Robot Intimations in Pleasant Palo Alto

I was in the Bay Area last week for a conference, and was able to take some time to visit my friend Ted Selker, an inventor living in Palo Alto.  It was a sunny day in the 70s.  In February.   Knowing that gloating is among the most satisfying of feelings, I was sure to show him pictures of snow-drowned Boston.  We had lunch in an open-air cafe and strolled down University Avenue.   It’s a modest suburban street lined with low buildings.   You would never know that Palo Alto is the blazing heart of Silicon Valley, with more inventors per capita (1 out of 30 Palo Altans received a US patent last year) than any other city in the world, except Redmond.

But then you see this jammed between two buildings:

The Cathedral of Apple

The Cathedral of Apple

They put their snazziest store in their home town.  We wandered in and were chatting about the recent New Yorker piece about Jonathan Ive, Apple’s lead industrial designer.   “Yes, the luckiest guy in the world,” said Ted.

“Really?” I replied. “They said Ive had obvious talent even as a kid.  How often do you see some object and go ‘ah!’ the way you do with all this stuff?”

“Yes, but he found someone in Steve Jobs who actually appreciated that talent, and could really let it shine.  The world is full of talent, but not much of it finds its niche.”

True enough.  We strolled on, and Ted said “Here’s a place you have got to see.”  It was a shop that looked almost bare.  There were some sofas and a coffee table in the back, but the rest was open carpet.  There were some odd devices against the wall though.  We walked in, and one of them came to life!

Ted Selker and a Beam agent on a telepresence robot

A Beam agent on a telepresence robot, and Ted Selker

It was a BeamPro telepresence robot built by Suitable Technologies.   An operator can drive it around with a touch pad.  It has a camera and screen a little below eye level, so it doesn’t feel superior to you.   We chatted with the charming Katherine, who was driving it from her home in the East Bay.

They’re intended for tele-conferencing, to avoid exactly the kind of business travel that I was on.   Instead of being stuck in some video-conference room, a visitor could roll around and see something of what their hosts’ place looked like.   As Aristotle discovered with his Peripatetic School, people think and speak better when they can walk around.  That’s what Ted and I were doing, after all.

This big version goes for a few thousand bucks (although it can be leased), and there’s a couple-thousand dollar consumer version that lets a tech-savvy grandmother see the kids:

Consumer-level Beam+ on left, BeamPro on right.  Docking stations on floor

Consumer-level Beam+ on left, BeamPro on right.

The Beam+ has lower resolution video, a smaller display, and less battery life. Both systems charge themselves on those docking stations on the floor, but can’t yet drive themselves in there on their own. There’s a down-pointing camera that lets the operator guide them in.

One problem with them is lighting. We could see Katherine very well because she had set up desk lamps around her screen to get a nice even illumination, but our faces were lost in the glare from our receding hairlines from the overhead lighting. There should be some LEDs around the display to help that, just like the bulbs around an actor’s makeup mirror.  There was also some warping from the fisheye lens, but that’s a GPU software update.

These kind of robots may also ultimately be a solution for a problem that Palo Alto itself has – workers can’t afford to live here.   If you make less than $100K a year, it’s hard to live anywhere in the Valley.   This naturally causes resentment.   I saw this myself on a previous night when I was going to dinner in San Francisco and was wearing my conference uniform of a navy blazer.  A street person with a beard down to his chest yelled at me: “Silicon Valley a–hole!”   True Valley sorts would never wear a jacket, but he was right overall – I am exactly the sort of person who would be driving rents up to impossible levels.   Yet if people like me were running San Francisco, we would find places for crazy people to live instead of them forcing them to sleep on sidewalks and yell at strangers.

Anyway, telepresence robots could actually start doing things if they had arms.   With current robot arms it wouldn’t be safe to have them near people, but there are new designs such as the Baxter production bot from Rethink Robotics that use compliant springs instead of hard motor drives, and so are much safer to have near people.   Such robots could do the housework and yardwork instead of forcing people to drive two hours each way from a town they can afford to live in.   They could also do 20 houses a day instead of having to spend time trudging between them.

This was the plot of the interesting SF movie “Sleep Dealer” (2008), where Mexicans work driving robots in the US instead of doing manual labor.    That was dystopic, but it might actually work out well.  And that future is nearer than we think, given what I saw in pleasant Palo Alto.

