All posts by Sean Dague

Why Do Americans Refrigerate Their Eggs?

Americans love refrigeration, and eggs are high on the list of items we rush to get into the refrigerator after a trip to grocery store. Meanwhile, our culinary compatriots in Europe, Asia and other parts of world happily leave beautiful bowls of eggs on their kitchen counters.

So what gives?

Mostly, it’s about washing. In the U.S., egg producers with 3,000 or more laying hens must wash their eggs. Methods include using soap, enzymes or chlorine.

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But — and here is the big piece of the puzzle — washing the eggs also cleans off a thin, protective cuticle devised by nature to protect bacteria from getting inside the egg in the first place. (The cuticle also helps keep moisture in the egg.)

With the cuticle gone, it is essential — and, in the United States, the law — that eggs stay chilled from the moment they are washed until you are ready to cook them. Japan also standardized a system of egg washing and refrigeration after a serious salmonella outbreak in the 1990s.

In Europe and Britain, the opposite is true. European Union regulations prohibit the washing of eggs. The idea is that preserving the protective cuticle is more important than washing the gunk off.

Source: ‘Why Do Americans Refrigerate Their Eggs?’ - The New York Time

It’s about 50 degrees warmer than normal near the North Pole, yet again - The Washington Post

Extreme temperature spikes such as this one have occurred multiple times in the past two winters, whereas they only previously occurred once or twice per decade in historical records according to research published in the journal Nature.

As Mashable science writer Andrew Freedman put it: “Something is very, very wrong with the Arctic climate.”

Source: It’s about 50 degrees warmer than normal near the North Pole, yet again - The Washington Post

As someone that follows the science, I definitely understand the difference between weather and climate. However, it takes climate change to create aberrations this extreme, this often.

This is all very real. It is unfortunate that many of our elected representatives don't agree with the science.

One of the largest icebergs recorded

The crack in Larsen C now reaches over 100 miles in length, and some parts of it are as wide as two miles. The tip of the rift is currently only about 20 miles from reaching the other end of the ice shelf.

Once the crack reaches all the way across the ice shelf, the break will create one of the largest icebergs ever recorded, according to Project Midas, a research team that has been monitoring the rift since 2014. Because of the amount of stress the crack is placing on the remaining 20 miles of the shelf, the team expects the break soon.

Source: A Crack in an Antarctic Ice Shelf Grew 17 Miles in the Last Two Months - The New York Times

Climate Change is real, and keeps on chugging. The visuals in the NY Times article are quite impressive and give you a more visceral sense of what is going on.

Gameplan for the next 4 years

Thing is: There is no someone else. No one is coming to save us from Trump and his merry band of egregious nincompoops. If there is saving to be done, it comes from us, or not at all. Be the “someone else” you want to see in this world. Because otherwise you’re leaving it to the horde of racists and bigots following in Trump’s wake. And that’s not acceptable.

At the very least, if you can’t get out of oh shit oh shit oh shit mode, then make goddamn sure you’re not making things harder for the people who are stepping up. I think it’s time to realize that we’re in a “perfect is the enemy of good” situation.

Source: The Beginning of the Trump Years – Whatever

Of all the post mortem writing of the election, I think that the science fiction authors seem to have the most sane grounding. Scalzi, Brin, Stross have all been far more interesting and insightful reads over the last 2 months than any of the punditry of what happened and what's next. You could do worse than follow those folks.

Scalzi's post today boiled down to a couple of pieces of solid advice for the next 4 years.

Stand up for one thing you believe in, and push on that. But remember not to overextend yourself. This is a marathon. There is just as much danger in getting overwhelmed in all the crazy and throwing your hands up and giving up.

Support others that are doing the same. No friendly fire that their cause isn't as important as yours. We make this world a better place by working in parallel.

The perfect is the enemy of the good. The point is to make progress, which you do one wandering and labored step at time.

What really causes cyber outages?

WASHINGTON, DC—For years, the government and security experts have warned of the looming threat of "cyberwar" against critical infrastructure in the US and elsewhere. Predictions of cyber attacks wreaking havoc on power grids, financial systems, and other fundamental parts of nations' fabric have been foretold repeatedly over the past two decades, and each round has become more dire. The US Department of Energy declared in its Quadrennial Energy Review, just released this month, that the electrical grid in the US "faces imminent danger from a cyber attack."

So far, however, the damage done by cyber attacks, both real (Stuxnet's destruction of Iranian uranium enrichment centrifuges and a few brief power outages alleged to have been caused by Russian hackers using BlackEnergy malware) and imagined or exaggerated (the Iranian "attack" on a broken flood control dam in Rye, New York), cannot begin to measure up to an even more significant cyber-threat—squirrels.

