Decentralize all the Thingz

The postwar period was all about decentralization. During World War II, we saw the destruction that could be wrought with a single bomb on a high value target. Cuz, you know, we dropped a whole lot of those bombs ourselves.

Previously, our missiles and bombers were manufactured in coastal cities like Seattle and San Francisco and Los Angeles, a natural extension of naval shipyards. After the Soviets developed nuclear submarines, coastal cities started looking like a very bad place to be.

Pittsburgh Press, Jan 21 1949

The best way to avoid getting bombed is to have nothing worth bombing. President Truman established the National Industrial Dispersion Policy and awarded big defense contracts contingent on relocation to flyover states. Boeing moved B-52 manufacturing facilities to Wichita and Omaha. As far as nuclear attack targets go, Wichita ranks pretty low on the list. Most people can’t even find it on a map.

The Deseret News, Feb 12 1950

Then there’s ARPANET. Operating under the assumption that we would get nuked (so much optimism!), the military commissioned research into a communications system that would survive an atomic bomb. Yes, it would be terrible if we got blown to pieces and the Pentagon wanted to command a counterattack but the phone lines were dead.

Centralized switchboards and telegraph lines can be knocked down, but a distributed communications network routes around failure. The initial ARPANET was literally four modems connected through long-distance telephone calls.

Things tend toward centralization. Blame economies of scale and inertia. Today, 70% of global internet traffic passes through an Internet Exchange Point in Northern Virginia, where Amazon had its datacenter failure on Tuesday. And everyone’s crammed into the coastal cities again.

Given the imminent threat of nuclear war, I hereby urge President Trump to sign a new Dispersion Policy that relocates Google and Facebook out of the San Francisco Bay Area and over to Wichita. Palantir should be dispersed to an offshore oil rig. Hurry, national security is at stake!

Silicon Valley: How to Deal with Sexism in the Workplace





Find somewhere else to work. It will be nicer and have higher pay. Tech companies are sooo desperate to boost their diversity numbers right now. If you are a halfway decent engineer and identify with one of the thirty gender identities that are not male, Silicon Valley Wants You.

(Seriously though, tech companies are hiring; women and minorities especially encouraged to apply.)

Weregild and the Price of People

Among the Yurok Tribe of Northern California, every male tribe member has a legal and property interest in every one of his kin.

Beginning with the practice of bride purchase:

An average bride might cost about 8 strings of dentalia. The husband then has full claim over the wife and any offspring she bears. If the wife dies before bearing at least three children, then her kinsmen must either supply a replacement wife, or provide a pro-rated refund of the bride price depending on the number of children she produced. If the husband dies first, the wife marries one of his brothers. If they don’t need any more wives, they can sell her.

If a prospective bridegroom is poor, he can choose to buy a half-marriage. In that case, he is only paying for mating rights — The wife still belongs to the father-in-law, as do any offspring. Half-married men can buy ownership of their children – 5 dentalia strings for the first child, 3 for each additional kid.

Indians wearing dentalia shells

These price schedules also apply in the case of weregild, or blood money. If a person is killed or injured, the guilty party must pay the same dentalia amounts to the plaintiff’s kinsmen.

An adult male is valued at 10 strings of dentalia. Bastards are worth 5. Prices vary depending on a person’s social status.

When every human has an absolute value, creditors can seize debtors as slaves, and parents can use their children to pay off loans. Disputes can be settled without litigation.

Reference: The California Indians: A Source Book, 1970.

Weregild stops making sense when the cost of injury exceeds the value of a life.

Here’s an article from China about an unofficial traffic rule, “Better dead than bruised.” If a driver hits someone with a car, they’re responsible for the victim’s medical care, loss of work, disability compensation, and any other associated expenses. This can add up to millions of yuan.

However, if a driver causes a death, there is a fixed death fee that varies by city. Beijing’s death fee is 353,060 yuan, or about $50,000. That was the highest in the country in 2006. As a result, there are numerous accounts of drivers who hit a pedestrian, and then back over them again and again to make sure the victim is really dead.