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What Are the Most Inventive Countries, States, and Cities?

That is, in what places do the most inventors live?   Let’s define an inventor as someone who gets their name on a patent.   Let’s restrict it further to names on US patents, since the US system is much the largest – it gets twice the filings of the EU Intellectual Property Office.   It so happens that Google keeps an XML database of all US patents here , although they’ve deprecated their search tools.   I downloaded all 32 GB of the files for the year 2014 and boiled it down into this spreadsheet.

In 2014 there were 301,643 US utility patents issued.  There’ve been about 9M issued total, so it’s growing fast.  I didn’t count design patents because they’re largely ornamental.   There were 831,131 names listed as inventors, representing 537,662 individuals, where an individual is identified by last name, first name, city, state, and country.   People who moved or happened to have the same name as someone else in their town would not get counted correctly.   Rather than counting names on patents, I counted individuals, although one person may have gotten many patents in a year.   There’s a rather sad story about that which I’ll tell in a later post.

Let’s first look at what fraction of all inventors live in which countries:

inventors_by_countryNot too surprising – these are the leading technical countries of the world.  The US is larger than it probably should be because this is its own system. The UK and France are farther down than I would have expected given their scientific prowess, and Taiwan is farther up.

Patents have been issued to 155 countries all told.  They’ve gone to inventors in a lot of places you wouldn’t expect: Cuba has 154, Iran 62, North Korea 32,  Afghanistan 3, Syria 2, and Greenland 1.  Even tiny Monaco has 19 inventors even though they only have 36K residents.

94 countries and territories had no inventors, of which the largest was Sudan (pop 38M), followed closely by Iraq (pop 37M).   Places torn up by war tend to not be good places for  patent lawyers.  There were also no inventors in Haiti, Laos, Bhutan, and El Salvador (too poor), or in Fiji (too beautiful), or in Antarctica (since no one is actually a citizen),  or in the Vatican, although I’m sure the Jesuits would file a lot if they were allowed to.

Now let’s look at the number of inventors versus number of people in a country.  The higher the ratio, the more inventive the place:

inventors_per_capita_by_countryThese are all the countries that beat the world average of 0.07 inventors per 1000.  The most inventive countries are in developed Asia, North America, and northern Europe, with Israel as an outlier.   This is again unsurprising.   The top countries are largely those whose main resource is educated people.   They invent because they must in order to be globally competitive.  The exceptions to that rule are the US, Sweden, and Canada, which do have lots of natural resources.    They also have lots of talented people, though, and so prove the rule.

Perhaps a better rule is that countries with strong democratic values are friendly to invention.  The least democratic state here is probably Singapore, and it still has a parliament, even though one party has always won.   The most democratic country that isn’t here is probably Spain.

Now let’s look closer at the US, where about half of those credited on US patents live.  Breaking it down by state:

inventors_by_stateCalifornia rules!  If it were its own country, it would be second only to the US and Japan in number of inventors.  Texas does well too – it has more inventors than all of China.  Note, though, that it’s the only red state in the top 10.

Sorry about that blur of names at the top – a lot of states just have very small proportions of the total.  However, there are inventors in every single US state, and even 2 in Guam.  There aren’t any in Samoa or the Northern Marianas, though.

Again let’s look by population:

inventors_per_capita_by_stateIn the states of Massachusetts and Washington, about 1 in 500 people received a patent in just the last year.   It looks overall like the Pacific coast and New England lead in inventiveness, plus Minnesota.   The highest-ranked red state is Utah at 13th.  It’s a bit surprising to see Hawaii at the bottom of the list, but perhaps it, like Fiji, is too distractingly beautiful to invent much in.

But these geographical regions are still pretty broad.   How about if we focus down on cities?   The statistics here vary wildly depending on city size, so let’s break it into categories of Large (> 3M people), Medium (300K to 3M) and Small (30K to 300K).  Here are the 30 most inventive large cities:

inventors_per_capita_by_large_cityJapan and Korea dominate.  I’ve never been to Korea, but I can say that whenever you visit Japan it’s clear that these are a people who delight in skill.    Bangalore, the red-hot heart of Indian tech, is #7, and the first non-Asian city on the list.   Los Angeles, New York and Berlin are the large inventive Western cities, and are similar at about 1 inventor per 3000 people.  Madrid is unexpected, and a bit ahead of London.  Paris actually does very well at 0.6 inventor/1000, but its nominal population is only 2.2M, so it missed the cutoff.