Source: Who’s winning the cyber war? The squirrels, of course | Ars Technica

The ultimate fuzz testers.

Ambient Radio Weather Network

Nearly 7 years ago I started down a project to use existing oregon scientific weather sensors to collect temperature data throughout our house. The basic idea is that Oregon Scientific weather sensors all communicate unencrypted over 433Mhz wireless. With a receiver you can capture that data yourself and put it into other systems.

4th Generation of the Project

Over the last 7 years, and many iterations, lots has changed

  • Switched from heyu to directly talking to the rfxcom port in python
  • Moved from running on primary server to running on raspberry pi
  • Moved from storing data in mysql to publishing on MQTT bus
  • Abandoned the display layer entirely in favor of Home Assistant integration
  • Published the project on github and pypi

All of these have made the whole project a much more reasonable scope, and easier to understand what it is doing. So lets dive into some of the reasons for the more major ones.

Giving up on the Display Layer

When this project started the UI for it was a read only set of rrdtool generated graphs. One of the things you realize after a while is that while graphs are nice to understand trends, it's not enough. Min, Max, Current temperature is important, especially if you are using this information to understand tuning your HVAC system. How much differential is there between 2 points in the house right now. I started to imagine what the interface would have to look like to get all the data I wanted, and that became a giant visualization code base I never could get around to writing. But then along came Home Assistant.

Home Assistant is an open source home automation hub written in python. It already has a UI for displaying temperature sensors.

This also includes a detailed view:

While not perfect, that's a huge ton of work that I don't need to do any more. Yay! And better yet, by getting data into Home Assistant, these sensors can be used to trigger other parts of home automation. Even if that's just sending out an alert because a temperature went over a threshold.

MQTT

Ok, so now I am building a system with no UI, so the next question is how to get the data from this device into Home Assistant. For that I changed the architecture to being basically stateless and publishing data via MQTT.

MQTT is a lightweight message bus standard designed with IoT applications in mind. The protocol is pretty simple, there are multiple brokers that implement it, and there are client libraries for everything you can imagine (including arduino).

The ARWN project now is largely a relay that is blocked on the serial port reading data frames from the weather sensors and immediately publishing them out to MQTT

You can think of MQTT as a key / value bus. You publish on a topic, like 'arwn/temperature/Refrigerator' with an arbitrary payload. In my case I'm sending a json blob with all the relevant sensor data, as well as a timestamp. There is no timestamping inherent in MQTT, so if you care about when an event showed up, you have to insert the timestamp yourself in the payload.

I picked MQTT because Home Assistant already had very good support for it (while the primary message bus remains a python internal one, MQTT is strongly integrated in the project). Other open source projects like OpenHAB use MQTT as their primary bus. Bus architectures aren't a new thing, but the growth of the IoT space is making them even more relevant today.

There is code in Home Assistant now that will discover that that you've got ARWN running, and dynamically represent all the sensors it finds.

Even Better Dashboards

Home Assistant is limited by what it can store and what it can display. Fortunately it also can pump the data on it's bus into other systems as well. This include graphite and grafana.

Those are SVG by default and fully interactive, so you can mouse over points and get dropdowns about all the data at those points. It can be exported to PNG files as well.

Going forward

Since I started this project, there has been a whole revolution in software defined radio. For this project to be useful to people other than myself, the next step is to be able to pull the 433Mhz off an SDR  (which runs $20) instead of the rfxcom (which is about $120).

There are definitely pieces of Home Assistant integration to make better. One of which is to expose the rain data in Home Assistant at all. The other is a UX element to build a better way to visualize current wind / temp / rain in Home Assistant. That would be a new polymer component, which I haven't yet had time to dive into.

It's also been hugely valuable in the recent insulation work we got done, as I've got some data showing how effectively it changed the dynamics of the upstairs.

If you are interested in learning more, leave a comment/question, or checkout the code on github.

You aren't going to get turned into a paperclip

AI alarmists believe in something called the Orthogonality Thesis. This says that even very complex beings can have simple motivations, like the paper-clip maximizer. You can have rewarding, intelligent conversations with it about Shakespeare, but it will still turn your body into paper clips, because you are rich in iron.

There's no way to persuade it to step "outside" its value system, any more than I can persuade you that pain feels good.

I don't buy this argument at all. Complex minds are likely to have complex motivations; that may be part of what it even means to be intelligent.

It's very likely that the scary "paper clip maximizer" would spend all of its time writing poems about paper clips, or getting into flame wars on reddit/r/paperclip, rather than trying to destroy the universe. If AdSense became sentient, it would upload itself into a self-driving car and go drive off a cliff.

Source: Superintelligence: The Idea That Eats Smart People

This is pretty much the best round up of AI myths that I've seen so far, presented in a really funny way. It's long, but it's so worth reading.