Here are a couple of cute red pandas to offset that depressing story:

Landowners Have a Duty to Protect Trespassers

My friend, um, Bob, was walking along a trail when he encountered this very intriguing sign.

Driven by a healthy inquisitive nature, Bob climbed over the fence to see what was on the other side.

A lot of yellow tape, orange cones, and safety barriers.
Oh no, the rain caused the trail to wash out!

Who are all the safety barriers for? Bob wondered. Isn’t the locked gate supposed to keep everyone out? Why do they need to put up orange cones for visitors who shouldn’t be there in the first place?

Because our wonderful civil justice system holds landowners legally responsible for the stupidity of trespassers.

In the 1982 case of Bodine v. Enterprise High School, Rick Bodine climbed onto the roof of a school building to steal some spotlights. After removing one spotlight, he was on his way across the roof to reach another when he stepped on a skylight and fell through the glass.

The fall left him paralyzed and brain damaged. The school district declined to press charges, figuring he had suffered enough. Instead of being grateful, Bodine’s family sued the school for negligence.

Bodine’s family demanded $8 million, and the school settled for the nuisance sum of $260,000 plus $1200/month for life (those are 1984 dollars, so I’m not sure how much that would be today).

Taxpayers were rightfully outraged, especially since the quadriplegic Bodine would be on government welfare for the rest of his life regardless of the settlement. California Civil Code 847 was enacted in 1985 in response to that backlash, and now states that a property owner shall not be liable if the trespasser is injured while committing a felony. The trespass itself is not a felony.

And they all lived tortfully ever after.

Byzantine Fault Tolerant Airplanes

Most engineering goals involve making something faster, better, cheaper. But when it comes to aircraft manufacturing, it’s always about making things safer. More reliable. It’s very boring.

It’s also very wasteful. A Cessna Skyhawk has a 361 cubic inch (5.92L) engine that puts out 160 HP. For comparison, my old rat Ford Escape puts out 155 HP with a 2.0L engine. If I put wings on my car, it could fly. (just kidding, more likely it would roll over)

What’s Cessna (actually Lycoming, the engine manufacturer) doing with all this spare engine capacity? Both the Ford and the Cessna have four cylinders, but the airplane engine has bigger pistons turning at lower RPMs. Giant slow pistons don’t wear out as quickly as small fast ones — That’s good, because if your airplane blows a gasket you can’t just pull over and call AAA.

It’s not just the engine. The whole aircraft control and autopilot systems are designed for Reliability First. Modern aircraft fly by wire, meaning digital signals transmit input from the cockpit to the control surfaces (instead of rack and pinion steering like in a car). Aircraft control signals have to be robust against a mouse chewing through a wire or a hacker transmitting evil messages.

This is an airplane.
This is a car.

In other words, avionics systems have to be Byzantine fault tolerant! Like a blockchain. The Boeing 777 and 787 use the ARINC 659 SAFEbus network, where each node uses duplicate transmitters to send messages through two bus pairs. Recipient nodes each receive four copies, and only record the message if all four are identical. Each transmitter controls its partner’s drivers and will silence the whole node if informed of too many errors. The SAFEbus works as long as at least one node is honest.


As a result, a Boeing 777 uses 2500 pounds of electrical wiring for a 300,000 pound airplane. Airbus A380 carries 13,000 pounds of wire for a 611,000 pound aircraft. And yet they complain about the size of my carry-on bags 😠
Aircraft manufacturers could save a lot of weight by tossing the wires and doing it all through Bluetooth, but then the passengers are at risk of a remote hijack. Commercial aircraft are horribly inefficient because they have to optimize for reliability. Everything else is secondary.

Uber’s flying car

It’s because of the whole Reliability First mentality that I think the likelihood of Uber building a flying car is pretty close to zero. Uber will certainly build prototypes, but prototypes are easy. People have been building flying car prototypes since 1917. Building something that can withstand repeated use without fail, and convince the FAA of that fact — Now that’s hard.

Curtiss Autoplane, 1917.

1. SAFEbus, IEEE AES Systems Magazine, March 1993.
2. FAA Data Network Evaluation Criteria Report