Thursday, October 21, 2010

R.I.P. Benoît Mandelbrot

Benoît Mandelbrot delivers his presentation, 'The (Mis)Behavior of Markets: A Fractal View of Risk, Ruin and Return' at Microsoft Research, 23 August 2004.

It’s with great sadness that I read about the passing of Benoît B. Mandelbrot, renowned as the Father of Fractal Geometry. He taught me more about the universe than any other individual.

I first read about fractal geometry in the late ‘70s, probably in Scientific American or Byte magazine, and this inspired me to program my Exidy Sorcerer to generate Mandelbrot Set images.

The Exidy Sorcerer personal computer, 1978–1980. Marcin Wichary /

The Exidy Sorcerer personal computer, 1978–1980.

Lest we forget, that machine had a Zilog Z80 processor running at 2 MHz, with 8 kilobytes of RAM (expandable to 32K); it took many minutes to generate a small monochrome view that was 100x100 pixels. 

Monochrome Mandelbrot Set.

Old-skool monochrome Mandelbrot Set, circa 1979.

My fascination with fractals endured throughout the ‘80s – my final project in my Digital Systems class (6.111) was an EPROM / microcode implementation of  a Mandelbrot Set engine. It could generate a 256x256 image in a minute or two.

256 color Mandelbrot Set.

Old-skool 256-color Mandelbrot Set, circa 1986.

As a senior in 1987, I was fortunate to attend a lecture by Professor Mandelbrot in the venerable room 10-250. He was charming, self-effacing, and spoke with a clarity that elicited little bursts of illumination in my brain.

The late ‘80s saw a wave of interest in fractal geometry, both in the scientific and popular literature. One of the best books to emerge was Michael Barnsley’s Fractals Everywhere, which brought a mathematical rigor to the subject that was accessible to dilettantes like me.

Fractals Everywhere: The First Course in Deterministic Fractal Geometry by Michael F. Barnsley (Hardcover - 1988)

Fractals Everywhere, by Michael Barnsley, 1988.

This book inspired me to do a bit of analysis myself, so I persuaded my employer at the time (Boeing) to let me roam the company looking for chaotic dynamics in various data sets. It was a lot of fun, and I got a paper and a conference trip to New Orleans out of it.

My second encounter with Professor Mandelbrot was in 2004, when he gave a presentation to Microsoft Research, discussing his work in applying multifractal analysis to market data. With devastating efficiency, he eviscerated Black-Shoales and the underpinnings of portfolio theory (hint: market data are not IID). I suspect that he was not surprised by the global financial collapse of 2008.

The (Mis)behavior of Markets. Benoit Mandelbrot, Richard L. Hudson, 2004.

The (Mis)behavior of Markets, by Benoit Mandelbrot and Richard L. Hudson, 2004.

Today, chaos theory and fractal geometry drift in and out of my career, with fun diversions like this generative architecture project:

Evolved structure with a double-helix form. Senatore, 2009

Gennaro Senatore: Morphogenesis of Spatial Configurations, 2009.

Here’s a quick phase-space reconstruction of 100,000 millenia of simulated insolation on Summer Solstice at 65N latitude.

Poincaré map for 100,000 millenia of simulated insolation. Galasyn, 2009

Poincaré map for 100 million years of Earth’s wiggles.

Benoît Mandelbrot’s work has formed the background for my entire adult life. Maybe he’ll receive a posthumous Nobel Prize.  The man who gave us this certainly deserves it:

Partial view of the Mandelbrot set. Step 7 of a zoom sequence: Each of this crowns consists of similar 'seahorse tails'. Their number increases with powers of 2, a typical phenomenon in the environment of satellites. # Coordinates of the center: Re(c) = -.743,643,135, Im(c) = .131,825,963 # Horizontal diameter of the image: .000,014,628 # Magnification relative to the initial image: 210,350. Created by Wolfgang Beyer with the program Ultra Fractal 3. via

Partial view of the Mandelbrot set, by Wolfgang Beyer with the program Ultra Fractal 3.

