Wednesday, December 29, 2010

family stuff and Tron Legacy

Here are the three of us at Christmas dinner
at the house of my ex-wife in Maryland.

Chris persuaded us all to see Tron Legacy (in IMAX 3-D) a couple of days ago. At first, it just seemed like entertainment, not really addressing the kinds of global issues I usually think about, or even state of the art computing. But then I realized -- it really reflects a lot of the basic feelings here in our house in Virginia, overlooking the wilderness, but ten minutes from some tricky complex systems. Even Zeus is a neat reflection of Chris's head principle.

But little games like conventional energy technology and economics are still a bit better than sudoku or doing nothing at all, in the off-grid world...

This is not the whole family -- just the three living in this house.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

exciting new energy options from the world of electrical engineering

Learned a lot from what may be the most advanced cross-cutting meeting
on electrical engineering
anywhere, last week. The new work changes a lot of stories. Among them:


Background (the previous story):

Several years ago, the best available numbers (SAE) said that the
Toyota Prius hybrid
cost $3000 more to make than the comparable conventional car -- $1000
due to new power electronics,
$2000 due to battery. The plug-ins and fuel cell cars out there
probably increase both costs, maybe doubling
them, but reduce gasoline use a lot more. The mileage of the Prius
hybrid itself is improved 15%
through a no-cost upgrade in control, using the new control system
developed by Danil Prokhorov (whose
earlier work I funded from NSF).

The Volt and many other PHEVs can be recharged in your home, at 110 volts
(8 hours) or 240 volts (3 hours), but true electric cars (like Nissan
Leaf) require "gas stations" which can recharge
your car in 5-15 minutes. Fast recharge stations would also enhance
the value of PHEVs to the owner and to
the power grid, and enhance our ability to survive any sudden cutoff
or price shock of oil.
Therefore, many US states are spending lots of money on building
$100,000-$200,000 fast recharging stations,
using Japan's "Chademo" standard for fast DC charging. Large vested
interests have begun to spring up.
I have the impression that this is like "$150,000 per parking place."
SAE may be on the verge of blessing Chademo
as part of new standards.

The new options/story:

Alireza Khaligh and of Illinois and Hui (Helen) Li of Florida State
presented important and exciting new results on the power electronics
part of it.
They have developed integrated, more universal systems which could
replace the power electronics of cars
ranging from Prius to Volt to Leaf. The new technology is expected to
cut the overall net cost of power electronics
by 1/3 to 1/2, AND AT THE SAME TIME make it just as easy and safe to
recharge the car using 480 volts AC as
with the Chademo standard. THE IMPLICATIONS FOR RECHARGE ARE HUGE: the
$100,000 to $200,000 I was citing
is for a recharge station that takes 480 volts AC as INPUT. If
recharge stations can be used which are "free" (starting from
the same 480 volts AC input, and not accounting for billing system
add-ons in either case), it would be a whole lot easier and cheaper to
quickly build up a national network of fast recharge stations. What's
more, if the costs on the car are LESS than what
GM is already paying for on the Volt... this is huge. Friends in the
auto industry have explained to me why this kind of
breakthrough really often has to start in the university research
community (especially when major companies are escaping from recent

I have done some due diligence on this. The poster paper giving
details of Khaligh's work was co-authored with his colleague Emadi,
one of the authors of the most definitive recent book out there on the
kind of motors used in cars. They have actually retrofitted Fords
to prove that the technology works. We are either AT or VERY CLOSE to
having good justification for some kind of $10 million demo,
aimed at deploying the maximum number of cars and recharge stations to
really prove the power of this new lower-cost technology,
more precisely combining:

1. Fast recharge stations at least as fast as the Chademo stations
being set up for Nissan Leaf, without compromising 8-10 year battery
2. A network including the most competent university centers to feed
technology to the project (Illinois, Georgia Tech, FSU, U. Michigan,
U. Hawaii at minimum);
3. The new power electronics, Switched Reluctance Motors (which do
pass due diligence now, and free us form need to use
rare earths), control as advanced as Prokhorov's or more, and
batteries at least as good (in kwh/$ meeting other minimum specs)
as the "present big five" -- Excellatron rechargeable lithium/air,
ReVolt rechargeable zinc/air, Chinese best lithium-ion (Thunder Sky,
BYD or RJE).

NSF does not fund that kind of larger-scale project. But I still have
questions about a crucial technical area, i.e.:
Can we really reconcile regular use of fast charge (as fast as what
Oregon/Leaf are installing) with 8-10 year battery lifetime?
This may be just a matter of my own ignorance. For example, the folks
deploying that right now probably have a story on battery lifetime.
Maybe NSF might have some role in improving the public, open
literature understanding of this key requirement.
Or maybe people putting together demos could make some arrangements
with folks who have that proprietary knowledge, to allow a demo to get

Bottom line: It would be of enormous value to world economic and
war-and-peace security to somehow get such a demo going as soon as
possible, somehow, dependent on the two obvious milestones: (1) having
a more complete story on the battery lifetime fast charge issue;
and (2) working out the exact plans to produce the maximum number of
PHEVs and recharge stations possible within the $10 million

Of course, folks developing standards should not enforce the Chademo
standard so rigidly that it gets in the way of something better and
Maybe it's just as well that some of the present day clean cities
programs have not gone faster than they have, because there is a risk
of wasting unnecessary sums of money creating something entrenched and



At times, I have heard salesmen trying to tap into smart grid money
say: "Just think how well we could
use renewables and prevent blackouts if only we have the
communications, meters and sensors in place..
a vast new flood of data, enabling better decisions." Good new
communications and sensors are
important, but a flood of data is not the same as a better decision.
To make better decisions, to better accommodate
and use renewable energy, we need two more essential ingredients: (1)
more real intelligence, to learn from
that stream of data and translate it into action implications
(requiring MUCH more than the antiquated stuff the salesmen
usually offer and dress up in fancy buzzwords); (2) CONTROL AUTHORITY
-- something to decide upon.

For many years, people actually trying to stabilize grid flows (as
oppose to tapping public money) has stressed the
need for new "FACTS" digital switching technology, which can be used
to change power flows, and actually give us something to decide
upon. But these have presented problems with cost and reliability,
which have limited deployment in the US.

The New Story

Two researchers at Georgia Tech (one funded from my area at NSF) have
come up with new technology for "thin
AC controllers" which does what FACTS does, but at lower costs with
safe failure modes. The key people are Ron Harley and Deepakraj Divan.
I expect to hear a whole lot more on this in coming years, as they
work directly with utilities and tell us more. But it turns out --
a good place to insert such systems is in front of big transformers.
They say this would allow total protection against big DC power
such as people expect with solar flares (at least with some warning,
which need not be too far ahead of time). Dual use technology --
more grid capacity and ability to exploit renewables, ALONG WITH
insurance on the solar flare side.

There is also a story on wind which I will probably say more about later.


People worried about the PHYSICAL security of the power grid, versus
terrorists, have generally pointed towards transformers as
the number one vulnerability to worry about. Big expensive oil drum
things, all one of a kind, sometimes
imported over the ocean, hard to stockpile and build up, etc., etc.

The interagency current wisdom seems to be: "Solid state US-made
transformers are not only less efficient (like 97% versus 98%) than
the big old oil drum kind.... they are also far more expensive.
Because of cost, they are not suitable even as backups to
be held in readiness in case of emergency. There are certain physical
laws at work... at 60 hertz, calculate the size.."

Prof. Sudip Mazumder -- an NSF grantee who also serves on one of the
frontline interagency committees on all this -- reported how
the new story is quite different.

The underlying solid state technology is closely related to what Li
and Khaligh have been developing. People have worked out how to work
electricity at frequencies like 20,000 to 40,000 cycles per second,
which allows deep reductions in mass and cost.
(They have worked out safety and shielding aspects, etc. This is
working stuff, not just theory.)

The technology is THERE TODAY and competitive enough to replace
traditional transformers in distribution systems
and in renewable systems (like big solar farms or wind farms), for
multimegawatt applications. His feeling is -- let's
start with revolutionizing the distribution system first, where it's
easier, and work out way to the transmission system from there.
Why not wait, say, 5 years, for the gigawatt applications, which
really want stuff like the new 20kv chips which will be coming in a
few years?


