July 31, 2010

A great grandmother

Grandmother 100 yearsYesterday I attended my grandmothers 100 year birthday.

She is a spry former gymnastics teacher, she is one of the constants of the family. She was one of the first women in Sweden to get a drivers licence, participated in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, outlived the Soviet union and seems to have been teacher to everybody in Vadstena. She taught me table manners, never to complain and to stand straight.

In Sweden there are about 1600 centenarians, so it is perhaps unsurprising that the congratulatory telegram from the king is pretty short and impersonal. Just in her little town there are three other centenarians (about 7 times the average density). Given the exponential growth of centenarians I expect this was just the first such birthday party I will attend.

Her life demonstrates quite impressively how we are outliving institutions, nations and cultural mores - as we get better life extension we are going to get even more cultural diversity among the elderly.

Posted by Anders3 at 11:41 AM | Comments (0)

July 30, 2010

Long fuses can turn nice risks embarassing

Silly signsThe paper Long-term impact risk for (101955) 1999 RQ36 by Milani et al. has caused the usual we're all doomed, maybe, in the future reactions.

Asteroid risks are among the "nicest" global catastrophic risks. They follow fairly predictable orbits that can be extrapolated far in advance, and the only kind of uncertainty is parameter uncertainty of exactly the orbit, the size of perturbations like the Yarkovsky effect and of course being aware that a risky asteroid is there - there doesn't seem to be any unknown laws of nature happening here. Even better, asteroid sizes follow a pretty steep power law and the danger from an impact becomes significant just for fairly large impacts. While we might be suffering from an anthropic shadow if we look at impact craters we have astronomical observations on other bodies and of free space NEOs to callibrate our risk estimates.

The interesting aspect of 1999 RQ36 is the relatively high total impact probability of 1 in 1000 given current data, and the far data of highest collision risk, 2182. In this kind of long-term prediction getting accurate data in the near future might not reduce far future uncertainty: even if the current orbit is perfectly determined, the uncertain Yarkovsky effect will make the 2182 prediction uncertain.

Another aspect is that deflecting the asteroid away from the "keyholes" it needs to pass through during a series of passes 2060-2080 is relatively easy (it needs to be moved about one kilometer to the side, within the technology we have today), but afterwards deflection becomes much harder. This suggests that there is a (soft) time limit to fixing a potential problem. The authors note:

The current impact monitoring covers a time span of about a century. If this were to continue, and the asteroid 1999 RQ36 were indeed on a collision course for 2182, then the warning about this would be issued only in 2082, that is at a time when the opportunity to deflect with requirements compatible with current technology would already be expired. To extend the predictability horizon of impact monitoring seems to us to be a better solution, at least economically, than waiting for future and hypothetical technological advances.

But extending the predictability horizon may be very hard for some asteroids; this one probably is well-behaved enough that knowing its thermal properties would be enough to tell whether it ought to be deflected, but it is not impossible that there are others that are too chaotic to be predicted far in advance yet end up with hard-to-shift orbits.

Of course, as a technological optimist I have full confidence in that we as a species could develop good asteroid pushing technology if we felt we had to. It is just that this motivation probably declines exponentially with time distance. If 1999 RQ36 was going to hit in ten years the effort would likely be massive, but if we can delay any effort (and costs) to 2070 or so we will likely do it. I expect technological capability to grow exponentially over this time so maybe this is for the best. But the logic of procrastination may well be strong enough to avoid doing anything by 2080 - after all, there is a century of time left. Then a decade, then a year and then nothing at all.

However, delaying can be smart if the necessary technology becomes cheaper and more groups have access. It only takes one group to jostle the asteroid out of the dangerous orbit to fix the problem. The more groups who can act, the more likely that one might do it (unless there is a very strong dilution of responsibility effect). If lifespans increase we should also expect a lower discounting of the far future, although this might still not be enough. We might even become better at avoiding collective procrastination, although so far we have no historical data to base this hope on. And of course, we are likely to be richer and hence better able to handle sudden costs or the need for building resiliency.