The largest city with zero inventors is Aleppo, Syria with 4.4M people.   Some other large inventor-less places are  Jiddah Saudi Arabia (2.8M), Medellin Columbia (2.4M), and Phnom Penh Cambodia (1.6M).

Moving to medium-size cities we see:

inventors_per_capita_by_medium_cityHsinchu is the richest city in Taiwan, and the home of the chip foundries TSMC and UMC.   Note that the scale here is about 10X that of the large cities.  Hsinchu has about 4000 inventors – as many as Yokohama even though it’s 10X smaller.  After it come San Jose and San Francisco, the south and north anchors of Silicon Valley.   Seattle, Austin and San Diego have their charms for coffee, music, and surfing.    Dixie is represented by Raleigh at #13, the anchor of North Carolina’s Research Triangle, a quite deliberate piece of government interference in the economy.

The largest US city with no inventors is Paterson, NJ, a decayed industrial town near NYC of about 150K.

Finally let’s look at the top 30 small cities:

inventors_per_capita_by_small_cityThe scale expands by another factor of 3X.  About 1 in 30 people in Redmond and Palo Alto was an inventor in 2014; that’s more than one per block.   The top spots are dominated by Silicon Valley, and a similar concentration around Microsoft in Redmond.   The highest eastern city is Lexington,MA at #12 at about 14 inventors / 1000.   It has a reputation as a high-end WASP suburb of Boston, but in looking at the names there I see a huge range of ethnicities.  It’s like the upper West Side of the Boston area.   I was pleased to see my own town, Arlington, MA as #21 in the world at about 9 / 1000.   Sadly, I did not myself contribute to the total in 2014, but I have in the past.

What conclusion can we draw from all this?   It’s impressive to see the range of places that inventions come from.   It’s most places in the world, aside from the dead poorest and the war-torn.  There’s a huge range in inventor density between Redmond and Aleppo, but in the developed world there’s an inventor for every couple of thousand people.   You may well have walked past one today.    Half a million people all over the world came up with something new in just the last year.   No wonder no one can keep up with modern life.

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Dealing With Threats From the Sky

Two days ago Boston was hit by a fairly serious snowstorm.   The city got 24″, while surrounding towns got up to 30″.   It was the 6th heaviest snowfall since the National Weather Service started tracking these things in 1935.   The governor declared a state of emergency, and everyone stayed home.

Leo and Frances in snow-covered Arlington

Frances and Leo off to school in snow-covered Arlington

Then yesterday almost everything opened up again, and today even the schools are back on.   The roads were all clear, and the highways were actually dry.  Pickups with plows are so common that there was never more than a couple of inches on the roads.  In my neighborhood snow blowers are pretty common too – everyone had cleared their driveways and sidewalks, even though the snow was waist-deep in places.    No one in the area lost power, even though most towns still use overhead power lines.   The electric utility has recently been strengthening the lines with steel cables, and has gotten efficient about pruning trees to keep them away from the lines.

The storms are getting worse – 3 of the 10 largest have been in the last ten years – but it’s just not a big deal.  Well-to-do and well-organized cities like Boston have little to fear from climate change.

For example, Massachusetts just passed a $20M bond bill to buy out threatened shoreline houses and replace the properties with parks.  Plum Island is particularly vulnerable.  They have been systematically studying the problem, and now have records of shoreline changes down to a fifty foot resolution.  They plan on implementing a managed retreat where buildings are pulled back from dangerous conditions.   $20M won’t buy a lot of beachfront property around here, but a house that’s about to fall into the sea is hard to sell otherwise.  The town of Scituate did get flooded in this storm:

Flooding on Oceanside Dr, Scituate (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Flooding on Oceanside Dr, Scituate MA (Jesse Costa/WBUR), click for story

Yet it’s considered cheaper for the state to prevent the floods than it is to have to rescue people and storm-proof public services.