There was also a radically new design for wave power presented,
CycWEC, by Stefan Siegel of the Air Force Academy. It still needs to
prove a lot
of things, but it uses more basic principles in design than earlier
wave energy efforts. This allows something like three times
to efficiency in extracting wave energy, and, more important,
something like a 50-fold reduction in mass, according to Siegel.
Tests so far have been positive, but he wants a mid-scale demonstrator
before moving to the kind of full-scale ocean demonstrator which would
make it possible to design full-scale power plants and estimate what
they would cost. (As with other wave energy schemes, I do wonder
where the wires will go to the power plants, etc.)


All these should be followed up, by the energy community.

These are just a small selection of things I heard/learned at the 2010
NSF ECCS Division Grantees' Conference,
in Hawaii, this past Wednesday to Friday.

In actuality -- I do not know of any other meeting which brings
together some of the top (peer-reviewed, front line)
creative people across ALL disciplines of electrical engineering in
one place, in a way which encourages cross-cutting conversations.
Beyond the stovepipe. Everyone present either worked for NSF or for an
NSF-funded research project, except for one, so far as I know.
That one was from the NSF of China, interested in improving US-China

Other discussions I saw included things which will help change our
understanding of time and mind, electronics beyond Moore's Law,
and various themes in advanced photonics. (There was also a magnetic
bottle fusion talk which tells me that there are ways those folks
could move a lot faster, but not my top priority...). There was a huge
amount of all kinds of nanotechnology and communications technology
and microelectromechanical systems. Folks were complaining that there
are only 5 real experts left in the US in high voltage motor design...
three of whom I happen to know...
all past retirement age and worried what happens when they DO retire...


Best of luck,



I forgot to mention that the folks with the thin AC converters estimate that their
technology would let us hook up more wind and solar to the power grid, cutting the cost of new transmission requirements in half or more.

Some folks on the global energy list asked for more... and I said:

EMP is yet another important topic. We got very deep into that
in a recent IEEE dialogue. Living life "at 300,000" feet, it would be reasonable to conclude from the most authoritative reports now available that there might be a 25% probability of trillions of dollars
worth of damage if we do not insert new protections before the next big solar flare event, which could
come as early as 2012. I would want to help.

A Congressional office on the other list asked about this item too. My reply:

Looking on the web, I immediately find two references to the thin AC converters:

and two to the key people I mentioned:

These references basically reflect the talks they gave at the grantees' conference.
When I saw the diagram of a switch right in front of a big transformer, I ASKED...
in the open question period... the obvious question... whether this would be able to isolate the transformer,
in case of a solar flare. They answered that of course it would ... if it would be a high voltage DC surge.
(And that's what it would be. Hopkins APL and Iridium have given detailed presentations
on solar flares to NSF recently, in connection with the NSF-funded "Ampere" program they are working on.)

I have asked Harley for more. They have not been doing this for the PURPOSE of EMP
protection. It's "just a side benefit." And of course, it's worth double-checking anything at this early stage.
The method itself they have vetted in great detail, but they didn't even think about the side benefit until I raised
the question this week.

They have stressed how much cheaper this is than conventional FACTS technology, but
I do not know what it would take to have it deployed, say, over half the country's big transformers by 2012,
as part of smart grid efforts.


By the way, this meeting was in Hawaii. As I post this on Sunday...

I got back from Hawaii Saturday morning, still in pain from a fall Wednesday morning,
at the start of the meeting. Bruised or cracked rib, it seems. Not one glimpse
of the beach (except as I waited for the shuttle bus to the airport to go home),
every minute in the hotel (except for two breakfasts at the Wailana cafe across the street), but still a whole lot of fun talking to really interesting people.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Are we in decline, and what does biology say?

During discussion of the latest elections, David Brin -- who has written some the clearest, most uplifting and fun-to-read science fiction out there -- told a few of us about his upcoming novel on the theme of Decline of the West. Here is my take on it... including some new ideas... first my reply to him, and then an earlier email I alluded to in my reply... and a small little new thing at the end.

== 1. To him:

David’s mention of “decline of the West” (or the related question of decline of civilization in general) arouses
lots of diffuse anxiety and kneejerk reactions – but it is still a serious intellectual issue, connected to
the issue of extinction. The discussion has raised some interesting thoughts….

… To be coherent, I have to start from basics and build up… please forgive…

Keith has often talked about Evolutionary Psychology (EP) on this list. Some of that discussion also
went off to extremes… but EP grew out of sociobiology which, in my view, has a lot to tell us about
the larger situation we are in. E.O. Wilson’s classic book Sociobiology does miss a crucial point or two, but it’s not all that hard to revise the analysis to account for those points.

Before Wilson… a lot of the people trying to apply evolution to human society and human thought ended up sounding a bit like extreme macho nuts or even Nazis. The law of the jungle… kill or be killed… I kill you, you kill me…
like the mafia guy with a smoking gun who says “It’s just business, that’s what all life is..”

Wilson was the world’s leader in trying to really understand the evolutionary basis and nature of altruism. Nature is full of examples of organisms cooperating with other organisms, caring about other organisms, and so on. In many ways, the real core of his book was an effort to understand how and when that happens. And he noticed the obvious point
that human civilization is one important example of cooperation. He has something to say about civilization, about what makes it possible, and what could make it impossible in the future.

In a way, Wilson’s key point (which I’ll get to) is a restatement of the old Frederick Jackson Turner theory about The Frontier, which was one of the two major themes driving John Kennedy’s progressive ethos (and the mission to the moon). (The other being Teilhard de Chardin.) Back in school, I read an article “Frederick Jackson Turner and the Five Hundred Year Frontier.” In a way, the theme there was that it’s easy enough for people to cooperate when everyone is moving forwards. Having a new frontier creates a kind of cooperative game, which engenders many forms of cooperation, such as greater honesty, free speech, pioneering behavior, new ideas, democratic behavior, trust and so on. Lack of it tends to create a kind of “zerosum game” where what’s good for you is bad for me, so that all bad things end up being pushed by someone. Many of us in the 1960’s became strong supporters of the space program because that is the only real physical new frontier right there in front of us, the only one which gets beyond the finite carrying capacity of this planet.

Wilson basically found a cleaner expression of the underlying idea in mathematics. He distinguished between “k” and “r” environments. I don’t remember all the details… but I do remember some examples. In forests, there are events like forest fires and floods which simply take out x% of the plants every year. That clears new ground which works just like a new frontier. In that stable stochastic environment, we end up with a mix of pioneering species, like pine trees, and conservative competitive species which specialize more in defending their turf (like oaks?). The frontier encourages pioneers…

This raises the question: what are the chances for progress/pioneering, in the long term, on a finite earth, as we reach the limits of sustainable population (or, worse, after the dieback caused by overshoot)?

And: what can we learn from older human civilizations which reached the population limits allowed by the technology they had at the time, and then moved into a zerosum psychology, followed by the kind of events which Spengler and Toynbee described?

There is plenty of zerosum psychology to be found already on earth. Years ago, I naturally started thinking about the oldest continuous civilization on earth, that of India, to get some idea of where the rest of us might be heading.
It brings up the relevance of an earlier student of evolution, George Gaylord Simpson, who had really important insights into the nature of the human species and of earlier, similar “quantum breakthroughs” in evolution. When there is a major breakthrough in evolution – the invention by nature of a new kind of organizing principle for organisms, such as the human brain – it generally evolves in two stages. In the first stage, the breakthrough itself evolves fairly rapidly in some previously innocuous species; towards the end of this stage, when the new principle is powerful enough to confer a really strong advantage across a wide swath of ecological niches, that species basically
“takes over the whole world,” a wide variety of niches all over the earth. And then, in the second stage, that species
itself fractures and speciates and things start to look more like what they did before the breakthrough. The caste system in India shows many of the signs of such a speciation effect where, for example, “lower caste” people would not want to marry “higher caste” people, because issues like their sense of who they are are more powerful than the older, more homogeneous notions of “trying to do better.” And, before the British arrived, there was a kind of perpetual simmering warfare, and a death rate as high as the birth rate.

Here is what hit me immediately, many many years ago. What happens if you change a stable state of nonzerosum games (populated by a lot of human oak trees) by adding nuclear weapons as part of the game?
In a situation where what’s bad for one person is automatically good for someone else? What if, unlike oak trees, they have the means to travel and deliver those weapons elsewhere? In simple models, it is very easy to
work out the long-term equilibrium. Nobody lives.

