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. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

90% Not Human


I am reading a little Kindle book, Honor Thy Symbionts by Jeff Leach. The subtitle is "a collection of short essays about health, life and the co-evolution of humans and our microbes." On the title page it also says, "two organisms that combine and live together for mutual benefit are called symbiont." Good to know!

I've read other things about the human microbiome, but these essays are very clear, eye-opening, and even a little bit scary. It's like, everything you know is wrong, starting with "bacteria are bad" - okay, bacteria can be bad, but bacteria are also primary contributors to the vast ecosystem of human and nonhuman cells that make up our bodies. With modern food, antibiotics, and hygiene, it seems we have declared all-out war on these non-human parts of our bodies ignoring the fact that they have co-evolved with our human parts over hundreds of thousands of years or longer.

Reading these essays, I feel that in a few years people will look back on our recent "modern" medicine the way we look at 18th century doctors who used leeches and other methods to drain blood from sick people. It must've made sense to them at the time. But it was based on a complete misunderstanding of the way the human body works. Modern doctors are certainly better educated and have achieved better results, but their methods are based on a very incomplete understanding of our bodies as ecosystems.

Of course there have been great benefits from antibiotics and other modern medical technologies. It's a testament to the power and resilience of evolution that we manage to be as healthy as many of us are, despite the side effects of these brute force techniques. It's like clearcutting a rain forest to wipe out a few troublesome termites. Or to grow some more corn. Oh yeah, we do that too.

I haven't finished reading this yet, and I'm not sure if I'm going to change my diet or opinions on things like GMO's. Too soon to tell. But things sure are a lot more complicated than I thought.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Orbiter 2014 (Beta)

While I'm still quite interested in all sorts of "space stuff," it's been a very long time since I did anything with the Orbiter space flight simulator. When I first discovered Orbiter in 2005, I was pretty excited. I was always interested in space, in flight simulators, and in physics, and Orbiter combined all those interests into one very cool piece of (free!) software. As part of the process of teaching myself how to use Orbiter, I wrote a tutorial manual called Go Play In Space, and I did a substantial update for the 2006 version of Orbiter. In late 2010, I started to work on an update for the 2010 version, but I got sidetracked by other interests and priorities, and never finished that project.

Last week I noticed a YouTube video by David Courtney called called "Orbiter 2014 Beta - A Quick Look" (David has recorded a large number of excellent tutorial videos on Orbiter 2010).  Wow, it's alive! Orbiter creator Martin Schweiger has released an early beta of a new version that includes 3D terrain (with high-res data so far for most of Earth as well as Mars and the Moon), along with various improvements in the physics engine and user interface. I read some of the discussions at the Orbiter Forum and decided to at least check it out.


The terrain for the new version must be downloaded and installed separately from the Orbiter beta itself (there are instructions and also a beta installation video by David Courtney). I installed the high-res terrain tiles for the US west coast, since I'm familiar with the Los Angeles area, which has some interesting mountain and valley terrain. I flew the default Deltaglider around for a while, and the general impression is similar to Microsoft Flight Simulator, though it's not quite as detailed.

You might question why 3D terrain is even necessary in a space flight simulator, since most of the time you are too far from any planet's surface for this to make any difference. I guess it comes down to realism, and "because you can." I have spent a lot of time with the wonderful AMSO add-on for Orbiter, simulating Apollo missions in great detail, and it is certainly cool to land in the great lunar terrain that is supplied with that add-on (check out this AMSO Apollo 17 video, complete with real mission audio - skip to 9:00 or so to see the mountainous terrain up close).

