Locklin on science

Russian empire aerospace refugees

Posted in Progress by Scott Locklin on March 5, 2021

The fall of the Russian Empire in 1917 is one of those human disasters little appreciated; I think even the Russians don’t appreciate what was lost. 1913 Russia was rapidly industrializing, and had built an absurdly efficient bureaucracy: making the  efficient Wilhelmine bureaucracy look bad. Russia’s rate of change in 1913 was  astounding; post Port Arthur, they really cracked the whip on modernization and industrialization. They did it with 1/3 the per-capita number of bureaucrats of Germany’s bureaucracy. 

Russia of the era was a former undeveloped wasteland to the east,  fairly recently expanded into Asia in the same way the American nation conquered North America. Huge, populous, formerly backwards and primitive; it was becoming a modern national empire at an astounding rate. Contra our contemporary views of WW-2 era Germans with their absurd ideas that slavs were physically or mentally inferior, the  German view of the time was more or less that ideas of the Ancient Greeks were the root of civilization and progress (aka kultur): and the Russians were the direct cultural descendants of the Byzantines. This was  terrifying to the Germans, and was probably why WW-1 was inevitable as much as any other nonsense about diplomatic secret treaties and Serbian assassins.

If you have any Russian friends, or you used to watch Chekov’s character on Star Trek, you know that most of the stuff you think was invented by other cultures was invented in Russia; mostly in those days, which were a giant blossoming of Russian creativity. Powered flight, the telegraph, the radio, the arc weldertracked vehicles, the icebreaker,  the semi-automatic rifle, the monorail, the diesel locomotive, the seismograph, the punched card, the parachute, mercury pumps, light bulbs, the incandescent light bulb and diving suits, fire extinguishers, the periodic table, genetics, immunology,  innovations in artillery and machine tools, oil tankers, mechanical calculators, anesthetics, tanks, electric trains, radio, modern beekeeping, genetics, brassieres, centrifugal fans, central heating, table glass, space flight, electric cars, adsorption chromatography, television, the hearing aid. You can read about all of these on the (probably very incomplete) wiki page on Russian inventions, as well as the later Soviet and post-Soviet Russian inventions. An astoundingly creative people with a genius both for abstract sciences, machinery and creative thought. You may quibble with their primacy (I don’t think it matters), but they mostly thought up on their own.

“dees was invented by a little old lady in Minsk”


The tragedy is the Russian civil war of 1917 interrupted this great progress and it wasn’t resumed for 15-20 years, when the German threat to the West caused Stalin to open the gulag and crack the whip again. Worse for the Russians and humanity in general; they lost many of their most creative people, who had to move to America or the UK and start from scratch as a stranger in a new land. It was good for America to have them in the fight against the Soviet system, but it was bad for the world, in that centers of productive genius are more likely in hot-spots of homogeneity. You can’t have renaissance Florence if Michelangelo and Cellini were sent off to England or India halfway through their most productive periods (it works OK if they go to Rome or whatever; again, homogeneity, lines of communication, locality).

There were probably thousands of talented engineers from the former Russian Empire who made their way to America (and, for that matter, France, the UK and Germany). History only remembers the giants, but they were giants indeed. I’ll limit it to a few examples from aerospace for their military applicability.

Michael Gregor was a talented aircraft designer, responsible for many unsung innovations in 30s and WW-2 era aircraft design. A former Georgian engineer, he left the Soviet Union in 1921 to avoid being persecuted or killed. 

Michael Stroukoff was an aerospace entrepreneur in the US who designed gliders and cargo aircraft. He was a war hero in WW-1, but had to flee after the Whites lost the civil war.

Alexander Kartveli was an absolute giant of American aerospace, cofounded the Republic Aviation company, and designed the legendary P-47 Thunderbolt, the less stellar but still innovative F-84, and my personal favorite, the F-105 Thunderchief. Also a Georgian, a minor nobleman (many in Georgia); he emigrated to America to avoid death in the gulag, which would have been his fate in the Soviet Union.