Anyway… that’s an important but old story.

Since exponential growth in population would grossly violate any laws of physics I now see any evidence for…
the questions remain important: how could it be possible to maintain survival, on the one hand,
and some kind of progressive culture, on the other, in long-term equilibrium, with a finite population limit?

At times, I think I have heard Keith say: “That’s easy. For humans, it’s impossible, so let’s give up on humans. Let’s go to robots.” But even robots would be subject to evolution over time. They do allow other scenarios, but just as challenging. Worth further thought.

As we discuss some of the negative forces in the US economy, as in my previous email…
the ratio between people whose career plan is to be “bandits” versus people who plan to be “blacksmiths”…
that may be a way to get deeper and more real into the k/r kind of issue. Are we creating a society which breeds more bandits than blacksmiths? Is it avoidable? It certainly has a relation to decline not only of the west but of civilization in general.

In fact, it reminds me of a guy I spoke to from Beijing recently, who was complaining about the exciting new university programs in his area which were incredibly visionary and growing into a major force for fundamental intellectual progress… suddenly having problems because of people moving south to make money, doing useful things, but not sustaining fundamental advances… (For all the rhetoric, China is not nearly as old as India, but that’s a complex story for another time.)

This subject deserves a lot more thought and depth, but tis email is too long now…

Must move on to other things…

Best of luck to us all,



==2. The earlier email:


So this is the type of thing I was talking about the other day. OK, Solyndra’s production costs were unusually high, but I tend to believe the part about manufacturers in China offering hard-to-beat prices. If you were a graduate student in physics or engineering who’d come here from China to learn advanced design skills, your primary interest is in producing breakthrough renewable energy technologies and now you have to decide whether to go back, what would you do?

Hi, Mike!

There are many, many factors contributing to the overwhelming problem we have in this sector.
I wouldn't claim to be able to rank-order them in importance.

I am reminded at times of some thinking I did about economic history, back when I was an undergraduate at Harvard.
One of the obvious questions was -- why did economic growth go through such a phase shift circa 1600-1700?
(And the question obvious now: will we revert back?) Of course, competitive free markets had something to do with it...
and there has been a neat progression from Hanseatic League to Holland to England to US to China....
but Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism says important things too. If I ever get to
retire, I might read his entire main book on society, two volumes sitting on my priority bookshelf.

To capture more analytically the effect of markets... I once thought of designing a kind of educational game.
Under certain rules, the economic incentives favor being a bandit over being a blacksmith. This not only
channels a lot of the best talents into banditry and knighthood (not always distinguishable), but adds
local taxes and tolls, localizes markets, creates low perceived elasticity of demand to individual producers,
and reduces both PRESENT output AND future output (rate of growth). When I ask bright youth about their plans...
and look at a lot of trends in the US... I see a certain amount of backsliding on both of the variables which got
us out of the middle ages. And the growing dependence on land rent (controlling land which holds oil) has
similar effects. A triple whammy? And of course, there are other factors...

It is quite understandable why some Chinese-speaking people have decided to just go back to China, when they get better
offers there than here. There are many, many reasons why we are not so competitive any more. We waste a lot
of money on things which do not help us become more competitive -- the old stakeholder corporate welfare syndromes.
But at the same time... I recently got a call from an inventor who was about to work for the Chinese, who put his
foot down and shifted to the Germans when the new "jobs jobs jobs in China" program started to bite, and they wanted
people to start moving to China. Not everyone wants to do that. I suspect that many of the people who have recently moved would have preferred to stay here because of our past history of having more freedom -- but are pessimistic about the future prospects in this country.

All for now.

Best of luck,

3. A related funny story from another context
For entertainment... back to the engineering education issue... I can't help remembering how I actually met Bimal, years ago.
I was invited to give a plenary talk on intelligent systems at the big IES annual conference, many years ago. Bimal organized a magnificent special
session on power electronics and motor drives meeting the real world, with speakers from the people really designing ythings and making things work at the cutting edge in many major companies, from dishwashers to Honeywell, etc. The REAL challenges in energy conservation were discussed in real detail, the real challenges and opportunities. Towards the end, Bimal got up in front of the hundreds of folks in the room and asked
something like: "Many of us wonder...with all the exciting real-world opportunities to reduce energy use anwiimprove product quality,
with all the rhetoric and wasted money we see in Washington, why such a disconnect? Why is policy screiwng up so badly, and so many real opportunities wasted, despite the evident interest in energy conservation? Why the disconnect in communications? Well, I think I know one reason. Out of all the hundreds of folks in this room, in the lead conference at the cutting edge of this field, how many are US-born US citizens? If there is any one of you, could you please raise your hand?" I was the only one.

In the hallway, soon after, an Afro-American guy I never met before walked up to me, shook my hand with real energy, and said something like:
"hey, glad to meet you brother! It's always a great pleasure to meet another domestic minority here at these conferences..."

At the workshop this past Monday and Tuesday, they talked about how motor drives left the US long ago. Howcan we
make rational policy if none of us know anything? We can try to learn, especially from the rest of the world...
and learning from the rest of the world has been one of the keys to China's recent successes..


At my oral examination at Harvard, before beginning my thesis work, I
had to defend two possible thesis topics. The two I chose were --

1. The (evolutionary) psychology of human motivation, and how it helps
explain the rise and fall of human civilizations; and

2. The mathematics of human intelligence -- how to build it and how to understand it.

In the end, I chose the second, and folks with serious knowledge about neural networks know at least part of how that worked out. (See the "Mind" part of, and the many papers posted there.) But the faculty were much more excited about the first part, and started debating between themselves. I hardly got a word in after the first few sentences. I remember the world famous political scientist who said this was absurd, that evolution takes millions of years. And the world famous biologist, a collaborator of E.O. Wilson, who updated him on his biology...

It really is an important topic. But there are so many important untapped areas out there... so many things crucial to our survival and our future.. who don't more people push all the way to the bigger frontiers these days? Well, at least we have Lonnie Johnson for batteries, and Lennart Johansson for Stirling engines... too bad we can't even do justice to such basic and obvious things... let alone the bigger but trickier things..

Best of luck to us all

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Deficit and Jobs – It Could Get Worse

(Thoughts the morning after the election.)

In the elections yesterday, the voters sent a strong signal that they simply will not put up with the combination of 10 percent unemployment and huge budget deficits that we are seeing now. They want that one solved first, before we do anything else. That’s understandable. But – painful as it is, we need to first face up to reality. We need to understand that tinigs could easily become worse. If we get too angry and refuse to believe that we are stuck in a very difficult situation, and look for rescue from voodoo economics,
we could easily make things much worse.

That’s basically what actually happened to create the Great Depression. The initial recession was mild enough that even in 1931 the New Republic was asking “will there be a recession?” In order to “save the situation,” and get back to having more jobs, Congress passed the Smoot-Harley (sp?) tariffs, which set off a world competitive spiral, which resulted in unemployment much, much worse than what we have today. We could easily make the same kind of mistake all over again. In a way, some of China’s recent statements that they will not accept less than full employment in China, and will take international actions to assure that, could cause the same kind of thing. But even more serious, a lot of the perpetual motion ideas floating around in the US could do the same.

To address the issue in a serious way, we do need to begin by giving up gross illusions. One of the big, scary challenges is that a lot of key Republicans have committed themselves to the belief that we could make huge reductions in the deficit and in unemployment, both, immediately, by simply making deeper tax custs specifically for those who get more than $250,000 per year. It’s understandable why some folks find this to be a very convenient lie, but if they don’t pull off their dogs, and prevent the risk of depression, they won’t benefit in the end any more than the rest of us do. Careful reviews by professional financial economists, without any left-wing bias at all, like the Financial Times and the Economist, have spelled out in great detail why we can be certain that life is not so simple.

Back around January 2009, the story was pretty clear. The US Chamber of Commerce strongly supported the stimulus bill (and urged Senator Specter, for example, to vote for it), because they saw the numbers about the same way that the Financial Times and the Economist did. They saw a real prospect of 15% unemployment if we did nothing. They saw that the huge stimulus bill then under discussion would only be enough to cut the problem in half, to about 10%, when we really wanted to get back to 5%. There was quite a bit of discussion of what would be needed for “phase two,” but people wanted to get phase one finished first, to avoid the worst and postpone controversy.