The state also offers generous subsidies to renewable energy in order to cut CO2 emissions.  Several houses on my street now sport rooftop solar panels.   The payback time is only five years, even here in gloomy New England.  The state gets 10% of its electricity from renewables today through a program called the Renewable Portfolio Standard, and plans to increase it by 1%/year thereafter.   I’ve signed up for 100% wind power from Viridian Energy at 14 cents/kWh, only a couple of cents more than the baseline.  Viridian was Bruce Sterling’s term for bright green environmentalism, and it seems to have caught on.

Even agriculture is adapting.   I learned from “America’s Founding Fruit – the Cranberry in a New Environment” (Susan Playfair, 2014)  that cranberries need about 1700 chill hours (temperatures between 32 and 45F) in order to flower properly, and that’s getting dicey as winters warm.   Local farmers are already buying land in New Brunswick as a hedge, and some are even expanding to Chile.  New varieties are also being bred that can tolerate the shifts in growing seasons.   Sensors are being put out into fields to measure temperature and water levels, and computers are using that to drive irrigation pumps and sprinklers to avoid frost.

So if you have the money and you have a reasonable political process, you can deal.   And if you don’t?  If you’re Mexico suffering from drought, or Bangladesh suffering from floods, or the Maldives getting drowned?   Well, you better hope that the rich countries, the ones that benefited from CO2 pollution, can help you out, because they sure don’t want climate refugees.

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Deep Time Geology and the Fermi Paradox

Science by the Pint posterA few weeks ago I went out for a beer and some geology, and learned one reason why the sky is so dark.   The beer came from The Burren, a rundown Irish bar in Somerville MA.   The geology came from Prof. Andrew Knoll of Harvard and a bunch of his researchers and grad students.   They were speaking as part of Science by the Pint, a nice local lecture series that provides researchers with free drinks if they tell the curious public about what they’re doing.   The Burren has a large back room and a PA system, and so is a good venue.   The dark sky comes from the Fermi Paradox, the question that Enrico asked: “Where are all the aliens?”

Knoll opened by talking about his work and his goal – to understand the diversity of life.  There are millions of species of plants and animals around us, but that’s not what you would have seen for 90% of the earth’s history.  It was only after the Cambrian Explosion of about 540 million years ago that really complex life evolved.   Before that life consisted mainly of bacteria and the mysterious Ediacaran fauna.   During it, all the major phyla were established.  Life also became much more widespread, and started having a stronger effect on the chemistry of the Earth’s air, oceans, and rocks.

1996-9-9; Newfoundland, Fortune Bay; view of cliffs 18870069

Nice exposures on Fortune Bay, Newfoundland

I once saw this transition myself.  In 1996 I was on a geology field trip up in Newfoundland that was run for Harvard students by Prof. Paul Hoffman.  It turns out that he and Knoll are old friends.   I wasn’t a student, but he let several hangers-on like me tag along.   We drove all over the province being geo-tourists.  At Fortune Bay we went scrambling along the sea cliffs in search of the Cambrian Reference Stratotype.  This is the rock layer that defines the start of the Cambrian epoch.  About halfway down the cliff we found it – a thin yellow line among the strata.   Below it was only sand.  Above it, it was full of shells.  The start of complex life, right there.  That was Genesis, facing us in the rock.

But why then?   There are scads of theories, but Knoll thinks it’s due to a profound chemical change that was happening then – the rise of oxygen levels.   There was an early pulse of oxygen production about 2 billion years ago called the Great Oxygenation Event, but then there were wild swings in its levels, as seen by the deposition of oxides of chromium 63.   By the time of the Cambrian it was still only up to maybe 10% of its current level.  The O2 level may have been rising because more organics were dying and taking their carbon down to the sea floor.  Or it could have been going up because more creatures were burrowing into the sediments, releasing sulfur, a key element for life, and so enabling more photosynthesis.

Without O2 it’s hard to imagine how big multi-cellular creatures can grow.     Bacteria can live without it, but there are no large creatures at all that use anaerobic metabolisms – they all need oxygen for the ATP cycle that provides energy to cells.   They need a lot of oxygen at that, since it has to diffuse directly into the tissues of primitive animals instead of being moved around by circulatory systems.   Furthermore, you need ozone generated from O2 to block the lethal amounts of ultraviolet produced by the sun.

