Wednesday, July 28, 2010

When Ideas Have Sex

Following up on my July 5 post reviewing Matt Ridley's book Rational Optimism, here's a 17 minute TED talk in which Mr. Ridley presents the gist of his ideas on the importance of "exchange" (of goods, services, and ideas) in the development of the "collective brain" we call human civilization. Very nicely done.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Future Is Creeping Up On Us

Recently the New York Times has been running a special series of articles called "Smarter Than You Think" (a series examining the recent advances in artificial intelligence and robotics and their potential impact on society). Machines are starting to take some real giant steps. I've always been interested in AI and even considered making a career change in the mid-eighties when "expert systems" were making a splash. Fortunately I stayed with optics, because AI per se never became an industry or a field of its own outside of research labs. Which is not to say that there hasn't been progress in AI - just that people kept moving the bar. Things that used to be considered nearly impossible for machines (like speech recognition) were developed and folded into software engineering. In other words, if machines are doing it, it ain't intelligent. AI stays just over the horizon.

So beating grand masters at chess? That's been done by an IBM supercomputer with a lot of special programming and coaching. So it's not AI, just brute force. But what if a few of those IBM supercomputers got together and started to compete with humans on the game show Jeopardy, with its wide-ranging subject matter and tricky word-play clues? That would be impressive, right? Well, according to the first article in the series, it's still more or less brute force, though when the software is playing Jeopardy in real time, with no internet connection (but with a huge local database of "general knowledge") and often beating human champions of the show, that seems pretty smart to me no matter what sort of statistical inferencing, data mining, or number crunching is going on behind the scenes (things are pretty messy up in our own "wetware" too). There may be a televised human vs. AI Jeopardy tournament later this year.

Of course Jeopardy is still pretty narrow, and the bar keeps moving. Speech recognition is good enough for many customer service tasks now, but still nowhere near humans in flexibility and generality. But it's getting better, even if "Bina48" comes across as something of a whack job in her (its?) interview. There are robots designed be cuddly and emotionally supportive (they look like baby seals). There are robots who are learning to be teachers. It's all pretty mind-boggling even if you've read a lot of SF and future-looking non-fiction.

There's also ASIMO, Honda's experimental humanoid robot, shown in the video above. A cute little robot kid who can walk, climb stairs, and even run (I saw a demonstration at Disneyland back in February - really impressive, especially the stairs). Honda has been working on this bipedal robot assistant for some 20 years and it's not ready for the general home quite yet - but it's getting closer. I'm really more optimistic than creeped out by the growing robot population. I think they will ultimately lead to better lives for many humans, though as with any technology, they will also displace some humans' jobs along the way. We really need to work on that.

And I haven't even mentioned NASA's Robonaut who will soon be living on the ISS. More on that another time...

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Pocket Solar System

There are a number of great astronomy and space apps for the iPhone and iPod Touch, and I've discussed some of them here before. I just got a new one called Solar Walk - 3D Solar System (it's "3D" because it actually supports red/green 3D glasses for some images, though I didn't find this to be very exciting on the iPod Touch). Although it's easy to tool around the solar system in Orbiter (free space flight simulator for Windows), Solar Walk is available in my pocket and is better for certain "big picture" questions about the solar system.

Case in point: the recent prominent alignment of Venus, Mars, and Saturn in the early evening western sky. Here's a screen shot from Star Map on the iPod Touch showing their positions this evening around 19:40 local time:

Why are they showing up that way? If you launch Solar Walk and touch the little orbital diagram icon, you can pull up an interactive "orrery" that shows the correct relative positions of the planets in their orbits for any given date and time. Here it is for this evening at about the same time as the above sky shot:

So you can see how this apparent alignment occurs from the positions of Venus, Mars, and Saturn in their orbits (of course the sizes of the planets and orbits in this diagram view are not correct - they need to be visible on the small display - but the angular positions are correct). Solar Walk also lets you zoom in on the planets and their moons - enough to see the main features of each planet, though not very close up. There is also a fair amount of information on each body and on the spacecraft that have visited it as in this screen about Saturn:

There's nothing right now on dwarf planets and asteroids, but what it has is really useful for understanding and explaining what is happening with the main members of our solar system.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Sweet, Rosetta!