So here we are, still stuck at around 10%, with deficits so high that many are very worried already. It’s a classic case of damned-if-you-do damned-if-you-don’t. Some hope that monetary policy could improve things, even with no net increase in federal budget deficit, but reports from the front lines say very clearly that we are caught in a classic “liquidity trap.” We have basically reached the limits of what lending people money can do, to increase ecnomic demand in the US. And the world in general is also in a bind. (I could say a lot more about the EU, Germany and China, but let’s stay on the main theme for now.)
To reduce raise demand and reduce unemployment, there are three classic tools – government spending,
tax breaks for the rich, and tax breaks for the middle class. To minimize deficit cost per job created, it’s VERY clear from economic research that reliable long-term tax breaks for the middle class do the best job … but even they impose a high deficit cost. We don’t have a really clear and rigorous way to decide what the optimal balance is right now between deficits and jobs but we can be sure, with these conventional tools, that we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. And the public won’t put up with bigger deficits, except perhaps with bigger middle class tax breaks.

Can we do better?


About a month ago, I was thinking – the politics of doing better are probably just too hard. With voodoo thinking permeating the relations between both parties, and big donors and money controllers limiting what the sane folks can get away with, we can forget getting out of the hole we are in now. (After all, Japan had its own lost decade.) But we could PERHAPS get bipartisan action to prevent another kind of “second dip” that could make things a whole lot worse. Some people may feel that $1 trillion/year is small change, with no ability to change the grand world of jobs and deficits,… but I see the numbers differently. We do have a clear opportunity to prevent a return of world oil prices to $150/barrel or higher, and encourage some new investments and jobs while we are at it. (See This has traditionally been an area of bipartisan collaboration, and we could afford to say some nice things about George Bush as part of the deal. Whatever it takes. Avoiding a real depression is too important to neglect.

But in fact, we do not REALLY have to stay in the hole. The entire world is in this bind right now. It’s an example of what game theorists call a “Nash equilibrium.” On the one hand, there are ways we could get a lot more jobs per dollar of deficit right now than any of the three traditional fiscal tools offer. (Japan’s”Three Pillars of Ecofriendly Economy” program gives some clues.) On the other hand, since the whole world is in the same bind (even if half of it is in denial and half the nations think they are God’s chosen people one way or another), international coopertaion does in principle allow for a Pareto optimum or a Pareto improvement which gets us out of the risk/jobs dilemma.

These three approaches are pretty much the honest choices, not only for the US, but for the world as a whole. And, for all the bullshit and all the lip service, I don’t see one iota of real progress here in the US or in Europe yet. (The “Pickens Plan” bill would only make it all worse.)

Friday, October 29, 2010

theories of uncertainty and reality and Sufis

One list I visit is perhaps the world's top list for discussing issues like fuzzy logic versus probability theory,

and how we can better understand UNCERTAINTY. A US researcher summarized a paper by Gupta, saying that

there are two general types of uncertainty, "objective" and "cognitive". (To see what he posted, go to the end.)

A researcher in Europe replied:

Dear Dr. ..,

Thanks for your clear description of the 'two broad categories' under which the 'various types of uncertainty' can be classified. However, I wonder how the two are related or can be unified. Aren't we running here into the perennial problem of the relationship between KNOWLEDGE and REALITY, a relationship on which philosophers in India, China, Japan and the West have had different views?

Here is my reply:

Many of us would see the situation as follows.

First, we would assume the existence of an Objective Reality, a larger universe or multiverse or cosmos,

whose state across state and time is determined by some kind of Underlying Physical Law. Let us call this the Objective Reality Hypothesis (ORH).

WITHIN the large set of possible Underlying Physical Laws, there is of course the traditional Einsteinian set -- laws defined over continuous

3+1-dimensional space time, expressed by stating a Lagrange function which leads to Lagrange-Euler equations, a subset of the larger set

of 3+1-dimensional partial differential equation (PDE) models.

BUT THE SET is certainly larger than that. There is no reason why it should not including stochastic PDE or mixed forwards-backwards stochastic PDE.

Any mathematically well-defined system is acceptable within ORH, so long as we can use it to make predictions.

To avoid being too pompous -- perhaps a kind of joke is in order.

One version of quantum mechanics has been stated as follows:

"First God created the universe by throwing dice many, many times, over a vast four-dimensional checkerboard. He looked out

upon his work... as you might look out upon a Christmas tree you just set up... and he said in a booming voice: 'Yuk! It is not good!'

So he gave it a good ninety degree kick and left the room never to be seen again."

Actually, many people believe that this is the closest thing we now have to a mathematically well-defined rigorous formulation of quantum field theory.

It is described in a classic book by Glimm and Jaffe. The first stage is, more precisely, simulation or implementation of a Markhov Random Field

over four-dimensional Euclidean space. The ninety degree "kick" is a Wick rotation, kicking one randomly chosen direction (original raw time)

into its analytic extension. It actually sounds like a kind of Realistic model ... if you believe that the Wick rotation has the right properties.

I tend to doubt it. What it does to certain ordinary Fourier modes...

If you go back further, to philosophers of the West like the Pythagorean Order (which I take with many grains of salt), they still support the claim that

everything we see is governed by some kind of natural law. There is a challenge in understanding what KIND of natural law. I have not seen anything in

Chinese philosophy which would contract that general sort of approach, though they would often feel in a pragmatic way that they need not be bothered with

the theory of things in general. Many in the West used to believe it can be a bit dangerous to play around too casually with things before understanding them, but

the current elections seem to reflect some other way of thinking...


In a way, this all gets back to Gupta's categorization, but tilted more towards the cognitive side. There may or may not be "uncertainties" inherent in the formulation of the

underlying Physical Law -- but within the ORH approach, these are really just options one has in trying to express what the Physical Law is.

After that... "uncertainty" is basically something we intelligent creatures experience. We experience it at "many levels," simply because our mind

works on many levels. In a sense, many of the "objective" uncertainties that Gupta talks about are essentially cognitive in nature; we use uncertainty as

an attribute of the approximate models we use to describe complex dynamical systems in the physical world. Approximation and probability are the two recurring themes here...

I tend to view "fuzziness as opposed to probability" as a hook to the approximation side of things.



Many years ago, I had a discussion about ORH with one of the leaders of one of the most powerful Sufi Orders in the world.

He basically asked: "Why do you Pythagorean types keep trying to understand how reality works in mathematical terms?

Why do you assume it is possible?"

The truly honest answer is that I do not Axiomatically commit myself at the most fundamental level to assuming that it is possible.

At the deepest level... you could say it is like what Heidegger says, or you could say I am like one of those little organisms I sketch in some slides...

simply trying to make sense of a stream of direct personal experience as best I can. That's the deepest foundation. But we have certainly learned,

over centuries and centuries, that ORH has yielded immense improvements in our ability to cope with that stream of experience, that it is very

general in what it allows (in a sense, able to encompass anything else workable as a subset), and that folks bouncing against the walls without it..

with the use of a "mirror" to connect the objective and subjective world ... do easily get lost in all kinds of crazy thrashing which goes nowhere.

Many modern philosophers say that the alternative to realism is solipsism, and the world still keeps giving us examples of people doing crazy stuff

through solipsistic thinking. We do not know the true Physical Law, and rationally should remain open-minded about a wide variety of possible theories...

(constantly updating subjective probabilities ala Raiffa for such alternatives)... but it is WAY too early to give up on understanding much

better than we now do.

But... he thrashed around a lot, went back to Pakistan after 9/11, and died. I am very sorry that I didn't work harder to improve the dialogue before it was too late.

Best of luck to us all,


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Using geoengineering to save us from climate change

My evaluation (for the Global Climate Change Situation Room, GCCSR)

of a proposal to handle climate change..

First, the proposal:

On Oct 19, 2010, at 10:44 PM, Jerome C. Glenn wrote:

Check out Solutions' new feature article: "Geoengineering: The Inescapable

Truth of Getting to 350" by Charles H. Greene, Bruce C. Monger, and Mark



While geoengineering may be one of the most controversial solutions

proposed for getting to 350ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, the authors argue

that it will be essential to reaching this goal by the end of this


The authors believe that one technology in particular has great promise,


paired with an aggressive emissions-reduction plan.

