Thursday, September 19, 2013

iOS 7 & Kindle App Collections (Finally)

This week, Apple released the latest version of its iOS operating system for iPhone, iPad, and the latest generation iPod Touch (not mine). I read about various warnings and it seemed likely to work pretty well on an iPhone 5, so I backed up my stuff and installed it there. I decided to wait for a point release or two before installing on my iPad Mini, since I read warnings of possible bugs that could affect music-making apps. Since everything there seems to be working fine on iOS 6, I will wait for some other iPad music makers to give the all clear. Installation on the iPhone was easy and so far it's working well for me.

There are probably a zillion detailed reviews so I won't try to cover everything. My general impressions are similar to others I've seen. Although the use of high-contrast primary colors for many of the icons gives a crazy-quilt look to the home screen, I mostly like the clean, sparse, Crate & Barrel look. Much of it comes from using a wiry-thin font and having no borders around... pretty much anything. I'm mostly used to it already, although with app screens having minimal content and few controls like the timer, it's a bit TOO sparse.

One of the coolest new things is the translucent control panel that you can access from any screen by flicking up from the bottom edge. It has most of the things you need to access frequently, like music controls, airplane mode, brightness, even a flashlight (the camera flash LED). I also like the changes in the Safari web browser, including a top-down "carousel" view of your open web pages. There are similar re-designs of the interface and display features for the photo album, camera, and other Apple-supplied apps. The new iTunes radio is pretty cool too, with artist- or style-based "stations" similar to Pandora, but based on the contents of the iTunes store (with a convenient button to easily buy any song that pops up and strikes your fancy). I quickly set up a station based on my own iTunes songs to see which "real artists" my music might suggest - a mixed bag in my first test - Neil Diamond (at least it was "Sweet Caroline") and Barbra Streisand?? But also Five for Fighting, Jason Mraz, Eric Clapton, and Billy Joel. So I guess their algorithm is OK with me (whatever they may use when the reference artist has very small sales numbers!).

One of my favorite iOS 7 things is not from Apple - it's a new release of one of my most frequently used apps, the Amazon Kindle reader. It is redesigned to comply with iOS 7 interface style guidelines, but more exciting for me is COLLECTIONS. Finally! I have a lot of Kindle books, and up to now, the iOS app has had no folder system or similar method for organizing them into categories (some physical Kindle devices have included collections for a long time). Collections are similar to folders, but you can assign any book to one or more collections (or to none). It works pretty well, and it is used for items on the device as well as in the Cloud (downloaded items appear in the folder with a small check mark). This is great, because it allows you to see everything you have placed in that category, whether or not it is local (and if you have a web connection, any Cloud book can be downloaded in a few seconds).

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Carnival of Space #319

Check out the space and astronomy bloggers sharing some of their recent writing at the 319th Carnival of Space, hosted this week by Dear Astronomer.

As a reminder, if you are interested in the JPL Solar System Ambassador program, September is the month to apply.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Plain or Peanut?

I watched a very interesting short video from Worldviews Network today, "A Global Water Story." I learned a lot about fresh water and how it's in increasing demand around the world, even as climate change makes dry areas drier and wet areas wetter and ancient underground aquifers sink rapidly. To set the scene, the video uses a clever analogy to show how little of our planet's water is fresh water. 

Imagine that all the water in the world is represented by a one gallon (3.8 liter) pitcher. All of this would be salt water except for three shot glasses of fresh water (a shot glass holds about 1.5 fl. oz. or 44 ml). The contents of two of the three shot glasses would be frozen polar ice. Of the fresh liquid water in the third glass, most of it would be underground. The drinkable amount available on the Earth's surface would be the volume of a single M&M candy (a volume of about 0.64 cm^3 or 0.64 ml):

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Future Minds

I've been thinking about the future, triggered by three books, two I read last week, and one that I've only read about (so far). The amazing Brain Pickings has something interesting to learn about nearly every day. A recent article (“Tip-of-the-Tongue Syndrome,” Transactive Memory, and How the Internet Is Making Us Smarter) was inspired by a book I haven't read, Clive Thompson's Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better. I'm connecting it with two science fiction novels about the development of human-level artificial intelligence in the near future.