ESA's Rosetta spacecraft today made its closest approach to the asteroid 21 Lutetia and ESA has posted some high-res images but so far no captions. I think this one with Saturn in the distance is very cool. I played around a bit with a cool Rosetta add-on for Orbiter back in 2007 and 2008. The screen shot below shows an unrealistically close simulated pass (43 km!) of asteroid Steins which actually took place in 2008. Steins is located in the main asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, as is Lutetia, but Lutetia is a much bigger asteroid, about 100 km in diameter, the largest one yet to be visited by a spacecraft. The Steins encounter took place during Rosetta’s first incursion into the main asteroid belt while on its way to visit Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. You could certainly say that Rosetta gets around.

Two Amazing Albums

I stumbled on two amazing albums recently, Broken Bells and "Gorilla Manor" by Local Natives. They are similar in that they are "alternative rock" (whatever that is) with excellent (and eclectic) songwriting, cool arrangements, and great vocals. Both were MP3 specials on Amazon (Broken Bells for $5, Local Natives for $2.99 as the MP3 Daily Deal on July 7). I hear so many connections in this music - with echoes of the 60's, the Police, Peter Gabriel, the Shins, and much more. The Shins reference is not coincidental in the case of Broken Bells since it is a collaboration between "Danger Mouse" (of Gorillaz and many other projects) and James Mercer, singer/guitarist for the Shins.

Great stuff. I've had these two on continuous shuffle on my iPod for the last few days. My favorite Broken Bells songs are "Mongrel Heart" and "The Ghost Inside." Top two for Local Natives would be "Wide Eyes" and the wonderful "Sun Hands" - I just love that song.

Space Carnivals 160 & 161

I've missed a lot of space carnivals in the last few busy months. But I'm starting to catch up and to even write and submit some space-related posts again. Carnival 160 launched on June 27 at David Portree's Beyond Apollo blog. Carnival 161 arrived on July 8 in two versions: traditional text and YouTube video (embedded here). Nice job by Habitation Intention!

Monday, July 05, 2010

Dare to be an optimist!

This is a little embarrassing, but right now, right in front of you, millions of ideas are having sex. They might be having it right inside this blog. I know, freaky, right? According to author Matt Ridley, the secret of humans' success is exchange, and while trade in physical objects is a big part of that, the exchange of ideas is really the thing that has kept this whole civilization thing moving forward for the last 10,000 years or so, and especially in the last 200 years. And when it comes to ideas having sex, the Internet is the ultimate "swingers' club."

Ridley's book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves is quite a bit more serious than that first paragraph makes it sound, but it does describe a key point. He says, "Without trade, innovation just does not happen. Exchange is to technology as sex is to evolution. It stimulates novelty." Another key thing that exchange and trade allow is specialization. Self-sufficiency sounds good in theory (and in practice if you are in a basic survival situation), but when it comes to growth, prosperity, and happiness (all closely linked), specialization means more of everything for everybody. If multiple people in a community have different skills and products, and if exchange is allowed, everyone has the potential to benefit from the knowledge and output of everyone else. Ideas are especially valuable in part because sharing an idea is like lighting a candle for someone else - now you both have a lighted candle (or an idea of how to do something better). When knowledge is shared in a community, it becomes something like a "collective brain." And when the community expands to include the entire world, interconnected by vast transportation networks and with the Internet as its central nervous system, you can have the wild orgy of exchange of ideas, goods, and services that we call the modern world.