Thank you, Benoît Mandelbrot.

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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Why did Google bet $1 million on Shweeb?

Shweeb, a pedal-powered monorail.

By Kyle Almond, CNN
October 12, 2010 8:59 a.m. EDT | Filed under: Innovation

(CNN) -- Living in Tokyo, Japan, during the late '90s, Geoffrey Barnett found it extremely difficult -- even dangerous -- to ride his bicycle to work every day.

"The traffic is incredible, and there's so much pollution," said Barnett, an Australian who worked in the city as an English teacher.

His students shared his frustration, and they would often talk about Tokyo's jam-packed streets during class.

"It was always a topic of discussion that motivated the students to talk, because it was a part of their life as well," Barnett recalled.

Out of those frequent discussions evolved Barnett's idea for Shweeb, a system of personal, pedal-powered monorail pods that he hopes can one day become an alternative form of urban transit. With Shweeb, pods hang from an elevated track that, theoretically, would stretch to destinations throughout a city.

"Cumbersome, jammed-up cities of today should be rendered into completely accessible worlds once you've got a way to shoot over the traffic," said Barnett, who derived the name Shweeb from the German word "schweben," which means to hang, hover or float. He left Tokyo in 2000 to design a prototype.

Barnett's vision received a significant boost last month when Google awarded Shweeb $1 million for research and development. Shweeb was one of five winners of Project 10^100, Google's "call for ideas to change the world." …

Why did Google bet $1 million on Shweeb?

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Monday, October 11, 2010

After oil spill, Alabama, Mississippi landowners paid to create artificial marshes

A great blue heron stands tall among a flock of seagulls on pier along Front Beach Drive in Ocean Springs Friday Oct. 10, 2008. Alabama and Mississippi are paying landowners to build artificial marshlands for birds deprived of natural marshland by the oil spill. The Mississippi Press / Jon Hauge

By George Altman, Press-Register
Monday, October 11, 2010

WASHINGTON — Alabama and Mississippi are paying landowners $6.75 million in total to create artificial marshes, typically by flooding farm fields, for birds deprived of natural marshland by the oil spill, according to government information.

Top conservation officials in both states said that the decision to launch the federal program, dubbed the Migratory Bird Habitat Initiative, was made in the early stages of the spill, when no one knew how much oil would gush or for how long.

Although the surface of Gulf waters and shores appears to have escaped a worst-case scenario, they say the program is still doing good.

“Had we done nothing and then the worst would have happened, where would we be?” said Alabama State Conservationist William Puckett. …

Homer Wilkes, state conservationist for Mississippi, said that the “ounce of prevention” represented by the program is far better than the “pound of cure” that would have been required had birds been limited to oiled marshes. …

Puckett said that regardless of the program’s initial spill-related mission, new places for migratory birds to rest are beneficial. “The positive is, we did create thousands and thousands of acres of additional bird habitat,” he said. …

After oil spill, Alabama, Mississippi landowners paid to create artificial marshes

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Cuccinelli goes fishing again: Virginia AG revives witch hunt against climate scientist

Virginia AG Ken Cuccinelli has launched another wtich hunt against climate scientist Michael mann. washingtonpost.comRealClimate @ 4 October 2010

In keeping with our role as a site that tries to deal with the science of climate change rather than the politics, we have specifically refrained from commenting on various politically-motivated legal shenanigans relating to climate science. Some of them have involved us directly, but we didn’t (don’t) want to have RC become just a blog about us. However, the latest move by Ken Cuccinelli, the Attorney General of Virginia, against Mike Mann and UVa is so ridiculous it needs to be highlighted to the widest audience possible.