Kartveli’s cofounder at Republic was Alexander Seversky. A Russian nobleman, his lifespan would also have been measured in weeks had he not emigrated to America during the 1917 revolution. A daredevil, top-ranked dogfighting ace and Russian war hero, he was a huge influence on General Mitchell and strategic bombing ideas. He literally invented in-flight refueling, which is a technology America still dominates the world in. In addition to the things Republic overtly worked on, he was instrumental in the intercontinental bomber; the B-36, and that father of all modern commercial jet flight, the B-47. All because America took in this persecuted political refugee. Mind you the Soviets never were able to master in flight refueling, and they really never developed intercontinental bombers either (the Tu-160 White Swan‘s capabilities are marginal, and came very late in the game after bombers didn’t really matter so much). A truly great man in every way; he was a huge asset to the US; charismatic and socially helpful; he even founded a decent school.

Finally there was Igor Sikorsky. We know him as the father of helicopters in the US, but he was also a huge pioneer in large ocean crossing aircraft n the 1930s. He fled in 1917 because the Soviets threatened to shoot him. Mind you in 1917, Sikorsky was already a hugely accomplished aerospace engineer; a literal national treasure. And the political imbeciles threatened him with death, as far as I can tell because he was a religious man. As a result, and funded by fellow Russian refugee Sergei Rachmaninoff, the US excelled at strategic reconnaissance in the 1940s and had helicopters before anybody else did in appreciable numbers. The Russians later regretted the hell out of this, even in Soviet times, and see him as a native son, which with a name like “Igor Sikorsky” he really was. One of the White Swans is named after him. Even the Ukrainians named a street after him, despite his Russian roots (he was born in Kiev).

Of course there were thousands of other Russian engineers and talents who fled the Bolsheveks. Just as there were thousands of Jewish nuclear physicists fleeing the Nazis, and later other Russian people who fled the dying soviet system. I think the aerospace example is more pertinent to my point in all this as it was the high technology of the 1917-1960 era and had obvious military importance.

The US presently seems poised to begin widespread political persecution of … people who have been historically recognized as “the American people.” People at the highest levels are openly talking about reeducation camps, lustration of government institutions, political vetting of military forces, hysterical conspiracy theories, deplatforming, political vetting for apolitical private sector jobs, closing down churches and synagogues, travel certificates, banning people’s ability to communicate or do financial transactions. The US has been working itself up to this for about 20 years now, since the “war on terror” started, and the oligarch weaponization of “woke” politics to keep the left from raising their taxes post Occupy Wall Street. Now it’s a war of terror, and the enemy, as they say, is us. Conservative family-oriented religious people like Sikorsky and Seversky have achieved pariah status; the government and institutions apparently think it can do without them, despite their being the backbone of every functioning civilization for all of human history.  They worry about political loyalty in the rank and file military: I’d posit they need to worry about the actual talent that makes the country function technologically and infrastructure wise. Because an awful lot of those people are very talented; just like they were in the dying Russian empire. The tall poppies get chopped down in this situation: not the midget ones.

It’s no longer news that legions of talented engineers are fleeing the California nightmare dystopia for more agreeably governed places. More than half the state is thinking about it. Really; I’d say this has already happened, and California is finished.  What probability would you give that an innovative and not-obviously-evil tech company is being founded in California in 2021? I think Miami or Houston has a better chance than Mountain View or San Francisco. Hell I think bloody Fairbanks has a better chance.

As America descends into the California model of madness and tech-mediated kakistocracy, the smart and adventurous Americans; the kind that found tech companies, or build devilish new weapons for governments, will leave.  I know many  who have. Virtually everyone I speak to (of course a biased set) is thinking about it. Left wing, right wing: people in tech, military technology, finance, crypto; they see the US heading over the waterfall into madness and want no part of it. 

The talented tenth of a percent of Americans are poised to scatter to the winds; there is no real sink for the talent source spigot. Governmental entrepreneurs in other countries who want to build their country up should probably consider giving them an obvious landing spot. For a century, America was that landing spot for the talented, for the innocent wastrels persecuted, and they helped make the place powerful beyond imagining.  I certainly wouldn’t consider a place like China (they have enough empty cities for it), Russia or Belarus, but if the fall of the US takes its sphere of influence with it, those countries have a fighting chance of remaining civilized, and Russia at least does have a history of adopting talented people and integrating them with their society; even leaving them some autonomy. Smaller countries should also consider it. I can’t stand the climate in Singapore, and who knows what will happen with their next generation of leadership, but it could grow its power and influence by importing 10,000 Americans on some kind of talent visa, and giving them a rapid path to citizenship. Japan or Taiwan could build a semi-autonomous tech colony for American refugees.  One of the European countries could pull it off as well if they had the strategic vision and could withstand the pressures from the US and US proxies in the EU. Certainly the EU mandarins complain about demographics and innovation a lot: recruiting thousands of talented American engineers with families seems like a good idea. 

