Memia on Sunday 3-Apr-2022: blast from the Oblast🇺🇦// doomed to choose?🤔// perovskites: solar 3.0☀️// OS archaeology📜// deepstore⚒️//AI-generated prankster🤖
Put bacon in a thimble.
Greetings from the Interislander ferry Kaitaki where I’m writing this… this week I’ve been travelling between Ōtautahi to Te Whanganui-a-Tara and back - but for a change not getting on a plane. Apart from the *4 hour plus* ferry delays in both directions (gonna be a shock when the tourists return, eh…), it’s been very smooth travelling and a refreshing change from airports and Ubers. Most importantly, I’ve been able to work productively as normal and attend the usual stack of Zoom meetings without any disruptions - a taste of the modern digital nomad lifestyle, more tangible now than ever. Note to self: do more of this.
(The voyage through the Marlborough Sounds is still as spectacular as it was the very first time I visited Aotearoa on my OE from the UK back in 1998, here’s the view coming into Picton yesterday, never get tired of this):
In today’s Memia on Sunday, the regular digest of thinking and interesting links I’ve come across in the last week:
Gmail’s 18th birthday
Small World: David Skilling’s latest Small World post: are small states like Aotearoa the canaries in the mine of the current global geopolitical conflict?
Solar 3.0: Perovskite, a new solar power wonder-material
AI, neuroscience and architecture: Jeff Hawkins goes lateral
The weird history of non-C operating systems
Helical engine: science (fiction)
Deepstore: things to do with a 150m deep saltmine
Bone writing: the earliest human symbol ever found?
GPT-3-generated April Fools pranks from the excellent Janelle Shane
And my vote for the latest trending TikTok genre: Islamic-American slapstick.
Read on… opened up to all readers again this weekend…reminder, if you enjoy these Memia newsletters please consider upgrading to a paid subscription to keep me topped up with long macchiatos and hoppy IPAs through the winter (for corporate subscriptions, get in touch directly).
🇺🇦Blast from the Oblast
Firstly, as mentioned on Wednesday I’m taking a break for compulsively tracking the hour-to-hour Ukraine invasion news. However, just chronicling here two key events from the last few days as Russia apparently retreats from northern Ukraine (but doubles down in the East…). #standwithukraine
“Special Military Operation Phase 1” aftermath:
It appears that Russian troops have now been pushed out of Kyiv Oblast (administrative region) - the @ukrainemapbot account is a raw feed of edits to Wikipedia's Ukraine war map (Tweet text = edit description):18:39, 1 April 2022 Arrows, Russia has completely withdrawn from Kyiv Oblast per Ukraine. Update North West Kherson, Ukrainian counterattack claimed recapturing villages in the northern border.
Ukraine strikes back:Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think this is the first air strike by a foreign country in Russian (or Soviet) territory since World War II.
Rob Lee @RALee85Video of the two Ukrainian Mi-24 helicopters striking the oil storage facility in Belgorod with rockets. https://t.co/4Lt5l1Xc3S https://t.co/d5zj4GWjou
Truly unprecedented times - in particular to have this information, video footage and analysis propagating around most of the world in seconds… the Swarm may yet be the West’s decisive advantage in this and future conflicts. (Or the other way around…)
A selection of links for Sunday reading, listening and watching:
On this day…
Gmail was launched 18 years ago…2
Doomed to choose?
Landfall Strategy Group principal David Skilling’s blog Small World is an increasingly authoritative source of strategic insight for the world’s “small advanced economies” (read: Singapore, Netherlands, Ireland, Aotearoa, Nordics and, to a degree, Australia…).
His latest piece Doomed to Choose looks at the way that smaller states are “the canaries in the mine of the global system”: being squeezed towards alignment with one or other superpower by the current Russia/Ukraine crisis:
“The events of the past month represent a rupture in the global system, accelerating global fragmentation. Countries will increasingly coalesce around poles in the global system. It is likely that there will be a process of tightening up around ‘Western-aligned’ countries, a more pronounced decoupling of China (and Russia), as well as states trying to balance between the West and China (and Russia). Choices are being forced.”