For background, Rosalind Helderman at the Washington Post has covered most of the story. The last installment was that Cuccinelli’s attempt to subpoena 10 years of emails between 39 scientists and Mike Mann and ‘all documents’ residing at UVa related to four federal and one Commonwealth of Virginia grant, was thrown out by a judge because Cuccinelli did not provide any reason to suspect that fraud had occurred and that federal grants are not covered by the relevant statute. Without due cause, the AG is not allowed to investigate (and without such a restriction, there would be no end to politically motivated witch hunts).

Yesterday, Cuccinelli filed a new demand that takes this previous judgment into account. Namely, he attempts to give a reason to suspect fraud and only targets the Commonwealth grant – though still asks for 10 years of emails with an assortment of scientists. However, his reasoning should scare the bejesus of anyone who has ever published a paper on any topic that any attorney might have a political grudge against. …

Cuccinelli goes fishing again

Good news from Italy: the Kitegen is in motion

Illustration of Kitegen airborne wind energy system.

Posted by Ugo Bardi
October 4, 2010 - 5:23am

I am just back from a trip to Piedmont, Northern Italy, where I have visited the construction site of the new prototype of the Kitegen; the high altitude wind power (or "Airborne Wind Energy", AWE) system being developed by Kitegen Research s.r.l., headed by Massimo Ippolito. I can bring good news to you: the kitegen project is in motion. After a first, reduced scale prototype, built and tested two years ago, now a full size system is being completed.

The Kitegen is a very innovative technology based on the idea of capturing the abundant energy of high altitude winds. It uses a kite that is launched from a ground based structure that contains all the machinery and control systems. The kite is expected to fly at altitudes up to 2000 meters and to provide energy by pulling on a set of cables that act on a power generator.

The promise of the kitegen is remarkable; preliminary calculations indicate an EROEI better than anything that can be obtained by traditional wind or solar technologies. However, one thing is paper, another is the reality of putting together a machine that had never been built before. It is an incredible challenge that Massimo Ippolito has taken onto himself and that he is succeeding in overcoming; step by step. …

Good news from Italy: the Kitegen is in motion

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Saturday, October 2, 2010

Genetically altered trees and plants could help counter global warming

Phytosequestration, including fossil-fuel offset by bioenergy crops: Potential strategies for phytosequestration and estimated carbon (C) sequestration rates by 2050. Jansson, et al, 2010

Forests of genetically altered trees and other plants could sequester several billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere each year and so help ameliorate global warming, according to estimates published in the October issue of BioScience.

The study [pdf], by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, outlines a variety of strategies for augmenting the processes that plants use to sequester carbon dioxide from the air and convert it into long-lived forms of carbon, first in vegetation and ultimately in soil. Besides increasing the efficiency of plants' absorption of light, researchers might be able to genetically alter plants so they send more carbon into their roots—where some may be converted into soil carbon and remain out of circulation for centuries. Other possibilities include altering plants so that they can better withstand the stresses of growing on marginal land, and so that they yield improved bioenergy and food crops. Such innovations might in combination boost substantially the amount of carbon that vegetation naturally extracts from air, according to the authors' estimates. The researchers stress that the use of genetically engineered plants for carbon sequestration is only one of many policy initiatives and technical tools that might boost the carbon sequestration already occurring in natural vegetation and crops.

The article, by Christer Jansson, Stan D. Wullschleger, Udaya C. Kalluri, and Gerald A. Tuskan, is the first in a Special Section in the October BioScience that includes several perspectives on the prospects for enhancing biological carbon sequestration. Other articles in the section analyze the substantial ecological and economic constraints that limit such efforts. One article discusses the prospects for sequestering carbon by culturing algae to produce biofuel feedstocks; one proposes a modification of the current regulatory climate for producing genetically engineered trees in the United States; and one discusses societal perceptions of the issues surrounding the use of genetically altered organisms to ameliorate warming attributed to the buildup of greenhouse gases.

Genetically Altered Trees and Plants Could Help Counter Global Warming