Read it here:


My evaluation:


Most of us would be very interested in the important question this article


what does it take to keep CO2 from rising above 350 ppm?

Systems people might prefer a slightly sharper version of the question: how

can we minimize the cost and maximize the probability

of CO2 not rising above 350 OR of getting the environmental damage which a

CO2 above 350 would imply?

Real optimizers usually would want to fine tune almost any strategy, to try

to do a little

better. In that spirit, here are some comments on how to tune or interpret

(or implement) what this article offers...

in addressing that question.


First two sections:

The article begins by discussing how serious the problem may be. I won't

focus on that, since that's not the question

posed above. But it's interesting that they discuss the risk that sea level

might rise by EIGHTY meters. Peter Ward

of U. Washington will be discussing similar issues at NSF in a few days. (I

can't go due to other commitments.) IPCC

people were estimating a 5-20% probability of a 20 meter sea level rise,

under business as usual and what was known a few years ago.

That's already risky to human species survival, if one accounts for all the

downstream things which might follow.

When I tracked these issues last year from an office in the Senate, this

flooding risk was by far the most important

worst-case risk from rising CO2 levels.

"Averting Catastrophic Climate change."

The authors say that there is little chance that we could reduce CO2 enough

in time by emission reductions alone.

That's only a half truth. In the US, at least, petroleum is the fuel which

accounts for the most emissions.

On a technology level, best guess is that it would only take 20 to 25 years

for the US to become

100% independent from fossil oil, at little or no net overall cost to the


**IF** we took the right action. (In all fairness, I would claim to know the

integrated picture of this better than anyone else on earth. See For example, IEEE has gotten me access to the

engineers on the front lines

of this technology, to the folks at Toyota leading their efforts, and to key

battery manufacturers in China. NSF efforts on nonfuel biofuels have also


a crucial start.) The biggest single emissions SECTOR is electric power

(which I now handle at NSF).

There have been impressive breakthroughs in Carbon Capture and Reuse (CCR)

which could be deployed rather widely

within 20 years, with the right incentives, and CO2 prices no greater than

$30/ton at most.

HOWEVER -- due to lack of will and action (and coherent thinking in the

policy world), I have to agree that the chances are looking pretty dismal.

Thus as a matter of rationality, and of hedging our bets, it is very

sensible for folks at the R&D level to find ways to

prepare for a high probability of continued failure to deploy emission

reduction technology fast enough. The kinds of actions endorsed in the

article are important

at this point.

"Geoengineering Options"

The article recommends a mixed portfolio, a combination of two kinds of

action, above and beyond continued efforts

aimed at emissions control:

1. Solar Radiation Management (SRM)

2. Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR)

I agree with that.

1. SRM

With SRM they mention three key options -- sulfate aerosols, seawater

droplets or other cloud condensation nuclei, and mirrors in space.

The article does not sound so excited about exploring these three, because

they are unproven and because costs may be high.

But I would not be so negative. The whole point of the geoengineering

options is to try use R&D (a mostly lower cost activity)

to hedge our bets against the failure of policy by the folks who dispose of

bigger sums of money. And the whole point of R&D is to explore what we do

not yet know. Some of that is positive and some of that is negative. (I

actually have a book chapter in press on strategic thinking for

leadership in S&T which elaborates on such things.) The risk of

acidification of the ocean is not nearly so great as I would have thought

before studying it more closely last year. The worst case risk they are

talking about (according to a deep balanced assessment report from the

Congressional Research Service) is that ocean pH might go down from 8.0 to

7.7 by 2100. That's not nice, but it's nowhere near as large as

other risks we are trading off here. Still, the sulfate cycle can become

lethal under some circumstances (see Ward's book, Under a Green Sky);

we really need to know a lot more about that cycle, and about the ecology

and potential variability of archaea in general,

from atmosphere to deep under the ocean floor and to deep reservoirs under

the land. With water and nucleation, we need to follow up on recent

breakthrough discoveries at NASA regarding the rapid movement of water

vapor. (From the folks watching asteroids, not from the climate models!)

The cost of large space based mirrors might well be made much lower than it

is today; if only I could find a way to get key decision makers to follow up


unmet technical opportunities to get access to space about three orders of

magnitude cheaper than its present cost,

and an order of magnitude cheaper than what I'd expect form the new X37B

technology!! The option is there, and is economically justified by

other benefits ... but no one is doing the key enabling work, which could be

done at a cost as low as $35 million! Would be happy to say more.

ALL of these things really ought to be pushed as hard as we can, to minimize

the chances of catastrophe. Life itself is worth the investment.

It's all about RISK REDUCTION... and that does require doing some high risk

stuff at times. When the bullets are flying at us, we can't afford to wait

for certainty.

2. CDR

For CDR, they rightly stress the great potential of algae as a way to get

low cost removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Having 10 minutes left right now, before my next meeting (ironically on

climate satellites under our GEO people)... must be too brief. is one of many good sources. They say they could

convert CO2 to 60% fish food and 40% liquid fuel,

at $60 per barrel crude oil price, if environment permits... after some

demos. The bill I posted at

would provide an effective mechanism to move this along faster. Not only

algae but other microbes would qualify,

and have promise. Sustainability rules are part of the proposed legislation.

But R&D on cutting the cost of

other approaches is also indicated. The long-term economics of extracting

CO2 form flue gas versus atmosphere are

simply not known, and policy should not assume that it is known. The

challenges are to improve the economics of BOTH routes

(especially by more effective R&D) and make sure there are correct

incentives (and kill the market failures) which inhibit both.

This is, again, an urgent matter of life and death, and I thank Jerry for

moving us ahead on it...

Best of luck to us all,


Saturday, October 16, 2010

Mystical (and Physical) Visit to Byzantium

Mystical (and Physical) Visit to Byzantium

October 2010

n Written at Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul, Thursday October 14.

n I arrived in Istanbul late last Saturday. The story of these six days is very complicated. That’s how it usually is for me with international travel. Why waste any time when one may never get a chance to see the area ever again? I spent most of the time with the IEEE International Conference on Systems, Man and Cybernetics, where I gave the first plenary talk on Monday. I spoke on “Neural Networks: From Toys to Cars to the Brain.” But there was a free day. Here I’ll mainly talk about the hour or two on that free day when I got to visit Hagia Sophia, which is also called St. Sophia or Ayasophia – the main church of the Eastern Roman Empire, built by the Emperor Justinian from 532 to 537 AD.

First, some background ==========================================

1. (Added 10/16.) Just what is the proper name of Hagia Sophia? Wikipedia asserts that the full original name in Greek means “Church of the Holy Wisdom of God.” Sacred Wisdom. Sancta Sophia, not Saint Sophie.

2. It feels very strange, “leading dozens of different lives in parallel.” In my plenary talk, I said a little bit about that. I argued that the biggest, most important challenge to science today is to really understand and replicate the higher intelligence and consciousness which exists in the brain of a single, isolated mouse. “Here in Istanbul and at an SMC Conference, it is very tempting to talk about intelligence and Mind beyond the level of the mouse… but I need to discipline myself, and not discuss that other half of my existence, except for one slide and one line on another slide.” In visiting Hagia Sophia – I do the opposite. If you want real science (as defined by Thomas Kuhn, for example), please read no further. We all have a right to lead parallel lives.

3. For many, many years, I usually try to do some kind of meditation when I visit a unique historic site. I make an effort to contain my ordinary brain thoughts, to avoid being distracted by them, and practice “listening” (a skill which Quakers work hard to cultivate), to project some questions or dialogue, and to shift over different “frequencies” or textures or directions of thought so as to avoid missing things. In other places, the feedback I have gotten has usually been much simpler, more unified and more graphic than what I picked up here. Usually there is some especially interesting stream of thought, which feels as if there is a single mind or nucleus of thinking in the middle of it. (One time, in Guillmaraes in Portugal, I recall at least three streams… but at different places, encountered at different times.) At Hagia Sophia, it was more like eight streams in the one building, which was essentially one gigantic room at the mundane level.

