The Coming Energy Internet

Over at ThomasNet Green & Clean, I’ve posted “Is an ‘Energy Internet’ Emerging?” I’ve included some insights from networking pioneer Bob Metcalfe, also Thomas L. Friedman and Jeremy Rifkin, as well as my own thinking about the increasingly networked energy grid.

In an email conversation, Metcalfe acknowledged to me that “energy can be viewed as a thermodynamics problem or a government policy problem,” but he thinks that ultimately  “it’s best instead to view energy as a networking problem.”

In a presentation, he gives a bit of history:

“While building Internet 1.0, the Arpanet,” during the 1970s, Metcalfe says in his presentation, “I remember this clearly, we did not say that our goal was YouTube.” And yet, “video is most of what the Internet now carries.”

So, he asks,

What will be energy’s YouTubes?

AB — 5 June 2011

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Undo: One of the Greatest Innovations in Computing

The Undo function — a life-saver.

From “Behavioral issues in the use of interactive systems,” Lance A. Miller and John C. Thomas, International Journal of Man-Machine Studies, Sept. 1977:

A more complex situation, however, occurs … when a user wishes to “undo” the effects of some number of prior commands — as, for example, when a user inadvertently deletes all personal files. Recovery from such situations is handled by most systems by providing “back-up” copies of (all) users’ files, from which a user can get restored the personal files as they were some days previous. While this is perhaps acceptable for catastrophic errors, it would be quite useful to permit users to “take back” at least the immediately preceding command (by issuing some special “undo” command).

Now if they would only invent an Undo button for one’s personal life.

AB — 15 April 2011

El vaquero y el río congelado

by Al Bredenberg

Paramos allí en la orilla del río, yo y la vaca, Grateful. Confundido, yo estaba mirando en alrededor, buscando el lugar de dar a beber la vaca sedienta, pero no pude ver el lugar. El problema: ¡El río estaba cubierto por una capa gruesa del hielo!

De repente, la vaca empezó a actuar nerviosa y de abordar al río. “¡No, Grateful!” dije a ella, pero ella no prestó atención, y ¡comenzó a pisar al río congelado! Con un creciendo sentido de pánico, yo pisé también al hielo para tratar de desviarla de la peligrosa situación. “¡Ay-ay-ay!” pensé. “¿Qué va pasar si se quebranta el hielo?”

Traté de empujar la vaca hacía la orilla, pero una vaca es un animal bien grande, y ella no se desvió, y lo que era más, comenzó a caminar adelante en el hielo.

“¡Grateful, párate!” grité, y en ese momento ¡la vaca empezó a correr! En un pánico total, empecé a perseguirla, gritando.

Pero, ¿cómo llegué a estar en esa situación, corriendo atrás de una vaca grande por un río congelado en el invierno? Voy a explicar, y también voy a recordar una lección que aprendí acerca de las capacidades de los animales.

A la edad de 24 años, me mudé al estado de Vermont, Estados Unidos, para vivir con unos amigos en su granja en el campo al lado de un río hermoso. Durante los días, ayudaba a ellos en su negocio de ebanista. Muy de mañana y por la noche, cuidamos a los quehaceres, incluso alimentar y ordeñar la vaca Grateful, que nos proveyó con mucha leche rica.

Grateful era una vaca de mayor edad que mis amigos han adquirido de un lechero del área. Ella recibió su nombre “Grateful” (inglés, “agradecida”) porque ella tenía solamente tres tetas y por eso proveyera menos leche. Pero a pesar de eso, ¡no la han matado por carne!

Desafortunadamente, el agua de la casa dejó de funcionar durante el invierno por causa del frío intenso. Pues decidimos de dar a beber a la vaca en el río a unos ciento metros de distancia del establo. Dejamos una hacha en la orilla para excavar un hoyo en el hielo cada noche para exponer el agua por la vaca sedienta.

Pero, durante unas semanas, yo acepté la asignación de cuidar a la vaca durante la mañana, y otra persona la daba a beber en las noches.

La noche en que ocurrió el incidente que mencioné anteriormente, todos mis compañeros estaban trabajando tarde, pues se cayó a mí de cuidar a Grateful.

Pero, cuando llegamos al río, descubrí que mis compañeros habían movido el lugar para dar a beber. Yo busqué todo alrededor, pero no pude ver el hoyo en el hielo ni el hacha para cortar el hielo.

Entonces, ¡esta vaca loca estaba caminando en el hielo, determinada para seguir adelante, sin prestar atención al ser humano persiguiéndola, gritando!