So O2 rises, and suddenly all the genetic experiments that had been happening for the previous hundreds of millions of years have a chance to thrive.   The fundamental building block of complex life, the eukaryotic cell, was already around by maybe 1.6 billion years ago, but couldn’t glom together with a lot of other cells until there was enough O2 for all.

How does all this relate to aliens?  Because it looks like the earth itself is not all that hospitable to creatures like us.   The earth is about 4.5 billion years old, and has had life for maybe 3.5 billion years of that, but that life was pretty much pond scum.  It’s only in the last 500 million years that complex life was possible.  It’s only in the last 400 million that anything could survive on land.  Even within that span it’s pretty likely that no other species ever got to our technological level.   We’ve already burned up maybe 30% of the planet’s coal, which was mainly laid down about 350 million years ago.  Any other industrial species would have taken it all long ago.

So the most bio-friendly place that we know of in all the universe isn’t actually all that nice.  It was uninhabitable for 90% of its history.   It was uninhabited by tool users until a million years ago.   It’s no wonder that Enrico Fermi didn’t see the contrails of fusion-powered starships criss-crossing the galaxy!    Life may arise easily, but complex life needs a lot of other factors to come together in just the right way.   Those complex lifeforms can now have a pretty pleasant existence, hanging around with each other drinking fermented plants and talking about rocks, but they’re likely to be rare in the universe.

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Saving Whales With Quadcopters

A few weeks ago there was a horrifying story on the front page of the Boston Sunday Globe – Chasing Bayla by Sarah Schweitzer.   It described the desperate efforts by Michael Moore, a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceangraphic Institute, to save right whales from being cut apart and starved by fishing gear.   Their main habitat is the North American eastern seaboard, one of the busiest marine areas in the world, and they are constantly getting tangled in fishing nets and ropes:

The young right whale Bayla, with rope in her mouth and abrasion scars on her back

The young right whale Bayla, with rope in her mouth and abrasion scars on her back (NOAA)

The ropes saw through their skin and blubber, causing infections.   They also cause huge drag, preventing the whales from feeding.   There are only a couple of hundred right whales left in all the world, so losing any single one is a tragedy.

Marine biologists have tracked and named most of them.   They are constantly attempting to free them from the tangle, but it’s nearly impossible.  The whales are easily spooked, so you can’t just row up to one.  If they turn, they can easily smash you and your boat.

Moore has been following them for decades.   He finally came up with a solution – a tranquilizer dart with a foot-long-syringe that’s  fired by a rifle.   It takes 60 cc to knock out a 7-ton whale, when a few drops of the stuff would kill a person.   They tried it on a two-year-old female, Bayla, in January 2011, and it worked.   She lay calmly in the water as divers went over and cut off as much rope as they could.

It was too late.   Bayla was found dead a few days afterward, infected and emaciated.   Part of the rope was so embedded in her snout that the flesh had grown around it.   Moore had to do the heart-breaking autopsy.   The skeleton ultimately went to a museum in Atlanta, while the rest of the remains were buried in a marsh.

NOAA is aware of the problem, and doing its best.   They’ve put regulations in place to restrict fishing in sensitive areas, reduce the amount of rope used for lobster and crab pots, and put weak links in them so that they’ll break.  But the ropes are getting stronger and tougher all time, which makes them  steadily more dangerous.  The fishermen themselves are rather endangered, and are hard put to do the right thing.

What else can be done?   It occurred to me while reading the story that some newer tech might help.   If people can’t get close to these whales, maybe robots could.

There has been huge progress in recent years in computer-stabilized unmanned aerial vehicles, quadcopters.   Werner Herzog used one to make his spectacular documentary “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” (2011) , which I wrote about here: You’ll Never Fly But Your Robot Can.   Only three years ago this was custom-built gear for moviemakers, but now you can get them on Amazon:

DJI Phantom Vision 2 - click for site

DJI Phantom Vision 2 – click for site

Only $800!  They’re flown by remote control and send back an HD video feed.  Maybe one of these could be flown over to the whale with a cutting tool on a hook.  It could snag the ropes and slice through them.   If it got whacked, that would be no big deal.

