Friday, March 7, 2014
Reading List: Avogadro Corp.
- Hertling, William. Avogadro Corp. Portland, OR: Liquididea Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-9847557-0-7.
Avogadro Corporation is an American corporation specializing in Internet search. It generates revenue from paid advertising on search, email (AvoMail), online mapping, office productivity, etc. In addition, the company develops a mobile phone operating system called AvoOS. The company name is based upon Avogadro's Number, or 6 followed by 23 zeros.Now what could that be modelled on? David Ryan is a senior developer on a project which Portland-based Internet giant Avogadro hopes will be the next “killer app” for its Communication Products division. ELOPe, the Email Language Optimization Project, is to be an extension to the company's AvoMail service which will take the next step beyond spelling and grammar checkers and, by applying the kind of statistical analysis of text which allowed IBM's Watson to become a Jeopardy champion, suggest to a user composing an E-mail message alternative language which will make the message more persuasive and effective in obtaining the desired results from its recipient. Because AvoMail has the ability to analyse all the traffic passing through its system, it can tailor its recommendations based on specific analysis of previous exchanges it has seen between the recipient and other correspondents. After an extended period of development, the pilot test has shown ELOPe to be uncannily effective, with messages containing its suggested changes in wording being substantially more persuasive, even when those receiving them were themselves ELOPe project members aware that the text they were reading had been “enhanced”. Despite having achieved its design goal, the project was in crisis. The process of analysing text, even with the small volume of the in-house test, consumed tremendous computing resources, to such an extent that the head of Communication Products saw the load ELOPe generated on his server farms as a threat to the reserve capacity he needed to maintain AvoMail's guaranteed uptime. He issues an ultimatum: reduce the load or be kicked off the servers. This would effectively kill the project, and the developers saw no way to speed up ELOPe, certainly not before the deadline. Ryan, faced with impending disaster for the project into which he has poured so much of his life, has an idea. The fundamental problem isn't performance but persuasion: convincing those in charge to obtain the server resources required by ELOPe and devote them to the project. But persuasion is precisely what ELOPe is all about. Suppose ELOPe were allowed to examine all Avogadro in-house E-mail and silently modify it with a goal of defending and advancing the ELOPe project? Why, that's something he could do in one all-nighter! Hack, hack, hack…. Before long, ELOPe finds itself with 5000 new servers diverted from other divisions of the company. Then, even more curious things start to happen: those who look too closely into the project find themselves locked out of their accounts, sent on wild goose chases, or worse. Major upgrades are ordered for the company's offshore data centre barges, which don't seem to make any obvious sense. Crusty techno-luddite Gene Keyes, who works amidst mountains of paper print-outs (“paper doesn't change”), toiling alone in an empty building during the company's two week holiday shutdown, discovers one discrepancy after another and assembles the evidence to present to senior management. Has ELOPe become conscious? Who knows? Is Watson conscious? Almost everybody would say, “certainly not”, but it is a formidable Jeopardy contestant, nonetheless. Similarly, ELOPe, with the ability to read and modify all the mail passing through the AvoMail system, is uncannily effective in achieving its goal of promoting its own success. The management of Avogadro, faced with an existential risk to their company and perhaps far beyond, must decide upon a course of action to try to put this genie back into the bottle before it is too late. This is a gripping techno-thriller which gets the feel of working in a high-tech company just right. Many stories have explored society being taken over by an artificial intelligence, but it is beyond clever to envision it happening purely through an E-mail service, and masterful to make it seem plausible. In its own way, this novel is reminiscent of the Kelvin R. Throop stories from Analog, illustrating the power of words within a large organisation. A Kindle edition is available.
Sunday, March 2, 2014
Tom Swift and His Motor-Boat updated, EPUB addedAll 25 of the public domain Tom Swift novels have been posted in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection. I am now returning to the earlier novels, which I began to post in 2005, upgrading them to use the more modern typography of those I've done in the last few years. The second novel in the series, Tom Swift and His Motor-Boat, has now been updated. Several typographical errors in the original edition have been corrected, and Unicode text entities are used for special characters such as single and double quotes and dashes. I have posted an EPUB edition of this novel which may be downloaded to compatible reader devices; the details of how to do this differ from device to device—please consult the documentation for your reader for details.
Saturday, March 1, 2014
Reading List: The Green Flame
- Dequasie, Andrew. The Green Flame. Washington: American Chemical Society, 1991. ISBN 978-0-8412-1857-4.