Bueno, con gran temor, continué corriendo atrás de Grateful por uno o dos minutos, impotente de hacer nada, esperando que el hielo grueso pudiera sostener la vaca pesada.

Pero sorprendentemente, después de unos minutos, Grateful empezó a minorarse, y entonces ella regresó a la orilla en una manera muy calma, y me esperó. ¡Aparentemente, después de todo, no estuviéramos pasando por una estampida!

Resollando, calmándome, yo miré alrededor, y en ese lugar más adelante al lado del río, vi varios montones de estiércol de vaca, un hoyo en el río, y el hacha apoyándose en un árbol.

En ese momento comprendí de que durante las semanas pasadas, mis compañeros, sin informarme, habían cambiado el lugar por dar a beber la vaca. Este lugar estaba más adelante en la orilla. Pero, llegué a entender que la vaca recordó perfectamente el lugar correcto y simplemente había tratado de llegar allí a pesar de la tontedad de su ayudante humano.

Yo grabé el hacha, y comencé a cortar la capa fina de hielo en el hoyo para permitir de beber la pobrecita vaca sedienta.

Pero, al la misma vez, ocurrió a mí una realización y lección: ¡Muchas veces, los animales son más inteligentes que pensamos!

AB — 18 enero 2011

Why People Don’t Believe Scientists Even When There Is ‘Consensus’

An interesting study, soon to appear in the Journal of Risk Research, by Yale law professor Dan M. Kahan and colleagues, suggests that people tend to disbelieve scientists whose cultural values are different than theirs.

I’m not able to determine when this study will be published, but you can find an abstract at this link, and I was able to download a preliminary version of the whole article in PDF by clicking on the link on that page that says “One-Click Download.”

These conclusions shed light on the debate over anthropogenic climate change, Kahan tells Science Daily (“Why ‘Scientific Consensus’ Fails to Persuade“):

We know from previous research that people with individualistic values, who have a strong attachment to commerce and industry, tend to be skeptical of claimed environmental risks, while people with egalitarian values, who resent economic inequality, tend to believe that commerce and industry harms the environment.

(For more on the climate-change controversy, see my previous entry, “John Abraham’s Point-by-Point Rebuttal of Climate-Skeptic Monckton.”

Kahan and colleagues based their study on the theory of the cultural cognition of risk. In his paper, Kahan says this theory “posits a collection of psychological mechanisms that dispose individuals selectively to credit or dismiss evidence of risk in patterns that fit values they share with others.”

The researchers surveyed a representative sample of 1,500 U.S. adults. They divided this sample into groups with opposite cultural worldviews, some favoring hierarchy and individualism, the others favoring egalitarianism and communitarianism.

They surveyed the respondents to determine their beliefs about what in fact is the scientific consensus on issues of climate change, disposal of nuclear waste, and concealed handguns, with particular focus on the associated levels of risk in each of those areas. Various statements were attributed to fictional personas portrayed as authors of books on these various issues. Respondents were asked to judge whether each author is really an expert or not.

Analysis of the results on the climate-change issue revealed that:

Disagreement was sharp among individuals identified (through median splits along both dimensions of cultural worldview) as “hierarchical individualists,” on the one hand, and “egalitarian communitarians,” on the other. Solid majorities of egalitarian communitarians perceived that most expert scientists agree that global warming is occurring (78%) and that it has an anthropogenic source (68%). In contrast, 56% of hierarchical individualists believe that scientists are divided, and another 25% (as opposed to 2% for egalitarian communitarians) that most expert scientists disagree that global temperatures are increas-ing. Likewise, a majority of hierarchical individualists, 55%, believed that most expert scientists are divided on whether humans are causing global warming, with another 32% perceiving that most expert scientists disagree with this conclusion.

The study revealed similar results around the issues of geologic isolation of nuclear wastes and concealed-carry laws.

So should we conclude that people are going to believe what they want to believe, and that’s all there is to it? The authors make an interesting statement about the implications for public presentation of scientific findings:

It is not enough to assure that scientifically sound information — including evidence of what scientists themselves believe — is widely disseminated: cultural cognition strongly motivates individuals — of all worldviews — to recognize such information as sound in a selective pattern that reinforces their cultural predispositions. To overcome this effect, communicators must attend to the cultural meaning as well as the scientific content of information.