Ridley spends most of the book in a chronological journey through the development of civilization, from the first inklings of exchange and specialization some 200,000 years ago (when we really diverged from other species including our close cousins the apes), through expanded barter systems, to the development of agriculture some 10,000 years ago. Of course climate stability had a lot to do with that as well, but an interesting point is that trade is what really made agriculture interesting and worthwhile. There was also the development of energy sources, from human power (including slavery, unfortunately), to animal power, to various forms of "current solar" energy (water power, wind power, burning wood, etc.), to various forms of "stored solar" (coal, oil, natural gas). There are more steps, but it's clear that the modern world is based to a great extent on exchange and specialization, including free trade and the free exchange of ideas. These have in turn produced a wide range of innovations in social systems and technology and led to the astounding prosperity that most (but of course not all) people in the world enjoy today. Ridley points out that while Louis XIV used some 498 servants to prepare his meals, a modern person of average means has many more people working for him or her (mostly indirectly and on a shared basis) to make easily available food, clothing, medicines, transportation, entertainment, and everything else that we take for granted in modern life. In this sense the average person today is richer than a king in the seventeenth century.

But if things are so great and getting better all the time, why are so many people so pessimistic about the present and the future? Ridley doesn't have a good explanation for this, though he knows he's fighting from a minority position (optimists must be naive!), and he shows that it has always been so. People were fretting over "peak coal" in 1830, and convinced that things had improved so much in the previous half century that there could be no place to go but down. But of course the rest of the nineteenth century was in fact a golden age of technological and social development. Things like slavery and child labor declined not so much because people became nicer, but because energy sources and manufacturing methods made them less necessary (or you could say affordable to give up).

The Rational Optimist is not really an ideological work. While there is a strong sense that Ridley believes that markets generally work better than governments (especially corrupt governments like many in Africa), he's not saying that governments are not necessary. He's certainly a strong proponent for free trade and individual rights, which are strongly correlated with a sense of well-being or "happiness." He also believes that things will continue to get better, even for Africa, as long as we keep moving forward in terms of trade and openness. Although anything can happen including terrorism, crazy governments, natural disasters, etc., his optimism is based on considerations of history and of how things really work (and especially on how resourceful people are), not on wishful thinking or on some belief that prosperity is humanity's right or destiny. It's more or less what we do.

I personally tend toward optimism myself, and this book has given me a lot to think about including many reasons for optimism that I hadn't thought about before. I highly recommend this book.

A Classical Library for Cheap

If you are a fan of classical music, or if you even think you might be a fan of some classical music, you should know about Amazon's "99 Most Essential" series. Right now four of these MP3 collections are on sale for $1.99 each (Handel, Schubert, and Mendelssohn, plus a "relaxing classics" compilation). Even at the regular price ($5.99 to $7.99), these collections are a pretty cheap way to build up a collection of classical music. With the $1.99 sale collections, you're getting some 14 hours of music, a "boxed set" (9-12 CD's) for less than a cup of coffee in most places.

Of course there are caveats. If you are any sort of classical music and/or audio purist, you would not even think of collecting and listening to classical music in MP3 form. They use VBR recording, the sample rates are pretty high, and the recordings generally sound good to me. I'm almost always listening on my computer or iPod anyway, so having a higher quality CD in the basement usually doesn't help me (though I can rip my own CD's at higher quality if I want to). Second, the conductors, orchestras, and other performers are usually not the most famous superstars of classical, but with few exceptions, to my non-expert ears, they are all quite good. There actually are some big name performers, usually on older recordings, but still sounding very good. Third, the earlier collections (e.g., Mozart, Bach, Beethoven) often consisted of isolated movements rather than complete works. Some people like this "greatest hits" approach while others (including me) prefer to have all the movements of a particular symphony, string quartet, etc. together, in order to hear the piece as the composer intended. The "X5 Music Group" listened, and the collections released in recent months include mostly full-length works (with the exception of operas, which are not heavily represented in any case). Another thing some people don't like is that MP3's don't include full performance information (there are no "liner notes"), but they are getting better and the MP3 info generally includes the orchestra, conductor, and some soloists' names. Amazon customers sometimes research and fill in more details in their reviews.