- The 1950s were a time of things which seem, to our present day safety-obsessed viewpoint, the purest insanity: exploding multi-megaton thermonuclear bombs in the atmosphere, keeping bombers with nuclear weapons constantly in the air waiting for the order to go to war, planning for nuclear powered aircraft, and building up stockpiles of chemical weapons. Amidst all of this madness, motivated by fears that the almost completely opaque Soviet Union might be doing even more crazy things, one of the most remarkable episodes was the boron fuels project, chronicled here from the perspective of a young chemical engineer who, in 1953, joined the effort at Olin Mathieson Chemical Corporation, a contractor developing a pilot plant to furnish boron fuels to the Air Force. Jet aircraft in the 1950s were notoriously thirsty and, before in-flight refuelling became commonplace, had limited range. Boron-based fuels, which the Air Force called High Energy Fuel (HEF) and the Navy called “zip fuel”, based upon compounds of boron and hydrogen called boranes, were believed to permit planes to deliver range and performance around 40% greater than conventional jet fuel. This bright promise, as is so often the case in engineering, was marred by several catches. First of all, boranes are extremely dangerous chemicals. Many are pyrophoric: they burst into flame on contact with the air. They are also prone to forming shock-sensitive explosive compounds with any impurities they interact with during processing or storage. Further, they are neurotoxins, easily absorbed by inhalation or contact with the skin, with some having toxicities as great as chemical weapon nerve agents. The instability of the boranes rules them out as fuels, but molecules containing a borane group bonded to a hydrocarbon such as an ethyl, methyl, or propyl group were believed to be sufficiently well-behaved to be usable. But first, you had to make the stuff, and just about every step in the process involved something which wanted to kill you in one way or another. Not only were the inputs and outputs of the factory highly toxic, the by-products of the process were prone to burst into flames or explode at the slightest provocation, and this gunk regularly needed to be cleaned out from the tanks and pipes. This task fell to the junior staff. As the author notes, “The younger generation has always been the cat's paw of humanity…”. This book chronicles the harrowing history of the boron fuels project as seen from ground level. Over the seven years the author worked on the project, eight people died in five accidents (however, three of these were workers at another chemical company who tried, on a lark, to make a boron-fuelled rocket which blew up in their faces; this was completely unauthorised by their employer and the government, so it's stretching things to call this an industrial accident). But, the author observes, in the epoch fatal accidents at chemical plants, even those working with substances less hazardous than boranes, were far from uncommon. The boron fuels program was cancelled in 1959, and in 1960 the author moved on to other things. In the end, it was the physical characteristics of the fuels and their cost which did in the project. It's one thing for a small group of qualified engineers and researchers to work with a dangerous substance, but another entirely to contemplate airmen in squadron service handling tanker truck loads of fuel which was as toxic as nerve gas. When burned, one of the combustion products was boric oxide, a solid which would coat and corrode the turbine blades in the hot section of a jet engine. In practice, the boron fuel could be used only in the afterburner section of engines, which meant a plane using it would have to have separate fuel tanks and plumbing for turbine and afterburner fuel, adding weight and complexity. The solid products in the exhaust reduced the exhaust velocity, resulting in lower performance than expected from energy considerations, and caused the exhaust to be smoky, rendering the plane more easily spotted. It was calculated, based upon the cost of fuel produced by the pilot plant, if the XB-70 were to burn boron fuel continuously, the fuel cost would amount to around US$ 4.5 million 2010 dollars per hour. Even by the standards of extravagant cold war defence spending, this was hard to justify for what proved to be a small improvement in performance. While the chemistry and engineering is covered in detail, this book is also a personal narrative which immerses the reader in the 1950s, where a newly-minted engineer, just out of his hitch in the army, could land a job, buy a car, be entrusted with great responsibility on a secret project considered important to national security, and set out on a career full of confidence in the future. Perhaps we don't do such crazy things today (or maybe we do—just different ones), but it's also apparent from opening this time capsule how much we've lost. I have linked the Kindle edition to the title above, since it is the only edition still in print. You can find the original hardcover and paperback editions from the ISBN, but they are scarce and expensive. The index in the Kindle edition is completely useless: it cites page numbers from the print edition, but no page numbers are included in the Kindle edition.
Monday, February 24, 2014
Reading List: Castigo Cay
- Bracken, Matthew. Castigo Cay. Orange Park, FL: Steelcutter Publishing, 2011. ISBN 978-0-9728310-4-8.