The Brain Pickings article discusses something I often joke about, the "outsourcing" of our brains to Google-powered smart phones and other internet tools. Back in the 80's, the board game Trivial Pursuit was popular, and I played it quite a bit with friends and family. I had a good memory and I read a lot on many subjects, so I was quite good at that game back in the day (sports questions were probably my biggest weakness since I haven't followed any sports since high school). I haven't played the game in years, and although I still read widely, and generally remember the gist of what I read, I feel I no longer retain as many details, in part because I know I can look up anything in a few seconds on my iPhone, iPad, or laptop. I mostly read books on Kindle now, so I can even reload a book and search it for a particular word or phrase in a few minutes.

Thompson's book apparently argues that this brain outsourcing is not necessarily a bad thing. Aside from the usual condemnation every "brain augmenting" technology has received since the birth of writing, the access speed and enormous depth of the information available on the internet make it more like an extension of our brains than earlier, slower developments such as writing systems, printing presses, libraries, and pre-internet computers. I generally like things the way they are now - humans have relied on technology for centuries, and we seem to do a good job adapting to whatever technology allows us to do, whether that means having all the world's knowledge literally at our fingertips, or flying to Paris in just a few hours. As long as it works and allows me some degree of independence, I'll take it (of course I wish there weren't side effects like technological unemployment - there is still work to do, and technology will need to be used to help us solve problems created by other technology, since pulling the plug is no longer an option).

But what if the side effects got even worse, and led to the decline of human beings as the dominant sentient species on this planet? Of course I'm talking about the rise of intelligent machines, or AI. In William Hertling's "Singularity Series," the author explores what could happen if the enormous power of the internet were to lead to the emergence of one or more artificially intelligent "entities." Last week I read the first two of three books in this series, Avogadro Corp. (it's a fictionalized Google) and A.I. Apocalypse. There's a third book I decided for now not to read (more later).

The books work well as "what if" explorations in fictional form. The author knows a lot about computer technology and AI, and seems to also know a lot about the inner workings of high-tech companies such as Google and its Portland, OR-based fictional counterpart in the books, Avogadro Corp. Both books certainly held my interest, though the characters and the "flow" of the writing leave something to be desired. Avogadro Corp. is Mr. Hertling's first novel, and it defines a near-future scenario in which a complex natural-language understanding software system called ELOPe is given a self-improvement and self-protection goal that unintentionally leads it to emerge as an intelligent and self-aware entity. This is one part that I have a hard time buying, but SF usually requires a bit of suspension of disbelief, and if the story works well enough, I will accept this. Computers and networks are fast, so I can buy that once the self-improvement behavior is in place, the system might quickly expand its capabilities by using additional computing and communication bandwidth (i.e., many more servers and communication resources). Would it become devious and aggressive vs. humans? More suspension of disbelief, but OK, maybe.

In the second book, A.I. Apocalypse, the unintentional AI "ELOPe" has been "tamed" and has been working in secret for 10 years with a small team of humans, mainly for the benefit of mankind as a whole. It's pretty cool all the things it can do, and it ("he" in the book) definitely considers itself to be a friend of humanity, even though it is able to set its own goals and think and work thousands of time faster than even the brightest humans. It runs on millions of networked servers distributed around the world, allowing it to do many things simultaneously, including actions to expand its own intelligence, and to give itself physical presence through robots.One of the things it has done behind the scenes is to disrupt the actions of various R&D teams that might lead to the development of a second super-powerful AI that might not be as benign as ELOPe. Of course this happens anyway, the result of a super-smart Russian-American teenager's (coerced) development of a super-powerful computer virus based on evolutionary principles. Scary stuff happens. Read it for more! The writing is still fairly clunky but the story has a lot of cool ideas and moves along well.

