imagery was rapidly processed to produce a pretty picture. The entire data collection will be analyzed and described soon (presumably by the end of the year conferences).

This enhanced-color image of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot was created by citizen scientist Jason Major using data from the JunoCam imager on NASA’s Juno spacecraft. The image was taken on July 10, 2017 at 07:10 p.m. PDT (10:10 p.m. EDT), as the Juno spacecraft performed its 7th close flyby of Jupiter. At the time the image was taken, the spacecraft was about 8,648 miles (13,917 kilometers) from the tops of the clouds of the planet. JunoCam’s raw images are available for the public to peruse and process into image products at: http://www.missionjuno.swri.edu/junocam More information about Juno is at: https://www.nasa.gov/juno and http://missionjuno.swri.edu Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Jason Major

The composite image gives us the impression of this massive storm. Visually, it is clearly a really complicated “hurricane of hurricanes”.

The more detailed analysis may suggest a more refined understanding of how this storm developed and has persisted for at least 150 Earth years.

Cool.

There will be another close pass on 1 September, just before Cassini’s finial dive at Saturn. The Juno mission will end in February with a deliberate dive into the atmosphere.


  1. Agle, DC, Dwayne Brown, and Laurie Cantillo, NASA’s Juno Spacecraft Spots Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, in NASA Latest, M. Perez, Editor. 2017. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/nasa-s-juno-spacecraft-spots-jupiter-s-great-red-spot

 

Space Saturday

Life After the Dinosaurs

Everyone knows about the mass extinction that ended the age of dinosaurs. This is often said to have opened the way for the age of mammals and eventually us.

Of course, it wasn’t exactly like that.

In the wake of the mass extinction, there was an explosive radiation of all the surviving species, not just mammals.

This month saw two articles about this exciting period.

First of all, the dinosaurs didn’t actually all die out. One whole wing of the family survived and thrived until today: the birds.

Ksepka, Daniel T., Thomas A. Stidham, and Thomas E. Williamson report on new findings which document the rapid diversification of birds after the extinction event.[2].  Specifically, they report a small bird that is dated from the very early Paleocene, i.e., soon after the end of the dinosaurs. They argue that dating this species implies that four major groups of birds arose soon after that.

The authors comment that this observation puts the diversification of birds on approximately the same time line as the expansion of mammals.


In a different study, Yan-Jie Feng and collagues analyzed DNA from 156 living species of frogs to construct a putative taxonimic history, anchored by 20 representative fossils [1]. The results suggest that “three species-rich clades (Hyloidea, Microhylidae, and Natatanura), which together comprise ∼88% of extant anuran species, simultaneously underwent rapid diversification” right after the end of the dinosaurs. ([1], p. 1)

They argue that the “mass extinction may have triggered explosive radiations of frogs by creating new ecological opportunities.” There is a very telling diagram in the full article, with a gigantic fan out of species just past the red line of the Cretaceous extinction event.

The researchers comment that their molecular study is important because the fossil record of frogs is sparse. This is one of the clearest pictures, albeit indirectly, that documents the evolutionary history of frogs during this period.

Again, this is the same time scale as mammals and birds, suggesting that there was a mad evolutionary scramble to fill the huge void left by the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous.

Cool!


After the Dinosaurs came not the “Age of Mammals” but the “Age of Pretty Much Everything Except Non-Avian Dinosaurs”! 🙂


  1. Yan-Jie Feng, David C. Blackburn, Dan Liang, David M. Hillis, David B. Wake, David C. Cannatella, and Peng Zhang, Phylogenomics reveals rapid, simultaneous diversification of three major clades of Gondwanan frogs at the Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 3, 2017 2017. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2017/06/26/1704632114.abstract
  2.  Daniel T. Ksepka, Thomas A. Stidham, and Thomas E. Williamson, Early Paleocene landbird supports rapid phylogenetic and morphological diversification of crown birds after the K–Pg mass extinction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 10, 2017 2017. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2017/07/05/1700188114.abstract

 

Blockchain for Local Identity?