Of particular note, military spending among some of these states who are more practiced in foresight increased significantly in recent years…
Hard choices ahead for Aotearoa and Ireland in particular:
In New Zealand and Ireland, countries that share similar sensibilities and policy approaches, parallel debates are underway. Both have used geographic peripherality as a hedge against membership of formal alliances: Ireland has a tradition of military neutrality and is not a NATO member; and New Zealand unilaterally broke with ANZUS in the 1980s and prides itself on an independent foreign policy.
But New Zealand has just passed legislation allowing it to impose economic sanctions on Russia; and Ireland is actively debating the sustainability of its current stance. Over time, both are increasingly likely to make choices that move their policy approaches closer to their respective neighbours. This is complicated for New Zealand by its substantial economic relationship with China…a fragmenting global economy is likely to require hard choices to be made with respect to exposures to China…
…small advanced economies are ‘doomed to choose’: small economies cannot be competitive in everything...Uncomfortable and costly though it is, hard strategic choices need to be made.”
On-point, pragmatic analysis as always, recommended to subscribe.
In particular, I’m left wondering if David has struck upon the genesis of an “axis of alignment” between these small states he focuses on: potentially a “third pole” in the future multi-polar system, tied together by common values and interests rather than contiguous territory. Is it possible to maintain and enhance the “rules based order” among these small states - effectively creating a geographically distributed “network of states” which can leverage its scale to influence the stomping elephant superpowers?
☀️Perovskites: Solar 3.0
From geopolitics to materials science…
Perovskites are a class of mineral compounds which have the same crystal structure as Calcium Titanium Oxide - eg conforming to the abstract chemical formula ABX3.
Synthetic perovskites have been identified as a possible low-cost replacement material in high-efficiency photovoltaic solar cells. In particular, they can be manufactured using thin-film solar manufacturing techniques - estimated 15X per watt lower cost than traditional silicon solar panels. You could wrap entire buildings with these films.
Solar energy innovators are stacking perovskite layers on top of each other which are chemically tuned to absorb energy from different parts of the solar spectrum - increasing the solar efficiency limit from 30% to potentially over 45% in some cases.
Check out this video from Electric Future which goes into the details - the key will be to prove the durability of these materials so that they can last >25 years in real world applications…
🧠AI, neuroscience and architecture
The latest appearance below from Jeff Hawkins discussing his “Thousand Brains” theory of intelligence at the DigitalFutures architecture conference even at the end of February.
If you’re already familiar with Hawkins’ work then you can probably skip over the first half of his talk - however there’s a very insightful extended Q&A from about 1 hour in, with questions about AI, neuroscience and architecture from participants all around the world. (Noted by Jeff: “We need more global thinking”).
Two particular highlights for me:
1:29 in: A discussion of how “consciousness” might work in the human brain, given Hawkins’ “Thousand Minds” theory of cortical columns : what is the connection between the neocortex (~150,000 cortical columns) and consciousness. Hawkins’ current theory relates to the hippocampus - effectively operating as a “buffer” of episodic, recent short term memories - to be “conscious” of something is to “have a memory of that thing”. Information needs to be able to get from the cortex to the hippocampus, or you will just not be able to remember it… and hence have no consciousness of it.
“If there is a memory of it and I can recall it, then I will be conscious of it.”
1:56 in: Jeff considers the opportunities for enhancing human mental performance - instead of nootropics or artificial brain implants, he expects that rapid advances in genetic manipulation and the ability to modify human genes using CRISPR make the most likely avenue for increasing / changing the function and capacity of the human brain will be through genetic engineering of offspring. Possibly very soon…
Related, the latest paper from Numenta, Jeff’s machine intelligence research company if you enjoy getting technical:
Two Sparsities Are Better Than One: Unlocking the Performance Benefits of Sparse-Sparse Networks.