4. Of course, it requires incessant checking and skepticism and analysis to hold on to reality with this kind of activity, and to avoid succumbing to personal imagination masquerading as psychic inputs. I really like the introduction to McMoneagle’s book on time which discusses some important aspects of the required discipline. (It is very unfortunate, however, that he only addresses the basic cognitive discipline, and not the affective discipline, which is even more important. I suspect that lack of proper affective discipline is a major reason why the kinds of programs he worked on did not really prosper.) I have always felt some contempt for people who live their lives by “hermeneutics” – a kind of word game, devoid of spirit, which seems very sensible and logical if one asumes that there was some initial Text in ancient times which was the Whole Original Truth. But it now occurs to me that there is a kind of hermeneutics of experience, which is not so different in structure, form an abstract point of view. I wonder whether folks like Bishop Berkeley or the Reverend Occam ever talked about that? Or Francis Bacon? (added later: Heidegger?) I am tempted to say more, but there are some bits of knowledge which could be misused. In the end – some of the things I have received this way have been “veridical”(testable), while others could be seen as a way to better use my subconscious mind to reconstruct a deeper picture of what I should have been able to figure out anyway **if** I had made full use of the available information elsewhere. If the picture works, and is a big upgrade from my earlier picture, I don’t worry too much about which type of feedback it was. The majority of what I picked up in Hagia Sophia was like that – really what one should have expected anyway.

5. Prior to Hagia Sophia, I had some discussion of Sufi training and such – both at a Mevlevi Hane (dervish training place) near the tramway, and with Professor Okyay Kaynak, chair of the SMC conference, whom I thank for inviting me. (The trip to Turkey was paid for by IEEE SMC. Not a penny from the US taxpayer. The side trip to Hagia Sofia cost me about $3 each way on pubic transport.) A key question: aside from the training to dance, to make the right physical movements and to know the traditional interpretation of the movements, what still exists of the ancient training methods to discipline and exercise the mind, soul and feelings? The dervishes I talked to felt that most of that was lost, maybe even all of it, at the time of Ataturk. (Ataturk led the Young Turks just after World War I to create modern, secular Turkey.) They understood the need for what Ataturk did, and the damage that fundamentalism and corruption do to real spiritual growth, but maybe not quite as intensely as I do. (I have a stronger feeling for the lessons of the reformation in England, and for some things one sees on Fox News.) Perhaps I will have more discussion with them or their colleagues in the future,

6. Like Isaac Newton and Dan Brown, I have generally assumed that the “great miracles” of the Emperor Constantine, converting to Christianity, were not so different from the later “miracle” when Lenin appointed himself head of the Russian Orthodox Church, or when Henry VIII created the Chruch of England. We were not astounded when the Politburo voted unanimously to accept Lenin’s manifestoes. Likewise, it was no miracle when Constantine’s people voted unanimously to bless Constantine’s edited version of the Bible and to bless his offficial party line. “Render unto Caeser what is Caeser’s”? Long before that, I had several interesting conversations with the older anti-Melkite church, but that’s another story, not for today. Of course, Constantine’s political manuever was inspired in part by what he saw of earlier priest kings, and of certain bishops acquiring power by similar means. Byzantium became the walled city of Constantinople, the capitol of the Eastern Roman Empire from 330AD to 1453AD.

7. I scanned about 4 little guide books or blurbs before going to Hagia Sophia. Only one of the four mentioned that the world headquarters of Orthodox Christianity is in St. George’s, only a little west of the area I explored. They said that a large part of the Byzantine Empire was actually run from Hagia Sophia for a long time, rather than the rundown palaces which were removed when Sultan Mehmet II the Conqueror came in 1453 AD. But actually, The Great Palace was the greatest government center in Byzantine times. There is an archeological park near Hagia Sofia, where the ruins of the Great Palace have been partly excavated. It too had interesting palpable vibes. But in 1202-1261, “Latin invasion,” it was razed to the ground, presumably by crusaders sent there by a jealous church in Rome. It seems there was a triangle of power for many years, from the Great Palace to Hagia Sophia to the Hippodrome (a focus of political parties when these were tolerated). The Great Palace had a beautiful commanding view of the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara, which reminded me of George Washinston’s view of the Potomac – with a similar degree of confidence and competence.

Next: Experience of the Place ==============================

1. As you enter, you first go through a kind of long hall, as broad as the whole front of the massive building, but only about 10 meters or so deep into the interior, with several big openings to the main chamber. Lots of typical poster boards with background for the tourist, but only one – in the center – with unusual information. It basically says: “Here you see a relief image of Jesus Christ the Creator of the Universe, palling around with his buddy the Roman Emperor.” I immediately felt a kind of visceral negative reaction to this, welling up through my viscera. I really doubt that Jesus would have said kind words to folks who would call him the “creator of the Universe.” (After all, wasn’t he the guy who said “I do not do these things of myself, but only the Father does them through me?” And who used the words “lawyers and hypocrites” to certain folks he encountered in other temples, and warned about certain kinds of rich folks? ) My reaction was so sharp and so intense that I immediately damped it down, to avoid going so negative that it would block my sensitivity and create inappropriate side effects. I always remembered the need to maintain balance, in working with the complex thoughts and dynamics of this world. I then thought: “I wouldn’t even begin to let myself get so far out of hand in China, with all its golden calves and pigs and goats. I guess it is especially upsetting when one’s own people do such things.” But then as I stretched, I realized… this was not just my own personal reaction that I was feeling here. In fact, the main essence of this place, from about 1453 to 1920, was a similar horror by even the most enlighted Moslems at precisely what was highlighted, in such dispassionate objective terms, at the entrance here. I looked for thoughts about the foibles which exist within Islam as well, but did not find them here. Not a major theme in this place (though of course there were some Greeks still loyal to their church, visible even in the streets outside).

2. Beyond the thin veneer of later thoughts, the ground floor (the floor of the whole gigantic domed chamber) was pretty much all Justinian’s show. The guidebooks were proud about how quickly the church was built … after the the earlier version built under the Emperor Theodosius was burned to the ground in the Nika rebellion. That sank deeper into my mind as I explored the ground floor. There was a lot of typical average-person piety in the air, which reminded me of one of the better Catholic churches in Munich, but a lot weaker, perhaps because of time. But there was also a lot of clear awareness, perhaps from earlier times, of the “bait and switch” game the Emperor was playing when pretending to be Christian but stifling the real spirit of original Christianity. (It reminded me of the incessant bait and switch games now routine in Washington, and of the folks who tried to sell the Waxman or Kerry-Boxer climate bills by pretending they address our addiction to oil. Such games are played by both parties, but that’s the one which came to mind here.) I asked: were they really aware of the seriousness of letting that bait and switch game go uncontrolled? Of course – that’s real reason why they burned the first version of this church to the ground!

3. Circling around the edges of the big ground floor…back near the entry, a kind of open passageway with a high rounded ceiling, with amazing acoustics I could literally feel before I tested them. And I could tell they were very consciously used in the past. Following tradition somewhat, I began a kind of low humming (low in its mundane component) to resonate and use to probe the area a bit further. Of course, I made sure that the mundane component could not be easily traced to me; mouth closed, sounds from all directions. I could maintain that same resonance all through the rest of my movement around that floor. At points it felt as if I were moving quickly through statue-like clumps of inert tourists, a bit like part of Dan Brown movie or like a science fiction about walking in a lively way through people whose time flow had slowed down.

4. I ran across a couple of interesting small high open corridors to the right of the chamber (from as you enter). One for confident middle level importantly busy clerics, on typical important errands, not the kind where you could tell whether they were Christian or Moslem – all pretty much the same at that level. A less important corridor for more maintenance kinds of people, a bit more aware of what was around them than the clerics. At the far back, some more recognized area without much energy.

5. Back to the entry hallway, on the far left, the wide entry to a gallery passage, a wide winding ramp to to the second floor, a kind of vast balcony overlooking the one great chamber. Near the entry, looking over the ground floor and ahead towards where the old altar had to have been. The feeling here was very different from the feeling on the ground floor. It was basically the same as that in the Washington Cathedral, which reminds me of comfortable jackets and ties and George Bush and prep school. Loyal comfortable burgers. Of course, not complacent; very active, but assured that they were better and more insightful than the average folks. More educated. And of course more aware and proud of their true Greek cultural roots, deeper and more intellectual than the Christian side of their sphere, but still proud to be good charitable people, creating progress in this, the most enlightened center of the most modern and advanced civilization ever. A very, very familiar set of thoughts!

