reflections on the technium

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” — Alan Kay

Brown Bag at the Movies – Selected technical topics(12)

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For this installment of Brown Bag at the Movies we will be viewing (abstract below):

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Written by Chuck Petras

July 28, 2011 at 09:49

Brown Bag at the Movies – Selected technical topics(11)

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For this installment of Brown Bag at the Movies we will be viewing (abstract below):

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Written by Chuck Petras

July 28, 2011 at 09:09

Why Every Maker Should Learn Chinese

Over at Make Magazine’s blog is a call-to-action article that makes the case that we need to learn Chinese to fully participate in the world economy.

In this week’s article I’ll talk about why I think it’s a good idea for any maker to consider picking up some new language skills and specifically what I’m doing. A lot of my articles tend to be about the future (I can’t wait to look back on these 5 years from now). So, yes, I think a lot of us are going to find speaking, reading, and writing the language of the soon-to-be biggest economy in the world and, who makes almost everything, is a good idea. It’s something to consider learning, starting now, particularly for makers, especially the ones who run maker businesses.

Why? To begin, we’re not going to be “first” any more.

According to the International Monetary fund folks (IMF), by 2016 China’s economy will be the biggest in the world, surpassing the USA. We’re currently in the #1 spot, China is #2, and Japan just fell to 3rd place last year.

China’s economy is expected to grow from $11.2 trillion (2011) to $19 trillion in 2016, and the U.S. is expected to go from $15.2 trillion (2011) to $18.8 trillion in 2016, which would make China about 18% of the world economy.

Written by Chuck Petras

July 10, 2011 at 09:37

Posted in Uncategorized

Red Teams, Blue Teams, Tiger Teams Too…

A red team is an exercise in non-conventional thinking.  Has your organization tested its assumptions, plans, and future products yet? “Red teaming is not forecasting;  red teaming is the art of challenging assumptions and exploring the possible.”

The below are excerpts from The Role and Status of DoD Red Teaming Activities:

Red teams and red teaming processes have long been used as tools by the management of both government and commercial enterprises. Their purpose is to reduce an enterprise’s risks and increase its opportunities.

Red teams come in many varieties and there are different views about what constitutes a red team. We take an expanded view and include a diversity of activities that, while differing in some ways, share a fundamental feature.

Red teams are established by an enterprise to challenge aspects of that very enterprise’s plans, programs, assumptions, etc. It is this aspect of deliberate challenge that distinguishes red teaming from other management tools although the boundary is not a sharp one. …

In general, red team challenges can help hedge against surprise, particularly catastrophic surprises. It does this by providing a

  • Wider and deeper understanding of potential adversary options and behavior that can expose potential vulnerabilities in our strategies, postures, plans, programs, and concepts. This role (to explore technically feasible and responsive threats) has become increasingly important as a complement to the more traditional intelligence-based threat projections (capabilities-based versus threat-based planning).
  • Hedge against the social comfort of “the accepted assumptions and the accepted solutions”. This includes hedge against bias and conflict of interest.
  • Hedge against inexperience (a not uncommon situation in DoD and other Government Agencies where leadership tenures tend to be short).

Areas where red teams can and do play an important role within DoD include:

  • Training
  • Concept development and experimentation (not just an OPFOR for the experiment but continuous challenge by red teams throughout the concept development process)
  • Security of complex networks and systems
  • Activities where there is not much opportunity to try things out (for example, nuclear weapons stockpile issues)

The red team itself is only one element in a red teaming process. The process can be explicit or ad hoc. Elements of the process include the following: who the red team reports to; how it interacts with the management of the enterprise and with “blue” (the owner of the activity it is challenging), and how the enterprise considers and uses its products.

We identify three types of red teams. Our expanded notion of red teams includes teams established to serve as:

  • Surrogate adversaries and competitors of the enterprise,
  • Devil’s advocates,
  • Sources of judgment independent of the enterprise’s “normal” processes (often from team members with experience from positions at higher levels in industry or government).

And an example of a historical “red Team” activity:

Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). On the first day of the crisis, October 16, President Kennedy organized the “Ex Comm” (the Executive Committee of the National Security Council) to help advise him on the situation, and U.S. responses to the unfolding crisis. His choice of those in the Ex Comm (especially his brother and the Attorney General, Robert Kennedy) was a deliberate move to provide alternatives for courses of action and act as a counterbalance for the strong military response, originally being advocated.

