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.

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.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Macca & Me

An odd thought occurred to me yesterday: is Paul McCartney happier than I am? So I was thinking about this, starting with a few comparisons.

Some obvious differences include age (he's around 11 years older), plus he is British, famous, very wealthy (net worth ~$1.2 billion), and a fabulously successful musician, composer, and entertainer. I am none of these things. For all his success, Paul has suffered some tragedies in his life, starting with the death of his mother (Mary) when he was just 14. He lost his wife and soulmate Linda to cancer and his musical brother John Lennon to murder. I have experienced divorce (Paul has as well), but luckily no untimely deaths so far of anyone close to me other than my father (sadly he was only 62, but I was around 35 and was not severely affected).

What do we have in common? Musical sensibility perhaps, with strong value placed on creativity. Although Paul is clearly more talented, prolific, and successful in every aspect of music, we are both singer-songwriters with eclectic tastes. For me music is only a hobby, and I have experienced little recognition beyond family and friends (which is not to be sneezed at!). But it seems we have each experienced the joy of creating something from nothing, writing songs and turning them into complex recordings, and performing live for dozens (me) or millions (Paul) of people.

Unlike Paul, I continue to work a "real job" and to pay somewhat careful attention to money. I'm confident I will be ok when it's time for retirement, but I do have to prepare for and manage that, while I'm guessing Paul has few concerns in this area, should he ever choose to retire. I suppose he still has money worries of some sort. The rich reportedly always do. Multiple homes, employees, tax problems, frivolous lawsuits, not owning all the rights to some of your biggest songs, etc.

But what about happiness? How can I know if Paul is happy? Hell, I'm not even sure if I'm happy! But I think I'm mostly happy. Satisfied anyway. I'm reasonably healthy, have a good marriage, great kids (and a lovely granddaughter), some friends, a reasonably satisfying job, a decent home, and time and money enough to pursue music and other hobbies and occasional non-business travel. Though far from rich, we're financially OK. So happy enough I guess. Most days.

What about Paul? He certainly seems happy, but of course he's been a professional celebrity for over 50 years, so who knows? Seeming happy is part of what celebrities do, whether they are genuinely happy or not. From what I have read, he shared a great life with Linda and suffered when he lost her. But he bounced back musically (Run Devil Run was released in late 1999, a year and a half after Linda died) and was in a relationship not long after. Unfortunately Heather Mills turned out not to be his new soulmate, and there was a divorce that cost him some probably unnoticeable millions of pounds and likely some pain and suffering. Now he seems to be happy with his lovely current wife Nancy Shevell. And at 71, he continues to create new music and to actively participate in the world music scene. I'm sure that must give him some satisfaction.

So I don't know. I'm guessing that Sir Paul (another small difference, knighthood) and I are both reasonably happy people. He's probably happy with his fame and fortune and I'm happy if I can see my granddaughter and write and record a new song every once in a while. Even if only 12 people ever hear it.

In the picture above, the one of me is from 1973 (left, age 20). Paul seems to have his Sgt. Pepper mustache, so I am guessing 1967 (age 25). 


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Origin, Required – Meaning, Optional


Discussions about the meaning of life or the reason for our existence both intrigue and infuriate me. This blessedly short NPR article is the latest thing I have read on this:
http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2014/08/13/340073029/we-dont-need-to-be-created-to-be-relevant/

To me, we don't even need to be "relevant." Everything about this discussion was invented by humans, even the very ideas of meaning and relevance!

Science is the most effective system we have for making sense of the universe. As best science can determine so far, life started somehow, some 3.5 billion years ago, and evolution took it from there. This long process has produced many results, one of which is us, a form of life with powerful curiosity, able to examine its own mechanisms and origins and to define things like intelligence, purpose, love, and even "importance" that some of us who are not still fully occupied with survival may try to connect. There are plausible evolutionary explanations for the tendency to impose upon or find structure in things we observe, to seek connections and cause/effect chains. Our ancestors who were good at these things were more successful in finding food, avoiding predators, and reproducing than their less intelligent colleagues. And for all but the last 10,000 years or so, basic survival was all those skills were needed for (ok, there was art and some other things before that, but practically speaking, not much to show for that in the long period when the hand ax and the campfire were the peak technologies).

In my view, that is the end of the basic story. Our large brains evolved in response to survival challenges, but unlike the lion's sharp teeth or the cheetah's speed, our special evolutionary advantages were problem solving and flexibility, and these could be applied in many ways beyond hunting and gathering. A few breakthroughs in technology and culture launched us into civilization. A long and variable story in itself of course, but we could just as easily have spent another 100,000 years with the same basic stone hand ax. There was nothing pre-ordained about where we ended up and when. But here we are, a bunch of nearly hairless primates who like to dabble in philosophy and the occasional genocide or species eradication. Some more hairless than others, of course.

I understand how people can be dissatisfied with "somehow life started," but in spite of the overall success of science, it may not be able to answer every question we can ask. Maybe not now, maybe not ever for some questions. I don't think that means it's a failure, or that the unanswered questions must be "explained" supernaturally. It can just be, sorry, we don't know that yet. Put some funding into education and maybe someone will figure it out someday.

What drives me crazy are some of the comments (though these NPR comments are pretty good by internet discussion thread standards). Things like, there must be a reason for our being here, for our being able to think about existence. There must be a plan for us. We are conscious, so the universe must be conscious. Maybe the universe IS our consciousness, or someone's consciousness, like some god's consciousness. The watchmaker argument? Maybe there was nothing before us. Maybe the universe IS our thoughts. And all other such malarkey.

Maybe there is life elsewhere, even intelligent life. I'd like to think so, but even if they have existed far longer than we have, it's quite likely that there was no life whatsoever for the first 5 or 8 or more billion years of the universe. Big, expanding, unobserved, just doing its thing for no reason or lack of reason. Nothing to do with us or consciousness or meaning, except maybe in the fortuitous setting of physical constants that allow for stable nuclei, chemical bonds, etc. But even that is basically a circular argument. Who knows how many parallel or cyclic universes exist or existed with completely different and non-life-friendly physics? Maybe zillions. Maybe just this universe. A hole in one on the first try is certainly possible.

So basically, it is what it is! The universe didn't have to exist, but it does. No special reason for any of it, in my opinion. The same for us lucky humans. Lucky to exist, lucky to have a universe where physics and math work if we should ever be curious about that. And we also invented the idea of lucky, along with every other word and concept. But we didn't invent the universe. We just sprung up in it.