So what? The major takeaway here is that IF this sort of AI were to emerge, deliberately or accidentally, its intelligence and other powers might be easily extended by addition of computing and robotic resources such as server farms. Once it gets roughly as smart as a human, it could very quickly get MUCH smarter (and also very widely distributed, spread across many servers all over the world). Evolution in such an environment could happen VERY fast. If the AI (or AI entities) were to develop its/their own goals, and finds itself in competition with humans for various key resources (starting with computing cycles and network bandwidth), what could happen? Hard to say, but it might not be good for humanity, even if it didn't involve Terminator-like direct war between humans and machines. Best to not hook them up to any armed robots or drones (oops).

I'm not reading the third book right now. For one thing, I'm a little tired of the writing, and I have a lot of other things to read and do. For another, The Last Firewall takes place further in the future and is necessarily even more speculative than the first two books. It does seem to hinge greatly on neural implants, with the implication of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" - humans will not be able to play in the big leagues of super-fast, super-intelligent entities armed only with our "wetware." I think this is probably true. When the machines get that powerful, we're going to need to have some metal and silicon and fiber optics in the game if we want to still have some skin in the game.

UPDATE: There's a nice review of all three books (with spoilers!) here. Also, I found myself singing one of my own songs in the shower this morning, "Message from Tomorrow." That song briefly addresses addresses some of the trans-human issues raised in these books. And you can dance to it! Here's the cover which depicts a trans-human singer-songwriter in a trans-pastoral setting:

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Carnival of Space #318

Check out a number of cool space and astronomy blog posts featured in this week's 318th Carnival of Space, hosted by Pam Hoffman's Everyday Spacer blog.

Be a Solar System Ambassador!

If you live in the US and have an interest in space, planetary exploration, astronomy, and/or science-related educational outreach, please check out the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassadors volunteer program VERY SOON. September is the only month of the year that new ambassador applications are accepted for ambassadors to start in January 2014.

Although I have been an Ambassador since 2007, for various reasons, I have not been very active in the Ambassador program myself in the last few years. I hope to get more active again starting in 2014. Regardless of my own situation, I strongly believe in this program, and because of reductions of federal government funds related to sequestration, the need for volunteers is stronger than ever. That's because NASA's own employee-based educational outreach programs have been cut. Since the Solar System Ambassadors are volunteers, JPL plans to increase the number of new ambassador appointments for 2014 so there can be more volunteers available who can be involved with programs for schools, museums, libraries, astronomy clubs, and other educational events.

It's easy to apply, and you don't have to be an expert in space or astronomy to participate. Having an interest in educational outreach and a willingness to spend some time on it are more important than space flight expertise. JPL provides various materials and phone conferences that can help you prepare for presentations. These are fun and educational in themselves.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Why Do I Like What I Like?

I believe that biochemically, serotonin and dopamine are more or less the only two things I enjoy. But at some other level, I often wonder why I like what I like. A lot of it seems to be about novelty. Although there is probably not much that is truly new, novelty emerges in a lot of ways. Surprise is one (perhaps obvious) way. This seems to be the key to a lot of humor - a funny writer or comedian sets up a certain expectation and then takes it in another direction.Creativity is another path to novelty. What could be more novel than a drawing or song you create yourself? Travel is another path. Simulation and gaming too - artificial travel, in a sense. Books are still a pretty good simulation (they run on that old school, low-energy, mobile processor we like to call "the mind"). There are lots of things to like in the world, but I don't like or even notice most of them.

What about a new song by someone other than myself? I often enjoy the sense of familiarity and surprise that this entails. A three-minute pop song has a fairly predictable structure. It will usually incorporate typical musical elements (western scales, chords, and harmonies, common instruments like guitars, keyboards, and drums). But I hear many new songs that do nothing for me, even if others might think they are great. And then once in a while - BAM. A new song just hits me. Why is that?

