One thing Australia sucks at..

Every morning when I walk into work, I walk up a staircase above a strange looking cone about a meter and half high. Inside are bundles of wire, small windows for sensors and a whole pile of very old looking electronics.  I have stopped and looked at this a few times and read the interesting notes on the wall behind it. It is a prototype of Australia’s first satellite, WRESAT. Around it in this mini-museum are other examples of rockets and various weapons that fly. There’s even a Long Tom missile that reaches from the ground up and past the 1st floor landing. There are early models of research programs that took over 20 years to flesh out. However nice it is to see these items, there is a sad fact behind them. WRESAT was put into orbit over 40 years ago. It only took us 11 month to design, build and put this into space, that’s pretty impressive. However , today, in 2008, Australia does not have much of presence in space. Even though we are one of the leading counties in the world when it comes to standard of living, wealth and technical capability we simply don’t have any space program. We *used* to be one of those countries. That SUCKS.

Andy Thomas, one of Australia’s few people it has put into space, mentioned our myopic view of space a couple of days ago in this article. Even when he was in space it wasn’t officially as an Australian. And then today I hear of Indonesia’s space program and a recent rocket launch. And India’s, China’s and Japan’s and the list goes on, except Australia is never on that list.

Australia does not have a presence in space because our short sighted governments don’t seem to think this is important. Most likely in the same way that they don’t think basic science or a skilled workforce or even people who can think is important. My theory is this, if you’re really friggin stupid then it’s difficult to understand the benefits of being smart and doing clever things. If you haven’t any first hand experience of doing clever things, you’re too busy dealing with the here and now to think about long term planning or difficult issues. Like long range research. It’s just sooooooooooo much simpler to go with bread and circus politics and keeping the masses happy. And that’s what we’ve had for as long as I can remember.

What I can remember is seeing Neil Armstrong walk on the moon in 1969. It was cool, we got half a day off school and I can clearly remember seeing the black and white fuzzy broadcast at home. Throughout school I had an interest in space and decided to make a career in it. In 1980 I was accepted into aeronautical engineering over in NSW. However I didn’t take up the offer, I simply couldn’t afford to live in Sydney and student support funding was means tested and my middle class dad earned too much, which at the time really wasn’t much compared to the average wage. However I went on with an engineering career for 20 years and with hindsight it was the right decision because the space industry died in the arse around that time. Ironically Andy Thomas went to the same University as me, even the same department with the same lecturers, but a few years earlier and he escaped to the USA to have a career in space. He simply couldn’t have that career and stay in Australia.

This inaction over a space program isn’t all that limited. The inaction over the River Murray, the long term (un) sustainability of our crops and stock and the total lack of any population plan whilst mindlessly supporting economic rationalism and the bat-shit crazy idea that we can have growth forever is just typical of people who have no clue nor idea about the future and further supports the idea we are led by morons. We are so lucky we are rich in natural resources which means we can let our manufacturing industry squander, our smart people drift overseas and we can live by our ‘she’ll be right’ attitude. However when some country like Indonesia is putting up rockets and has an active space program we really need to have a long hard look at ourselves.

As a country we really need to see an eye doctor about our myopia, it’s starting to make us look stupid as well as blind.

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2008 Budget bits on science and education

Ok, time to find some good news?

Here’s the budget.

Support for research

“To strengthen the link between research and innovation, the Government will boost Australia’s research capacity by providing:

  • $326 million over four years to fund four year Future Fellowships valued at up to $140,000 a year for 1,000 of Australia’s top mid‑career researchers
  • $209 million over four years to double the number of Australian Postgraduate Awards for PhD or Masters by Research students.”
My estimate is that this affects 1500 people. I’m not sure if that is a lot, it sure doesn’t sound a lot. Lets say that’s 150 in SA, evenly across 3 main campuses so that’s 50 per campus and then across 10 faculties so that gives 5 more people per faculty, say 3 researchers and 2 post grads per faculty.
Nope, that’s not a lot…and see below for the overall HE funding, which is going down.

Higher education

To help universities upgrade and maintain teaching, research and other

student facilities, the Government will provide $500 million by 30 June 2008.

The Government will also spend $626 million to reduce the cost of studying maths and science at university and to reduce HECS‑HELP repayments for science and maths graduates who undertake work in a related field.”

However the government is still going ahead with $1Bn is spending on unproven computers etc. for high schools. Also note above the funny line about $500 million, yep that’s right, spending before “June 30 2008” so that is actually not part of next years budget but stuff in this budget. That’d be called weasel words in my book.