Global catastrophic risks with a very long fuse might be predictable but hard to fix even when the cost of doing it is low. It would be embarrassing if we suffered from such an event that had been predicted more than a century before.

Posted by Anders3 at 10:46 PM | Comments (0)

July 17, 2010

Unethical design?

The party is overIo9 had a post, Can we turn garbage island into an eco-paradise? relating to the Recycled Island project of some design firm. The idea is to take the floating plastic of the Pacific garbage patch and turn it into a self-sustaining floating island.

The whole thing is of course in the concept phase. Where it will remain forever.

The reason is that there is only about 5 kg of plastic per square kilometre in the gyre. To make anything sizeable a ridiculous amount of seawater needs to be filtered, at a noticeable economic and ecological cost (filtering out all the plastic is going to filter out all the plankton too). To make a 2 ton boat of recycled plastic (a more sensible and real idea) 400 square kilometres need to be *completely* cleaned. The patch might have enough material for a few thousand such boats, but it seems doubtful that it would be plentiful enough for building an eco-utopia.

But this doesn't matter much to the proposer, since the main point seems to be to make a cool, green project rather than solving the problem. I have earlier ranted a bit about how many designers love to come up with green designs that will never have the least environmental impact but provide them with social gratification. But this project got me one notch more annoyed.

Note the initial picture used by Io9, showing the boy boating through a garbage filled lake. That contributes to the idea that the garbage patch is a near-solid near-island, and makes the idea that it could all be piled together into a colourful island seem plausible. The pictures on the site are equally suggestive of an ocean clogged with a thick soup of confetti. The reality is utterly different and much harder to deal with - tiny neutrally buoyant fragments involved with complex ecological changes. The site also brings in climate refugees, a notion most migration experts find somewhat problematic, apparently hinting that they could be resettled on the recycled island (or maybe suggesting that getting rid of the plastic will somehow help fix the climate). The whole project promotes an oversimplified view that doesn't address the real problems.

Anab Jain's keynote speech on LIFT10 about the evolving role designer suggested that the designer could be a facilitator rather than just a form creator. Design interaction may be able to get around ludic fallacies and other biases, to entice people to explore scenarios and actually reveal their desires. I think this is true. But if a good interaction with a speculative design scenario might help us solve or understand problems, then bad interactions might actually make us *less* able to solve and understand.

Consider a well-crafted design concept for how to fight the explosive rise of street crime by elegant, organic street lamps doubling as violence detectors that spray soothing pheromones over troublemakers. The site is well crafted, making these fictional street lamps look utterly plausible. There are interview clips with people from this scenario discussing the pros and cons of the "peacelights". It get coverage in a lot of media. Is this a good use of design? I would argue it is the opposite. Street crime is, despite popular perceptions, falling in most developed countries. The peacelights are fictional, but people encountering the believable design might think they are indeed a realistic product. The practice of chemically controlling the public for social ends is presented as desirable (since otherwise the whole project would be pointless), with dissenting voices only suitably dissenting. As time goes, the project will be recounted in other media and between people with no reference to the real origin, turning into a story that is taken at face value (consider how many places the BT "soulcatcher chip" crops up in as a real story these days, despite being a joke remark at the end of a seminar). There is no real interactivity since the core of the project was set up to produce the nice website, and this has already set a strong bias towards the views of the creators.

The above fictional example would be a case where design contributes to making problems less solvable, blurring fact and fiction in a way that detracts rather than helps finding solutions. Insofar design can help solve problems, it must also - at least among conscientious designers - be used in an ethical manner so that it does not promote oversimplified, irrelevant or erroneous solutions. No matter how appealing they look - or rather, the more appealing the design is, the higher the ethical standards it need to aim for.

Posted by Anders3 at 02:56 PM | Comments (0)