Sunday, August 30, 2015

Gun Madness


I've been thinking about gun violence. It's always in the news because with over 33,000 gun deaths per year in the USA, we're never more than a few days away from a major national gun death story. Just the other day, a disgruntled, fired ex-reporter from a TV station in Virginia killed two of his former colleagues while they were on the air doing a live news interview. He later killed himself. I can't find the number, but there were probably at least two dozen other gun murders in America on August 26. Something like 25 to 30 murders occur daily along with many other gun deaths, suicides and accidents, an average of about 90 gun deaths per day nationwide.

Considering that we are supposed to be an "advanced country," this is obviously appalling, but there doesn't seem to be anything we can do about it because of our history and politics. The paranoid gun lobby opposes even the most minor commonsense restrictions on gun availability. I feel lucky to live in the state with the second lowest number of gun deaths and nearly the lowest rate of gun ownership in the country. Only Hawaii is better than Massachusetts. These statistics are obviously closely related, but that is not obvious to the many people who feel that even the slightest restriction on the right to buy, own, and use guns is a violation of their civil rights. But what about the civil rights of the thousands of people who are killed or injured by these guns?

There are some countries in South America and Africa where there are more per capita deaths due to gun violence then in the USA. But we are the only country in the world with an advanced economy and high levels of education that suffers such high rates of gun violence. The US has 88.8 guns per 100 people, the highest in the world. This must reflect many people owning multiple guns, because the range for household gun ownership goes from 60.6% in Alaska down to 9.7% in Hawaii. Of course gun death rates correlate closely with these statistics. Hawaii has 2.6 gun deaths per 100,000 people (Massachusetts has 3.1, 2013 figures). At the top end, Alaska has 19.8 deaths per 100,000 people (the rest of the top five is Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Wyoming).

The national average for gun deaths in the US is 10.4 per 100,000 people. Compare this to some other advanced and seemingly still free countries: Australia 0.86, Canada 2.22, France 3.01, Germany 1.24, New Zealand 1.45, UK 0.26. Countries with numbers more similar to the US include Argentina 10.05, Uruguay 14.01, South Africa 21.5, Brazil 19.03, Mexico 11.2, Colombia 28.14, and Jamaica 39.7. Venezuela blows everybody away with 50.9 gun deaths per 100,000 people ("mixed years" says Wikipedia -- statistics vary in year and quality). I'm sure the US role as a leading market for illegal drugs helps push up the numbers in drug-source countries like Mexico and Columbia. Another benefit from the War on Drugs!

As I said to my wife last night, this feels something like an uncontrollable natural disaster or plague for us, like a monsoon or an earthquake that hits every few days. Or maybe like living next to an active volcano. Other countries somehow manage to get better at this as they become more educated and more prosperous. But not God-Blessed-America! Here it is tied to the willful ignorance of a big chunk of largely "God-fearing" people, many of whom also deny evolution and climate change and refuse to vaccinate their children. Aided and abetted by certain Republican, corporate, and religious leaders.

I will end this cheerful survey with an observation from Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times who pointed out recently that more Americans have died from domestic gun violence between 1968 and the present than have died in all wars fought by the US, including the Civil War (estimated at 750,000 deaths, though disease probably accounts for more of those than guns). This was fact checked by politifact.com and seems to be true, with about 1.4 million killed in American wars, versus 1.5 million in American streets and homes. There's the case for American exceptionalism right there.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Aurora: Generations Through the Void

Aurora is Kim Stanley Robinson's (KSR) new book, a science-fiction novel set about 400 years in the future. I really enjoyed it. The "Accelerando" (singularity) has occurred, and Earth has sent out a number of generation ships traveling at sub-lightspeed (0.1c) toward nearby stars with planetary systems. The story takes place on the Aurora, which is about 160 years into its journey and is nearing Tau Ceti. They are in their deceleration phase, using a continuous series of small hydrogen bomb explosions to slow them down so they can enter orbit around an Earth-like moon orbiting a "small Neptune" planet in the star's habitable zone. The ship has two large, rotating rings which each contain a set of twelve, 4 km long "biomes" that simulate specific environments on the earth, complete with weather, plants, animals, and human towns. There are around 2,100 6th-generation humans on board, and they apparently have their share of technical and social problems.