And overall the the budget goes down this year for higher education with the promise it will go back up again in the following year. From $6.3Bn down to $6.0Bn in 2008-2009. And yet they say it is going up. I guess that reflects the lack of math education in society these days. Note that early childhood education is up, vocational education is up, school education is up, transitions and youth is up. Looks like the government isn’t too interested in people with a higher education.

Funding to ARC goes up from $15.25 million to $15.85 million, however this doesn’t appear to cover the cuts in other areas.

Investment in schools includes:

  • $1.2 billion over five years for the Digital Education Revolution to deliver computers and communications technologies to all Year 9‑12 students”

and the rest of the education budget items are:

  • $2.5 billion over ten years for Trade Training Centres in Schools
  • $577 million to improve literacy and numeracy outcomes for students
  • $62 million over three years for the National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program
  • $20 million to establish a National Curriculum Board.

These initiatives will assist in lifting the Year 12 or equivalent attainment rate to 90 per cent by 2020.

However, when it comes to the skills shortages of math and science teachers we have the following bad generalization buried in the main papers.

“Australian Bureau of Statistics data indicate that there are around 450,000 people aged between 15 and 64
who are trained as teachers, with only around 280,000 working as teachers….To the extent that there are reported shortages in these areas, this does not reflect an absolute shortfall in suitably
qualified people, but rather, a choice by many of them not to work in these fields.
Given the competing demands for labour, solving skills shortages within schools
clearly involves more than simply boosting the number of people qualified as
teachers.”

I’m sorry, but the government is being very misguided in such a generalisation. It is irrelevant how many teachers not working as teachers if none of those ‘not working teachers’ are science and math teachers.

I have talked to people in DECS about this and the simple fact is, people are not training to be math and science teachers. The CSIRO is currently running a program called Scientists in Education to get working scientists to help out teachers because of the dire situation they are in. I’m not sure this budget does anything to address this critical issue. In fact I’m pretty sure it doesn’t.

Hopefully some of that $577M mentioned above actually goes towards getting more teachers who are willing work, especially math and science teachers.

Anyway that’s enough for now, the educators can read it through in detail and report. The more I wade through it’s hundreds of pages the more bad news I find.

At least we’re not as bad as Geoscience Australia who took a big cut, $144M to $139M. However ANSTO went up by about $20M so that’s some good news, although $10M is cleaning up nuclear waste.

Overall I’d give it an E.

It did not address the real issues in schools and low uptake of math and science, it gives no incentive for industry to do any more R&D. It’s doesn’t address the declining intake into Universities and the declining results in math and science that came out of the Pirsa report a few months ago. And it has real cuts to many of the areas. At a time when we have the excess to invest in long term strategy.

It’s like a big shiny red apple sitting on the lecturers desk, except it’s rotten inside.

Rudd, Swan you suck.


Dave, my mind is going..

After living a quite productive life Authur C Clarke has passed away today.  Many have already blogged  about his passing  and it is apparent his writing touched many peoples lives. I remember reading his books in the 70’s along with similar writers like Asimov and others of the old guard who had grown out of the 40’s and 50’s pulp series. Many of these authors were probably the reason I set out a career in the space race, only to see the field wither and die after the successes of the 60’s and 70’s. As it was I did end up working in engineering doing some pretty cool stuff with robotics in manufacturing. However they were only really simple machines (ok, really freaking complicated simple machines) and these days I work as a cognitive scientist, in some way due to, arguably, his most notorious character, HAL.

“I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you.”

In the time of the Beatles, the space race and the threat of nuclear destruction the field of AI had great promise. Many people were making predictions and Marvin Minsky was the adviser for the movie. Marvin is still around, still getting annoyed by people dicking around with robots rather than dealing with the big problems of AI. However, after all this time we are not much closer to having a real HAL, or even anything slightly intelligent. A whole pile of people now work on AI and nearly all have a background in digital computing and have all done the same courses. These days I’m pretty sure we have missed the turnoff for what I term , synthetic cognition,  and the clue for this may well be in what HAL stands for.