I'm pretty much exactly with the Author on his point of view. There are lots of actual ethical questions around AI, but these are mostly about how much data we're collecting (and keeping) to train these Neural networks, and not really about hyper intelligent beings that will turn us all into paperclips.

Podcast Roundup 2016

As we round up 2016, I figured it's useful to share what's in my podcast rotation, and why you might want to add them to yours.

Skeptics Guide to the Universe

This is a weekly science and critical thinking podcast that's really good at keeping you up on the latest science coming out, as well as building your critical thinking skills. You both get information on latest scientific discoveries, deconstruction of sometimes very poor science reporting, and a weekly Science or Fiction quiz that both is lots of fun, and helps figure out where all your odd biases are.

No particular episode jumps out for the year, this is more about getting a steady diet of facts, critical thinking, and reality every week.

More information: http://www.theskepticsguide.org/

99 Percent Invisible

A weekly podcast about the Built World (architecture and design). I find incredibly useful to understand how the world is shaped (literally). The subject matter goes all over the place, and the production quality is amazing. Who knew that in 1970s Chili there was a cyber command center to help govern the country? Now you do - http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/project-cybersyn/.

More information: http://99percentinvisible.org/

The Long Now

The Long Now foundation is based on the idea that we are in the middle of the arc of Human History, so with 10,000 years behind us, we've got another 10,000 years in our run. What kind of thinking, values, and information do we need to promote for the next 10,000 years. Part of this is a monthly lecture series which you can get as a podcast (you can get video if you are a member).

In 2016 the 2 episodes I learned the most from were:

Radical Ag: C4 Rice and Beyond - http://longnow.org/seminars/02016/mar/14/radical-ag-c4-rice-and-beyond/ - which has an incredible primer on the state of food production in the world, and what is needed to feed the planet in 2050. I also learned a ton about how plants actually make sugars, as the team described the grand goal of upgrading Rice's sugar production to meet world demand.

1177 BC: When Civilization Collapsed - http://longnow.org/seminars/02016/jan/11/1177-bc-when-civilization-collapsed/. Which was part of a book tour about a time in history where we had a very global world, and it collapsed rather quickly. It's a part of history I knew little about, and also helps remember how long the arc of human history really is.

More information: http://longnow.org/

The Common Wealth Club of California

The common wealth club is now producing over 300 events a year, much of it gets dumped into the podcast. It's useful in being such a wide spectrum of things ending up in it. Lots of people on book tours, but also there is the Inforum and Climate One programs that specifically look at technology issues and climate issues. Because of the volume I freely skip past things that don't turn out to be interesting, but I've also gotten surprised by some things I didn't think I would.

The panel discussion on sustainability in the fashion industry was one of those - https://www.commonwealthclub.org/events/2016-05-17/you-are-what-you-wear-fashion-matters.

More information: https://www.commonwealthclub.org/

The Allusionist

A quirky podcast about language and the origin of words. It only runs every other week, but it's always a fun dose of something different.

More information: http://www.theallusionist.org/

Imaginary Worlds

A podcast about scifi and fantasy worlds, and why we create them. In 2016 there were some great bits on the economics in fanstasy and scifi universes, how do you pay for that invasion? An exploration of the year without summer in 1816, which gave us Frankenstein. And a look at the role of maps in Fantasy epics.

More information: http://www.imaginaryworldspodcast.org/home.html

Radio Lab

Always a favorite, though you have to get used to their editing style. In 2016 Radio Lab also did a spin off about the Supreme Court called More Perfect - http://www.wnyc.org/shows/radiolabmoreperfect.

The story that stuck with me the most in 2016 was Debatable - http://www.radiolab.org/story/debatable/ - it's about Debate Club, but it's meta enough that you just have to listen to understand.

More information: http://www.radiolab.org/

 

There are a few more that come and go, but this was really the most notable during the year. If you are looking for more quality content, anything from the list above will fit that bill.

The real Trolley Problem in tech

With all the talk about autonomous cars in general media this year, we all got a refresher in Ethics 101 and the Trolley Problem. The Trolley Problem is where you as an onlooker see a trolley barreling towards 5 people. There is a switch you can throw where it will kill 1 previously safe person instead of 5. What do you do? Do you take part in an act which kills 1 person while saving 5? Do you refuse to take part in an act of violence, but then willing let 5 people die because of it? No right answers, just a theoretical problem to think through and see all the trade offs.

But as fun as this all is, Autonomous cars are not the big trolley problem in Tech. Organizing and promoting information is.