Singapore building supersonic stealth drones for $10m; seems more innovative than Lockheed to me

 

Of course, nutbags in the US government and witch hunting looneys in society at large who support this sort of thing could change their ways. You’d think the lights going out in the two biggest states in the country would cause them to think maaaaybe there is something wrong with how they’re running things. The thought is too complicated though, and the idea that there are 1000 Severskys  looking into foreign entrepreneur visas at this very moment never occurs to such people who think they are the smart set.  If they ever notice, they’ll probably do something awful like making US citizenship irrevocable (they already effectively are), and not allowing ‘critical workers’ to leave.

 

Mannerheim approves of this message

Texas energy markets: several bad ideas

Posted in energy by Scott Locklin on February 20, 2021

Since everything in the US is politicized right now, you’d be hard pressed to understand why Texas is in the dark. Right wingnats blame renewables. Left wingnats blame deregulation. Establishment monkeys blame the fact that Texas isn’t regulated by the federal government. As usual, both the left and the right ideologues have stumbled on part of the truth, and the establishment are retards who should go fuck themselves.

Basic facts: Texas is not connected to the rest of the US energy grid. Because the US government only has power over states in so far as it regulates interstate commerce, this means they can govern their own affairs. This happened partly organically: Texas is huge, has a large coastline and not well connected to the rest of the US geographically due to natural geography and the fact that no other state has any large cities near the Texas border. Mostly, though, it was a political decision: FDR’s massive dictatorial power grab in the 1930s was not universally appreciated as current-year regime loyalists would have you believe, and Texans preferred that East Coast mandarins not have any authority over the energy grid they built. Theoretically Texas should do fine on its own as the potential power grid connections would be pretty sparse anyway, just as they are in similarly huge California, due to the mountain range in the way, and lack of dense populations at the California border. In fact, Texas actually does have power connections outside the state: with Mexico, which is more connected to it geographically with Neuvo Laredo and Matamoros sharing close borders. It also has a little connection with the east coast for such emergencies, but obviously, it was pretty cold there too, so not much help to be had. There are not good maps of this out there, but here’s one that more or less gives you the basic idea. Or you can look at a very good map of the Europe power grid for ideas of how it actually works in the US; geography and the location of industry and cities is tremendously important.

When demand exceeds supply on a power grid, things catch on fire, and you might have no power for months. That needs to be avoided at all costs, even if someone’s pipes freeze. You can imagine what might happen in current year America, a country which couldn’t produce enough masks for the Wuhan coof, if there were a bunch of simultaneous orders for new transformers and generators. Months might turn into years.

The Polar Jet Stream is misbehaving itself this year. It’s not just hammering North America with cold; it’s unseasonably cold everywhere in the north. Usually it keeps the cold air bottled up in the Arctic; this year it’s unstable and making it colder than usual everywhere. Of course dipshits are saying this is happening due to CO2 induced global warming (“climate change” is a meaningless doublethink tautology), but that’s far from clear. Really, the same sort of thing that happens before a new Ice Age. Doesn’t matter: the weather is unpredictable, and while grousing about the fact that there is weather is apparently a political winner due to the profusion of stupid people, we don’t do that around here.

So, it’s cold in Texas; shouldn’t be a problem. Except usually it’s hot in Texas; the grid is designed with that in mind. When it’s hot out, there’s lots of wind and the 20% of the power grid that depends on windmills is well suited to running the numerous air conditioners that are the general cause of peak load conditions. Beyond that, Texas is a natural gas state; it produces megatons of the stuff, and so about 50% of its power comes from gas, just like most of the rest of the country. Gas wells shut down when it’s really cold out, so, no gas for the gas plants. Coal (20%) and nuclear (10%). Texas electrical grid isn’t that different in energy sources than the rest of the country: it’s light on nuclear and hydro, heavy on wind, which they generally have in abundance. The main problem it has is the energy sources don’t work as well when it’s cold out. The main blunder here is that it assumes peak load happens when it’s hot out, and depends on it actually being hot out. Other states use multifuel turbines and have stored fuel on site for such peak load emergencies. Texas could have stored more natgas on site; and it probably will in the future, as this is the cheapest most sane thing to do. Tanks are cheap. Building an extension cord to Louisiana (which probably had similar problems) isn’t.