I'm happy to see Orbiter development continuing, and I hope to do something with the 2014 version. Updating Go Play In Space is a lot of work (it's a 181 page book), but it really needs a 2010-2014 update, so maybe that will happen, time and energy permitting!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Crab Communicado

I've read a number of alien contact stories over the years, and I just finished one that I thought was well-written and especially inventive in terms of alien behavior and culture, A Darkling Sea by James L. Cambias. It takes place in an unspecified not-too-distant future, after interstellar travel (involving something called "gimelspace") has been developed and contact made with at least one other high-technology species, the Sholen. They and the "Terrans" have established some agreements regarding non-interference with other alien worlds. Humans in a small research station are exploring the under-ice ocean of a Europa-like moon orbiting a gas giant in another star system (not the home system of either the Terrans or the Sholen).

Beneath this dark ocean, many forms of life have evolved, all based on energy and chemicals coming from thermal vents, similar to those found in parts of the Earth's deep-ocean seabed. But in addition to simple worm-like and fish-like creatures,  the thermal vents of Ilmatar also support a crab-like intelligent species who navigate and communicate with sound (no light, so vision has not evolved here), and who seem to possess social structures and simple technology, including a form of agriculture. In compliance with the non-contact treaty, the humans have studied the Ilmatarans from afar, but some of the researchers want to get much closer, and this leads to a tragic incident that provokes conflict with the Sholen.

I won't give away more of the story, which is told in alternating points of view of human, Ilmataran, and Sholen characters. The Ilmatarans have a very old culture (millions of years), and although their technology is quite limited (no deep-water electronics!), they have language (including a writing system based on knots tied in fibers), agriculture (cultivating various plant-like species in settlements built around active thermal vents), the ability to build various structures, and a social and legal system. Landowners have apprentices and servants, and markets exist to make use of surpluses and division of labor. There is an education system of sorts (though child welfare is in a sorry state, with many of the very young apt to be eaten by adults or other young), and there is even a tradition of science, mostly focused on the study of life forms and thermal vent systems.

The Ilmataran scientists are very curious, though they cannot imagine that there are other intelligent life forms in the universe, or indeed that there is a "universe" beyond the thick ice layer above them (which they assume extends to infinity). There ultimately is contact and communication among the three species, and quite a bit of conflict and action. Although there are aspects that require substantial suspension of disbelief (e.g., gimelspace is barely mentioned, but it must provide a path through spacetime that allows faster-than-light travel), it's a well-constructed hard-SF world with no annoying "magic" stuff -- a very engaging and satisfying first novel.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

My Mozart-Mac 80's Mashup


In the pre-web days of the 1980's and early 1990's, I went through a couple of serial obsessions (hobbies, I guess) that I once attempted to merge. I was reminded of this today when I discovered a cool Spotify playlist, "Mozart - Complete Chronological Catalogue."

I bought an early Mac a few months after Apple announced it, around March 1984. It was expensive - the Mac (128 KB RAM!), external floppy drive (no hard drive!), and dot-matrix printer cost about $3500, and a few months later I spent another $900 to upgrade to a "Fat Mac" with a whopping 512K of RAM (yes, KB, not MB)! That $4400 would be about $10,000 in 2014 dollars, but I loved that goofy little computer. I was a complete Mac fanatic until 1994 when I bought my first PC, for work-related reasons, and I haven't had a Mac since (though I have drunk deeply of Saint Jobs' i-device Kool-Aid).

In 1987, Apple came out with a program called HyperCard that allowed Mac users to create "stacks" of hyperlinked "cards" that could contain text, data, and images, with a scripting language that would let you turn these stacks into interactive graphical databases and other sorts of programs (here's an interesting look back at HyperCard from 2012). These were very much like web sites, except that all the data and images had to reside on the Mac itself (around the same time, there started to be hard drives and local networks for Macs, but it was still basically a single-user, single-computer program).

I loved HyperCard, and was always looking around for things to do with it (in the mid 90's, I would use the much more powerful HyperCard 2.0 to create a working prototype for a graphical user interface for a software project at my company, but that's another story). Around the same time (fall 1984 actually), the movie Amadeus was released, but I didn't actually see it until sometime in 1985, oddly enough in Japan. I had long been aware of Mozart's music, but I didn't become a big fan until I saw Amadeus and bought the soundtrack album.

