Saturday, April 30, 2016

George P. Mitchell and the Idea of Sustainability

Everyone knows Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Few recognize the name of George P. Mitchell (1919-2013).  However, in a tribute after his death, The Economist said, “few businesspeople have done as much to change the world as George P. Mitchell.” The easiest label is that he was “the father of fracking.” Fracking is news. In fact, Mitchell worked for over 20 years to bring the idea to fruition. Working in the oil and gas industry, he earned billions of dollars building a Fortune 500 company. He also funded research into sustainablility.

I, too, was ignorant of Mitchell’s works until I was given this book by the author. Jurgen Schmandt worked for Mitchell’s Houston Advanced Research Center. Schmandt also served as the director of the Mitchell Center for Sustainable development. This book delivers an insider’s view of the creation and development of an idea both more powerful and having more potential than the oil industry.

The concept of sustainability is not deeply rooted. Like science and constitutional government, hints of sustainability can be found in ancient texts, but the seed really was planted in 1713, as the Age of Reason blossomed into the Enlightenment.  Schmandt credits Hans Carl von Carlowitz with the invention of the word “nachhaltende” in German, i.e., sustainable in English.  He coined the phrases “nachhaltende Nutzung gebe” (sustainable yield) and “nachhaltende Entwicklung” (sustainable development).  Carlowitz was a mining administrator. Mines are shored with timbers. No hardwood, no mines. And hardwood grows slowly. Carlowitz wrote a book, Sylvicultura Oeconomica.

For 150 years, although forestry and fisheries knew the terms, most of the world was not awakened to the concepts until the late 1960s and early 1970s. 

Schmandt nicely segues from two chapters on the history of sustainability into a third on the Club of Rome. Mitchell supported the Club of Rome and its Limits to Growth thesis with his checkbook.  At the same time, as this book lays out in careful detail, Mitchell sought a business model that would make sustainability profitable. He was partially successful.
Report by the  US Energy Information Agency
George Mitchell, who died on July 26th, was a one-man refutation of the declinist hypothesis. From the 1970s America’s energy industry reconciled itself to apparently inevitable decline. Analysts produced charts to show that its oil and gas were running out. The big oil firms globalised in order to survive. But Mr Mitchell was convinced that immense reserves trapped in shale rock deep beneath the surface could be freed. He spent decades perfecting techniques for unlocking them: injecting high-pressure fluids into the ground to fracture the rock and create pathways for the trapped oil and gas (fracking) and drilling down and then sideways to increase each well’s yield (horizontal drilling).   The result was a revolution.-- The Economist, August 3, 2013 here.

The Woodlands community outside Houston did not mature according to the plans Mitchell envisioned, but it is nonetheless an island of sustainable calm in the permanent sea squall that is Houston.  That perpetual storm is a consequence of two colliding economic fronts: the success of the urban metroplex and the need for developers to offload their true costs as externalities for other people to bear.  Schmandt’s presentation is dispassionate and analytical, an engineer’s report, not a jeremiad.

 And, just as scientific literacy and liberal democracy are far from ubiquitous, so, too has sustainability proved to be a difficult problem. Despite his obvious efficacy with oil and gas, George P. Mitchell never created a business model for sustainability. We have no sustainability industry, but, rather, a myriad of local and personal efforts, most of them  marginally successful.

Mitchell himself was a man of two passions. One of his children called this “the Mitchell paradox” and that is title of Chapter 10.  It was the author’s choice: Chapter 10 could have been Chapter 1. Define the man, then show him to us.  Rather, Schmandt first introduces us to his employer, friend, and mentor. Then he provides the conceptual wrapper. 

Mitchell was not a Luddite. He parted from his ecologist colleagues when he insisted that economic growth and even expansive development may well be appropriate, especially if the billions of people in the less developed regions are to enjoy the prosperity of the Western democracies.  That does not change the fact that Earth is an island. 