I wrote to Moore with the suggestion.   I mentioned the quadcopter above, but thought that it might not have enough lift or battery power to handle a cutting tool.   I found that  Prof Molly Lutcavage of U Mass Amherst was already using them to track bluefin tuna in the Atlantic, and so might know how they performed at sea.

Notice that I don’t call these things drones.   That term has really bad connotations.   Hear drone and you think of assassination robots in Central Asia, or of police spying.  I thought that any company that makes these would be happy to get some good publicity by helping him.  See, our products are used to save whales, not to blow up people!

Moore wrote back to say that he was already interested in these devices.  He actually has a DJI Phantom, and wants to use it for entanglement research.   They’re already using similar devices in Canada to get pictures of whales from above so they can tell if they’re pregnant or losing weight – Vancouver Aquarium Uses Hexacopter Drone .  He thought they weren’t quite ready to carry tools, but that could happen in a year or two.  Getting FAA permission is also an issue.

Woods Hole has also been working on autonomous underwater vehicles to track sharks.   They used a two-meter-long AUV to follow a transponder fastened to a great white, although the shark did try to eat it: REMUS Sharkcam – the Hunter and the Hunted .  Moore thought that this would be tough to use with whales, since they cruise at 6 mph, and their AUV maxes out at 5.

So he was already on it!   I really hope he can make some progress on this problem.   In the Globe article he sounds despairing.    Maybe these flying robots can do something positive, instead of reminding people of Skynet’s Terminators.

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Lovecraft is Winning

I was standing in the SF section of a bookstore the other day, looking at the anthology shelves.   Of the 74 short story collections they had there, 7 were based on H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthuhlu Mythos.   “The New Cthuhlu”, “Shadows Over Innsmouth”, “Future Lovecraft”, etc.  10% of active anthologies are based on the work of a writer who died in 1937, almost 80 years ago.   In the novel shelves, he had 16″ worth of space, more than Heinlein or Asimov.   He was still behind his contemporary Tolkien (40″) and way behind the biggest genre author today, George R. R. Martin (100″), but that’s still a lot of attention for a guy who only had one book published in his lifetime.

HPLovecraftMechanical2.inddBeing in a Halloween frame of mind, I picked up a massive volume there: “The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft”,  edited by Leslie S Springer.   It covers the 22 Arkham stories out of his 70 published works, including “At The Mountains of Madness”, “The Color Out of Space”, “The Call of Cthuhlu”, and my favorite, “The Shadow Out of Time”.  Each story has a sidebar that expands on obscure references, and there are appendices on subjects like the faculty of Miskatonic University, HPL’s notes on the Necronomicon, and the 30 or so films that are based on his work.   The whole is beautifully printed and bound.  Jonathan Franzen would kill to get such an edition.

So why all this attention?  In his introduction, Alan Moore thinks it’s because Lovecraft’s racism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism made him just an ordinary white guy in the modernizing America of the 20s and 30s.  What?  Do ordinary white guys die of malnutrition because they’re too proud and nervous to hold a job?  Do anti-Semitic misogynists marry Jewish women?  Moore does, however, do a nice pastiche of Lovecraft’s convoluted and near-impenetrable writing style.

No, it’s not the fear of immigration by degenerate Others that prompts the present-day interest.   I think it’s more Lovecraft’s sense of the vastness of the universe and our insignificance within it.

Take a prolific modern admirer of his, Charles Stross.   He wrote a brilliant update of Lovecraft in “A Colder War” (1997), where the US and Soviet Union make a secret agreement to hide the discoveries made by the Pabodie Expedition to Antarctica in 1931.   Now it’s the 1980s, and there’s conclusive evidence that the Soviets have used weaponized shuggoths in Afghanistan.  Worse still, they found something at the bottom of the Baltic, something they barely contained in an enormous concrete pyramid.  There’s a wing of US nuclear ramjet cruise missiles pointed at it, and they’re not sure that 300 megatons will be enough when it wakes up.

The Atrocity ArchivesThat story was straight-up horror, but Stross has also written an entire comic series, the Laundry novels, about a hapless IT guy drafted into Her Majesty’s Occult Service.  It turns out that magic is a branch of mathematics, a branch that allows you to communicate with creatures from other planes.  They can do wonderful things for you before they seize your brain’s BIOS.  Our hero travels around the world dealing with such incursions, and praying against the day when the Old Ones finally notice humanity.