I started reading about Mozart, and buying and listening to more of his music. When I later looked up the meaning of the "K numbers" (K.201, etc.) and realized that there were some 626 Köchel-cataloged works by Mozart, I got an idea for a HyperCard project (I'm guessing this was in 1988-89, so I had already been collecting Mozart CD's for a few years). I could use it to build a linked and illustrated database of all of Mozart's works. I didn't realize at first how big a project this might be, in part because there are really more than 626 individual pieces of music, and in part because in those pre-web days, all of the information I would need was in books, and I would need to enter it all by hand. I'm not sure what I intended to do about graphics beyond the limited clip-art of the day (and I never got far enough to worry about copyright).

I must have worked on this for several months, and I had the structure and logic pretty well worked out, for perhaps 100 pieces or so (probably the ones I had on CD). But researching and creating the "content" for hundreds of additional Mozart works was an overwhelming task, pretty much like writing a book. Around the same time, the brief era of CD-ROM "multimedia" software was starting, with titles such as "Multimedia Mozart: The Dissonance Quartet" (actually that was on the Mac in 1991, and I didn't have it until I got an early Windows PC with CD-ROM in 1994). Although multimedia was becoming a big deal, I realized that creating a full Mozart catalog as a HyperCard stack was too big a project for me, and I never finished it.

Now of course we have the web, with all the information you could want on Mozart and everything in the world at our fingertips. Zillions of people have created databases, websites, blogs, music streaming sites, YouTube, Facebook, and all the rest of the time-sucking internet. Today I was updating some of my Spotify playlists with favorite classical music, and I decided to look around at what others may have done for Mozart. That's when I discovered the complete Mozart playlist. Its author "Ulysses" (perhaps not an individual, since there's a Spotify app called "Ulysses' Classical") also has "complete works" playlists for Debussy, Wagner, Brahms, and others. Pretty freaking amazing. Of course these playlists only include one version of each work, but Spotify contains any number of alternate performances you can quickly find if those are not to your liking (I immediate checked out Symphony No. 25, K.183, and I don't especially like the Bruno Walter version the list maker chose - though I'm sure it's a classic, I remain a Neville Marriner man on that piece).

While 25 years ago I dreamed of having an interactive database of information to read about Mozart's works, now you can find any sort of information on the web, and find and stream any of Mozart's music (and millions of others') in seconds. The Ulysses playlist for Mozart's works has 2,805 "songs" (works, movements, and sections of works), with a play time of 127 hours, 17 minutes. I will have to block out some time. So far I am up to K.12.

UPDATE: After I wrote this, I clicked around a bit more and discovered that there is a modern programming environment inspired by and quite similar to HyperCard. It's called LiveCode and with the help of a KickStarter campaign (the videos give you a good idea of what it can do), it was recently turned into an open source project, with the goal of greatly expanding the community of users and developers. The software is now free (with certain restrictions) for non-commercial use. I downloaded and played briefly with a "hello world" test project, and it is amazingly similar to the HyperCard I remember, except that it supports multiple platforms (Mac, Windows, Linux, and even app creation for mobile devices running iOS or Android). If I had time for another infinite time sink in my life, I would totally be playing with this. I probably will anyway! If I wanted use it to develop an iOS app, I would have a slight problem in that the Apple tools for porting and testing iOS code only runs on Macs (not Windows). Good thing I don't have any app ideas! Oh, wait...

Monday, April 07, 2014

Salieri and Me

One of the things that has always annoyed me about myself is my lack of fluency in most of the things I do. By fluency, I mean the seemingly effortless way that many Europeans switch among 3-5 languages (while I struggle to follow a simple conversation in French or Japanese), or the way Paul Simon writes a song, or Eric Clapton plays guitar.  Back when I was still flying, I spent some time (in 2011!) with an instructor working on a tail-wheel rating that I never quite finished. Although I managed to do things safely, I was frustrated that I could never come close to the smoothness and consistency with which my instructor handled the airplane.