Today’s news is dominated by the US Presidential election campaigns and the military campaigns in Syria and Iraq. But underneath them, continuing, and consistent, never to be completely forgotten and often to be a burr in our running shoes, are the problems of sustainable growth.

And, it is one thing to have some few privileged people working in science (as in 1713), but another that (in 2013) millions of people on every continent can recognize the periodic table. Similarly, the quest for sustainability crosses geographical, political, and economic boundaries, encompassing millions of people who can recognize the word, and have both an interest and (most important) an investment in its meaning.

This book is about the man who made that happen.


Sunday, April 24, 2016

Tofurky: For Paleolithic Vegetarians

If our ancestors had not eaten animals, we would not be here.  On the other hand, not everything paleolithic is appropriate to the 21st century. Bashing each other is just one example. To satisfy that primal need for the genuine down-home taste of burned meat - without the cholesterol and carcinogens - there is Tofurky.  

"In 1980, after making from-scratch tempeh to share with friends and family, 30-year-old teacher/naturalist/hippie Seth Tibbott opens his own company in Forest Grove, Oregon. He expands operations to a vacant elementary school in 1983 -- and decades ahead of the tiny house trend, he builds a 300-square-foot treehouse to call home. Fast forward to 1995, Tofurky debuts the very first Holiday Roast. It strikes a cultural chord with a nation hungry for a tastier meat-free Thanksgiving. 2000 and beyond welcomes even more deliciousness, with the addition of deli slices and sausage and frozen items. Today our growth plans include new products, but also new countries. We're so inspired by a world that is waking up to the benefits of veg cuisine."  -- (of course).
Lauren of Horizon Marketing in Austin
visiting Wheatsville Co-op to bring us
the new flavors.
"The tale begins in 1980, when Seth Tibbott’s beard was still dark and Forest Grove was home to a few thousand fewer people.
"Tibbott longed for alternative environmentally friendly menu options for vegetarians like himself. His quest led him through two states and the founding of Turtle Island Foods, a company now based in Hood River, poised to sell its 3-millionth Tofurky this year.
"That was unimaginable when Tibbott ventured out to Oregon and found a job that “changed my life” — teaching at an outdoor school in Cherry Grove, where he made $25 per week in addition to a place to stay.
“ 'It opened my eyes to the natural world I had been missing all these years,' Tibbott said."  (Portland Tribune here:

When our vegetarian friends get insufferable, my lawful wedded wife, Laurel, says, "Carrots have feelings, too."


Monday, April 18, 2016

Dishonest Scientists: Who is the Guardian?

The "Routine Activities" theory of crime developed by Marcus Felsen and Lawrence Cohen posited a crime triangle: a willing perpetrator, an available victim, and the lack of a capable guardian. That guardian could just be a neighbor, sitting on their porch, watching the street. In scientific research, it seems to be not clear to some that we all share the roles of capable guardians.

Elsevier's executive publisher, Dr. Jaap van Harten, offered a fallacious analogy when he likened the dishonest researcher to a thief in a shoe store and the reviewer to the shop owner. Dr. van Harten wrote:  
 “No. It is NOT the role of the reviewer to spot ethics issues in papers. It is the responsibility of the author to abide by the publishing ethics rules. Let’s look at it in a different way: If a person steals a pair of shoes from a shop, is this the fault of the shop for not protecting their goods or the shoplifter for stealing them? Of course the fault lies with the shoplifter who carried out the crime in the first place.”
The comment is in a sidebar to this article: “Why unethical research behavior could result in a revoked doctorate: An expert who investigates misconduct cases shares his thoughts and experiences” by Tony Mayer (Posted on 5 April 2016), here. I read it first on the Retraction Watch blog (here). I sent this comment, which was not approved by the moderator:
“The analogy is not parallel. The reviewer is not the shop owner, and neither is the publisher. The publisher is the purchasing department of a retailer. The reviewer is an auditor. If an auditor discovers that the purchasing department is acquiring goods that lack clear title, that fact must be reported. It must be reported, first, internally, but, also, quite likely, to law enforcement authorities with competent jurisdiction. Those people are analogous to the ethics committee or integrity office of the institution for which the authors work.
 Rather than a dodge, we deserve a higher standard of ethics from one of the world's leading publishers of scientific research. Instead of limiting the roles of publishers (and their reviewers), it would be more productive for a renowned expert like Dr. van Harten to suggest the standards and means for strengthening and extending them.”