Windmills: they don’t work when there is no wind. Ice meme is solid though.

This actually happened before: in 2011 there were other blackouts in February. Which brings me to the final point: Texas energy grid is a libertardian wet dream of insane free-marketism on an essential piece of state infrastructure. Power grids are really the type of thing that should have some regulation; preferably local regulation via a Public Utility Commission.  Texas has one which looks a lot like others on paper, but it gave up its power to effectively regulate anything in the late 20th century.

Texans get their bills from an insane patchwork of energy options “suppliers” which are options companies that basically bet against the consumer. There are literally thousands of “plans” that one can switch on a weekly basis. What is the rationale for this? The idea is the different “plans” will cause the free market of consumers to adjust their energy usage to suit the power producers using price signals, so power producers don’t have to build excess capacity for use during peak hours. It’s a capital investment and so there are maintenance problems, debt servicing problems; geez, the lives of power companies would be much easier if you stupid monkeys would just use a predictable amount of power at all times. This is, of course, barking lunacy, courtesy of modern economists; aka bribed ideologues.

When it’s cold out people will turn the heat on. When it’s hot out, people will turn the air conditioners on. The ideology which states this kind of “free market” will do otherwise, is obviously false and produces no such efficiencies, and mostly makes everyone miserable by having an extra-complex thing they have to manage. It also removes the risk from power producers; if power producers are required to provide electricity including peak load electricity, they’ll invest in their infrastructure enough to make sure they can always do so: passing on the costs, of course, to the general public, who actually would like to be able to turn the heat on when it’s cold outside. If they think they can train the 30 million monkeys to fiddle with their power usage through various “smart grid” mechanisms and price signals, they will not invest in their infrastructure to make this possible.  There are even startups to help you manage this ridiculous complexity.To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, right now there is a huge demand and no supply for power in Texas. As a result those who use some power are going to get HUGE bills; it’s really absurd. That’s the power company telling you to let your pipes freeze because they’re having a hard time right now.

Actual free markets work to social benefit when there is competition between producers. Offloading monopolistic risks and expenses to consumers has zero social benefit. People really don’t turn the heat off when it’s cold out, no matter what the price signals are, no matter how much the morons in the utility companies wish they would. This isn’t a uniquely Texas problem; it’s being pushed by …. power companies, with Green veneer on it. I became aware of this in 2010 and thought it was absolutely bonkers, and anyone who defends it is a gibbering moron or a profiteering power company executive. I can even point you to falsified analysis used to pitch this idea on a pilot program. You can see exactly what happened; everyone complied with the smart grid directives to turn off the power when it’s hot out (peak load in the region studied) the first time it happened, because muh technology I guess. They literally never did it again. The ice cream melting in the freezer in Wally world (shops and large facilities used vastly more power than consumers) demonstrated how bad an idea this was. The one thing that did happen was the factories moved people to a night shift. Through creative statistics this was presented to the PUC as a huge success, basically because the people involved in the analysis bet their careers on it. No doubt they continue to advocate for it. They should be sent to China to pitch the idea.

The free market doesn’t work here because you can’t build a new power plant to profit from these $10,000 a month power bills. The price signal only works one way, and it won’t be heeded by the people it’s directed at; it just tortures ordinary people. The free market won’t induce power companies to float bonds to profit from unpredictable peak loads. Regulators could though, and regulation is exactly what is needed in this situation. Blaming the stationary windmills is pretty silly, though over reliance on them is definitely part of the problem; other countries use lots of windmills and do fine, even when it’s cold out, because they have regulators who make sure there’s plenty of all kinds of electricity. If you want the free market to work properly, let the power companies buy natgas when it’s cheap and store it in tanks instead of offloading this risk on consumers.