Here’s a Red Team Testing Methodology.

Here’s the Red Team Journal.

Here’s how it might apply to open source software development, Your Open Source Management Approach: Red Team or Blue Team?

Also see Tiger Team and Red Cell.

Written by Chuck Petras

July 4, 2011 at 17:06

Rare Earth Minerals…

Rare Earth Elements (REE) play a strategic role in our modern technium.

Rare earth elements became known to the world with the discovery of the black mineral “ytterbite” (renamed to gadolinite in 1800) by Lieutenant Carl Axel Arrhenius in 1787, at a quarry in the village of Ytterby, Sweden. — Wikipedia

With worldwide demand for rare-earth metals amounting to 134,000 tons last year, and only 124,000 tons being produced, the difference has had to be made up from dwindling stockpiles. By 2012, demand is expected to reach 180,000 tons, which could exhaust the world’s remaining inventory. The result has been panic throughout industrial countries. — The Economist

China controls 97 per cent of the world’s supply and has been tightening its export quotas, sparking concerns that the rare earths could live up to their name. — New Scientist


A simple timeline:


According to Nikkei, “Vast deposits of rare earth minerals have been discovered on the seabed of the Pacific Ocean amounting to 1,000 times those on land, media reported on Monday citing a study by Japanese researchers.”


Back in October we asked readers if they have “Ever heard of the oxides of Lanthanum, Cerium, Neodymium, Praseodymium and/or Samarium?” We added that “With price surges between 250% and 600% in one quarter, you may wish you have.” As we further predicted, courtesy of Chinese attempts to corner the rare earth space, these oxides were due to explode much further, because as their name implies, these compounds are “rare”, and happen to be mostly contained in one country: that’s right China.


Some Members of Congress have expressed concern over U.S. acquisition of rare earth elements used in various components of defense weapon systems. Rare earths consist of 17 elements on the periodic table, including 15 elements beginning with atomic number 57 (lanthanum) and extending through number 71 (lutetium), as well as two other elements having similar properties (yttrium and scandium). These are referred to as “rare” because although relatively abundant in total quantity, they appear in low concentrations in the earth’s crust and extraction and processing is both difficult and costly.


One problem that major powers face in Africa is that China has developed cosy ties with many resource-rich states, building roads and supplying loans in exchange for minerals that help fuel the Asian power’s hard charging economy.

Countries including Japan, South Korea and Germany may have to offer technology transfer deals in order to better compete with China in the hunt for African rare earths.

For the United States, which relies on rare earths for almost all of its high-tech weaponry, procurement is a matter of national security, with a U.S. Congressional Research Service report advocating a strategic partnership as a hedge against Chinese rare earth hegemony.


Tear down videos are nothing new for smartphones – we’ve seen most of the newer BlackBerry device models get ripped apart to their bits, but have you wondered what actually is inside those bits? The folks at Kidela, a communications company with connections to rare earth miner Stans Energy Corp., produced the above video which gets into some of those details. Check out the video above! In the video they focus on rare earth elements (see wikipedia page) which are the metals actually used in specific components within a BlackBerry.


Rare earth elements — of which there are 17, including the 15 lanthanides plus yttrium and scandium — are needed in many industrial and national security applications, from flat panel displays to jet fighter engines. Yet there are foreseeable stresses on the national and global supply of these materials.

“The United States was once self-reliant in domestically produced [rare earth elements], but over the past 15 years has become 100% reliant on imports, primarily from China,” a new report (pdf) from the Congressional Research Service observes. “The dominance of China as a single or dominant supplier […] is a cause for concern because of Chinas growing internal demand for its [own rare earth elements],” the report said.


Sharply raising the stakes in a dispute over Japan’s detention of a Chinese fishing trawler captain, the Chinese government has blocked exports to Japan of a crucial category of minerals used in products like hybrid cars, wind turbines and guided missiles.


This letter formally transmits the enclosed briefing in response to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010 (Pub. L. No. 111-84), which required GAO to submit a report on rare earth materials in the defense supply chain to the Committees on Armed Services of the Senate and House of Representatives by April 1, 2010. As required, we provided a copy of this briefing to the committees on April 1, 2010, and subsequently briefed the Senate Armed Services Committee staff on April 5, 2010, and the House Armed Services Committee staff on April 6, 2010.


