Fat Thinking and Economies of Variety

Leak before failure is a fascinating engineering principle, used in the design of things like nuclear power plants. The idea, loosely stated, is that things should fail in easily recoverable non-critical ways (such as leaks) before they fail in catastrophic ways (such as explosions or meltdowns). This means that various components and subsystems are designed with varying margins of safety, so that they fail at different times, under different conditions, in ways that help you prevent bigger disasters using smaller ones.

LeakBeforeFailure

So for example, if pressure in a pipe gets too high, a valve should fail, and alert you to the fact that something is making pressure rise above the normal range, allowing you to figure it out and fix it before it gets so high that a boiler explosion scenario is triggered. Unlike canary-in-the-coalmine systems or fault monitoring/recovery systems, leak-before-failure systems have failure robustnesses designed organically into operating components, rather than being bolted on in the form of failure management systems.

Leak-before-failure is more than just a clever idea restricted to safety issues. Understood in suitably general terms, it provides an illuminating perspective on how companies scale.

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Weird Crowds, Weird Planet

Here’s the pre-read for the third and fourth sessions of Refactor Camp.

For our session tomorrow, Tuesday the 26th on The Weird State of the Crowd, we are running a bit behind, so have a partial pre-read for you in the form of  this short summary document on Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power. The session will be led by Renee DiResta and Megan Lubaszka. I’ll add the summary deck, which will also cover Eric Hoffer’s, The True Believerto this post, once I have it. Apologies for the delay.

Update: the slides are in!

And for our final session on Thursday the 28th, which will attempt pull it all together via the capstone theme, Weird State of the Planet, here is the slide deck. This session will be led by Jordan Peacock and Sam Penrose.

Screenshot 2016-07-25 21.29.21

The Daredevil Camera

Once upon a time I was reading a Popular Mechanics article, the title of which eludes me. Something about playing different music for different parts of a dance floor. They were describing a way to focus sound towards different people.

What struck me about the idea was that there was a way to focus sound. It was a piece of mesh of some sort, which acted as a lens for ultrasonics. This sparked an idea for what ended up being the most complex and expensive of my hobby projects to date.

Imagine using such lenses to focus sound onto a plane of microphones. Just like light in a camera. One microphone is one pixel. An ability to see sound.

duga

Duga 3 radar, image from Wikimedia commons.

I didn’t actually read Daredevil comics until much later, but those who have can see where this is going.

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Goodhart’s Law and Why Measurement is Hard

The other day, I was failing to teach my 3-year-old son about measurement. He wanted to figure out if something would fit in an envelope, and I was “helping” by showing him how to measure the width of the envelope, then comparing it to the width of the paper he was trying to insert. It turns out that this is a trickier concept than I had assumed; the ability to understand even simple measurements requires a fair amount of cognitive maturity. 3-year-old kids can compare directly, but the concept of using a measure to compare indirectly is more difficult. I finally let him try to fit the paper in the envelope to see it wouldn’t fit.

As with many other cognitive skills, the fact that it’s a counter-intuitive learned skill for children means that adults don’t do it intuitively either. So why are measures used? There are lots of good reasons, and I think a useful heuristic for understanding where to use them is to look for the triad of intuition, trust, and complexity.

Measuring a Network

Measurement replaces intuition, which is often fallible. It replaces trust, which is often misplaced. It finesses complexity, which is frequently irreducible. So faulty intuition, untrusted partners, and complex systems can be understood via intuitive, trustworthy, simple metrics. If this seems reductive, it’s worth noting how successful the strategy has been, historically. Wherever and whenever metrics proliferated, overall, the world seems to have improved.

Despite these benefits, measuring obscures, disrupts, and distorts systems. I want to talk about the limitations of metrics before expanding on some problems that are created when they are used carelessly, and then show why the problem with metrics — and algorithms that rely on them — isn’t something that can be avoided.
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Artem vs. Predator

I’m not sure what it was. Might have been the Predator movies, might have been something else.

Heat vision. The ability to see heat was something I wanted for a while.

Back in the old days, however, any sort of a heat vision camera cost more than I’d made in a decade.

You might think “superpower!”, but that’s not what I had in mind.