The story is largely narrated by Ship, a quantum computer-powered AI that operates all the systems on the Aurora. The lead engineer is a woman named Devi, and her adolescent daughter Freya is the main protagonist in the early part of the book. They are sixth and seventh generation descendents of the humans who boarded the ship 160 years earlier. At this time, Freya is going off on her coming-of-age "Wanderjahr" which provides a nice device for visiting and describing various parts of this huge ship. As usual in KSR space societies (and life), there are conflicts and rebels and troublemakers -- it is certainly no Utopia. But it makes for a lot of good storytelling.

Aurora is incrediby detailed, but thought provoking and engaging as KSR's books tend to be for me. It connects in some ways to his 2312 world, where there were human settlements on Mercury, Mars, the moons of Saturn, and in hollowed-out asteroids, but in many ways it's an anti-space, pro-environment book, which is consistent with some of the things I read in a recent interview with KSR. Human beings are animals which have co-evolved with all the other life forms within Earth's environment. It's quite a trick to build a spaceship or a space settlement where humans can live for a while, and an even cooler trick to build one that can function as a closed environment for 170+ years. But in the end, this environment and the environment of some "earthlike" planet are just poor imitations of where humans are meant to be, the Earth.

I say "meant to be" not in some philosophical destiny sense, but purely in an evolutionary and environmental sense, as KSR depicts in this book. Aurora is huge for a spaceship, and equipped with multiple "biomes" modeled on various Earth environments. Everything the designers could think of is there to form a closed life-support system, but they couldn't think of everything -- for example, they did not fully account for variable rates of evolution between large mammals and bacteria. They experience some of problems of island evolution with small populations. The cleverness and persistence of people like Devi and of the ship's AI allow them to overcome many of the problems for many years, all the way to Tau Ceti, where they encounter other problems.

MINOR SPOILER: Not all of the inhabitants of Aurora decide to settle in the Tau Ceti system. The trip back to Earth for a subset of the settlers (the "backers") turns into a struggle and a nightmare for these descendants of the original crew. Those people wanted to go, to be the pioneers, or at least the ancestors of the true pioneers. But they didn't fully realize what they would be inflicting on their children and great-great-grandchildren on the long voyage. Perhaps that is true whenever humans migrate from one place to a new place, but at least all such moves to date have taken place here on Earth where the environment is largely compatible with our bodies.

Although I'm more optimistic than KSR that we can eventually solve many of these problems, I still think that evolution and other things could make such small-population multi-generation ships very inhospitable, at least for some of the people. Unless there turn out to be things like wormholes or other shortcuts through deep space time, I think it's unlikely that humans will ever be taking interstellar voyages, at least not in our original biological bodies. If there are to be centuries-long voyages, I suspect they will be made by post-human beings in non-biological or perhaps hybrid bodies.


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Summer of (Ugh) Trump

My interest in politics right now is pretty low, and the 2016 presidential election still seems a long way off. So I don't often think much about it, and I rarely blog about politics (heck, I rarely blog at all these days -- though I write a lot in my journal). But the 16 ring circus that is the fight for the Republican nomination is pretty hard to avoid, especially when my wife watches MSNBC and I occasionally sit in. Rachel Madow and other MSNBC commentators have been having a field day with the motley crew of Republican contenders. But since Donald Trump announced his run for the presidency in June, he has made their jobs even easier and has dominated every news cycle with his ever more ridiculous shoot-from-the-hip pronouncements.

He started with Mexicans and immigration, claiming that most illegal immigrants are rapists and drug dealers. He says that when he is president, he will build an impenetrable wall along the border with Mexico, and force Mexico to pay for it. Then the other day in an interview on stage, he ad-libbed some remarks about Senator John McCain and how he isn't really a war hero, followed by, "OK, maybe he is, but only because he was captured. And I like people who weren't captured." I'm definitely no fan of John McCain, but anybody who does not respect the service and sacrifice of a naval aviator who spent five years in a Vietnamese prison is insane and despicable. Though of course we already knew that Trump was insane and despicable. Yesterday he went on the rampage against some of the other Republicans who have insulted him in the press, especially Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Speaking to an audience in South Carolina, Trump insulted Graham as a loser and a wimp and actually gave out Graham's private cell phone number to the crowd.