Given how much influence and power software has over our lives today, the history of computer operating systems and programming languages is a fascinating subject I want to go and delve deeper into when I have the time. But first, just at intro links stage:
HP has an informative Timeline of Computer Programming Languages together with onwards links.
The Register: The weird world of non-C computer operating systems - an archaeological survey across the weird and wonderful history of OSes, built in underlying languages other than C. Uncovering obscure evolutionary branches built upon ALGOL, C++, Pascal and its “Wirthian” successor Modulo, Oberon, Euclid and more modern-day approaches built on LISP and its derivatives, including the intriguing Urbit project:
“Computer hardware is technology yet very few people can design their own processor, or build a graphics card. But software is a form of culture… Most people live and work in the cultures that are Unix and Windows and if they are all you've ever known, or know best, then it's easy to think they are the whole world. But that doesn't make it true.”
Back in 2018, maverick NASA engineer David Burns produced a Helical Engine concept that, he said, could theoretically accelerate to 99 percent of the speed of light - without expending propellant. It’s a novel concept which invokes special relativity and momentum in a way that tries to bend the known laws of physics:
Newscientist was sceptical at the time, also pointing out that the engine would also need to be around 200 metres long and 12 metres in diameter – and powerful, “requiring 165 megawatts of power to generate just 1 newton of thrust - “about the same force you use to type on a keyboard.”
An engaging thought experiment which was amplified in popular science media at the time. But physicist Ethan Siegel delivers a robust breakdown of why the concept was “dead on arrival”: For The Last Time, No, A NASA Engineer Has Not Broken Physics With An Impossible Engine. (Also a useful refresher on what the current known laws of modern physics are and a reminder of the scientific method).
DeepStore is a huge archive storage facility operating 150m underground in a working UK salt mine - currently it contains 3.5 million items in 40 rooms carved out of the salt - the effervescent Tom Scott takes a look:
Earliest human symbol ever found?
A 120,000-year-old discovery in Israel last year may be the earliest human symbol ever found:
A few lighthearted moments from the last week to finish with:
Puff the magic…
ICYMI it was 1st April this week. Some not-so-subtle attempts all over my feeds (given all the misinformation going around these days, the whole April Fools tradition is *a bit weird*, tbh)… nevertheless this one was perfectly pitched:
…Also the fantastic Janelle Shane tested various incarnations of generative text AI model GPT-3 to imagine AI-generated pranks for your computer to play on you. The results vary from inspired…
The computer might switch your mouse cursor to a banana.
The computer might change the font on all of your documents to Comic Sans.
…to the surreal…
[GPT-3 Instruct seed phrase:] “It was the year 2065 and we had discovered that the best use of artificial intelligence is having it suggest jokes for us to play on ourselves. April Fools Day is a lot more bearable now that glitchy AIs, not corporations, are doing all of the planning. For 2065 you may choose from among these AI-approved pranks:
[GPT-3 Instruct response] Dot spangle yourself at home. Charged-sticky-plasma mirrors spray black dots across your body, masking you into a series of spaces like a corner of a painting. What happens if you're in a cafeteria? All bets are off. Do try this on a Tuesday.
Put bacon in a thimble. Then enter the thimble. Spook those around you with thrashy, guttural bacon snorts. Accidents will happen…”
…to the incomprehensible:
“A machine that will only Neptune arrive if it chirps at all.
A computer was given a toenail a day service.
A computer was given a chive stem from an daisy stem.”
As usual top quality AI content from Janelle’s AI Weirdness blog.
Latest Tiktok genre
And finally, this video works for me on several levels: I for one would vote for more Islamic-American slapstick on TikTok!
See you on Wednesday, thanks for reading!
You had to get a beta invite for quite a while… I looked back in time and found I signed up for the earliest incarnation of “Google Apps for your domain” (Gmail+Docs+Sheets on your own domain) 2 years later when that was launched in August 2006.