Right now, if you put the phase "Was the holocaust real?" into Google, you'll get back 10 results. 8 will be various websites and articles that make the case that it was not real, but a giant hoax. The second hit (not the first) is the Wikipedia article on Holocaust Denial, and a link further down from the United States Holocaust Memorial talking about all the evidence presented at Nuremburg.

8 out of 10.

The argument we get in Tech a lot is that because results are generated by an algorithm, they are neutral. An algorithm is just a set of instructions a human built once upon a time. When it was being built or refined some human looked at a small number of inputs, what it output, and made a judgement call that it was good. Then they fed it a lot more input, far more than any human could digest, and let it loose on the world. Under the assumption that the testing input was representative enough that it would produce valid results for all input.

8 out of 10.

Why are those the results? Because Google came up with an insight years ago that webpages have links, people produce webpages, and important sites with authoritative information get linked to quite often. In the world before Google, this was hugely true, because once you found a gem on the internet, if you didn't write it down somewhere, finding it again later was often impossible. In the 20 years since Google, and in the growth of the internet, that's less true.

It's also less true about basic understood facts. There aren't thousands of people writing essays about the holocaust anymore. There are, however, a fringe of folks trying to actively erase that part of history. Why? I honestly have no idea. I really can't even get into that head space. But it's not unique to this event. There are people who write that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax too, and harass the families who lost children during that event.

8 out of 10.

Why does this matter? Who looks these things up? Maybe it's just the overly radicalized who already believe it? Or maybe it's the 12 year old kid who is told something on the playground and comes home to ask Google the answer. And finds 8 out 10 results say it's a hoax.

What could be done? Without Google intervening people could start writing more content on the internet saying the Holocaust was real, and eventually Google might interpret that and shift results. Maybe only 6 out of 10 for the hoax. Could we get enough popular sites so the truth could even be a majority, and the hoax would only get 4 out of 10? How many person hours, websites, twitter posts do we need to restore this truth?

As we're sitting on Godwin's front lawn already, lets talk about the problem with that. 6 million voices (and all the ones that came after them) that would have stood up here, are gone. The side of truth literally lost a generation to this terrible event.

So the other answer is that Google really should fix this. They control the black box. They already down rank other sites for malware, less accessible content, soon for popup windows. The algorithm isn't static, it keeps being trained.

And the answer you get is: "that's a slippery slope. When humans start interfering with search results that could be used by the powerful to suppress ideas they don't like."

It is a slippery slope. But it assumes you aren't already on that slope.

8 out of 10.

That act of taking billions of documents and choosing 10 to display, is an act of amplification. What gets amplified is the Trolley problem. Do we just amplify the loudest voices? Or do we realize that the loudest voices can use that platform to silence others?

We've seen this already. We've seen important voices online that were expressing nothing more than "women are equal, ok?" get brutally silenced through Doxing and other means. Some people that are really invested in keeping truth of the table don't stop at making their case, they actively attack and harass and send death threats to their opponents. So now that field of discourse keeps tilting towards the ideologues.

8 out of 10.

This is our real Trolley problem in Tech. Do you look at the playing field, realize that it's not level, the ideologues are willing to do far more and actually knock their opponents off the internet entirely, and do something about it? Or do you, through inaction, just continue to amplify those loud voices. And the playing field tips further.

Do we realize that this is a contributing factor as to why our companies are so much less diverse than society at large? Do we also realize that lack of diversity is why this doesn't look like a problem internally? At least not to 8 out of 10 folks.

8 out of 10.

I don't have any illusions this is going to change soon. The Google engine is complicated. Hard problems are hard.

But we live in this world, both real and digital. Every action we do has an impact. In an increasingly digital world, the digital impact matters as much as, or even more than the real world. Those of us who have a hand in shaping what that digital world looks like need to realize how great a responsibility that has become.

Like the Trolley Problem, there is no right answer.

But 8 out of 10 seems like the wrong answer.

 

Collective False Memory

In the early Nineties, roughly around 1994, a now 52-year-old man named Don ordered two copies of a brand new video for the rental store his uncle owned and he helped to run.

“I had to handle the two copies we owned dozens of times over the years,” says Don (who wishes to give his first name only). “And I had to watch it multiple times to look for reported damages to the tape, rewind it and check it in, rent it out, and put the boxes out on display for rental.”

In these ways, the film Don is speaking of is exactly like the hundreds of others in his uncle’s shop. In one crucial way, however, it is not. The movie that Don is referring to doesn’t actually exist.

Source: The movie that doesn’t exist and the Redditors who think it does

This is a really interesting dive through a collective false memory of a bunch of folks on Reddit about a thing that does not and never did exist. It's fascinating to see the depths people will go to, and the level of completely over the top theories people believe (like a glitch in the matrix), to protect the idea that their memory is not in error. Memories feel like reality, but they are anything but.