Although there has been speculation it represented IBM, notice the one letter difference, this has always been denied. Furthermore IBM hasn’t really made headway with AI in the last 40 years. And before I get howled down, NO, chess does not count, it does not represent intelligence in a very useful form. The real meaning of HAL was based around H(ueristic) AL(gorithm), the speculated concept which made HAL so clever. Through a rather fortunate  string of events I now find myself working in this area and I actually research human hueristics and biases which affect them. My 2008 talk titled “Rational Irrationalism” which I have given at the local skeptics only a month ago and most likely will give at the national conference examines some of these concepts from their impact in understanding how humans make irrational decisions. These decisions are not always bad in an absolute sense although I do highlight the fact that being rational is seen as some idealised perfection to aim for. This same ideal is what has driven AI for 50 years with it’s long string of predictions and failures. The field is full of search trees, algorithms and neural networks, all nicely running on super fast computers and all completely stupid.

What these machines don’t do is use heuristics, rough rules of thumb that give good enough answers with only partial dodgy information.  Now people may can this idea but it has served humans extremely well and we are not extinct (yet) in spite of surviving close calls from nature and ourselves. As such I’d suggest the field has some merit for usefulness. Of course AI researchers and IT people in general don’t want machines that make mistakes like humans do, they want all the imagined perfection without the downside. It all strikes me as reminiscent of the religions concept of the fallen human, how they have been made perfect in God’s eye but then became tainted. This sort of idealism simply ignores reality. Humans are no more or no less perfect than every other flawed creature on this ball of rock and water.

However it isn’t the techies who are bothering with heuristics, it’s the research scientists and they are looking at using the idea to explain human behavior and generally not make an AI.  It’s like two ships passing in the fog, with the additional problem of the crews speaking different languages. The idea of commonsense reasoning exists but it has a small following. Not surprisingly, one of those who have promoted the idea is non other than Marvin Minsky, 40 years after the film 2001 a Space Odyssey was made in which HAL featured.

So the imagination still burns, perhaps in some way inspired by the movie  and the hope that computing machines become less useless and more like a person, warts and all. Interestingly, the last words I wrote at my desk yesterday before leaving for the Easter break, was “Implement this in code!”. It was scrawled on the bottom of a recently published paper that had brought together a few heuristics and  tested them. The authors have found that the heuristic matched the behavior of humans in evaluating a wide range of non-zero cost decision making problems. And in particular a range of problems where humans give the ‘wrong answer’ if compared to the ‘rational’ solution. HAL, one of your fathers may be gone but your children might yet live on.

Dave Bowman: Yes, I’d like to hear it, HAL. Sing it for me.
HAL: It’s called “Daisy”. Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I’m half crazy all for the love of you. It won’t be a stylish marriage, I can’t afford a carriage. But you’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two.”

Ironically the song isn’t actually called “Daisy”, HAL has made a mistake here,  it’s called “Daisy Bell“. The sort of simple mistake a person would make. And that I think, is a very promising sign.


Running low on food?

I’ve been having a creeping suspicion that food prices in the supermarket have been increasing over the past few months and other friends seem to share this opinion. We have also been warned that some food prices might double of triple in the next few months due to shortages. These hikes for vegetables and dairy they say are a product of the ongoing drought. That may be well and good but then I came across something rather more interesting when looking into food supplies. There was a press release based on data from the US Department of Agriculture noting that food supplies are at at all time low. Now considering that generally yields are up and production is up this is a tad surprising.

For many years the population explosion arguments have been hammered and the general argument is that we have enough food but simply can’t move it to where it’s needed. This argument can now be put one side as it would appear we actually don’t have food and what we do have is running out. Digging out the raw data is quite simple these days due to the internet. The site of the Foreign Agriculture Service on the US Dept. of Agriculture has the raw data. If we look at wheat and coarse grains which is much of the worlds staple grains we can make the following graph.

Grain Stockpile over time

As you can see since 1998 there has been a general trend down. Even though yields and production ave been going up…

The National Farmers Union had a press release with the following to say:

SASKATOON, Sask.—Today, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its first projections of world grain supply and demand for the coming crop year: 2007/08.
USDA predicts supplies will plunge to a 53-day equivalent—their lowest level in the 47-year period for which data exists.
“The USDA projects global grain supplies will drop to their lowest levels on record. Further, it is likely that, outside of wartime, global grain supplies have not been this low in a century, perhaps longer,” said NFU Director of Research Darrin Qualman.
Most important, 2007/08 will mark the seventh year out of the past eight in which global grain production has fallen short of demand. This consistent shortfall has cut supplies in half—down from a 115-day supply in 1999/00 to the current level of 53 days. “The world is consistently failing to produce as much grain as it uses,” said Qualman. He continued: “The current low supply levels are not the result of a transient weather event or an isolated production problem: low supplies are the result of a persistent drawdown trend.”

