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.

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

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.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Yes, But Is It Art?

I've been thinking about all the fooling around I've been doing with the Brushstroke app, Band-in-a-Box, Siri for dictating my journal, and various other technologies that augment my mental and creative powers. What's that all about? It's definitely fun, but is it art?
I should say at the outset that this is not an emotional question for me, but more of an intellectual exercise. I definitely do not lie awake at night worrying about whether my songs, blog posts, photographs, fake paintings made from photographs, or whatever constitute “art” or not. Whether anyone in the world would consider me an “artist,” even myself, is not a concern to me, though the fact that I post some of my work online suggests that I do seek some sort of audience. But mainly I enjoy using my mind to create things. In some philosophies, that is probably the essence of art. In other philosophies, perhaps this is merely navel-gazing until it reaches a certain level of quality, acceptance, or audience. I really don't know or especially care. 

But apart from semantics, what is going on when you create something with “intelligent” tools such as the Brushstroke app for painting and Band-in-a-Box (BIAB) for songwriting and recording? Apart from things like singing, dancing, and spoken poetry, every art involves some level of technology. Brushes, paint, musical instruments, paper, pens, tape recorders, and many other tools allow us to create works of art that extend beyond our own bodies and voices.

But with software and “machine intelligence,” the tools seem to be taking over more of the creative part of creativity. They are certainly reducing the level of mechanical skill required to achieve something that is “pleasing,” if not necessarily professional or artistic or original. I have never been a painter, but when I closely examine the simulated brushwork in some of the paintings created by the Brushstroke app, I'm amazed by its intricacy and by the variety of techniques that are implied. It clearly would take a lot of study, practice, experimentation, and work to achieve such things with real paint. The professional musicians who create RealTracks for BIAB play at a level that is far beyond my skill on any instrument. The software cleverly allows me to apply their skilled performances to new songs they have never heard. And the results are often surprisingly good, at least to me.

When writing was developed thousands of years ago, there were people who worried that this “cheat” would cause people to become lazy, and their minds to decline, because they would no longer need to memorize culture-defining epic poems and such. Spoken word is still an important art form (drama, radio, etc.). But writing is of course an art in itself, and we know how important it has been for the development of civilization. And while I will readily admit to laziness and declining memory, I still manage to get a few things done.

Tools are just tools, no matter how fancy they may be, or how much of the creativity they may seem to contain. Creating songs or visual works such as photographs, drawings, videos, or even paintings, is partly about skill and technique, but even more about choices and feelings. Different tools require you to make different choices, and sometimes really different kinds of choices. Even if you do not make the brushstrokes or play the horn parts yourself, you need to choose the the subject and the overall design of the work, as well as which of many possible techniques or performances to use.

Smart tools allow people with an interest in creativity to create something that is artful even if it is not necessarily art. And as happened with photography, movies, television, and sound recording, these new technologies will probably lead to new art forms that we can't even imagine now. I'm thinking that humans or transhumans will continue to create something like art, and that there will be virtuosos and average people and dabblers and everything else, forever and ever, amen.

These and many other Brushstroke experiments are in a Flickr album, most with both the before and after photos:
Brushstroke App Examples

This is a video slide show of Brushstroke photos from our Australia vacation in 2006, with music:
Australia Memories 2006

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Great Book: Kindred Beings

I recently read Dr. Sheri Speede's wonderful book Kindred Beings (subtitled "What Seventy-Three Chimpanzees Taught Me About Life, Love, and Connection"). What an amazing book! What an amazing woman! It is no exaggeration to say that this book clearly shows that chimpanzees are people too, just a different kind of people. They are close to humans in much more than DNA. The picture above shows a group of chimps grieving and paying their respects to their dead friend Dorothy at the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center, which Sheri Speede founded in Cameroon. While I understand that poor humans in Africa have difficult lives and that some may rely upon “bush meat” to have protein in their diets, it is horrible, bordering on genocide and cannibalism, that these chimp/people are losing even more of their home habitats, are often abused and hunted for food, and are being driven to extinction. There are an estimated 150,000 chimpanzees remaining in Africa. The population has declined by half since 1960.

Nature is not especially kind or fair. It is often quite cruel. To a good approximation, every species watches out only for itself, through the actions of individuals who struggle to eat, to reproduce, to survive. Millions of species have become extinct and more become extinct every year. This was happening long before humans became the dominant species on this planet, with the power to transform habitats en masse, but we have certainly accelerated the process in recent years. Many humans have an interest in life beyond the earth. Is there life elsewhere in the universe? Perhaps even intelligent life? These are great questions, and I am quite interested in this subject myself. But look -- there is highly intelligent life here, and not just we humans. We have especially close cousins in the chimpanzees and other social apes. I wish we could find a way to co-exist with them.

This is just such a moving book. Here is the next to last paragraph:
Chimpanzees engage life fully, in the moment. They wear their emotions for all to see, or hear. Even an adult chimpanzee might cry like a baby if he is being rejected, or throw loud and dramatic tantrums over a perceived injustice. A few minutes later, with the proper recognition or comfort, he can be the picture of contentment. The quality of their friendships and family relationships to a large extent determines the quality of their lives. Watching the social vignettes of chimpanzees through the years has taught me to recognize my own pretenses. We are such similar apes. But they bring a primal pureness and immediacy to their expressions of intimacy, which I have come to cherish in my friendships with them. From knowing chimpanzees I have learned to live more honestly and vulnerably.
For more information about efforts to save chimpanzees in Africa, read this great book, or check out the IDA Africa (In Defense of Animals) website.

I have recently started to keep a journal using an app called Day One that runs on the iPhone. I adapted the above post from an entry in that journal. While I know I have no obligation to write this blog with any particular frequency, I sometimes feel bad that I don't do so more often, especially now that my apparent need to write for myself is being met by journaling. I've been writing this blog since 2005, and I hope that some of what I have written is useful or interesting for others. There are a lot of words here! It is still interesting to me to look back at some of what I have written here, even if I don't write here as much these days. I will probably write more blog posts from time to time, but with no particular goal for frequency.  In a cliche that I'm not supposed to use: it is what it is.