For Stross and other modern writers, Lovecraft is interesting because he knew that the universe was huge and ancient, and therefore filled with huge, ancient sentients, intelligences vast and cool and unsympathetic.  We’re crawling around on this one rock beneath this thin skin of air, while they’ve been out there for billions of years.

This cosmic dread is the SF version of the general feeling of doom that pervades our culture.   Here we are, as happy and successful as humanity has ever been, and literature is full of disaster and dystopia.   Young adult books are nothing but.  Everyone seems to be waiting for the axe to fall.  There must be a German word for this!  Everyone is as anxious as that lost and lonely man in Providence, looking up at the sky in terror instead of wonder.    He was a crank and a failure, but he was onto something that resonates today.

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Microsoft Buys the Brains of Boys Everywhere

So Microsoft just bought Mojang, the studio that produces Minecraft, for $2.5B. That sounds like a ridiculous amount for a video game, particularly one that looks so crude, unless you happen to know some boys.

Minecraft Steve with his friends and diamond pickaxe

Minecraft Steve with his animal friends and his diamond pickaxe

His world

His world

For my 10-year-old son and his friends, Minecraft is mesmerizing.  They’ve been through Angry Birds and Skylanders, but Minecraft is sticking.  They play it on their game consoles, they play it on their tablets or phones, and they play it in the car when going someplace, connecting together to share a world through a local wireless link.  They play in Creative Mode, where you just build things, and they play in Survival Mode, where you defend yourself against the monsters that come out every ten-minute-long night.  They excavate huge caverns, looking for algorithmically placed gold and diamonds, craft weapons and tools, and build vast gravity-defying structures.

At 54 million copies sold, it’s the third best-selling game of all time, after Tetris and Wii Sports, and it sells for a lot more than they do.  Mojang was privately held, but was said to be making upwards of $200 million a year.  Merchandise is everywhere: T-shirts, cardboard Steve heads, guides, and even novels.  There’s even a nice papercraft version that turns the virtual world into a physical one – it lets you fold together actual blocks printed to look like the virtual ones, and assemble the animals and monsters to populate its world.

Its success is dismaying if you’re into computer graphics; it looks like renders from the 80s.  That’s a feature, actually; the simple graphics let it run fast on a huge range of platforms.  There has been an enormous improvement in graphics hardware and software over the last 20 years, all driven by the perceived need for most realistic imagery, and all ignored by this game’s fans.   The kids don’t need landscapes to look like landscapes; they need them to look like blocks that they can move around.   Real worlds wouldn’t look like they could be manipulated.

Scott McCloud talked about this in his seminal 1993 book “Understanding Comics”:

pg 31, click for link to site

pg 31, click for link to site

Abstracting away detail makes images more universal.  It lets people project more onto them.   If they become too abstract, one’s imagination can’t get started, and the image is boring.  If they are too specific, their interest becomes too narrow.

I’ve seen this go both ways with actual building block toys.   There’s a toy called Kapla Blocks that consists of nothing but identical wooden pieces that are about 5 x 15 x 75 mm.   It’s a completely minimal building set.  Adults love them, and you see them in science museums, because they’re utterly open-ended.

kapla block shipKids, though, tend to be baffled.  They don’t know where to start.   Mine at least are happier with kits that are already customized towards being castles or spaceships.  This is the guilty secret behind LEGO – they promise the parents that they are a completely universal building kit that will spark their children’s creativity, but the kids actually only ever build the X-wing fighter.

Minecraft is also playing towards parents’ desires.   The last thing they want is for their kids to be playing the #6 best-selling game, Grand Theft Auto.  It’s bad enough that they’re staring at screens instead of running around with each other, but at least here there’s some social interaction in the shared worlds, and some scope for imagination.

So $2.5B was not actually a lot for Minecraft.   At the current run rate, that’s about a 10% yearly return on the money.   If they put some effort into it, it could get bigger still.  I expect that they’ll do a Kinect version soon, where you can dig, craft, and fight by moving in front of the 3D camera.   It could ultimately become a Microsoft-controlled Second Life.  Have your users build wonderful, share-able worlds, then sit back and let money roll in.  Maybe the original Evil Empire of software still has some diabolical schemes left in it.

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