For farmers this is pretty good news because the prices are going up nicely however the longer term picture is not so rosy.The increasing yields are easing off, there is no more land to put under grain and any bad years due to global warming or just bad luck will cut into this stock level. As stated above this is a consistent downward trend. Now I’m sure the economists will argue that demand will lead to an increase in supply however this economic model, the one that the bulk of the world works under, assumes the world is figuratively flat and that production can always be increased. They live in a dream of constant economic growth without noticing we live on a ball, sooner or later we run out of land and apart from sunlight live in closed system.

Looking at the graph I’d estimate that unless something magical happens pretty soon then by about 2014 the stocks run out. For some countries who are net exporters like ourselves and the USA this means we don’t export as much. However for those countries who rely on our grain for food this will pose major issues. The prices will sky-rocket and all of us will feel this in the hip pocket for most of our basic commodities like bread,pasta,rice and cereals. Now the amount of weekly pay required for food is a fraction of what it used to be early in the 20th century however I’m not to sure people these days will be too happy with an $8 loaf of bread or $10 Weet-Bix. The increase in CPI will also drive up inflation and interest rates and then peoples mortgages go up to.

And as for what’s happening in the rest of the world when they run out of food can best be summarised by this image and the story behind it.

Food shortage? Been there, done that.


What if everyone had a “fabber”..

When moving office last week I came across this written on my whiteboard, “What if everyone had a 3D printer?”. A 3D printer is also called a fabber, slang for fabrication machine. Think of a printer, the ability to print hard plastic and the ability to print many layers on top of one another making a 3 dimensional object. These sort of devices, many times the mainstay and crutch of futuristic SF, will soon be with us. These devices have been around for a while now but are very expensive, roughly $30k. However there is growing groundswell of DIY people aiming on making cheap versions soon available. For example look here at the Fab@Home site.

You might be unimpressed and rightly so as it’s early days, the resolution isn’t that great, the materials are rather limited and there is no killer product..yet. This is exactly the same situation as the home computer market was in the late 70’s, trust me, I was there. And yet within 10 years of the first home computers we had the first Macs and the PC was up to the XT and in most offices. Within 20 years most people had a P100 and could do publishing at home on both paper and on the web and within another 10 years we find ourselves at Internet 2.0. Given that technology generally builds on what has gone before and we already have full plans on the Internet and a growing gaggle of people being involved, and the fact the machines can to some extent clone themselves, this sort of technology is probably going to develop very quickly.

This leads to my opening title and what will happen when these machines are everywhere and the plans for making things can be moved around as fast and easily as the latest movie on the net. We’ll assume they can make coloured items from plastic for the sake of the argument. Now initially people might be thinking “So what?” but lets examine what can be made by looking around my lounge. The sorts of things they could make easily, without thinking of complex machines with electronics, can se seen: photo frames, some computer parts like customised speaker housings, various containers for nicknacks, DVD cases, power point fittings minus the guts, lamp shades, sporting statues, keys, small collectible toys, plastic thongs, puzzles. Although this doesn’t sound too flash all of things are part of our consumer society and were bought from others who made them, and sold them for a profit. There might not be a big business in lamp shades but items like toys, puzzles, games and photo frames are the sorts of simple things which could be handy.

However I’ll predict the real killer product will come from left field, in the same way this computer is being used to write a blog that enables global publishing from home, something that wasn’t predicted when hobby PC’s were exactly that. This is exactly the technology that has that “you haven’t seen anything yet” feel too it. There is a company that uses this technology for making statues of your avatars in VR worlds like Second Life and the Mii of you, from the Nintendo Wii world. They cost from $50 to $100. You could also make moulds for making items from metal, which opens up the opportunity of making mini busts of your family members rather than just 2D photos. Some sort of plastic mold with a metal powder that could be cooked in a microwave would defiantly open up possibilities. Oh btw, I’ll copyright that idea. 🙂

The ability to perform our own publishing hasn’t destroyed the paper industry, the Internet hasn’t closed down Hollywood (mores the pity) and MP3’s haven’t seemed to destroy every band on the planet. (For that we have Idol.) So I’m not too sure home fabbing will destroy the manufacturing centers any quicker than China will send them to the wall. But it does open up an interesting future. Need a certain key?, no problem. Need a gun?, what model? Need a copy of that collectible Star Wars toy? Hmmm, download version 1.71 or 2.0 with the extra detail? Like all technologies and advances, they can be a two edged sword and human creativity is bound to give us more than we bargained for.

What will you use your fabber for?