6. Still in the gallery level, closer to the front, still overlooking the altar. The imperial place. And many stages or layers, though flowing together, in that place. (On the whole, Hagia Sophia reminds me of what someone said about Cappadoccia – seven layers of civilization in one place! Sic on the psychic/spiritual level here!) Such a great struggle to try to maintain civilization, and whatever progress one can manage, in the face of so many challenges. And so many unfortunate unavoidable shortcuts. (After having seen China, and how the Emperor Qin approached the issue of achieving peace and order, how much could I complain about these guys here?) It was so unfortunate to have to shut down the more powerful spiritual side of Christianity, but it was necessary, and, besides, those who were really worthy could simply follow the more advanced Greek (and Egyptian) traditions. Later, it was so unfortunate to have to make so many allowances to the growing power of the church as such, and allow restriction of the Greek culture and less freedom even for one’s own cousins… but we all must make some sacrifices to maintian civilization when it is under threat. (Added later: it reminds me a bit of changes in pension rules in France this month – or rather, of a whole set of changes around the world economy today.) But in the end, no matter how hard we struggle … each effort seems to give way to a need for even more compromise… nothing more than prolonging an inescapable long prolonged slide down to the ultimate horror. Could not find any way out.

7. In the same general area – I paused. This was such a center of culture and civilization and of mind and spirit. What could I find at a higher level? In all that time, were there any clearer and more disciplined minds, more like “eagles,” flying high and seeing far, breathing fresh mountain winds? Anyone there? Certainly. What would you make of all this depressing stuff (not so different from the depressing global trends which upset me in the present time, though far less global)? No depression, no worry at all. Great confidence and optimism. (Not what I feel!) Yes, the government structure in Byzantium is on an inevitable long slide, due to things like corruption and lack of vision and various politico-economic forces, but there is a good balance between some fundamental progress in the higher culture here and the development of new nuclei elsewhere which will carryr on. One to the north a few hundred miles away. One towards south and east not so far. (Comment: that’s as much as I got. Beyond that, your guess is as good as mine.) I started to walk away, but came back: “But hey, what about what was lost when the library of Alexandria was burned down?” Laughter. “Don’t worry about that ancient history. We have everything here, and it is all being taken care of.”

8. On the ramp down, I did notice some real special energy around a little holy water fountain in a side corridor.

9. I intended to walk a bit (east?) to more Islamic areas, to see if I could catch a glimpse of later history, at a meditative level, but living people had different conversations to offer, along with apple tea and rugs and so on. I later saw a Rosicrucian cross (but flower next to cross) from 6th to 9th century providing a bit of modest support. From the work of Corbin and others, we already know there was a major Pythagorean (and Stoic and neoPlatonist?) influence in the genesis of Sufis, and a whole lot of constructive interchange at the same time as the bad stuff during the crusades. And I remember Alexander’s letter to Aristotle, in Plutarch’s Lives.

There is more to be said on these themes, but not here and now.

Added Later ================================

To entertain myself in the airport and on the flight, I brought a new paperback novel, Blackout, by Connie Willis, whose writings seem to demonstrate a really acute awareness. This novel talked about historians trying to interrogate past time. It asked – is there a risk that one might actually CHANGE past time?

At, I have posted my paper in the International Journal of Theoretical Physics on backwards time effects. From all I can see in any laboratory experiments, I have arrived at conclusions quite similar to what she calls “estbalished physics of 2060.” It is possible in theory to “affect” the past but not to “change” it. The universe is “able” to minimize its Lagrangian between two time surfaces, even if we humans make it very hard to reconcile them; a solution between two hard-or-reconcile states would basically act like a “weirdness generator,” like the kind of flow of events she depicts with amazing clarity.

But our laboratories today are not the whole realm of physics. Could it be, when we learn more, that we will have to revise this picture a little? Maybe. Certainly beyond the scope of this posting.

As for optimism – even the most far-seeing of us must sometimes rely a lot on hope and faith and waiting for openings.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

sanity as a first step towards enlightenment

We all lead multiple lives. Some of us, like me, have to wear so many different hats that
I have thought about creating a hat closet, and actually wearing them to conferences,
to help people keep it straight when I change hats.

One of my hats is as a scientist, trying to get people to see the way to understanding
and replicate that level of higher intelligence which exists even in the brain of a mouse. Call it the mouse hat. Another hat is as a person, still using what I know from math, but using everything else as well, playing by ear, try to understand and advance higher levels of intelligence,
all the way up to stuff like what Bucke calls "cosmic consciousness." Call it the atman hat.

There are many paths up the mountain... but for a mathematical thinker, at least, the tidiest path is like the slide of a mountain I often show in neural network talks, posted at A key step along the way is to make full, coherent use
of what the human brain is capable of, including a full well-grounded use of words and
other symbols. I call this "sanity." It has a lot to do with what Freud and Confucius
(Kung Fu Tzu) talked about.

But... I realize this morning that I have oversimplified more than I should when discussing
sanity -- for example, in my recent posting here on discussions about Kung Fu Tzu in China.

Usually, I emphasize... what might be called... verbal sanity, or symbolic sanity, the integration
of our symbolic and subsymbolic selves. This is a problem for humans, but not for mice.
Many characteristic neuroses of humans (often totally out of touch with reality in the modern world) simply don't apply to mice. Humans get hypnotized... mice are immune.

But... how could I ever forget to say a few words about "mouse sanity." Mice are not at all
totally free from certain important kinds of sanity problems. After the fox.. their own
'version of post traumatic stress disorder?

It's really weird I should forget that, because when I wear the mouse hat... as in the talks
I gave to the Erdos circle on the mathematics of prediction (posted at I talked a lot about the mathematical mechanism of "syncretism" which underlies this issue.

So the path to cosmic consciousness which I would support... begins with both mouse sanity and
symbolic sanity.

Even mouse sanity requires more gloabl understanding, a necessary requirement for not being
aberrated by painful traumas (filling our world with human psychological minefields,'
unavble to adapt to today's challenges) and euphoric traumas (folks a bit lost
in hopeful unreality)...

But must run...

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

True Legends of Ultrafast Aircraft

Legends have spread that the US has a secret superfast aircraft, about Mach 8, the Aurora, successfully hidden from the rest of the world. The legends I will talk about here are much closer to the truth. I have fictionalized a bit, to protect people’s identities… but those who already know the true story will see past the fiction part.


Chapter 1: An Airplane Without an Engine

I start the story in the 1990’s, when I was visiting a kind of rock concert just outside Nashville Tennessee. (The real story begins much earlier; at the bottom of this blog entry, I have posted my brief space bio, for my election this year to the board of the National Space Society.)

A Hungarian friend of mine introduced me to a real cool cat who was playing the drums,

and told us stories about fireballs and plasmas and how we could use them to make

an airplane so fast it could get all the way to outer space.

(If you think you can guess who the Hungarian is already, you’re probably wrong, unless you were at the rock concert yourself. I know a whole lot of Hungarians in Tennessee,

most of whom would never go to a rock concert.)

When I returned home to Virginia, I went to visit the cool cat one day where he worked –

the NASA Headquarters office in charge of aeronautics and astronautics. Everyone there said he was their “last scientist.” He had lots of serious technical publications out there, enough to do any university proud.

He told me a story. Everyone in the world knew that the fastest airplane ever flown was still just a measley Mach three plus something. Thanks to vigilant oversight by Congress, by aviation leak and others, everyone in this business in the whole world knew the basic story. NASA decided we could do better. We could really show the world by developing an airplane which could go Mach 5 to 6.

Some of you may say – “Wait a minute. Didn’t the space shuttle get to Mach 26,

which really was enough to get into space?” True, but it wasn’t an airplane. It was powered by a rocket engine, which needs to carry its own oxygen, which is expensive and limits performance. We are talking about airplanes here, for now.

Cool cat told me: We know we have to do this at Langley, in Virginia. But Langley has a problem. There is a woman who runs the body department, who proposes that we build an airplane without an engine. The man who runs the engine department proposes that we build an engine without a body. Because they asked me to look over this, on behalf of NASA headquarters, I told them that if they want an airplane to go to Mach 5 or 6, they would need to have an engine and a body both, with the engine in the body.