The report suggests some ways that cultural meaning might be considered in communicating with the public. One such strategy is what the authors call narrative framing:

Individuals tend to assimilate information by fitting it to pre-existing narrative templates or schemes that invest the information with meaning. The elements of these narrative templates — the identity of the stock heroes and villains, the nature of their dramatic struggles, and the moral stakes of their engagement with one another — vary in identifiable and recurring ways across cultural groups. By crafting messages to evoke narrative templates that are culturally congenial to target audiences, risk communicators can help to assure that the content of the information they are imparting receives considered attention across diverse cultural groups.

AB — 24 Sept. 2010

‘Quriosity’ Is Dead – Long Live ‘A Thinking Person’

Readers of Quriosity.com will be interested to learn that I have sold that domain (someone made me an offer I couldn’t refuse). As a result, I have transferred all Quriosity content to the new domain and blog AThinkingPerson.com.

You’ll be glad to know that A Thinking Person will continue to publish the same brilliant commentary you have come to expect from Quriosity.

The new RSS feed address for A Thinking Person is https://athinkingperson.com/feed/ .

AB — 14 September 2010

John the Baptist’s Bones and BBC’s Quotation Marks

A BBC article today (3 August 2010) highlights the discovery of a small box of bones reputed to be the remains of John the Baptizer, who announced Jesus’ appearance as Messiah and baptized him, and who was later executed by Herod Antipas — see “Remains of St John the Baptist ‘found’.”

I’m always intrigued by archaeological discoveries that relate to Biblical accounts. The article includes a video showing the find, and it’s interesting to watch (aside from some silly clerical comments about the find’s significance).

But more than anything, what this article brought to mind was the frequent and peculiar use of quotation marks (or single quotation marks, more accurately) by BBC’s headline writers. Look at the headline again:

Remains of St John the Baptist ‘found’

Now in standard written American English, a writer would most often use quotation marks in this way to express irony or skepticism. (For example, “My neighbor plays that ‘music’ too loud,” perhaps referring to rap or heavy metal.)

But in the case of the story about John’s bones, what is the headline writer skeptical about? Maybe the writer is doubtful that these bones were really ‘found’? Perhaps the writer suspects that some Orthodox priest fabricated them?

I’ve noticed other puzzling uses of quotation marks in BBC headlines. Here are some examples:

  • BP ready to plug ‘biggest leak’
  • ‘Ground Zero mosque’ moves closer
  • State ‘can challenge health law’
  • Paraguay star Cabanas ‘recalls little’ of shooting
  • Schumacher ‘almost disqualified’

My best guess would be that this practice has something to do with attribution —  the headline writer is limited by a certain number of characters, but doesn’t want to stick his neck out by actually calling the Cordoba House cultural center “the Ground Zero mosque.” So he has decided to put quotation marks around the phrase to indicate that other people are calling it the Ground Zero mosque but that he doesn’t feel comfortable calling it that.

I’ll bet this practice has been thrashed out after many days of argument at the BBC offices.

After a little investigation I have found that quotation marks used to express irony or skepticism are called “scare quotes.” The gestural version is called “air quotes.” Somehow in all my years as a writer and English student, I have never come across these terms. See the Wikipedia article about “Scare quotes.”

The Wikipedia editors write that, besides denoting irony or skepticism, scare quotes can “serve to distance the writer from the quoted content” and to “convey a neutral attitude on the part of the writer, while distancing the writer from the terminology in question.”

This could be the BBC’s reasoning for the odd way it uses single quotation marks in its headlines. (These might be called “inverted commas” in the hallowed halls of the BBC.)

I also found a useful discussion of the BBC headline conundrum at Wordwizard, a surprisingly active discussion forum dedicated to English words and usage — see “The BBC’s use of quotation marks.” In the discussion, which took place in December 2009, Erik Kowal shares these insights:

This habit of the BBC’s web writers is difficult to understand. I presume that sometimes they are quoting someone without direct attribution, but this does not explain why they do it when the facts described within quotation marks are unquestionable and do not need to be signalled as being opinions or unchecked assertions (which the BBC should not be basing its news stories on in any case).

The practice makes it appear as though the BBC has no confidence in its own reporting, or that it is suggesting that its sources are not to be trusted. Regardless, it is highly irritating and even patronizing.

It also reminds me of the equally annoying habit that some people have of giving capitals For No Real Reason to Certain Words they feel are Particularly Important.

AB — 3 August 2010

Which evil and crazy movements have the potential to scale?

Which evil and crazy movements have the potential to scale?

There’s plenty of craziness in the world. But evil only has widespread effect if it finds a way to scale, as in Nazi Germany, Rwanda, and Al Qaeda.

So, my questions are,

What are the factors that allow evil movements to reach scale?

What are the crazy movements today that have the potential to scale and create havoc?

AB — 29 June 2010