As soon as I declare that blockchain technology is unsuited for two use cases, Identity and local currency , Wolfie Zhao reports in Coindesk that the Swiss city of Zug is going to have a local ID service using a blockchain.

Oops. These use cases are still open, or at least not as dead as I said.

Of course, there is a difference between a local currency and a local ID service. The former needs to interact with conventional financial systems, the latter needs to interact with conventional ID systems. The press release indicates that digital IDs are not well developed in Switzerland, though I’m sure that digital banking works great.

Similarly, there is a difference between a global ID system, with secure digital passports for everyone including refugees and repressed populations, and a digital ID issued by a city. For that matter, the city is Swiss, which means it already has a well developed national ID system to build on.

So this isn’t quite the use cases I considered earlier.

What it is, is an intersection of them, a simpler problem and a well organized local government. Perhaps this is a favorable “corner” of the use cases, where blockchain will work well.


So far as I can tell, the rationale for this system is that Switzerland has a personal ID system (which I’m sure is quite rigorous and efficient), but digital versions of the IDs have not been successful. Blockchain technology is a way to securely associate a cryptokey with a particular ID. The blockchain is intended to make it possible for digital apps to quickly and cheaply confirm IDs.

Sure. This can work.

We’ll see how well it works. Is there enough need for this sort of crypto ID, and does it work well enough to be useful?   I don’t know, we’ll find out.


I note that blockchain is being used for a tiny part of the problem. As the press release makes clear, citizens must go to a city office to prove their identity and then are issues a digital key. This process is the hard part, and blockchain does nothing to support this service.

We want a single electronic identity – a kind of digital passport – for all possible applications. And we do not want this digital ID to be centralized at the city, but on the blockchain.” (Dolfi Müller, quoted in [2])

It is ironic to see the proponents of this system talk about how this is a “decentralized” solution. What they mean by that is that the part of the process where digital IDs are looked up is “decentralized”, particularly compared to previous systems that have attempted to implement the service with a database.

Essentially, the city doesn’t want to run a database with a secure public interface. Fair enough.

To a certain extent, they are also boasting about the local city’s initiative, too, though IDs issued by one city may have limited use elsewhere. Ethereum runs everywhere, but Zug IDs may not be trusted anywhere outside Zug.

I suspect, though, that Zug is issuing IDs based on Swiss national credentials. In that case, IDs issued in Zug are great throughout Switzerland. These are, of course, centralized IDs in that case.

Looking up IDs is a decentralized problem, but issuing IDs demands trust, and a web of trust between authorities. If every city in Switzerland issues its own crypto IDs, even using the same Federal ID, it will be chaos.


Finally, I have to say, “Ethereum? Really?”

I’m rather surprised that anyone would try to build a trusted system using the catastrophically messed up Ethereum technology. But they probably use Microsoft Windows, too. Massively clever cryptography running on wobbly, hackable software infrastructure.

Anyway, we’ll see how this works out.


  1. Stadtverwaltung Zug. Blockchain-Identität für alle Einwohner. 2017, http://www.stadtzug.ch/de/ueberzug/ueberzugrubrik/aktuelles/aktuellesinformationen/?action=showinfo&info_id=383355.
  2. Wolfie Zhao, Swiss City Announces Plan to Verify IDs Using Ethereum Coindesk.July 7 2017, http://www.coindesk.com/swiss-city-verify-id-ethereum/

 

Cryptocurrency Thursday

Hoppy Robot!

This is a great age of robot locomotion, and human engineers are recapitulating natural evolution, trying out every biological system– butterflies, bats, snakes–and many things not seen in nature (at least above the micro scale) (quadcopters, bucky bots.

Evan Ackerman reports on the amazing Salto jumping robot from U. C. Berkeley. Salto has one (count ‘em, one) leg, and springs around spending 90% of its travel in the air. It’s absolutely astonishing.

The article indicates that the control algorithm is pretty much the same as one developed in 1984, though we can pack a lot faster computation in a smaller critter now. The mechanical design is bio-inspired, learning from the small marsupial galago, which is a crazy jumper.