China supplies most of the rare earth minerals found in technologies such as hybrid cars, wind turbines, computer hard drives and cell phones, but the U.S. has its own largely untapped reserves that could safeguard future tech innovation.


Britain and other Western countries risk running out of supplies of certain highly sought-after rare metals that are vital to a host of green technologies, amid growing evidence that China, which has a monopoly on global production, is set to choke off exports of valuable compounds.

Failure to secure alternative long-term sources of rare earth elements (REEs) would affect the manufacturing and development of low-carbon technology, which relies on the unique properties of the 17 metals to mass-produce eco-friendly innovations such as wind turbines and low-energy lightbulbs.


Beijing is drawing up plans to prohibit or restrict exports of rare earth metals that are produced only in China and play a vital role in cutting edge technology, from hybrid cars and catalytic converters, to superconductors, and precision-guided weapons.



Written by Chuck Petras

July 4, 2011 at 14:57

Posted in Uncategorized

Brown Bag at the Movies – Selected technical topics(10)

For this installment of Brown Bag at the Movies we will be viewing (abstract below):

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Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Chuck Petras

July 3, 2011 at 18:55

Brown Bag at the Movies – Selected technical topics(9)

For this installment of Brown Bag at the Movies we will be viewing (abstract below):

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Written by Chuck Petras

June 20, 2011 at 21:10

Letter to entrepreneur : Bill Gates (Metabolomics)

Recently I noticed that the X-Prize Foundation has — in cooperation with Qualcomm — decided to offer a “Tricorder X PRIZE, a $10 million prize to develop a mobile solution that can diagnose patients better than or equal to a panel of board certified physicians.”  This reminded me of a letter I wrote last year regarding metabolomics

Mr. Bill Gates
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
PO Box 23350
Seattle, WA 98102

2 June 2010

Re:  Putting the personal in medicine.

Mr. Gates,

I’m an engineer.  When I’ve got a problem I apply a simple objective process – identify, measure, and improve (IMI).  In contrast, medicine follows a subjective process of observation (signs, symptoms) and instant test results to determine a diagnosis.  Given that there are over 10,000 known diseases, 3,000 drugs, and more than 1,000 lab tests, it’s highly unlikely that any given doctor has the knowledge and experience to arrive at a correct diagnosis.

What would happen if medicine followed IMI?

1) The medical version of identify is a science called metabolome and is:

The “complete set of small-molecule metabolites (such as metabolic intermediates, hormones and other signaling molecules, and secondary metabolites) to be found within a biological sample, such as a single organism.” — Wikipedia

2) The medical version of measure is a technique called metabolomics (or metabolic profiling) and is:

The “systematic study of the unique chemical fingerprints that specific cellular processes leave behind” – specifically, the study of their small-molecule metabolite profiles. – Wikipedia

Dr. Art Robinson, one of the pioneers of modern metabolomics, offers:

“These [unique chemical fingerprints] are the immediate result of most biochemical activity.  Moreover, they are interlocked in many different biochemical pathways.  Therefore, it is not necessary to measure every one.  There may be 5,000 substances of importance, but a sample of 500 carries information about the other 4,500 as well.  For example, about 30% of the substances in urine are correlated with physiological age.  Some go up with age.  Some go down with age.  It is not necessary to measure 5,000 compounds.  A subset of 200 is sufficient to reliably measure physiologic age.” – Dr Art Robinson paper

3) The medical version of improve is the correlation of an individual’s metabolome with disease profiles so appropriate corrective/preventive action can be taken.

How can this be personalized?

A consumer-based personal analytical device is now possible that would allow for the quantitative measurement of human health (your personal health, not the population norms now standard in medicine).  This analytical device could measure metabolic profiles in breath and urine, and monitor parameters such as heartbeat and blood pressure.  This device could be packaged to be about the same size as a personal laser printer.  It would use your home PC for data reduction and archiving and as the gateway to your electronic medical records, and to access the world’s foremost experts in the analysis of physiological and biomedical data.  This is possible because technological advances have given us miniaturized mass spectrometers and gas-chromatographs (not unlike those being used by the Mars Rovers in the search for Martian life).  For instance, the Ionchip®, by Microsaic Systems Ltd, is a miniaturized mass spectrometer that “determines the chemical composition of a sample by ionizing molecules of the sample and sorting them by [their] mass-to-charge ratio.”