Trump's form of campaigning is basically improvised insult comedy -- Don Rickles with more money and a creative hair stylist. It's only a matter of time before everyone, no matter how conservative, realizes what a toxic waste dump he is. It's hard to understand how he can achieve 16% in any poll of anybody, Republican or not (some suggestions here). Someone pointed out on a show last night that four years ago, Sarah Palin (not even running), Rick Perry, and Michelle Bachmann were leading in Republican polls at this point (summer 2011, ahead of the 2012 election season). Romney and Santorum were far behind. In spring 2011, Trump himself was actually leading in the polls. I don't recall when he bowed out of the 2012 race that Mitt Romney ultimately won for the GOP nomination. So his strength in the polls at this time really means nothing, except that under the crazy rules set by FOXNews, national poll position will determine which 10 of now 16 Republicans will get to participate in the first GOP debate on August 6. So Trump will be on stage that night, making the Republican debate even more bizarre than it would be with only "serious" candidates.

As comedian Andy Borowitz has written, Trump is the first openly asshole presidential candidate, and there apparently are a lot of assholes in the country who are rooting for him. He is not a serious presidential candidate, and he certainly knows this himself (I read somewhere that he's only spending 50% of his time on his presidential run because of his business commitments). But Trump is an entertainer who thrives on any sort of publicity, and that is what he is getting now by the ton. The good news is that it disrupts the GOP. The bad news is that he makes somebody like Jeb Bush almost look like a reasonable person. Almost. 

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Future Physics

This is an interesting essay by a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Frank Wilczek, “How Physics Will Change—and Change the World—in 100 Years.” A pretty big topic! Can you say anything definitive? Not really, but it reinforces something I have thought about sometimes, that we are nowhere near the finish line in understanding the universe. One hundred years ago, quantum physics and relativity had just arrived. At least now we know better how far things can be from what they seem. But we may still be closer to Jon Snow (“You know nothing!”) than to God. A few points from the essay…
Newtonian physics is a system outside time that describes how things change from some set of initial conditions. This is practical and helpful for lots of problem solving and engineering, but not fundamentally satisfying from a God's-eye view:
For the answer, “Things are what they are because they were what they were,” begs the question, “Why were things that way and not any other?”
Einstein 's space-time integration helps:
In the light of relativity theory, the God’s eye view seems, much more natural. There, we learn to consider space-time as an organic whole, whose different aspects are related by symmetries that are awkward to express when experience is carved into time-slices. Hermann Weyl expressed this memorably:
The objective world simply is, it does not happen. Only to the gaze of my consciousness, crawling along the lifeline of my body, does a section of this world come to life as a fleeting image in space which continuously changes in time.
He also foresees further integration of physics and information and life and mind:
In 100 years, biological memory, cognitive processing, motivation, and emotion will be understood at the molecular level. And if physics evolves to describe matter in terms of information, as we discussed earlier, a circle of ideas will have closed. Mind will have become more matter-like, and matter will have become more mind-like.
He also has a lot to say about technology, though in broad terms, such as vast expansion of computational chemistry (something I briefly worked on at a very primitive level in high school with my NSF Summer Science Program professor in Ohio, simple molecular orbital calculations). Better computers, quantum computers, robotic control of matter to build anything, AI, and even better human senses:
Human perception leaves a lot on the table. Consider, for example, color vision.
Whereas the electromagnetic signals arriving at our eyes contain a continuous range of frequencies, and also polarization, what we perceive as “color” is a crude hash encoding, where the power spectrum is lumped into three bins and polarization is ignored. Compared to our perception of sound, where we do a proper frequency analysis and can appreciate distinct tones within chords, it is impoverished. Also, we are insensitive to frequencies outside the visible range, including ultraviolet and infrared. Many other animals do finer sampling. There is valuable information about our natural environment—not to mention possibilities for data visualization and art—to be gained by expanding color perception.
Modern microelectronics offers attractive possibilities for accessing this information. By appropriate transformations, we can encode it in our existing channels in a sort of induced synesthesia. We will vastly expand the human sensorium, opening the doors of perception.
Now the LHC at CERN is coming back online with even higher energy than the levels that finally outed the Higgs Boson. Some mysteries may be solved and others created. Will advanced physics research lead to advanced technologies that make use of space-time and quanta as we see in SF books and movies like Interstellar? I don't know, but nearly every past breakthrough in physics has led to some new technology. I hope I can stick around long enough to see some of this crazy next chapter of the Adventures of the Human Neocortex.