Closer to my professional life, I discovered in college that my brain’s “math engine” didn’t work very well beyond matrix algebra and calculus. I was the only science or engineering major I knew whose verbal SAT scores were higher than the math scores. I always felt that my “real” science major friends could “think in math,” while I somehow had to emulate the math in my verbal brain, a trick that didn’t work very well for abstract subjects like quantum mechanics. When I did software development early in my career, it was similar. Basic algorithm development, coding, and debugging were all OK – but despite my physics and optics background, I just could not get my head around complex optical analysis algorithms (or invent new ones, as I was expected to do). Is this why I eventually ended up in marketing and sales (albeit for some highly technical software products for optical science and engineering)?

While this is only a partial list, right away you might spot a problem: too many interests. If you dabble in a lot of different things, how can you expect to be an expert in any of them? That is a good point, but my interests are my interests, and I have trouble just dropping something I love (though I have pretty much done this with flying, a demanding hobby where dabbling is dangerous). Other conclusions might follow. Things that seem effortless seldom really are. You have probably heard about the 10,000 hour rule. I’m not sure it’s exactly a rule, but the idea is that you need to do something for 10,000 hours or more before you can expect to be really fluent or expert in it. My most recent flight instructor probably has 10,000 hours of flight time (I have about 125). Paul Simon has probably written 1000 or more songs – I have written maybe 200. I almost never practice playing the guitar (when I try, I usually end up writing a song fragment instead – or if I’m lucky, maybe a complete song). Although I can still recall chord progressions and lyrics for songs I learned in my teens or twenties, I can hardly remember new songs I learned or practiced a couple of months ago (including my own songs!).  Fortunately I am quite good at making and playing from lyric/chord sheets!

I love Mozart’s music, and I’m a big fan of the movie Amadeus, even though it is only loosely based on Mozart’s life, with many aspects exaggerated for dramatic effect. One of these is Salieri’s extreme jealousy of  Mozart’s musical talent, even to the point of working to sabotage Mozart’s career. The evidence suggests otherwise, but it makes for a good story, and for some good lines for Salieri. In the movie and in real life, Salieri did very well as the court composer for Emperor Joseph II. But in the movie, he compares his own musical gifts to those of Mozart, and comes up short: “All I wanted was to sing to God. He gave me that longing... and then made me mute. Why? Tell me that. If He didn't want me to praise him with music, why implant the desire? Like a lust in my body! And then deny me the talent?”

Forget Mozart, I can hardly compare myself musically to Salieri, a professional who wrote more than 40 popular operas and who enjoyed status, fame and fortune until his death in 1825 at the ripe (for the time) old age of 75.  But I sometimes share his frustration in seeing what is possible in a Mozart, Paul Simon, or Eric Clapton, even though I have not begun to put in the time or effort (not to mention the prerequisite talent) to create or achieve at such a sublime level. There’s a character in The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving (no relation) who says, “You've got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.”  I don’t think I have really done even that – if I had, surely I would be working on songwriting, Japanese, higher math, guitar, something, every single day. But many days I just go to work, or if I’m home, I hang out, I read a book, watch a movie, or play around with apps on my iPad. And check Facebook five or six times. Or 10. Of course I do have the serial obsession thing going on – when I do lock onto a well-defined project (like getting my pilot’s license or recording an album), I manage to focus on that pretty tenaciously for weeks or months at a time (which is not always a good thing).

But aside from English (speaking, reading, and maybe writing), I have achieved fluency in one important skill: rationalization! After beating myself up (rather gently) for a few paragraphs, I can turn around and think things like “lifelong learning is fun” or “creativity is its own reward” (as argued in this lovely letter from Kurt Vonnegut), and congratulate myself for at least trying to speak foreign languages, create music, understand general relativity, or fly airplanes (despite my relatively poor sense of direction and lousy parallel parking skills).