Planning of invention part 1: Burton Klein and Dynamic Economics

Posted in Progress by Scott Locklin on February 17, 2021

Burton Klein is a name rarely heard these days. He’s a man that doesn’t even rate a wiki entry; less important than Rachel Dolezal, apparently. If you google his name, you’ll get a few of his pieces from his years at RAND, and Harvard still shilling his (excellent) book from 1977. I suspect he’s largely been forgotten; there are a few citations of his book through the 90s, but precious little since then. Klein was interested in innovation (his word, more or less, is “dynamism”) during a time of obvious American cultural, economic and technological stagnation; the 1970s. Most economists then as now were useless ‘spergs who had a hard time noticing obvious things, like the fact that different kinds of companies have existed, and corporate culture might be important. Klein was asked to do practical work during WW-2, so he was well able to state the obvious. His classification of firms:

Type 1: “Happy warrior rationality” is associated with ideological outbreeding and is commonly employed in making fast history.

Type 2: “Middle-class rationality” is associated with ideological inbreeding and is commonly employed in making slow history.

Type 3: “Accounting rationality” is associated with a zero rate of ideological change and is commonly employed by profit maximizing firms in a temporary equilibrium with an unchanging outside environment.

Type 4: “Conservation-of-power rationality” is associated with organizations which have such a lot ability to deal with unpredictability that they must manipulate the rules of the game if they are to survive.

 

Type 1 companies have new ideas: early radio, jet aircraft, semiconductor and internet companies were type 1.Type 2 companies steal ideas; early Facebook or Ali Baba are classic type 2 companies. Type 3 companies are Walmart, and Type 4 are modern day tech monopolies, insurance companies, Boeing and most American banks.

Klein follows some case histories of companies through their innovative stages towards sclerosis. During innovative stages, companies are generally in constant danger through technological upheaval. To put a more recent example; early google had a very good idea with pagerank, then proceeded to have many more very good ideas which made them the megacorp they are today. Google could have died any number of times in the early days when the server farm was held together with baling wire and nerd sebum. Later they went through a tedious “me too” stage where they stole a bunch of other companies ideas and bought out competitors …. and proceeded to do nothing with them; Orkut, Hangouts; very long list. I think Google was already type-3 by 2008 or so, and has been type-4 for the last few years where they attempted a merger with the government rather than be subject to anti-trust regulations.

My image of 2008 Google

While it’s fun to shit on once great megacorps who have gone past fat Elvis and on into malicious Mr. Magoo stage of corporate life, the real thing we’re interested in is type-1 companies and the conditions which make them possible and successful. Without type-1 companies there is no innovation; no new technology for ordinary people, and no increases in productivity for the over-all health of the economy. Type-2 and 3 companies are also necessary for happiness of the human race; otherwise first movers get all the returns, and they’re not always well equipped to efficiently deliver value to society. This is difficult for innovators to accept; their inventions might be better delivered to humanity by a type-2 or type-3 company, but the examples of this are too numerous to mention. Type-4 companies are entirely malicious and they should, of course, be destroyed and the pieces kept to a higher degree of evolution for the good of the human race. Either that, nationalized or kept under strict public supervision; like power companies. We have anti-trust laws because of type-4 companies.

The quality of dynamism (aka type-1 companies; what we call innovation, more or less) is the engine that makes capitalism a superior economic system to various forms of planned economies. Even the Soviets realized this, which is why the Soviet Union had dozens of competing design bureaus for their aerospace and other critical technological developments. Ideology didn’t matter much in matters of national security; things that worked mattered. Companies or Soviet design bureaus do not take risks and innovate unless they’re afraid of their competitors. If they have no competitors, they don’t do anything useful: they’ll display all the dynamism of a sclerotic government bureaucracy. They may fake like they’re doing things; they may even add to academic research as Bell Labs, the pre-1965 national lab system, and to a ridiculously more humble extent,  Google -X did. But the fruits of the research won’t be used for anything real: only type-1 companies ship innovative, actual technologies to customers, which is the only kind of R&D that counts for anything in the corporeal world.

Type-1 companies need not be tiny little startups, though some small tech startups are type-1 (more are type-2 -some becoming type-1 later). Great periods in innovation in heavy, capital intensive technology were done by medium size firms, with groups or subsidiaries within the firm being something like the Dunbar number producing the greatest payoffs. The skunkworks of Kelly Johnson is a canonical example; highly innovative, efficient subsidiary of a much larger firm. Early Ford motor company was another example; a few hundred people all working in one place, all with access to the boss.