Here's an example of a recent song that just grabbed me, "Is This How You Feel?" by the Australian band The Preatures. I heard it on the radio (KCRW) when I was Los Angeles recently, and I instantly turned it up. I was about to stop the car to enter a restaurant for dinner, but I waited to hear the rest of the song, and to use the iPhone Shazam app to identify it. I went back to the hotel after dinner and found the song on SoundCloud and YouTube. The video is basic but effective enough. It's a strongly rhythmic and extremely catchy song. I love it, and even after hearing it twenty or more times, it still makes me smile. I don't know why. It's not the lyrics, which are barely coherent (best I can tell, it says, "I'm excited about you, do you feel the same?"). The singer sounds sexy and excited, and many listeners seem to find the song infectious. I had never heard anything from or about this band before, but now I expect I will buy their EP or album once it becomes available in the US. It reminds me somehow of the old song "Semi-Charmed Life" by Third Eye Blind, though it's a love song rather than a drug song. I'm not sure what's the same about them but they seem to trigger some of the same pathways in my brain, and that 1997 song is one of those I will listen to nearly every time it pops up.

Here's another example, Paul McCartney's brand-new song "New." This one is not quite so hard to fathom - the basic rhythm and tonality evoke Paul's Beatles classic "Penny Lane." It's not the same as "Penny Lane," but there is definitely something strongly "Beatleish" about this song, even if Paul's 71 year old voice is not quite as smooth as it was in 1967, it's still Paul, and it's still damn good. There are some very deep neural pathways that trigger on almost anything that evokes the Beatles (even partial matches like the bands Badfinger and Jet and the nearly forgotten early 70's singer-songwriter Emitt Rhodes). And yet... Paul has put out maybe 20 albums since the Beatles. I probably have half of them and love perhaps 3 or 4. Even Sir Paul himself doesn't trigger all my "Beatles = Good" neural patterns. I'm not sure why.

It's not all about other people's music. I like a lot of my own music, and I especially like the feeling of completing a new song or a new recording, sort of a "creative rush." Finishing a larger work like my three albums gets an especially big "like." But even my own work doesn't get an "all access pass." There are many things I write or record that do nothing for me a few days or weeks later.Even finishing a blog post is a little "creative rush." Pretty much any act of creation, though some can be so long in birthing (like my 2005-2006 space flight how-to book Go Play In Space), that it's hard to know whether I like it or not! With some distance, it eventually seems worth all the work, and I feel satisfaction in having completed such a project. Learning something complex (like how to fly, or Japanese) is another "project" type of thing with more long-run satisfaction than "creative rush," though there are some milestones that can be quite a thrill (like my first solo flight back in 2000).

It's not all about music. Books are still a major thing in my life. I just finished the final novel (Dust) in a SF trilogy by Hugh Howey. I discovered the first book Wool a few months ago on Amazon, and I found it to be a very enjoyable piece of post-apocalyptic science fiction. This tends to be one of my favorite SF sub-genres. That seems odd even to me. How can stories of the end of the world and its aftermath be "enjoyable?" I don't know - maybe it's the puzzle aspect of figuring out how to survive. Maybe I identify with the heroes and heroines of these stories. I don't know - I just like many of these stories. I also like many books in many other genres, most of it non-fiction.

But what about the familiar? Why do I still love to hear many Beatles songs some 45 years after I first heard them? Why do I still enjoy pizza or haddock or Cocoa Krispies every time? Or seeing the ground or the clouds from 3,500 or 35,000 feet? Or seeing pictures of planets or galaxies from Cassini or Hubble? Or playing the guitar? Or speaking Japanese or French? These things are not exactly novel. I don't know. I guess there are a lot of ways to trigger those little shots of serotonin and dopamine. Evolution came through with some pretty fine home-grown drugs!

Carnival of Space #317

The 317th Carnival of Space is running this week at The Urban Astronomer's Blog.