Friday, November 28, 2008

Running headfirst toward the Denny Limit

Analyzing past records to predict maximum speeds for dogs, thoroughbred horses, and humans. The headline plateau record (the 'Denny Limit', from the paper's author Mark Denny): 9.48s for the 100m sprint, which is both very impressive and -as all explicit limits- bothersome. Why not 9.3s? What do we have to do to make it a cool 9s?

On one hand, we are not the first epoch that attempts to improve physical performance (or any other sort), nor are we the first ones to use then-current science and technology to do it. The appropriate null hypothesis might very well be that increasing scientific resources provide decreasing gains in performance, so while performance will keep improving, it'll do so with an eventually clear lower bound.

Nonetheless, I can't but think that this might not necessarily be the case. Engineering progressed in almost a linear fashion for thousands of years, but eventually knowledge of physics (most importantly, quantitative, mathematical knowledge of physics) opened the doors for a completely different rate of progress. We seem to be getting close to the point where human performance across the board becomes a matter of engineering, which would make models like the one in the article inapplicable.

Most of the time, the null hypothesis of sustained long-term tendencies is the best analytical framework. But 'most of the time' is becoming rarer these days, isn't it?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Core Business

As we go through the aftermath of yet another bubble, I think it's important to note that the very infrastructural core of the Internet isn't really profitable right now. Internet networking shares some of the characteristics of utilities, but there are also differences related to the multiplicity of underlying technologies, the relative independence from physical resource constraints, and the quick pace of technological change (if not always reflected in the infrastructure, definitely driving increased demand).

I'm not sure what Internet networking will look like organizationally and financially ten years from now, but it's probably going to be different from the past, and it's certainly going to be important.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Worth a read

September 2008's issue of Neuroinformatics, an Open Access online issue (one day this will be tautological) focused on the Neuroscience Information Framework, a wide assembly of online data and tools for neuroscience research.

Right now, besides maybe Google, scientific projects are what push the envelope of really large-scale, distributed, mathematically complex data-intensive processes. Most likely, business and governments will eventually follow suit, which will probably trigger another minor revolution equivalent to the introduction of the Internet.

Don't forget that the World Wide Web was first created at CERN (the people behind the Large Hadron Collider) precisely to deal with some of the problems of globally distributed research. In a way, the World Wide Web is but a collateral side effect of scientists' struggle to collect, analyze and distribute exploding amounts of increasingly sophisticated data.

Imagine the side effects of what scientists are building today...

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The most profitable hacking target has always been your mind

A paper on the economics of massive advertising over email, and some numbers on the economics of massive advertising over search result pages. Both business models require sophisticated hardware infrastructures, but note that the search result pages-based implementation -due to the extra information in query terms- is much better targeted, and hence more profitable, than the email-based one (except when the advertiser has access to your mail history).

Obvious linear extrapolation: there'll be increased incentives to offer you online platforms to work, learn, and communicate, as the ever-growing volume and richness of the captured data allows more profitable advertising (or similar, think political campaigning, activism, etc) methods.

First Korea, then the world

Surprising nobody but Hollywood companies, the DVD business model is beginning to collapse.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Wars will be fought about water, and not only in the sense you think

As Gibson implied, the future comes first in scattered places: The incoming president of the Maldives has announced that the country will begin saving to buy a new place for its people to live, in case the islands are flooded by rising sea levels. It's actually not a bad idea, as the Maldives are only one meter above sea level, which is less than the rises predicted by some climate models. Its population is a bit less than four hundred thousand people (somewhat more than Iceland's, in case you were wondering). It'd certainly be a nontrivial migration project, but that's more the reason to begin to plan it as early as possible.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Researchers from Rice University have created a mathematical model of evolution in viruses and bacteria that takes into account not only mutation rates, but also recombination rates and fitness functions, allowing for a better theoretical understanding of evolutionary processes.

This kind of work at the data-intensive interface between molecular biology, ecology, statistical mathematics and epidemiology will increasingly shape how scientists approach the study of living beings, and in time will change how we interact with the biosphere. At a moment when the planet's biological systems are changing at an incredibly fast rate, knowing how they do so will be necessary if we are to understand how we can live through and with those changes. The treatment of organisms -healing some, attacking some- won't be enough; we'll need to be able to work with entire species or even ecosystems, at enormous scales and dealing with multiple feedback systems.

Plainly speaking, there's no way we are ever going to manage that level of conceptual complexity without advancing our modeling and data-gathering capabilities, and using them as a privileged input to our global decision-making (that is, political) processes.

It's going to be tricky at best.

(An interesting aside: DARPA is partly founding this research, and if you think it has no defense implications, you haven't really thought about what 'defense' will mean a few years from now.)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

When people adapt... and when they don't

What do you get when you combine an aging population with a weakening economy? Well, what do you think?

And lest you think that climate change can be at most an inconvenience, empires have fallen for far less. Civilization as we know it depends on highly productive agricultural and distribution systems, which are in turn sensitive to climate parameters. Failure to mitigate long-term climate change and adapt our food production systems to the climate change already unavoidable will result on massive political upveals of the un-fun kind (try to imagine a functioning modern democracy with chronically inadequate food supplies) , and an untold number of deaths.