Friday, August 06, 2010

The LHC, The Universe, and Life

I came across an older TED talk by Brian Cox, a particle physicist working on a detector for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and he does a fantastic job explaining the machine and its purpose. But it was actually the very end of his talk that I think is the most interesting. He quickly explains the universe as a story of creation that I think should resonate with both the religious and scientific perspectives. He mentions a quote from Carl Sagan's Cosmos that puts it well, from the universe emerged consciousness and "At an ever-accelerating pace, it invented writing, cities, art and science, and sent spaceships to the planets and the stars. These are some of the things that hydrogen atoms do, given fifteen billion years of cosmic evolution." I've written a number of times about how remarkable the exponential rate of change we are experiencing is, but I think Brian does an exceptional job of putting it into a perspective, making it well worth fifteen minutes out of a single day. If you don't have the time or patience to watch it all, at least skip to 10 minutes 50 seconds to see his story of creation.

This also led to one of his more recent TED talks on why we need continue investing the tiny fraction (less than 1% GDP) that we do in research. He again closes with a Carl Sagan quote that everyone should hear at least once in their life. Again if you can't manage the sixteen and a half minutes, skip to 12 minutes 45 seconds.

I've often wondered what a world where every person deeply believed in the fact that everything in our entire universe came from one single source might be like. I think inherently humanity longs for some form of oneness, but through our own wonderfully unique perspectives we more often only see the differences. Perhaps if there was a deep enough root belief we could find the courage and strength to focus less on the differences and more on how to live in peace. As knowledge of our universe spreads and grows, maybe thoughts like the ones in these short talks will someday help that root take hold.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Riding the Exponential

Thanks, and please only take it once. Please re-post the link if you don't mind helping out. Read on if you want to know more about why I'm asking, but fair warning, I wax a bit philosophical.

Having entered the world of parenthood I find myself wondering more and more often about the future that awaits my son. This led me to that very simple question above and as I asked myself, I came to realize that it only mattered so much as to what I believed. It was far more important  as to what our society as whole thought. It is our shared belief that is critical since we -as a collective- ultimately shape the future. Pew recently did an extensive poll on what people thought the year 2050 would be like, but I was curious what those connected to my social network thought.

My initial expectation is that there will be about a 50/50 split in responses. My intuition, however, is that as our future unfolds, there will be more and more people that are optimistic.

You can count me among those already optimistic, because even though I believe we've been headed down the wrong path for some time and even though things seem more overwhelming and more polarized than ever. I have many more reasons to be optimistic. This isn't because I believe the answers to all our problems are already out there, it's because I know that they exist as demonstrated by those pivotal points when our society used its great power to create fundamental change. And for these few moments in time, it's all about riding the exponential.

For some, the concept of exponential growth might be familiar and understandable, but for others it might have a very unclear meaning. Try thinking of it this way. When you are in a car taking an exit ramp that turns, the corner often starts out gradual and then becomes more and more sharp as you come to the end. If you kept the same speed in that corner, you'd feel greater and greater force from the turn. So much so, that you usually need to slow down to keep the tires on the road.

A roller coaster doesn't have to obey those rules though. That's what makes them so much fun. Since they cling to the track and make use of this force to do loops and spirals. Roller coasters allow you to actually feel more of that exponential, which makes it thrilling for some and terrifying to others. So what are these things we've done right and what makes them exponential?

Technology is an obvious one. In 1972, 38 years ago, calculators looked like this.

For the majority of the 4,000 years before that they looked more like this:

A mere 20 years ago we used computers like this:

And just four years ago this was one of the hottest phones:

In just the last few years smart phones that run powerful applications have exploded onto the market and by this time next year they're expected to account for half of the cell phone market. These phones make use of a range of sensors and communication mediums that are radically changing how we interact with the world and they are fully capable of far more than what has already been dreamt up.

The interesting thing about exponential growth is that the amount of change looks pretty flat when you look at the last few years or even periods not long ago. But if you look at the entire time window, the line pitches straight up at the end. Here's an example showing the rate of change over the entire history of homo sapiens.

The point I'm trying to make is that we are already riding an incredible exponential and we need to start learning how to make more sense of what it all means. By the time my son reaches the age of maturity, the change we've seen in the past 20 years will appear as flat to him as the last 100 years were to us (and we think a lot has changed in 100 years). It only grows from there as well. If I am so fortunate, my grandchildren will have a nearly unimaginable range of tools immediately within their reach.