However, the actual magic is done with steerable “thrusters” (propellers), and the control depends on an external motion capture system that feeds instructions via wireless (an invisible tether).  This is not the way little bushbabies do it!

The new improved version will be officially presented September at IROS 2017, probably with some even more awesome demo.

I’m not really sure if this design is especially good for anything, but it’s fun to watch and would make a great game. Imagine the fitness benefits of playing “chase the boingy bot”! Or “try to escape the boingy bot”!  (These apps would mash up some kind of planning algorithm to evade or catch the puny human.)

So Cool!


  1. Evan Ackerman, Salto-1P Is the Most Amazing Jumping Robot We’ve Ever Seen, in IEEE Spectrum – Automation. 2017. http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/robotics-hardware/salto1p-is-the-most-amazing-jumping-robot-weve-ever-seen

 

Robot Wednesday

“Games For Change” 2017 Student Challenge

And speaking of mobile apps with a social purpose….

The upcoming annual Games For Change (G4C) meeting has a lot of interesting stuff, on the theme “Catalyzing Social Impact Through Digital Games”. At the very least, this gang is coming out of the ivory tower and up off their futons, to try to do something, not just talk about it.

Part of this year’s activities is the Student Challenge , which si a competition that

“invites students to make digital games about issues impacting their communities, combining digital storytelling with civic engagement.

This year’s winners were announced last month, from local schools and game jams in NYC, Dallas, and Pittsburg. (Silicon Valley, where were you?) Students were asked to invent games on three topics,

  • Climate Change (with NOAA),
  • Future Communities (with Current by GE), and
  • Local Stories & Immigrant Voices (with National Endowment for the Humanities).

Eighteen winners were highlighted.

The “Future Cities” games mostly are lessons on the wonders of “smart cities”, and admonitions to clean up trash. One of them has a rather compelling “heart beat” of Carbon emissions, though the game mechanics are pretty obscure, doing anything or doing nothing at all increases Carbon. How do I win?

The “Climate Change” also advocates picking up trash, as well as planting trees. There is also a quiz, and an Antarctic Adventure (though nothing even close to “Never Alone”)

The “local stories” and “immigrant stories” tell stories about immigrants, past and present. (This kids are from the US, land of immigration.) There are two alarming “adventures” that sketches how to illegally enter the US, which is a dangerous undertaking with a lot of consequences. Not something I like to see “gamified”.

Overall, the games are very heavy on straight story telling, with minimal game-like features. Very much like the “educational games” the kids no doubt have suffered through for years. And not much like the games everyone really likes to play. One suspects that there were teachers and other adults behind the scenes shaping what was appropriate.

The games themselves are pretty simple technically, which is inevitable given the short development time and low budgets. The games mostly made the best of what they had in the time available.

I worry that these rather limited experiences will give the students a false impression of both technology and story telling. The technology used is primitive, they did not have realistic market or user testing, and the general game designs are unoriginal. That’s fine for student projects, but not really a formula for real world success, and has little to do with real game or software development.

Worse, the entire enterprise is talking about it. One game or 10,000 games that tell you (again) to pick up trash doesn’t get the trash picked up. If you want to gamify neighborhood clean up, you are going to need to tie it to the actual physical world, e.g., a “trashure hunt”, with points for cleaning up and preventing litter.

These kids did a super job on their projects, but I think the bar was set far too low. Let’s challenge kids to actually do something, not just make a digital story about it. How would you use game technology to do it? I don’t know. That’s what the challenge is.


  1. Games for Change, Announcing the winners of the 2017 G4C Student Challenge, in Games For Change Blog. 2017. http://www.gamesforchange.org/2017/07/announcing-the-2017-g4c-student-challenge-winners/

 

Native American “Wellness Warriors” App

At this week’s conference, the United National Indian Tribal Youth (UNITY), released their new “Wellness Warriors App”.