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/physics/in-100-years/

Monday, May 25, 2015

SevenEves: Bye Bye Moon


When I got super interested in space flight technology and orbital mechanics back in 2005, I played with the Orbiter space flight simulator for a few months and wrote a 181 page tutorial book for it called Go Play In Space. When Neal Stephenson got interested in space technology and orbital mechanics, he researched it for 9 years and wrote 880 pages to create a novel called SevenEves. The only common thread I can claim is that Neal and I both did our homework on the physics of space flight. But Neal did his homework on much more than this, and tied it all together into a fantastic story. Two major stories, actually -- one an extremely detailed, near-future "disaster movie" (the first two thirds of the book), the other an imaginative and ultimately exciting speculation on the lives of the survivors' descendants, 5000 years in the future. How many survivors were there? The book's title gives a clue that's at least partially correct (it's also a palindrome).

I really enjoy most of Neal Stephenson's writing, and when I learned that his next book would be based in space, I pre-ordered it immediately. When it was released last Monday, it jumped the queue of all the books I was reading or planning to read. I saw a couple of early reviews, including a fairly negative one focused on Stephenson's relative lack of character development and other novelish niceties, in favor of nerdish discussions of all technical sorts. To me, this is a feature, not a bug. I loved the wide-ranging and carefully researched details, and I thought the characters were mostly well drawn. The storytelling and pace are good, although I did feel that it bogged down in the first third of part 3 (the 5000 years from now part). In fairness, there's a lot of explaining to do when you introduce a complex future civilization and many new characters, and after all that setup, the last 300 pages are quite thrilling. Good save, Neal!

The book starts with the moon exploding for no apparent reason. It initially breaks into seven major pieces, but a popular public outreach astrophysicist nicknamed "Doob" (clearly modeled on Neil Degrasse Tyson) and his grad students figure out that it will soon break further into trillions of pieces, many of which will reenter Earth's atmosphere, destroying the atmosphere and everything in it. In 25 months (plus or minus 2 months). Scientists in many other countries independently reach the same conclusion.

Two years is not much time to get ready for the end of the world, so most of the 7 billion people and virtually all other living things will die.  And unfortunately, the incoming swarm of debris dubbed "hard rain" is estimated to continue for some 5000 years. So immediate repopulation of Earth's surface will not be possible. People will have to learn to live deep underground or in space, indefinitely -- somehow. The first 600 pages are mainly focused on a gigantic space lifeboat effort, although it's clear that only a relative handful of people (a few thousand at most) can make it to space in that short time, even with all of Earth's resources, industry, and minds focused on this.

Of course this immediately answers the question, what is the International Space Station good for? Why, to serve as the centerpiece of a swarm of hastily constructed and launched habitat spacecraft that will be used to save this small number of humans in hopes of some sort of future. It's fortunate that in this near future world, the ISS has been expanded to include an experimental rotating habitat and a captured asteroid for experimentation with mining using a fleet of small robots. That at least gives the planetless survivors a fighting chance. But to say there are challenges is a vast understatement. There are many close calls and heroic efforts that turn out to be essential -- like a hastily organized mission led by an Elon Musk-like space entrepreneur to retrieve a chunk of a comet.  This huge mass of water is needed for radiation shielding and to make rocket fuel. You can do that (extract hydrogen and oxygen) if you have enough electric power, like a nuclear power plant repurposed from a submarine. Since part 3 takes place 5000 years in the future, you know that somehow humanity makes it, but it is by the very thinnest of margins.