I had an idea, an image in my mind. Something that is trivial to photoshop, but is absurdly hard to actually see. Things and scenes lit up by the light emitted from a human. The glow of our heat lighting up the scene.

mwir_win

What would it take to make a picture like that? What makes a camera? And how can you make a heat-seeing camera yourself?

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A Good Name Points to You

I’m known among my friends and co-workers as the guy to help name your project. Coming up with good names sounds like a trivial talent, but it’s neither trivial nor a talent. It’s a completely understandable skill you can practice. A good name not only helps other people understand what you’re building, the exercise of naming a thing helps you understand why it exists.

It’s not the Wheel. It’s the Carousel.

Things decompose into mechanisms, implications, and consequences. The mechanism is how it works. The implication is what it does. The consequence is what it means for the lives of the audience you’re trying to reach. I choose one of those three to work from and try to tie it back to a simple analogy, soundalike, paradox, cultural reference, or some other hook to evoke an emotional response, which is the only way to get distractible monkeys like us to remember anything. Really make an effort to empathize with your audience and their interests. A name is a pointer to identity, but the arrow goes the other way. A good name doesn’t point to the thing, it points to you.

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Human-Complete Problems

Occasionally, I manage to be clever when I am not even trying to be clever, which isn’t often. In a recent conversation about the new class of doomsday scenarios inspired by AlphaGo beating the Korean trash-talker Lee Sedol, I came up with the phrase human complete (HC) to characterize certain kinds of problems: the hardest problems of being human. An example of (what I hypothesize is) an HC problem is earning a living. I think human complete is a very clever phrase that people should use widely, and credit me for, since I can’t find other references to it. I suspect there may be money in it. Maybe even a good living. Here is a picture of the phrase that I will explain in a moment.

File Mar 31, 9 15 11 AM

In this post, I want to explore a particular bunny trail: the relationship between being human and the ability to solve infinite game problems in the sense of James Carse. I think this leads to an interesting perspective on the meaning and purpose of AI.

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Go Corporate or Go Home

If you’re in Silicon Valley, you might have missed the trend, but the percentage of American workers working for big companies has been increasing, even as corporate bureaucracy is getting more stifling. Strangely, this has been happening even as the companies issue press releases about being more flexible and adaptive, to compete with startups, as Paul Graham argues in his recent controversial essay on Refragmentation. But flexible seems to mean layoffs and reorgs into ever more complex and, yes, fragmented corporate structures. They aren’t slimming down into flexible startups.

Worse, startups scale into big companies, and transform into bureaucracies when they do. Harvard Business Review just came out with some advice on how to stop being a startup. Even startups can’t stay startups. Github, the catalyst for distributed software companies everywhere, is itself restructuring. As the author of this post on Github’s restructuring puts it, “Out with flat org structure based purely on meritocracy, in with supervisors and middle managers.” But why?

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Berliners #10: Pie-Carving

berliners10finaledits

Click here for the Berliners Archives

Field Theory of Swords

I don’t mean to brag, but if you’ve been following this sequence of posts on ribbonfarm, then I’ve sort of taught you the secret to modern physics.

The secret goes like this:

Everything arises from fields, and fields arise from everything.


Go ahead.
You can indulge in a good eye-roll over the new-agey sound of that line.
(And over the braggadocio of the author.)

But eye-rolling aside, that line actually does refer to a very profound idea in physics. Namely, that the most fundamental object in nature is the field: a continuous, space-filling entity that has a simple mathematical structure and supports “undulations” or “ripples” that act like physical particles. (I offered a few ways to visualize fields in this post and this post.) To me, it is the most mind-blowing fact of modern physics that we call particles are really just “ripples” or “defects” on some infinite field.

But the miraculousness of fields isn’t just limited to fundamental particles. Fields also emerge at much higher levels of reality, as composite objects made from the motion of many active and jostling things. For example, one can talk about a “field” made from a large collection of electrons, atoms, molecules, cells, or even people. The “particles” in these fields are ripples or defects that move through the crowd. It is one of the miracles of science that essentially any sufficiently large group of interacting objects gives rise to simple collective excitations that behave like independent, free-moving particles.

Maybe this discussion seems excessively esoteric to you.  I can certainly understand that objection. But the truth is that the basic paradigm of particles and fields is so generic and so powerful that one can apply it to just about any level of nature.

So we might as well use it to talk about something awesome.

Let’s talk about swords.

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