Later he told me: Congress ruled that I was guilty of gross misuse of authority, in questioning the judgment of the fine people in Langley, based on the obscure and questionable intellectual type assumption that you need an engine in a body to make it work. They have ordered that all the money will go to the woman with the body. Me, I am being sent to Siberia, and you won’t be seeing much of me from now on. I’ll really miss my old house and my old neighborhood…

Chapter 2: Unveiling What Was Achieved

A few years later, the top experts on high-speed aircraft from every major nation on

earth came to a closed meeting in Tennessee, to reveal their progress to each other.

I got to observe, in the peanut gallery, because I knew the Hungarian, and had funded some stuff.

Almost all the speakers were very embarrassed about the state of their programs. Programs had been cut back or cancelled all over the world. They had lots of paper studies and wish lists, but nothing was being built. The two big exceptions were Japan and the US.

The Japanese guys said – we have actually developed a viable new engine, the Atrex, which can go from Mach 0 to Mach 6, in one engine. Here are photographs of it. But we have a big problem. How can we test this engine? We have had some thoughts, like putting it on top of a fast train, or shooting it from a cannon, or hanging it at the end of a very long string which we could rock back and forth. But these would not be perfect solutions. We come here to ask one question: can anyone help us here? Does anyone have any better ideas how to test such an engine?

The US speaker proudly unveiled a Mach 5.5 airframe, and described HIS plans.

“We do have a bit of a problem testing this body. But we believe that the real issue in flying this kind of advanced body is to prove we can keep it stable as we go from zero speed to 100 or 200 miles per hour. For that, we have contracted with a maker of lawn mower engines in the MidWest, and we will be doing tests very soon to prove that we have a real breakthrough in stable control here. The real body design is scaled for 23 feet,

but we have an eight foot scale model suitable for that test.”

Finally, even though I was in peanut gallery, I couldn’t help myself. I raised my hand and said: “Look, guys, I am not an aerospace engineer here, but I do have a question. You (nodding to the Japanese) say you would like a better way to test your engine, and you (nodding to the US speaker) say there are some issues in testing your airframe up to Mach 6. To make these tests… has anyone considered putting the engine in the body,

to see if they could actually fly? At Mach 5 or Mach 6?”

There was great excitement in the room. What a wild, out of the box idea – putting the engine in the body, to test them both! Everyone adjourned to a nearby restaurant, where people sat around me, and started to consider plans.

But then, in walked The General. The general was a famous guy, who had made his reputation on how well he defended the National Aerospace Plane (NASP) project, which had been cancelled a few years earlier. The General stood high, looking down on us and the tables where we were working with a severe frown: “You all are engaged in SPECULATION. I say it again… SPECULATION. You know what that means.”

Suddenly the folks who had been smiling gave furtive fearful looks at me, signaling “oh my god, what you dragged me into…”. Everyone knew what a crime it would

be to be caught in the act of speculation. “It’s speculation, because you have no idea whether this engine would actually fit in this body.”

After a moment of silence and interesting face expressions, I said: “Actually, general,

there is no need for people to speculate on that issue here, one way or the other. Didn’t you guys (nodding to the Japanese) show us actually physical blueprints, with size and shape? Didn’t you guys (pointing to the US official team) do the same? Couldn’t you just compare those blueprints which you have with you right now, from your presentations?”

One more moment of stunned surprise and delight. “Wow, let’s do it.” They pulled out

their stuff.. and found it was an exact match, as if the two had been designed for each other. The Air Force was ready to schedule wind tunnel tests immediately. The Hungarian noted that it would take only a few million dollars to build the full 23 foot version, out of the metal matrix composite materials it was designed for. Not bad for breaking the world’s speed record with a real airplane.

But then… in walked the Friend of Al, with flashing dark eyes and a smile that could

remind you of an alligator at this time. “Wait a minute, you guys. Do you realize what you guys are engaging in? It’s called international cooperation. And you know who is in charge of international cooperation. NOT YOU GUYS. You wouldn’t want to cross the White House, would you? None of you should do anything at all about this, until and unless we discuss it in the White House and get a full clearance. What’s more, this is such an important issue, that it has to be a really high level meeting, with security. No

people without security clearances and high official status (glare at me) will be invited, to screw things up.”

After the meeting, a verdict was handed down: “It is a great insult to the fine leading aerospace companies in the US to suggest that the Japanese could build an engine that the US industry can’t. Also, there are political sensitivities about cooperating with the Japanese on advanced aircraft, given what Mitsubishi did to us in the past. We will postpone this project until after we have a suitable US-built engine available.” Which never happened.

Chapter 3: Quick Summary of Later Stuff

This was certainly not the end of the story, but I don’t have time today to go through all the major events flowing from there.

There was a creepy story about a woman WITHOUT a body, or at least no awareness of such.

There was more on the Atrex engine. Turns out, it was actually designed by a Russian guy, Belapin, who was invited to Japan for only five years. He understood what he was doing very deeply, much more deeply than most of our hands-on kinds of folks. When he left, they couldn’t figure out how to control the valves well enough to get beyond Mach 4. We could have told them how… but the Duke of the North of Japan got into a cat fight

with a Jewish investor from New York, both reliving The Old Days, and I am more interested in Mach 26 anyway.

From NSF, I funded a major project at ANSER and Princeton on ways to use plasma effects to make it easier to build a Mach 26 airplane. After awhile, I began to understand why some of the key folks at NASP had been pushing to get real flight data at lower speeds, to make their efforts real. Above all – I learned that Mach 26 kinds of speeds require really radical upgrades to body material and skin layers. (Maybe what we REALLY needed was a better body after all… much better than what the woman in Langley had.). The best hope of building a real, working, affordable Mach 26 airplane is “back to the future:” to build a reusable rocketplane, first, using skin technology developed years before by Boeing, through CIA contracts years ago. The technology has been declassified, but is close to being lost (if not lost already) through lack of use. The deeply classified but much publicized X37B rocketplane does provide a useful test of some related technology, including some competing technology for the skin… but for now, it looks as if it will be a whole lot more expensive, and may require a whole lot more maintenance, like the space shuttle.

Bottom line: it now looks very grim for the future of humans in space. Or on earth, for that matter. But there is still some hope… somewhere… I wish I really knew where.,,


Candidate Statement for Paul Werbos

For decades, I have worked to make human activity in space economically self-sustaining, with “multiplier effects” which make space more than just a” banana republic.” Space must open up big new markets. We must cut the cost of access to space to $200/pound. (That drives the economics of energy from space and the scale of other markets.) We need dogged efforts to connect the requirements all the way from nuts and bolts to global policies and politics.

In 1972, while getting a PhD from Harvard in Applied Math, I started the Harvard Committee for a Space Economy (HCSE). HCSE stimulated many new ideas. It provided a start for Mark Hopkins, and links to the Princeton group (O’Neill) and Drexler. George Mueller’s vision for the space shuttle inspired us, but Nixon’s response illustrated pitfalls in politics.

Teaching at U. Maryland (1975-1978), I included space in my course on Global Survival Problems, where I met Gary Barnhardt. With another friend, we founded the Maryland Alliance for Space Colonization, which got up to 500 members.

From 1979-1989, I became the DOE/EIA lead analyst for long-term energy futures. As Regional Director for L-5, I worked with chapters from New Jersey to the Piedmont. I served quietly but effectively as L-5’s representative to Congress, helping start the National Aerospace Plane Project (NASP). After my DOE colleague Gary Oleson became representative, I worked with him on a council of pro-space organizations leading to the founding of NSS.

Through 2010, I funded research from the Engineering Directorate of NSF. I funded AAC in Tennessee to apply computational intelligence to problems which plagued NASP. Based on their success, AAC briefly led America’s continuing effort in hypersonics (LoFlyte) after NASP cancellation. I cooperated with McDonnell Douglas, leading to the Handbook of Intelligent Control (White and Sofge), yielding methods to mass-produce materials for hypersonics and reduce the weight of thermal protection systems. I funded efforts to assimilate and improve a Russian approach (“Ajax”) to air-breathing vehicles fast enough to get to orbit. In 2002, I visited John Mankins, who agreed to “JIETSSP” – the last US government funding program for space solar power, which we ran jointly. (To learn more, search on JIETSSP at, or visit In 2009, I worked at the Senate on climate, energy, defense technology and space. Futures published my paper on a rational strategy to maximize the probability that humans really succeed in settling space.