There are probably a bazillion “wellness” apps out there (and, confusingly, more than one “wellness warrior”).   This app is distinguished by begin designed to be culturally-based for Native American youth.

Cool! This is the kind of thing I hope to see more of: digital apps that strengthen community and culture rather than eroding it. So I had to take a closer look.

The idea of the project is to promote “wellness from a cultural perspective – fitness through cultural dance, healthy eating with traditional Native foods, and more.” These activities already enjoy considerable participation as an expression of cultural identity and solidarity. The app adds in an emphasis on the health benefits of these activities.

These are real world, face-to-face activities. What can a mobile app really do?

From a brief trial run, it looks like that one contribution is social connection with a digital community that promotes a broad solidarity across many locations and specific tribes. The app seeks to,

encourage Native youth to interact with each other in a way we’ve never seen before.

I’m not sure that this has never been seen before (I’m pretty sure that Facebook and everything else is already widely used by these kids), but it bundles all the stuff into a single, “just for us” app.

I admit that I don’t really know all the features WWA has, or how to use it reasonably. (I, for one, could use some directions! But I’m not in the target demographic, who are digital natives.)

Many of the features are familiar from generic apps, including sharing and messaging. The “wellness” aspect including some fitness tracking and charts (I don’t know how to use them), space for contributed regional recipes and a planner.

The ‘cultural sensitivity’ appears in many forms, such as the graphic design and in channels for various Indian languages. The “wellness tracker” itself is a self report meter through which you enter your current state of physical, mental, social, and spiritual wellness. These dimensions are probably used by many such wellness apps, but in this case they should be interpreted in the context of tribal heritage. The “social” and “spiritual” dimensions definitely have important and specific meanings for Native Americans.

This app, like any mobile app, is mainly talking, not doing. The activities of interest (eating, exercising, helping each other) are real world, face-to-face things. Digitally augmented talk is not necessarily going to promote wellness or fitness.

In general, I’m not optimistic on the effectiveness of any self-reported tracking features. Aside from the problematic nature of this kind of introspection, interrupting your life to fill in the data just seems too intrusive to work for long.

Also, I’ve never been interested myself in sharing fitness data (or recipes), so I wouldn’t be motivated by these features, even if I did take time to record my wellness. But lots of people, especially you youngsters out there, like to do this sort of thing. So there you go.

All that said, the cultural solidarity represented by UNITY should, in principle, add motivation and intrinsic rewards that make this app work better than a generic app with similar features would. It is also true that there already is a social network (UNITY and its many affiliated youth organizations), so this app overlays existing social connections, and therefore is more likely to be effective.

In other words, a digital app might or might not be especially effective for promoting wellness, but one that is embedded in a strong and positive cultural context might work better. As they suggest, the aim of the  game is “Finding wellness and healing within our cultures” which is a lot more meaningful than just “promoting wellness” in general.

This app inspires me to think of additional features that might make it even better. There are many possibilities that could be done technically, though I don’t know what will fit the spirit and practices of this group.  (Perhaps spinn off apps, if these are too far afield from “wellness”..)

Things that occur to me:

  • A gratitude meter–express gratitude every day
  • Ambient nature awareness channels, e.g., Bison cam streaming coverage of reintroduced Bison herds.
  • informal (social) games (in local languages!), with cultural content. E.g., guided meditation/story telling with traditional themes and images.
    • (can you make the game so great that kids everywhere–not just Native Americans– will want to practice Native American spiritual values, because its just cool?)
  • Idea market for mutual help (think “mindsharing”, with a cultural twist)
  • Platform cooperatives for sharing stuff (think Uber or AirBnB, except owned by the users). In this case, should be embedded in cultural heritage surrounding sharing and gifts.

Anyway, I look forward to seeing what happens with this app.


  1. United National Indian Tribal Youth, Cultural-based Wellness App to Launch at National Native Youth Conference, in UNITY – News. 2017. http://unityinc.org/cultural-based-wellness-app-to-launch-at-national-native-youth-conference/

 

A personal blog.

%d bloggers like this: