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Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Wrong Tomorrow

  Today, I lost my cell phone, and was unable to locate it -- wherever I looked.  It wasn't in its charger, and it wasn't by my bed.  I started looking in all sorts of crazy places:  drawers I hadn't opened in years, the trash, inside the refrigerator - all to no avail.  Fearing the disaster of not having a phone, I posted to Facebook that someone should call me, so that I could attempt to listen for where the sound was coming from.  Before anyone called, I opened a flap at the bottom of a recliner and my cell phone fell out.  It had fallen out of my pocket while I was sitting in my chair.

  This incident from my life kind of reminds me of what has happened with the 2012 Mayan Apocalypse idea.  So you discover this highly-accurate, fascinating calendar, and you notice that it only covers a limited (albeit large) period of time.  You discover more calendars, and they all end at the same date.  You scour the remains of the Mayan Empire for more calendars, but by the time you find a calendar with a later date, everyone in the world has started to fear disaster from the missing years.  They did find a new calendar (link here), and they discovered a symbol for an even longer period of time, roughly equivalent to the period of time depicted in the present Mayan Calendar (link here).  The missing years have an explanation, and it wasn't any of the outlandish theories investigated by predictors of doom, many of whom still believe the world will end on December 21, 2012.

  I can't put a date on it, but a real world-ending event could loom for us.  Recently, the crater of an asteroid impact large enough to wipe out all life on Earth was discovered (article here).  Well, at least, all higher life would be destroyed, leaving only bacteria behind.  The date of this asteroid impact was 3 billion years ago, long before life developed into the myriad forms that it takes today, so it probably didn't kill any plants, animals, or fungi -- but the fact remains, today we'd all be dead from the extinction level event that would occur after that impact.  After 3 billion years, are we "due" for another impact of that size?  All we can do is watch the sky, and hope that we are not.  Regardless of what tomorrow holds, someone will be wrong.  It's more likely that you'll be wrong, however, if you speak with certainty about something that can't be measured and predicted.  Uncertainty is never the enemy of good science.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Bas Lansdorp of Mars

  I never saw the movie, John Carter, but I heard it was a movie, with groundbreaking special effects, that didn’t make enough money to cover the enormous expense.That was what I was worried about when I read about MarsOne, a project by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, which plans to monetize the colonization of Mars by turning the mission into something resembling a Reality Show. Generous estimates of the show being as widely-viewed as the Olympics place the profit margin at just barely under the estimated cost of the mission, unless of course we have multiple seasons consecutively, which doesn’t seem to be the plan, unless I’m mistaken. At the moment, however, the company is relying on sponsors to get the show up and running (initially detailing astronaut selection and training for the mission), so it’s entirely possible that I’ll be proven wrong. I hope I’ll be proven wrong. (my excitement over the announcement that this was not a hoax waned when I read this).

  The idea is a valid thing for explorers to do.  The first Europeans to reach the Americas regaled anyone who was listening with tales of their exciting adventures in the new world.  They also pressured nobles into funding their expeditions.  Television and advertising are both susceptible to this kind of pressure, and it is possible that the company will put the research time at a premium, so that scientists and universities will have to shell out money for their experiments to be conducted, or perhaps put on the air.  Not quite a sugar plantation, for profit-potential, but it’s the best we can do until space is more fully-colonized.

  It reminds me of 2005, when I was very excited about Bigelow Aerospace’s $50 million America’s Space Prize (article here), which nobody won, after which I had the distinct impression that Bigelow had failed, to make room for SpaceX.  They actually did accomplish quite a bit, getting two prototypes into orbit, and, even early-on, I was looking at how Robert Bigelow made his money, and thinking intensely about the Space Hotel he’s no longer doing press about (at least, not recently, on what I could find in a Google search).  So, here’s my thoughts on the MarsOne mission:  it may not be a hoax, right now, but will the reality show come to pass, or will it turn into a potential Mars mission that government space agencies eventually get involved in?  I’m sure no one thinks so, yet, but there’s no way to be sure what’ll happen by 2023.  Here’s hoping we really do get to Mars that soon. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

E-Turing-ity Road

  A recent BBC report states that, potentially, the Death of Alan Turing might not have been a suicide [article here].  While reports of how “happy” or “good-humored” Turing seemed to others, after his chemical castration due to homosexuality, are not to be trusted (he could have been putting on a brave face out of fears of worse punishment), the description of the circumstances of his alleged suicide are a little inconsistent.  The half-eaten apple was part of his daily routine, and he was working with cyanide in one of his experiments.  Perhaps it wasn’t so much a conscious suicide as an accident resulting from a general depression he was careful to conceal.  After all, he was by no means under ordinary pressures or circumstances -- great scientist though he was.

  Aside from his many accomplishments, Turing is famous for the “Turing Test”, which measures the ability of a hypothetical machine to imitate a human (some say to “fool” a human) in the context of a “parlor game” where an interviewer asks questions and hears back responses that are meant to be “male” from first a woman and a man, then a computer designed to sound like a woman pretending to be a man and a man.  No computer has yet been made that would satisfy the requirements of this “test”.

  Thinking about the Turing Test got me wondering about a test, or “quiz”, I made (link here -- if you’re under 18, please choose the “Family” setting while browsing other quizzes on this site; my test will still be visible), and -- more relevantly -- some of the IAT tests I’ve been taking (take IAT tests here).  Though the IAT test is not perfect (randomization of the order and some other factors would help it out tremendously), it’s one of the best measures of actual attitude the social sciences have ever come up with -- primarily because it doesn’t measure what you say, but how your behavior is within a given set of parameters.  How might things have changed, for Turing, if this test were in use prior to his death, in 1954?  What might this kind of test have revealed about homosexuality and chemical castration?  As to the castration question, recent studies have proven that an experiment can still be done, without castrating any humans.  Monkeys were shown to be able to provide interpretable results from an AIT test.  With a comparison, on a variety of tests, between castrated monkeys and monkeys that have not been castrated, we might learn a lot about the ancient (and uniquely human) practice of castration, and that data would be imminently useful to Veterinarians and pet owners.  I’m a little worried, though, about the implications if desirable traits in humanity (lack of prejudice, self-esteem, resistance to stereotypes) were shown to improve in the subjects who had been castrated.  It seems unlikely, from my experience, for animals castrated after adulthood, but it could be entirely possible for those castrated young.  We, as a species, might be closer to that anthill or beehive, with a single breeding pair or artificial wombs to provide us with children, than anyone would hope for or want.  That is, however, no reason for it not to be tested, or for the results not to be seen.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Time Routine

  I’ve been wondering, lately, if some of my ideas are ahead of their time.  Two examples of this:  robots are expensive, and open source novels haven’t been successfully monetized.  I have full confidence that the things I write about here have SOME possibility of coming to pass, but will it be in my lifetime? 

  History is funny that way.  The history of science -- even more so.  How many times has a person with an accurate idea been scoffed at, only to be proven right by the progression of knowledge?  I’m not saying I’m a great scientist; I’m just using the examples that I have at my disposal.  We often think that we’ve entered an age of perfect knowledge where only the best ideas receive attention, but I don’t believe we’ve ever reached that point.  I often think that modern science, for all its wonders, might be farther from the fundamentals of the scientific method than science in the 20th Century, but I never see that thought gaining much traction.  It might be because business and culture are more receptive to the potential of technology -- but does all that money and interest really help us understand the universe?

  How many times have we seen this headline?  The historic moment when the Voyager spacecraft officially “leaves” the Solar System would be an important event, if we knew precisely when it would come.  It was announced that the exit would be imminent before, but then the rate of change in the factors we consider characteristic of the Solar System -- as Voyager moves farther away from the sun -- was smaller than expected.  Now, it’s greater than expected.  The more scientists are wrong in public promises, the less people trust science.  So, why not simply announce when the Voyager probe has exited the Solar System, and then let history document the process afterward?  The attention is a distraction from the real down-and-dirty WORK of science:  the solid routine of observation, analysis, and progress toward a conclusion.  There’s nothing worse than a highly-publicized, failed attempt to get ahead of time…

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

That Hideous Length

Eunectes Murinus, the Green Anaconda, is a massive snake, but not as huge as it is rumored to be.  It is accepted wisdom that this species is the LARGEST species of snake in the world, but it is not the LONGEST.An abnormally-large reticulated python was longer than the longest Anaconda ever observed, and the average length of this species is greater than the average of the Green Anaconda.

Both of these species are dwarfed by the prehistoric Titanoboa, a 2,500 pound, 43 foot-long snake that lived in the Paleocene Epoch.  Compared to dinosaurs, this is a fairly recent time period, and -- compared to the Anaconda -- this species of snake was a giant.  But which modern snake is most closely-related to Titanoboa?  Is it either of the two current record-holders?  Unfortunately, the fragility of ancient snake-bones makes it extraordinarily difficult to determine their precise evolutionary tree.  Length is one of the few measurable characteristics we have about snakes, and even that isn’t perfect.

Snake-length got me thinking about the length of different forms of literature throughout the ages.  Specifically Edmund Spenser’s unfinished The Faerie Queene, which -- even unfinished -- is the longest poem in the English language.  It’s long, but -- compared to even an abridged World-Book Encyclopedia -- it’s really not that long.  And, with digital technology, much longer “books”, or collections of knowledge, are eminently possible.  Does the future perhaps hold an open-source novel that would fill a 40-gig hard drive?  Has this astonishing feat already been accomplished?  I picture a world where a grandmother begins reading the novel at 10, then passes it on to her children, as an heirloom.  The children then begin reading where the grandmother left off, and pass the novel down, until eventually it’s finished.  The form of the novel would probably be sort of a James Michener style of book -- possibly following a family through the history of mankind.  Now, wouldn’t that put the Titanoboa to shame?

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Blogs Themselves

Can youimagine what it would be like, if everything on the internetstarted to look like this?  This Saturday, I didn’t have to imagine. It was everywhere I went on the web, thanks to a lovely little Browser Hijacker called Text-Enhance.

An unsubstantiated rumor that I grew up believing was that early radio dramas used to advertise products within the scripts of their shows.  A person would be in the middle of a storyline, and suddenly start talking about a given product as though they were in a commercial.  I googled the subject several times and found no relevant results, so I’m not certain this is accurate, but that makes the Text-Enhance world I thought I was living in all the more unprecedented and devious.  It doesn’t promise an eventual end to the situation.

Blogging is, in the scheme of things, still pretty new.  An advertisement that looks like a link in the text of a blog would undermine the blog, even if the ad was making money for the author, to say nothing of what it would be like if, say, Blogger started pocketing all of  the revenue from the insidious ads.  Technology is a brave new world, and I sometimes wonder if the dregs of the internet are more like pirates or immoral outlaws in the wild west.  Questions like “does a blog belong to the original owner” are not definitively answered by laws -- at least not yet [see here].  I can only hope that Blogger accounts would start disappearing, and that people would notify their readers of their plans to move their blogs over to createspace, like I was planning to do before I learned I was the victim of adware.  It’s still possible, though, that blogs like mine would simply disappear, and that the internet would become a place that serves no greater purpose than to sell people things.  Wouldn’t that be sad?  I promise my next post will be more science-related, for those of you who are disappointed that this one is not.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

*Sigh*, Robot

  It’s not every day someone like me thinks about starting a company, or even investing money I don’t have in one, but the field of robotics is in desperate need of someone with a realistic, focused vision of how to incorporate robotics into our daily lives.  So far, robots have been made that learn spatial environments, cook, clean, and do all of the other things necessary for them to start making the lives of the everyday household easier.  My company would be called Botco, and would open with two products -- each sold for about half the price of your average car -- KitchenBot and YardBot.  Later, you would have a million more Bots to do various things, but what we would be selling, at first, would be a cooking robot that downloads recipes from the internet (it would fly), and a wheeled, non-humanoid robot that could mow your lawn, rake the leaves, plant and water your garden, and do landscaping.  Yardbot would have mower blades underneath it, and a retractable arm with various tool-shaped attachments that go on the end of it.  It would also configure or landscape your yard according to a design that it downloads from the internet.  Each recipe and design from the internet would be treated like an “app” of sorts, that would cost about $50 for a landscape, and maybe $30 for a recipe that you could make any time you want to.  They would not be cheap, like cell phone apps, because programming a robot is a more specialized skill.
  But is it moral to let robots do the work that we once did ourselves?  In my opinion, yes it would be.  Robots like these are definitely not intelligent beings, and asking that would be like asking if using other machines is moral.  The only issue I respect, in this debate, is the question of jobs.  Will robots make manual laborers obsolete?  Admittedly, there would be work for some brainy landscapers and cooks, who know how to turn their designs and recipes into “apps”.  I could even envision a flexible pay schedule, for independent designers, where the designer sets a price for both the app itself -- in household use -- and for the one-time sale of commercial rights:  so that a company or restaurant could use Bots to create items for sale.  Again, more lost jobs.
  The only thing I can say to this concern is that it might not be time for this kind of company to make our lives easier -- yet.  But that time will come, and I, for one, look forward to it.  With a couple of other robots I envision -- FarmBot and ConstructionBot -- we could live in a world where there is a skyscraper in every small town, and zero hunger for anyone, anywhere.  Every human endeavor of the physical would be done for the cost of materials and electricity, with a relatively small royalty to the designer of the software, and an initial investment that I think plenty of people would be willing to make.  But how would people make money?  I have an answer for a lot of people, but not everyone.  Art isn’t for just anyone, nor is it especially profitable in the age of the internet, when so many people are just giving it away for free [myself included].  But then, there are a lot of people who just aren’t inclined to do art, sport, entertainment, or anything other than the manual labor jobs we could do cheaper and better with robots.  Is it the time to reach out to the possibilities that are becoming available to us?  I leave that up to you.  Too much of a headache for my prematurely-sentimental mind.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Bored of Light

  I recently started reading a novel that was published online as an ebook.  I put it down after I realized that it was a time travel story where the hero and main character was a writer researching a time travel novel, clearly meant to become the “expert” in the story.  A book with that premise can impress me, but it only happens rarely.

  Just as rare, one might say, are the Einsteins of the world.  Patent clerks who revolutionize physics.  As you may have read [article here], a recent attempt to depose Einstein was finally foiled.  The faster-than-light neutrino experiment was discovered to have been flawed.  But, even if it had been accurate, we should remember that the Speed of Light Constant is not the actual speed of light in the physical world.  It’s like Absolute Zero.  Nothing in the universe ever reaches it, but the fraction is so close that we consider the ideal number and the measured number to be functionally the same.

  Now, I don’t know if the number actually exceeded the “speed limit” set by the Speed of Light Constant, just like I don’t know if the author of that novel I read handled the absurd premise of his book well enough, because I did not read the book, and because I don’t know the exact number of the Speed of Light Constant.  But imagining the whole physics community being fooled by something my high school science teacher knew is a lot like putting down a book after only reading a few pages.  I can, so I do.

  I’m happy to hear that the experiment was flawed, anyway.  I don’t know if I could take a revolution in physics right now.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Dandelion Whine

   In honor of the first Ray Bradbury novel I ever read [Dandelion Wine, from 1957], I’m going to talk about Taraxacum Officinale, the common Dandelion.  While some forms of Dandelion are native to North America, this species was introduced by European settlers.  It is, was, and will remain an invasive species.

  Poor Ray Bradbury must have felt a little overwhelmed by dandelions, in his later years, as digital technology, one of his pet peeves [see here], became so prevalent and essential to modern life.  How far might we have gotten with the technology we had, if we hadn’t gotten so obsessed with the newfangled devices?  Is “colonizing” the internet the reason we don’t have a Moon colony?

  More importantly, wouldn’t a Moon colony disrupt the natural environment of the Moon, desolate as it is?  Our childhoods, our origins, and everything that becomes familiar is subject to change -- whether it be flowering weeds from across the sea, electronic storage of information, where the brain once entertained itself with objects that actually exist, or strange-looking water-filled skin-sacks that need a strong, metal enclosure filled with gas to even survive.

  For the record, I’m not opposed to the digital age, a moon colony, or even Taraxacum Officinale.  There’s just a certain amount of sadness that comes with clearing away the old to make way for the new.  I often wonder why we’re always in such a rush to do it.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Brain Players of Titan

 Chemosynthesis. The word would have sounded so foreign to me, when I was younger. Then I would’ve jumped to the conclusion that some science fiction writer had invented the term to describe something that was happening on another planet (cue envious glare at that science fiction writer), but of course, chemosynthesis supports a whole ecosystem right here on earth. At the mid-ocean ridges, it’s how most life forms survive.

 So that got me thinking, and not for the first time, about what might be under the ice on Jupiter’s moon, Europa. Then I remembered that we found the potential for (some) even photosynthetic microbes on Saturn’s moon, Titan. And that got me thinking, if an intelligent creature from Titan and an intelligent creature from Europa were to breed, wouldn’t that create the world’s first multiplanetary citizen?

 I have to think that Titanoids (as I would call them), would be more likely to come up with space travel than Europanids (TM, patent pending). Therefore, we can assume the offspring would be born on Europa, unless of course the gestation period allowed them to endure the trip back to Titan. And I don’t know how I got to it, but the next thought in my head was the Titanoids discovering a Europanid species of crab that was smarter than them, and then bringing that species to the brink of extinction out of jealousy or sheer hubris. Save the dolphins? I guess?

 It's established wisdom that humanity is the most intelligent thing in the solar system, but the forms of intelligence even within our own species are so varied that I’m left to wonder if perhaps our brains, our technology, and even our art and music aren’t just temporary evolutionary flukes soon to be specialized into something more useful or sustainable. I wonder if we might just look like giant, mammalian, vertebrate ants and bees someday. Then I wonder if that would really be a bad thing. Of course, ants do more with a small brain than many much larger-brained species can do, which displays a certain kind of pre-programmed “intelligence”. Maybe that’s just one of the forms our evolutionary descendants will take. I refuse to believe that we’ve somehow outwitted Natural Selection, or even slowed it down more than a paper dam slows down a river. Then I’m back to Titan, and the Methane rivers and lakes we were once so sure weren’t really there. Maybe even the absence of life on Titan has a bigger brain than us. Maybe I’ll change my mind after the election. “You would,” I chide myself.

 [this has been an introduction to B. Radom’s Universe, where I come to think about science as hard as I can. Thank you for reading.]