Thursday, April 14, 2016


Technical language is derived from common language to allow more accurate and precise statements, and more penetrating and perceptive questions. Commonly, when we say “real” we mean “true”, independent of the observer, valid, or verifiable, actual; not imaginary or mythical. Pegasus was not a real animal.  Polyphemus the Cyclops was not real, though Odysseus may well have been. In mathematics, “real” numbers are the set that includes all integers, rational, and irrational numbers. “Imaginary” numbers are those whose square (or other “even” power) is a negative number; in other words, the square roots of negative numbers are imaginary. But imaginary numbers are real in the common sense.
Euler's Equation. As sin^2(x) + cos^2(x) = 1
this can be applied to the analysis of
alternating current electricity.
Imaginary numbers are important to the design and analysis of alternating current circuits. (See, for instance, the Wikipedia article on Volt-ampere-reactive.)   Without imaginary numbers we could not have complicated electrical power systems, just as we could not have modern commerce without negative numbers.  Overcoming the confusion and ignorance about the reality of numbers has been a historical process.

The Golden Ratio seen in the Parthenon
has many applications.
Geometrically pleasing,
its algebraic expression
(1 + sqrt(5))/2 is irrational
It is said that the followers of Pythagoras killed one of their disciples for revealing that the square root of two is irrational. Apparently, until about 5th century BCE, the Greeks accepted that every number must be rational, only that not all reductions were known. For example, the Egyptians chose to represent all fractions as sums of fractions with 1 in the numerator: ¾ = ½ + ¼ or 3/7 = 1/3 + 1/14 + 1/42.  

Diophantus of Alexandria (3rd century CE) denied the reality of negative numbers.  The Nine Chapters on Mathematical Art (Jiu zhang suan-shu) of about the same time accepted their reality. Although early conceptions of zero as a placeholder are known from Babylonian and Egyptian texts, zero was not accepted as a number in the modern sense until about 500 CE.  What is nothing? And in the technical language of metaphysics, nothing is not a different kind of something. “Nothing exists beyond the universe” does not mean that “beyond the universe” is “something else.” The confusion over zero comes from the difference between “nothing” and “none.”  The number 207 has no tens; it does not have metaphysical “nothing” in the tens place. 

But we are not confused by that in daily life.  When Mom asked “What’s going on?” and you replied “Nothing!” she was not thrown into a metaphysical conundrum.

So, too, with imaginary numbers. They have an unfortunate etymology, but we use them every day. If the operators in control rooms of electrical power plants could not manipulate reactive power – expressed in imaginary numbers—with real controls, we would suffer blackouts. 

My motivation here is a post on the Galt’s Gulch Online discussion board.  On April 5, 2016, about 7:00 AM local time, frequent contributor ewv wrote: “Mathematics by itself doesn't describe reality. It is the means by which you relate in terms of concepts what can be measured. Mathematics is a science of method, not about things like physics does.” (Reply here in "What is Science?" here.)

Her keyboading error aside (“physics does” for “physics is”), she is usually a very adept student of Objectivism. As a quip, I once accused her of being Dr. Leonard Peikoff.  Her comment about mathematics was a direct derivation of statements by Ayn Rand in Introduction to the Objectivist Epistemology, as well as elucidations by David Harriman in The Logical Leap. However, mathematics does describe reality, as does any language. 

We can give expression to falsehoods using common language, as when we attempted to deflect Mom’s inquiry about our noisy play. Pegasus and Nike of Samothrace are other examples. They are mathematically impossible. Whatever the wings represent symbolically, they cannot function from the meager muscles on the back of the horse or the girl. Arguments about politics and religion, and Monday morning quarterbacking supply a surfeit of such falsehoods. That silliness is impossible in mathematics.