Finally, I cannot end this blog post without acknowledging that to a high level of approximation, I’m whining here. Anyone who has had a chance to write, play, and record music with amazing friends and musicians, learn to fly with dedicated and talented flight instructors, and travel enough to have found French and Japanese worth studying – shouldn’t be complaining!  But hey, it's a blog.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Wish I Could Fly Like This


I'm not sure I would want this for my job, as much as I love flying and as exciting as it certainly seems to be. But I would love to do it once. I know from my slow-speed and not-very-recent Cessna piloting experience that any flying requires tremendous focus and attention to detail. But when you're doing it 50 to 250 feet above the ground, at 400+ miles per hour, you can't lose focus for a second.

That makes this video especially impressive, especially in HD on a large screen. It is apparently from a motion simulator ride at the Science Museum in London. The Eurofighter Typhoon is the RAF's current front-line fighter and an amazing machine. This is a first-person point of view video taken from the back seat of one of these airplanes on a high-speed, low-level flight through the mountains of northern Wales. I love the pilot's calm British accent as he calls out things like "there's 8 G." Very cool indeed. Sometimes I really miss flying, even though I've never done anything approaching this, except in flight sims on a PC, which is certainly fun but not exactly the same thing.

There are tons of first-person flight videos on-line. Another one I like is this one, taken from the back seat of a US Navy Blue Angels F/A-18 Hornet during an airshow performance. The videographer's excitement is frequently audible.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Rocking the COSMOS


I've now watched the first three episodes of the new TV series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, and I have to say I'm really impressed. I'm a great fan of Carl Sagan and the original Cosmos series from 1980. Although I greatly admire Neil deGrasse Tyson, I was concerned that the commercial influence of Fox might result in something... let's say less than the original series. But apart from the commercials (which DVR and a few minutes of delay can handle nicely), I think the new show is just great all around.

Of course you would expect fantastic visuals in 2014, and the CGI effects are definitely first-rate. I also like the simple animation style used for historical segments. I think Tyson is actually a better host and narrator than Sagan - he comes across as confident and authoritative, yet approachable and down to earth, and he's clearly comfortable on camera. But what really impresses me is the writing, especially the way that it humanizes science and scientists. Scientists are not perfect people, and science is not just a bunch of complicated facts and figures. Scientists are human beings who have retained and cultivated the curiosity of children. Science is an often messy process that builds on its past successes but is not afraid to discard what was accepted in the past in favor of new ideas that better fit the facts. It is based on evidence.

In tonight's episode, I really liked the way they portrayed Newton as a flawed and even petty person who happened to be a genius - except when he wasn't, as in his lifelong pursuit of alchemy and Biblical numerology. We are indeed fortunate that Edmund Halley (no slouch in the brains and energy departments himself) was able to recognize Newton's genius, and to encourage and advocate for him (even to the point of publishing the first edition of Newton's groundbreaking Principia at his own expense). Halley's use of Newton's new mechanics to correctly predict the return of the comet that bears his name was a great ending, handled in a nicely emotional and dramatic way. I also liked Neil's comment, "if you're watching this in 2061, you'll certainly know that Mr. Halley's comet is back again."


Along the way, Neil explained a bit about gravity, planetary motion, and comets, with some excellent visualizations. I think it's important that they get the science right, but that they also make it a great story with characters you can care about. They might not cover as many topics as some science fans might like, but I think they have a better chance of engaging younger viewers who might not care all that much about "science stuff" (yet!).

I'm really looking forward to the rest of the series, and to the release of a Blu-Ray edition with lots of cool extras before too long. I hope that young people do find it engaging, and that some of them will be inspired to study and pursue science, as many young scientists around today were inspired by Sagan's original Cosmos in 1980.