One thing type-1 companies have, and Klein even used the word, is diversity. Not the fake virtue word as it is used today (afaik in common usage, that term mostly means baskin-robbins hued wealthy NPCs, h1b slaves and political komissars) -actual diversity in skill, social class, perspectives, family background and so on. Engineers, product developers, executives, laborers and machinists all working on the manufacturing floor. Henry Ford was probably as successful as he was because he was an uneducated man of humble means, rather than a fancy-pants upper middle class engineer as most other car executives he was competing with. As a result of his humble background, he saw the possibility of selling cars to the ordinary man, rather than keeping them as toys for the rich. W. Edwards Deming introduced this idea to Japanese firms, and while American car companies forgot it, the Toyotas of the world realized that one needs to “Break down barriers between departments. People in research, design, sales, and production must work as a team, to foresee problems of production and usage that may be encountered with the product or service.” Lack of hierarchy in such diverse groups is also incredibly important. Obviously someone at the top needs to make the important decisions, but the breakthrough ideas can come from anyone. If your line engineer or machinist is kept silent by some apple-polishing, scheming middle manager, his insights will be lost by the firm.

Assembly line idea came from a worker who had worked in a meat packing plant

Dynamic firms tend to hire more contractors and bring in more outside tech experts. Same story as the lack of hierarchy in the management scheme. Contractors and outside experts bring new ideas. They also make better use of academics. Academics brought in for insights into new areas can be a real force multiplier. Academics these days are mostly useless bureaucrats, but back in the day they often had specialized knowledge which could be of extreme value to a dynamic firm. But the academics weren’t allowed to capture the firm: the firm is there to make money and ship new products, in that order. Academics should be kept as outsider experts. Internalizing a hierarchical academic mindset, even back then, was death to dynamism. Ask Shockley and the traitorous 8.

Organizational simplicity and a high degree of independence is an absolute necessity for dynamism; you will never see a complex org chart in a dynamic company or subsidiary. Organizational complexity is a sign that the innovative days are well and truly over: the complexity is needed to fully exploit the new ideas, or not so new ideas, and is mostly a sign of type-3 companies. The strength of a diverse workforce and low degree of hierarchy is the ability to generate new ideas and deal with uncertainties and changing situations. If everyone in a company is ideologically the same (Klein’s word mind you) they’re not going to be able to deal with changing, dynamic conditions. If your world is deterministic, as it often is in the case of monopolies or regulatory capture, you can afford ideological consistency in the workforce; it might even help drive efficiencies. But if something changes, barring government bail-outs, the ideological dinosaurs will go extinct.

Klein notes that technological break throughs follow an S-curve. Idiots in tech talk about exponential growth; S-curves are approximately exponential in early days. They’re of course sub-linear in later days. Recognition that all growth is an S-curve is one of the fundamental truths that Klein gets right and a lot of other people get wrong. Everyone in the startup business wants that sweet, sweet exponential part of the S-curve, but you only hit it by being type-1 or type-2.

As we all know, high returns come from taking risks; it’s one of the fundamental economic laws of nature that is captured in the CAPM. You create new things and enormous value when taking risks. Doing the same thing over and over, slightly more efficiently is useful and necessary, but it isn’t going to be an innovative or dynamic company. You need the big, complex hierarchy to profit from the rest of the S-curve. You need everyone in one big room for the exponential part.

Notice how founders are on production floor with everyone else

Thinking to one of the great historical examples: why was it that Fairchild, a fairly low-technology “type-3” camera conglomerate, was able to profit from semiconductor physics, while mega technology corporations of the day, like Sylvania, IBM, and GE, which had huge high technology vacuum tube electronics operations were not? The latter companies certainly made some contributions to semiconductor industry, but it was the weird camera company that changed the world. Well, the dumb-ass camera and airplane-part company funded an independent subsidiary with option to buy, because Mr. Fairchild remembered what it was like in the early days of his firm. They took a risk and funded a skunk works; it worked, and we live in a vastly different world because of it.

Klein predicted the sclerosis that would hit the over-all American economy; everything from affluenza among the middle classes, to soaring real estate prices as a form of inflation, to the inability of corporations to deal with changing conditions without government interference. He even predicted the growth of microstability; predictability in the returns of large corporations, mostly due to rent-seeking parasitism, pushing risk taking off on poor people, and making for social unrest and macro-instability (aka the last 20 years in America). We should learn the lessons of his work in building new companies.