Patent for application
of the Moebius strip
to a power conveyor.
Can you have a sheet of paper with only one side? Can you have a container with only an inside? The Möbius Strip and the Klein Bottle were inventions of topology, a study in mathematics that contravenes common sense. But they do exist; and they do have practical applications. As an investigation of relationships, topology is based on qualities, not quantities. Topology is nonetheless a study within mathematics. Topology is rigorous and consistent. It does not allow for internal contradictions, just as integer arithmetic does not.  

Mathematics does have unsolved challenges. Science always has frontiers.  However, anything that is proved to be mathematically true must be realizable, even if we have not found one or built one yet.


Saturday, April 2, 2016

BSides Austin 2016

The seventh annual BSides Austin computer security conference ran March 31-April 1, 2016. I served as a Host for breakout sessions, introducing speakers, and keeping track of time. It was an overflow crowd of 350 with 150 turned away at the door, or denied a slot on the wait list. In addition, several student groups could not be accommodated at all. 
Breakfast with the Sponsors.
We had two tracks on Thursday and three on Friday. You can find the full schedule on the conference website here.  Many of the sessions were easy to label. “I am a Software Developer. What do you mean I’m on the Blue Team?” by Aaron Poffenberger was clearly for the Blue Team. “It’s not About the Technology. It is About the Psychology” by Dr. Hend Ezzeddine and Flora Moon was easy to label for Social Engineering.
32 Formal Technical Sessions
The first night also included open mike
"Fire Marshall Talks"
But many others crossed several lines on the corporate org chart, and the sessions were not narrowly defined. You had to pick your presentations. That said, all of the hands-on workshops were held in the same room on the same day.
Rapper "Dual Core"
Each track had a Host and a room Monitor.  The monitors counted the room three times (beginning, middle, end) and interfaced with the hotel staff when needed.
Waiting for the Keynote by Ed Skoudis from SANS.
The convention would have cost ten times as much to attend were it not for the sponsors. 
Digital Defense, Rapid 7, SANS, and Splunk were gold sponsors this year. 
The silver sponsors were RSA, Log-MD, ISSA, Pluralsight, Checkmarx,
Anomali, and Netskope.
The five core sponsors were Velocitystorm, Expressworks,
Fusion-X (thanks for the beer!),
No Starch Press, and Pentester Academy.
As a technical writer, my interests are more general. I am seldom held accountable for information security, except as we all are. These were among my take-aways:
  • The best lockpicking tools for the money are the Sparrow Tuxedo ($40) and the Tremendous Twelve by Toools from Southern Specialties ($30). 
  • The best locks are biaxials from Medeco and the Schlage Primus. You can spend $75 for one of these and secure your servers, or you can buy a dozen others at $5.95 each and let us all have access to your servers.
  • For a knowledge worker your credibility is your product. 
  • The highest priorities for information security should be Asset and Inventory Management, Decision and Remediation Workflows, and Visualization and Metrics. The lowest priorities are vulnerability assessment and scanning, penetration testing, and buying cool tools. 
  • Work the OWASP Top Ten vulnerabilities. 
  • Amateurs target systems. Professionals target people. 
  • Security will not be accepted until and unless IT is made personal: it is you in your home who will be violated by your release of company information at work.

Basic security
They call it “BSides” in honor of the old rock ‘n’ roll 45 rpm single releases of the 1950s and 60s. The producer picked a hit for Side A and put something else (usually mediocre) on Side B. Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” was an exception. The Beatles releases were all exceptions.
Presentations crossed organization lines
The concept began in the US in 2009 with Mike Dahn, Jack Daniel, and some others because the CFP [Capture the Flag: computer intrusion challenge – MEM] for Black Hat Vegas or DEF CON was oversubscribed and those unable to present decided to hold their own conference on the 'b side'. --