Is this book realistic? You have to just accept the premise that the Moon just blows up for some reason. The "agent" responsible for this is never really explained, but it doesn't really matter. Everything else within parts one and two ("now") is constrained by realistic physics and plausible current or near-future technology. Orbital mechanics is a major constraint and is handled very well. The problems of radiation, microgravity, growing food in space, living in crowded spaces, and many other issues are handled realistically. Space debris is a constant problem, especially once the "hard rain" starts throwing parts of the former moon in all directions. Space construction requires the help of thousands of small robots, but these are not especially smart robots -- plausible extrapolations of things I have read about in MIT Technology Review. All in all, I consider parts 1 and 2 to be some of the best "hard SF" that I've ever read.

Part 3 is more problematic for me, though ultimately enjoyable. The future space construction technology is massive, though still believable by extrapolation of robotic capabilities. But the tight connection between the personalities of the few survivors and the characteristics of the resulting race-driven civilization in 5000 years often did not ring true to me. There are a lot of interesting and plausible ideas, but also a lot that I thought was very silly, seemingly just made up, "because I said so." These are extrapolations of genetic and social engineering over 5000 years. I don't think you can say anything definitive about this based on anything we know, even if you accept genetic manipulation of the human genome as a required and well-understood tool.

Of course it is all just made up by the author. But it is in part 3 that I have to say to myself, "that's why they call it science fiction." It's still more than fantasy or magic, though I wouldn't call it hard SF. But overall, it's a really good book, and most of those 880 pages flew by over the last six days (actually 14,403 Kindle "locations," read mostly on my iPad).

It's a long book, full of interesting ideas and good writing. I learned a lot, as I always do from Stephenson's books. It is ultimately a hopeful book -- humans are resourceful and manage to barely survive, and eventually go on to build a new and very different civilization and to start to repopulate the Earth (with genetically engineered plants and animals, synthesized from a comprehensive DNA database that was saved from "Old Earth," since no actual animals and very few plants were brought to space -- the Old Earth mission planners did manage to preserve much of Earth's knowledge, genetic and otherwise). But as different as their new civilizations are, aggression and racial stereotypes remain -- even though the races are completely new. Even if we were capable of building a future "paradise," even a small handful of people will fail to agree that it is paradise -- some will want something else. Humans are difficult creatures. It will always be so.

The images here are my own screen captures from the Orbiter space flight simulator, loosely inspired by early events in the book. Some of them are from a project I did in 2006 called "Mars for Less," a partial simulation of a human Mars mission using existing launch vehicles and orbital assembly. We used some of the techniques discussed in SevenEves, such tethering two spacecraft together and rotating them to generate artificial gravity. There are better artists' conceptions of some of the objects in the book here. There's a companion website for the book here, including the author's book tour schedule. He's in Cambridge, MA next Friday, so I'm going to hear him speak about the book. I hope to learn a little about how you go from a palindrome and some concerns about space debris to an 880 page book.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Baidu's Brain & AI's Rise

Although it's incremental, the improving quality of AI is becoming more and more obvious. This Technology Review article is about Chinese search giant Baidu's new super computer, built specifically for massively parallel "deep learning" techniques, advanced neural network methods which are applied to image recognition. On a standard training/recognition benchmark, it improved only slightly on Google's recent accuracy record (4.58% error rate vs. 4.92%, in March). But the average human performance on the data set is 5.1%, which was first bested by Microsoft (4.94%) in February! This is not factoring large numbers or playing chess, it is pattern recognition, the hallmark of human intelligence. 

We are definitely on a slippery slope here.  It's not just SF, though the SF writers remain well ahead of the technology when it comes to extreme extrapolation and scary scenarios. But even in reality, the accelerating rate of change and the number of different entities in the world working on this stuff suggest we may be in for a wild ride over the next few years. Will there be unintended consequences? Probably. 