Another point is that these offers may only be available in the U.S. - I'm not really sure, but I've seen reviewer comments for some Amazon MP3 recordings (not these) saying that they could not be downloaded in some other countries (I believe it was someone in the military in Iraq or Afghanistan). So your mileage may vary.

Right now I'm listening to Mendelssohn's "Italian" symphony, a wonderful piece that I must have owned on vinyl because I haven't heard it in forever. This particular recording is by the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hans Swarowsky and it sounds great.

The final problem is how to deal with this explosion of new music - two bucks, and bam, I've got 14 more hours of music to listen to (I've bought collections for Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, Handel, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, and Vivaldi, and maybe one or two more, almost all for $2 each). But hey, it's only two bucks, and if I only get to enjoy a handful of pieces from each collection, it's still a pretty good deal. There are worse problems to have.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

A Minor Swiss Mystery

Alps Panorama Near Brienz Switzerland
After a reader posted a comment identifying the lake in an aerial photo of Switzerland that I had included in a blog post, I got curious about the details of what was in that picture, and where I was when I took it. Google Maps should make this easy, right? Well, yes, more or less. But I'm not the best photo-interpreter and it took me a while. It was fun though.

Because the lakes in the picture (Thuner See and Brienzer See) are much occluded by mountains, it took me a while to figure out where I was and what direction I was probably looking. The first breakthrough was when I noticed I had taken two shots very close together with the same zoom setting. This showed me a much bigger area including parts of both lakes. I stitched the two into the panorama shown above (the Flickr page will allow you to get the original size picture if your care) . The second helper was a small airfield I noticed in a valley near the end of one of the lakes. Switzerland doesn't have many airports, and with the help of Google, I identified it as "Meiringen Mil" (LSMM) apparently some sort of dispersed military airfield (embedded among farms, but the runway seems to be 6500 feet, small jet capable). It's near the city of Brienz at one end of Brienzer See so this pretty much solved it as far as placing myself and my field of view on Google maps (see below - also can be zoomed much higher on Flickr). It turns out I was looking toward the city of Interlaken which is between the lakes (get it?) though it is mostly hidden by a mountain in the foreground. The red line is my estimated flight path, and the yellow lines the estimated field of view for the above panorama. Mystery solved!

Panorama Explanation (Thun lake area, Switz.)

Friday, July 02, 2010

3D Universe Atlas on TED

This is a really cool "TED talk" although it is shorter than usual (about 7 minutes) and mainly narrates a video that takes you from the Himalayas to the edge of the visible universe and back, using the Digital Universe visualization software. I've downloaded and played with a version of that software and found it to be a bit difficult to use. But it sure produces amazing visuals.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

My Own Ariane 5 Launch

Ariane SRB Sep
Seeing the full-size Ariane 5 launcher at the space museum in Toulouse last week reminded me of my own Ariane 5 launching days back in 2006. Of course those were virtual launches in Orbiter, and at the time I was working with Andy McSorley, Mark Paton, and Grant Bonin on an Orbiter simulation of the proposed "Mars for Less" approach for getting humans to Mars sooner rather than later. This involves launching the Mars-bound spacecraft in modules using a "medium" booster (of which Ariane 5 is a good example, with a payload to LEO of around 20 metric tonnes).  The modules would be designed to assemble in orbit essentially by docking, without the complex, EVA-based construction methods used for the ISS. The whole project became a rather complex add-on for Orbiter (there's also an "extra" package for it here). Andy and Mark came up with some great models and programming for it.

I wrote a number of blog posts on this at the time and posted many pictures on Flickr. I also presented the technical paper (PDF, PDF slides here) that we wrote about this at the 2006 Mars Society Convention in Washington, DC. It was fun. The Orbiter screen shot shown here is one of my favorites. The Ariane 5 carries the logos of various space agencies since we assumed that a human Mars mission would be a multinational effort.