 

Incidentally, speaking of sclerotic companies; if anyone has a way of migrating content and comments off of wordpress; I had to host the images for this post elsewhere because wordpress image upload seems to be failing. Preference for offshore or distributed systems for reasons which should be obvious.

changed the world because he listened to a former meat packer instead of engineers, u mad bro

RNA memory hypothesis

Posted in brainz, Open problems by Scott Locklin on February 3, 2021

There’s an old theory that memory is actually encoded in part in RNA. The argument is pretty simple: there’s no obvious way for all that sensory data to be captured in synapses as long term memories, yet long term memories obviously exist and are fairly reliable. RNA, unlike synapses, is energy efficient, redundant and persistent and consistent with what we observe about brains from day to day life.

You’d think with all the neuroscientists running around these days, this would have been eliminated from serious consideration by now, but the opposite is true. There’s actually been a little bit more experimental evidence indicating it might be true. People have allegedly transferred memories between snails, planaria, sea slugs, and there are accounts of people “inheriting” memories after organ transplants. It’s entirely possible that all of these are the result of poor experimental hygiene and wishful thinking, and there’s nothing really there, but they sure are evocative, and it seems like people should be interested in sorting this out, or finding simpler models which have hopes of sorting it out.

I had run across this idea again reading a Ron Maimon screed on physics stack exchange. It’s a pretty good screed worth reading (thanks Laeeth):

Highlight excerpted for the lazy:

RNA ticker tape

It is clear that there is hidden computation internal to the neurons. The source of these computations is almost certainly intracellular RNA, which is the main computational workhorse in the cell.

The RNA in a cell is the only entity which is active and carries significant bit density. It can transform by cutting and splicing, and it can double bind to identify complementary strands. These operations are very sensitive to the precise bit content, and allow rich full computation. The RNA analogous to a microprocessor.

In order to make a decent model for the brain, this RNA must be coupled to neuron level electrochemical computation directly. This requires a model in which RNA directly affects what signals come out of neurons.

I will give a model for this behavior, which is just a guess, but a reasonable one. The model is the ticker-tape. You have RNA attached to the neuron at the axon, which is read out base by base. Every time you hit a C, you fire the neuron. The recieving dendrite then writes out RNA constantly, and writes out a T every time it recieves a signal. The RNA is then read out by complementary binding at the ticker tape, and the RNA computes the rest of the thing intracellularly. If the neuron identifies the signal recieved RNA, it takes another strand of RNA and puts it on the membrane, and reads this one to give the output.

The amount of memory in the brain is then the number of bits in the RNA involved, which is about a gigabyte per cell. There are hundreds of billions of cells in the brain, which translates to hundreds of billions of gigabytes. The efficiency of memory retrieval and modification is a few ATP’s per bit, with thousands of ATP’s used for long-range neural communication only.

The brain then becomes an internet of independent computers, each neuron itself being a sizable computer itself.

 

This is a pretty exciting idea, and there are several near relatives. There are protein kinases involved in mRNA transcription and immunology which are candidates for memory as well. Functionally they’re all kind of similar: the idea is the long term memory is chemical and exists on the sub cellular level. 

Mechanisms are known to exist. If RNA is the persistence substrate, you’d expect there to be something like a nucleotide gated channel in the brain, so it can talk to the signal processing components of the brain. There is, starting from the olfactory system, which is known to be associated with memory. Such RNA gated channels are also important in the hippocampus; the master organ of memory in the brain.  Furthermore, it’s entirely possible that the glial cells have something to do with it; the function of these are still poorly understood. Women have more of them than men; maybe that’s why they can always remember where your keys are. There’s plenty of non-protein transcripting RNA floating around in the brain doing …. stuff, and nobody really knows what it does.

One of the cute things about it, is it is entirely possible RNA works like some kind of ticker tape for a Turing machine the way Maimon suggests above. There are a number of speculations to this effect. One can construct something that looks like logic gates or a lambda calculus through RNA editing rules; various enzymes we know about already more or less do this; weirder stuff like methylation may also play a role.