For a good overview of what AI means and where it seems to be going, I heartily recommend two recent articles by Tim Urban, author of the wonderful website Wait But Why. "The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence" and "The AI Revolution: Our Immortality or Extinction" are well researched, well explained, and frankly a wee bit scary, even to someone who has followed AI development in fact and fiction for decades. These articles caught the attention of Elon Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX and Tesla, an optimistic futurist if there ever was one. Musk believes that ASI (artificial superintelligence) represents an existential risk to humanity beyond even nuclear and biological weapons. 

As a nice side effect of Tim and Elon's shared interest in ASI, Tim is now doing a new series of Wait But Why articles on Elon Musk's ideas, technologies, and companies. Tim has become one of my favorite writers, and Wait But Why one of my top 5 web destinations. Great stuff on a wide range of subjects. If I ever wanted to try to turn my little wooden-headed Pinocchio blog into a "real boy," it would probably be a clone of Wait But Why. 


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Hubble's Greatest Hits


This year is the Hubble Space Telescope's 25th birthday, and HST is still going strong. I recently discovered a cool little free iPhone app from National Geographic called Nat Geo View. It provides 5-7 short, daily photo essays from their magazine and other sources. In honor of the anniversary, they recently published a little photo essay with 10 images chosen by Hubble's lead imaging scientist, Zoltan Levay.  

The app article is an excerpt of a longer magazine and web article with more text,  which also includes 50 images chosen by the magazine's editors. I combined two of them above, the iconic 1995 “Pillars of Creation” and a January 2015 image of the same region in the infrared. I think it's really a cool contrast.

Hubble's Greatest Hits
http://on.natgeo.com/1CwPTZt

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Future Fun with Alexa

Avoiding for now the logical question "how many toys does one boy need," my new Amazon Echo arrived the other day ($99 Prime special, normally $200). It sure is cool. You address her as "Alexa" and she has a calm, futuristic sounding female voice. Connected to your home Wifi, she is very good at finding music, news, and all sorts of factual information, even if you ask for the height of the Washington Monument in inches, as my wife did. Her jokes are so-so, but at least she can remember some. 

Aside from all that, Echo sounds quite nice as a small Bluetooth speaker. She's also a very nice voice controlled radio with thousands of available stations via the TuneIn Radio app. She accesses 37,000 songs in my own Amazon Cloud library, as well as a million songs included for streaming on Amazon Prime Music. She also supports playlists on iHeartRadio, which is probably superfluous given all the built-in stuff, but it shows the way third-party apps may expand its capabilities going forward. It's very nice for weather and brief news updates on demand from NPR and BBC. Alexa will also read short summaries of Wikipedia topics you ask for, or she can send the full text to the Echo companion app on my iPhone or iPad. 

The Echo is small but not intended to be portable -- it sits on a table, plugged in and always on, listening for the activation word "Alexa" to come from anyone within earshot. It's a home and family appliance. I can easily imagine it evolving to a more full-featured control center for everything in an Internet connected house - lights, heat, security, whatever. It's not there yet (and neither is my house), but it feels like a good prototype for this type of thing.

So this is a really fun and sexy product, which I don't truly need since I have iPhone, iPad, Siri, and the ability to use the web almost anytime. But it really feels and sounds like the future when Alexa quickly and accurately responds to a request. She doesn't always get it right, of course, so you will often hear "I didn't understand the question I heard," "I'm usually better with factual requests," and other similar responses. 

In this early rollout phase, Amazon is selling the Echo "by invitation only" and is not allowing customer reviews on its website, which seems strange. But there are reviews around the Internet, and I read one last night from the Wall Street Journal. The reviewer unfavorably compares the Echo's "intelligence" with Siri, Google Now, and a similar service from Microsoft. 

But I think they are missing the point of Amazon's incremental approach to integrating AI into their products. As a cloud-based service, Echo will naturally improve over time, but for now it's very good in its narrow role as a voice controllable entertainment device, with some bonus features for requesting general information. Even at the list price of $200, it costs about the same as some Bluetooth speakers of similar quality which are nothing but speakers! It is not intended to understand your life or family situation or to engage in general conversation. Yet.