Having developed so many tools in the decades before us, the next few years will really be about learning how to apply them. Right now there is a big tension between having incredible social connectivity and yet almost zero civic connectivity. Not that it is completely impossible to have some civic connectivity now, but more often than not we have no idea what our government representatives support and they, in turn, are often uninformed of their constituents concerns.

The networked world has reached a tipping point however, and I believe this civilian connection is going to start taking shape. From simple polls like the one in this post to detailed sites with all the data, models, and descriptions needed to describe the problem as well as the solutions, policy, and legislation. Linking this all together will be no small challenge, but the tools are finally maturing. All we have to do is start developing that vision of how to use them.

I'll try to keep fumbling through my examples and pointing to cool things already out there, but any thoughts and feedback are always appreciated.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Crime Model Video

I finally was able to post this after learning that Vimeo doesn't have the same lame ten minute restriction that YouTube does. Of course Vimeo doesn't let you embed the HD version so I recommend clicking on the HD icon in the top right and then the link to watch it in HD on their site. Once their make sure you switch to full screen to see it in all its glory. The online model being discussed is available in this post. The full conference paper is here.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Crime Cycles Model

The following is a model that I've been working on as part of my graduate research. Use the story mode to learn about the model structure, and then try a few policies yourself. I'll be posting a video later to explain a little more. The full conference paper is here.

Update: The video explaining the model is in this post.

Cycles of Crime

Simulation model Cycles of Crime created with AnyLogic - simulation software /
Run the modelDeveloped with

Monday, January 25, 2010

Simple Population Models

In a Master's course last semester I built a model to compare simple population cohort models using System Dynamics and Agent Based Modeling. Someone also asked in the System Dynamics forum if it was possible to embed models in a blog, so I thought I' try it out here. The model below simulates people moving through an aging chain, where at the age group of fecund, they influence the birth rate. Both models produce similar dynamics, but the representations offer a few unique insights on problem formulations. The System Dynamics model is quite a bit easier to build and calibrate, producing good fits to the UN data. The agent model is more complicated and is prone to stochastic effects (which could be smoothed with more agents), but it also more easily allows for additional individual attributes such as gender and wealth. Use the navigation buttons to explore the different implementations and run the model to 2050 to have more time and glimpse of where we might be headed (the population scale is per million people). Note, you'll need to have Java and increase the amount of applet memory available to at least 400M. See this page for a good explanation on how to do this.

<applet code="world_population_aging_chain/Simulation$Applet.class" archive="," width="902" height="718"> </applet>

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cash for Clunkers Impact

When this program was rolled out, a friend asked me what the impact on consumption would be. I finally got around to running some of the numbers. Please let me know if you find any mistakes in the math. In summary, the individual benefits are pretty good, but the impact on the country as a whole are easy to dismiss.

According to the summary statistics from the program web site the average mileage of the new vehicles was 24.9 MPG and the trade-in mileage 15.8 MPG. This means there is an average overall increase of 9.2 MPG, or a 58% improvement. Not bad, right? So for an individual that drives the average 12,000 miles per year, the additional 9.2 MPG means they will save 281 gallons per year (note the math is 14,000/24.9 - 14,000/15.8, not 14,000/9.2). Using the average price of regular for 2009 of $2.31 per gallon, this is a yearly savings of $649 or a monthly savings of $54. So in addition to the tax rebate, buyers have a virtual $54 taken off their monthly car payment, making this a real "no-brainer" for those that had the opportunity to take part. This is especially true if you look at the current gas prices and longer term trend.

So what was the impact on the country? In total, there were 677,081 vehicles replaced, creating a savings of 190 million gallons per year! Sounds pretty great, right? Well it's a start, but when you compare it to the total United States consumption of 378 million gallons/day, it turns into a drop in the bucket. In numbers, this is only a 0.1% decrease in consumption per year. This is a far cry from the 58% improvement we started with.

There are some good insights here still. As an individual, when you go to buy another vehicle. Think about the true cost per year. If you get a vehicle that has even a modest MPG improvement, you might be able to afford a larger car payment than you think. Myself for example, if I were to get a Prius, I'd go from about 26 MPG to 48 MPG (highway, which is what I mostly drive). That's a difference of 22 MPG. I also drive around 20,000 miles per year and the 6 month gas price average is $2.56. That means I could save $902 a year or $75 a month. Up next, electric vehicles, but alas my lunch hour is over.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

System Dynamics Forum Survey Results

I wanted to try out the Google Spreadsheets Forms for doing surveys and some questions about the System Dynamics Forum provided a good excuse. Here are the results.