There are obvious ways of figuring all this out; people do look at RNA activities in the hippocampus for example. But because this theory is out of fashion, they attribute the activity to things other than direct RNA memory formation. Everyone more or less seems to believe in the Hebbian connectome model, despite there being little real evidence for it being the long term memory mechanism, or much understanding of what brains do at all beyond relatively simple image recognition/signal processing type stuff it is known to do. Memory is much more mysterious; seemingly a huge reservoir of super efficient data-storage.

The fact that more primitive organisms which are completely without nervous systems seem to have some kind of behavioral memory system ought to indicate there is something more than Hebbian memory. People are starting to notice. You have little single-cell critters like paramecia responding to stimuli, and acting more or less in as complex a way as larger organisms which do have some primitive nervous system. Various “microtubule” theories do not explain this (sorry Sir Roger), as disrupting them doesn’t change behavior much.

One can measure memory in some of these little beasts; the e. coli that lives in your bowels and in overhopped beers have a memory of at least 4 seconds; better than some instagram influencers. Paramecia have memories which may last their entire lifetime -if the memories are transferable via asexual reproduction (not clear they are; worth checking) that would be a couple of weeks: vastly better than most MSNBC viewers. Larger unicellular organisms like the 2mm long stentor exhibit very complex behaviors. They behave much like multicellular animals they more or less compete with. No neurons! Lots of behavior. Levels of behavior which would be very difficult to reproduce even using the latest megawatt dweeb learning atrocity that would otherwise be used to (badly) identify cat videos.


Since humans evolved from unicellular life, there should be some more primitive processing power still around, very possibly networked  and working in concert together. We already know that bacterial colonies kind of do this; even using similar electrical mechanisms to what is observed in brains. It’s completely bonkers to me that modern “neuroscientists” would abandon the idea of RNA memory when …. something is going on with small unicellular creatures. There is obviously some mechanism for the complex behaviors exhibited by unicellular life, and RNA is weird and active enough, it is a plausible mechanism. Maybe they’re not aware of this because unicellular organisms don’t have neurons? Argument for them taking a more comprehensive biology course, or, like, looking at something other than neurons through a microscope if so.

I’m not sure hyperacuity is fully understood. I’ve read things which claim that dolphin, electric eel, bat and human hyperacuity (eyeballs, or fast reflexes in video games) is  a sort of interferometry done with the rate encoding of the spikes of nervous impulses. It’s possible that this is true, but it is also possible that some extra, offloaded computational element governs this amazing phenomenon. To put a few numbers on it: bat nervous systems can echolocate on a 10 nanosecond time scale, electric eels 100nanoseconds. Biological nervous systems operate on a rate encoded sort of sub kilohertz time scale, but resolve things on a gigahertz time scale; that’s a pretty remarkable characteristic. They claim the neurons are doing some fancy interferometry on the rate encoded spikes that nervous systems are known to operate on, but there is much hand waving going on. I’ll wave my hands further and wonder if offloading some of the computation on RNA computers on the cellular level might help somehow. Certainly neural nets with memory layers are vastly more powerful than those without. Granted the thing on your video card isn’t very Hebbian either, but one can make the argument at least on the box diagram signal processing level.

There are fascinating consequences to this, I think some of which were explored by 50s and 60s science fiction authors who were aware of the then popular RNA memory hypothesis. Imagine you could learn a new language by taking an injection. Of course if such a technology were possible, absolutely horrific things are also possible, and, in fact, likely, as early technological innovations come from large, powerful institutions. 

There are various mystics who assert that humans have multiple levels of consciousness. Gurdjieff, the rug-merchant and mountebank who brought us the phrases “working on yourself” and … “consciousness,” asserted that the average human consciousness was a bunch of disconnected automatons that could occasionally could be unified into a whole, powerful being. While I think Gurdjieff mostly seemed interested in fleecing and pantsing the early 20th century equivalent of quartz-crystal clutching yoga instructors, his idea is one of the few usefully predictive hypothesis for why stuff like hypnosis and advertising (marketing hypnosis) works. Maybe he stumbled upon the multicore networked RNA memory hypothesis by accident. Maybe the ancients are right and the soul resides somewhere in the liver. Don’t laugh; people have led normal lives with giant pieces of their brain removed, but nobody has survived the death of their livers. The former fact; normal people getting by without much brain tissue, at least, ought to be the end of the argument: purely Hebbian models of the brain are obviously false.

Debate in the literature:


https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnsys.2016.00088/full

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnsys.2018.00052/full