[Update 11 June 2011: A cool new sensor technology is based on Raman scattering, EDN magazine summarizes: “The university describes the sensor as being able to boost faint signals generated by the scattering of laser light from a material placed on it, allowing the identification of various substances based on the color of light they reflect.”]

The creation of a personal analytical device has entered the realm of engineering; the science being a settled proposition.  Unfortunately even though this is possible, no one is doing it.  The Shirky Principle holds that “institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.”  Medical institutions — especially diagnostics — resist change and are ripe for a disruptive technology to empower the individual (much like the personal empowerment revolution PCs ignited).  This is where your foundation can come in.

I’d like to suggest that your foundation sponsor a competition to develop a personal analytical device.  It should have three levels, with the first level resulting in five contenders.  The second narrowing this down to two and the third selecting the best.  The reason for multiple levels (and a large winner pool) is to allow other promising solutions to be developed independently (if investors are so moved).  Minor competitions could also be developed for electronic data interchange, electronic medical records, big data storage, search, and pattern matching.

In closing I’d like to say that I admire the good work you’re undertaking through your foundation and wish you well in those endeavor.



To which I received the standard reply:

Subject: 	Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Date: 	Mon, 21 Jun 2010 10:46:17 -0700
From: 	Info <>
To: <>

Dear Mr. Petras,

Thank you for contacting the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

We appreciate the time you have taken to suggest sponsoring a contest to
develop a personal analytical device with the foundation. It is always
encouraging to hear from individuals like you who are dedicated to
helping others and spreading awareness about important issues.

As you may already know, the foundation’s work stems from our belief
that all lives have equal value. We think all people deserve the chance
to live healthy, productive lives. In developing countries, we focus on
improving people’s health and giving them the chance to lift themselves
out of hunger and extreme poverty. In the United States, we seek to
ensure that all people—especially those with the fewest resources—have
access to the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life.

We invite you to visit our web site at for more
information about our programs.

Again, many thanks for writing and best wishes for the future.


Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Grants Inquiry

Written by Chuck Petras

June 5, 2011 at 09:30

Letter to entrepreneur : Thomas Heatherwick

I was very impressed with Thomas Heatherwick’s TED Talk, especially his power plant design.  So I just had to suggest that maybe that design would benefit from the addition of controlled environment agriculture.

Subject: Building the Seed Cathedral
Date: Thu, 26 May 2011 12:59:00 -0700
From: Charles Petras <>

I'd just watched your TED talk and was most impressed.

In regards to the Power Station project, one additional aspect 
of any future design should make allowances to support 
Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA).

Since one of the natural by-products of thermal power generation 
(as is the consumption of that power, e.g., data centers) is 
waste heat, which is a free (as in sunk cost) resource waiting 
to be tapped. Unfortunately no one seems very interested in 
harnessing this resource and putting it to other uses.

Recently Discovery news featured an interesting application of 
CEA that would dovetail beautifully with your power station 
design. Specifically crop production in modular units. A design 
similar to that could be embedded in the earthworks surrounding 
your station to give even greater land use efficiencies.

Best regards,


Written by Chuck Petras

June 2, 2011 at 21:39

Letter to entrepreneur : Verdant Earth Technologies

I was very impressed with Verdant Earth Technologies‘  controlled environment agriculture (CEA) technology, so I offered them a few ideas as to new markets they could exploit.

Subject: Controlled Environment Agriculture and the Power Industry...
Date: Fri, 11 Feb 2011 15:03:00 -0800
From: Charles Petras <>


I've been reading about what your doing with CEA and I think its great.

You may want to investigate co-locating with data centers (up here
Quincy WA has a few) and power plants since they are big producers of
waste heat.  Typically this heat would be available as 90 deg water
flowing towards a cooling tower.  From their point of view it would give
them some green credibility to tout to their share holders and the

Actually that hookup would be a novel patentable invention (i.e., using
waste heat from whoever for your version of CEA).

You'd probably want to hook up with some of the infrastructure people.
One guy -- Mike Manos -- use to be with Microsoft and is now with DLS

My only concern is how can what your doing scale?  Obviously the
containers can be racked and stacked, but the issue seems to be
convenient access to harvest and plant each container.  It would seem
that some scheme more ameniable to automation is needed.

Beat regards,


Written by Chuck Petras

June 2, 2011 at 21:10