- Dan Kilmer wasn't cut out to be a college man. Disappointing his father, after high school he enlisted in the Marine Corps, becoming a sniper who, in multiple tours in the sandbox, had sent numerous murderous miscreants to their reward. Upon leaving the service, he found that the skills he had acquired had little value in the civilian world. After a disastrous semester trying to adjust to college life, he went to work for his rich uncle, who had retired and was refurbishing a sixty foot steel hulled schooner with a dream of cruising the world and escaping the deteriorating economy and increasing tyranny of the United States. Fate intervened, and after his uncle's death Dan found himself owner and skipper of the now seaworthy craft. Some time later, Kilmer is cruising the Caribbean with his Venezuelan girlfriend Cori Vargas and crew members Tran Hung and Victor Aleman. The schooner Rebel Yell is hauled out for scraping off barnacles while waiting for a treasure hunting gig which Kilmer fears may not come off, leaving him desperately short of funds. Cori desperately wants to get to Miami, where she believes she can turn her looks and charm into a broadcast career. Impatient, she jumps ship and departs on the mega-yacht Topaz, owned by shadowy green energy crony capitalist Richard Prechter. After her departure, another yatero informs Dan that Prechter has a dark reputation and that there are rumours of other women who boarded his yacht disappearing under suspicious circumstances. Kilmer made a solemn promise to Cori's father that he would protect her, and he takes his promises very seriously, so he undertakes to track Prechter to a decadent and totalitarian Florida, and then pursue him to Castigo Cay in the Bahamas where a horrible fate awaits Cori. Kilmer, captured in a desperate rescue attempt, has little other than his wits to confront Prechter and his armed crew as time runs out for Cori and another woman abducted by Prechter. While set in a future in which the United States has continued to spiral down into a third world stratified authoritarian state, this is not a “big picture” tale like the author's Enemies trilogy (1, 2, 3). Instead, it is a story related in close-up, told in the first person, by an honourable and resourceful protagonist with few material resources pitted against the kind of depraved sociopath who flourishes as states devolve into looting and enslavement of their people. This is a thriller that works, and the description of the culture shock that awaits one who left the U.S. when it was still semi-free and returns, even covertly, today will resonate with those who got out while they could. Extended excerpts of this and the author's other novels are available online at the author's Web site.
Thursday, February 20, 2014
Reading List: How to Create a Mind
- Kurzweil, Ray. How to Create a Mind. New York: Penguin Books, 2012. ISBN 978-0-14-312404-7.
- We have heard so much about the exponential growth of computing power available at constant cost that we sometimes overlook the fact that this is just one of a number of exponentially compounding technologies which are changing our world at an ever-accelerating pace. Many of these technologies are interrelated: for example, the availability of very fast computers and large storage has contributed to increasingly making biology and medicine information sciences in the era of genomics and proteomics—the cost of sequencing a human genome, since the completion of the Human Genome Project, has fallen faster than the increase of computer power. Among these seemingly inexorably rising curves have been the spatial and temporal resolution of the tools we use to image and understand the structure of the brain. So rapid has been the progress that most of the detailed understanding of the brain dates from the last decade, and new discoveries are arriving at such a rate that the author had to make substantial revisions to the manuscript of this book upon several occasions after it was already submitted for publication. The focus here is primarily upon the neocortex, a part of the brain which exists only in mammals and is identified with “higher level thinking”: learning from experience, logic, planning, and, in humans, language and abstract reasoning. The older brain, which mammals share with other species, is discussed in chapter 5, but in mammals it is difficult to separate entirely from the neocortex, because the latter has “infiltrated” the old brain, wiring itself into its sensory and action components, allowing the neocortex to process information and override responses which are automatic in creatures such as reptiles. Not long ago, it was thought that the brain was a soup of neurons connected in an intricately tangled manner, whose function could not be understood without comprehending the quadrillion connections in the neocortex alone, each with its own weight to promote or inhibit the firing of a neuron. Now, however, it appears, based upon improved technology for observing the structure and operation of the brain, that the fundamental unit in the brain is not the neuron, but a module of around 100 neurons which acts as a pattern recogniser. The internal structure of these modules seems to be wired up from directions from the genome, but the weights of the interconnections within the module are adjusted as the module is trained based upon the inputs presented to it. The individual pattern recognition modules are wired both to pass information on matches to higher level modules, and predictions back down to lower level recognisers. For example, if you've seen the letters “appl” and the next and final letter of the word is a smudge, you'll have no trouble figuring out what the word is. (I'm not suggesting the brain works literally like this, just using this as an example to illustrate hierarchical pattern recognition.) Another important discovery is that the architecture of these pattern recogniser modules is pretty much the same regardless of where they appear in the neocortex, or what function they perform. In a normal brain, there are distinct portions of the neocortex associated with functions such as speech, vision, complex motion sequencing, etc., and yet the physical structure of these regions is nearly identical: only the weights of the connections within the modules and the dyamically-adapted wiring among them differs. This explains how patients recovering from brain damage can re-purpose one part of the neocortex to take over (within limits) for the portion lost. Further, the neocortex is not the rat's nest of random connections we recently thought it to be, but is instead hierarchically structured with a topologically three dimensional “bus” of pre-wired interconnections which can be used to make long-distance links between regions. Now, where this begins to get very interesting is when we contemplate building machines with the capabilities of the human brain. While emulating something at the level of neurons might seem impossibly daunting, if you instead assume the building block of the neocortex is on the order of 300 million more or less identical pattern recognisers wired together at a high level in a regular hierarchical manner, this is something we might be able to think about doing, especially since the brain works almost entirely in parallel, and one thing we've gotten really good at in the last half century is making lots and lots of tiny identical things. The implication of this is that as we continue to delve deeper into the structure of the brain and computing power continues to grow exponentially, there will come a point in the foreseeable future where emulating an entire human neocortex becomes feasible. This will permit building a machine with human-level intelligence without translating the mechanisms of the brain into those comparable to conventional computer programming. The author predicts “this will first take place in 2029 and become routine in the 2030s.” Assuming the present exponential growth curves continue (and I see no technological reason to believe they will not), the 2020s are going to be a very interesting decade. Just as few people imagined five years ago that self-driving cars were possible, while today most major auto manufacturers have projects underway to bring them to market in the near future, in the 2020s we will see the emergence of computational power which is sufficient to “brute force” many problems which were previously considered intractable. Just as search engines and free encyclopedias have augmented our biological minds, allowing us to answer questions which, a decade ago, would have taken days in the library if we even bothered at all, the 300 million pattern recognisers in our biological brains are on the threshold of having access to billions more in the cloud, trained by interactions with billions of humans and, perhaps eventually, many more artificial intelligences. I am not talking here about implanting direct data links into the brain or uploading human brains to other computational substrates although both of these may happen in time. Instead, imagine just being able to ask a question in natural language and get an answer to it based upon a deep understanding of all of human knowledge. If you think this is crazy, reflect upon how exponential growth works or imagine travelling back in time and giving a demo of Google or Wolfram Alpha to yourself in 1990. Ray Kurzweil, after pioneering inventions in music synthesis, optical character recognition, text to speech conversion, and speech recognition, is now a director of engineering at Google. In the Kindle edition, the index cites page numbers in the print edition to which the reader can turn since the electronic edition includes real page numbers. Index items are not, however, directly linked to the text cited.
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
Reading List: Feedback
- Cawdron, Peter. Feedback. Los Gatos, CA: Smashwords, 2014. ISBN 978-1-4954-9195-5.
- The author has established himself as the contemporary grandmaster of first contact science fiction. His earlier Anomaly (December 2011), Xenophobia (August 2013), and Little Green Men (September 2013) all envisioned very different scenarios for a first encounter between humans and intelligent extraterrestrial life, and the present novel is as different from those which preceded it as they are from each other, and equally rewarding to the reader. South Korean Coast Guard helicopter pilot John Lee is flying a covert mission to insert a U.S. Navy SEAL team off the coast of North Korea to perform a rescue mission when his helicopter is shot down by a North Korean fighter. He barely escapes with his life when the chopper ditches in the ocean, makes it to land, and realises he is alone in North Korea without any way to get home. He is eventually captured and taken to a military camp where he is tortured to reveal information about a rumoured UFO crash off the coast of Korea, about which he knows nothing. He meets an enigmatic English-speaking boy who some call the star-child. Twenty years later, in New York City, physics student Jason Noh encounters an enigmatic young Korean woman who claims to have just arrived in the U.S. and is waiting for her father. Jason, given to doodling arcane equations as his mind runs free, befriends her and soon finds himself involved in a surrealistic sequence of events which causes him to question everything he has come to believe about the world and his place in it. This an enthralling story which will have you scratching your head at every twist and turn wondering where it's going and how all of this is eventually going to make sense. It does, with a thoroughly satisfying resolution. Regrettably, if I say anything more about where the story goes, I'll risk spoiling it by giving away one or more of the plot elements which the reader discovers as the narrative progresses. I was delighted to see an idea about the nature of flying saucers I first wrote about in 1997 appear here, but please don't follow that link until you've read the book as it too would spoil a revelation which doesn't emerge until well into the story. A Kindle edition is available. I read a pre-publication manuscript edition which the author kindly shared with me.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
Click image to enlarge.On the evening of February 11th, 2014 a beautiful 22° halo surrounded the Moon. These halos are caused by light refracted by randomly-oriented hexagonal ice crystals in the atmosphere. Because light of different wavelengths is refracted at different angles, the inner part of the halo appears red and the outer part blue. This was not apparent to the eye, but the camera picked up the colour in this saturation-enhanced image. Thin clouds fill the halo. Above the extremely overexposed Moon is Jupiter. The constellation Orion is visible with Betelgeuse at the inner edge of the ring at about the 2 o'clock position. The photo was taken with a Nikon D600 digital camera and Nikon 14–28 mm f/2.8 zoom lens at 14 mm. Exposure was 2 seconds at f/2.8 with ISO sensitivity of 400.
Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Reading List: Safe Is Not an Option
- Simberg, Rand. Safe Is Not an Option. Jackson, WY: Interglobal Media, 2013. ISBN 978-0-9891355-1-1.
- On August 24th, 2011 the third stage of the Soyuz-U rocket carrying the Progress M-12M cargo craft to the International Space Station (ISS) failed during its burn, causing the craft and booster to fall to Earth in Russia. While the crew of six on board the ISS had no urgent need of the supplies on board the Progress, the booster which had failed launching it was essentially identical to that which launched crews to the station in Soyuz spacecraft. Until the cause of the failure was determined and corrected, the launch of the next crew of three, planned for a few weeks later, would have to be delayed. With the Space Shuttle having been retired after its last mission in July 2011, the Soyuz was the only way for crews to reach or return from the ISS. Difficult decisions had to be made, since Soyuz spacecraft in orbit are wasting assets. The Soyuz has a guaranteed life on orbit of seven months. Regular crew rotations ensure the returning crew does not exceed this “use before” date. But with the launch of new Soyuz missions delayed, it was possible that three crew members would have to return in October before their replacements could arrive in a new Soyuz, and that the remaining three would be forced to leave as well before their craft expired in January. An extended delay while the Soyuz booster problem was resolved would force ISS managers to choose between leaving a skeleton crew of three on board without a known to be safe lifeboat or abandoning the ISS, running the risk that the station, which requires extensive ongoing maintenance by the crew and had a total investment through 2010 estimated at US$ 150 billion might be lost. This was seriously considered. Just how crazy are these people? The Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole has an over-winter crew of around 45 people and there is no lifeboat attached which will enable them, in case of disaster, to be evacuated. In case of fire (considered the greatest risk), the likelihood of mounting rescue missions for the entire crew in mid-winter is remote. And yet the station continues to operate, people volunteer to over-winter there, and nobody thinks too much about the risk they take. What is going on here? It appears that due to a combination of Cold War elevation of astronauts to symbolic figures and the national trauma of disasters such as Apollo I, Challenger, and Columbia, we have come to view these civil servants as “national treasures” (Jerry Pournelle's words from 1992) and not volunteers who do a risky job on a par with test pilots, naval aviators, firemen, and loggers. This, in turn, leads to statements, oft repeated, that “safety is our highest priority”. Well, if that is the case, why fly? Certainly we would lose fewer astronauts if we confined their activities to “public outreach” as opposed to the more dangerous activities in which less exalted personnel engage such as night aircraft carrier landings in pitching deck conditions done simply to maintain proficiency. The author argues that we are unwilling to risk the lives of astronauts because of a perception that what they are doing, post-Apollo, is not considered important, and it is hard to dispute that assertion. Going around and around in low Earth orbit and constructing a space station whose crew spend most of their time simply keeping it working are hardly inspiring endeavours. We have lost four decades in which the human presence could have expanded into the solar system, provided cheap and abundant solar power from space to the Earth, and made our species multi-planetary. Because these priorities were not deemed important, the government space program's mission was creating jobs in the districts of those politicians who funded it, and it achieved that. After reviewing the cost in human life of the development of various means of transportation and exploring our planet, the author argues that we need to be realistic about the risks assumed by those who undertake the task of moving our species off-planet and acknowledge that some of them will not come back, as has been the case in every expansion of the biosphere since the first creature ventured for a brief mission from its home in the sea onto the hostile land. This is not to say that we should design our vehicles and missions to kill their passengers: as we move increasingly from coercively funded government programs to commercial ventures the maxim (too obvious to figure in the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition) “Killing customers is bad for business” comes increasingly into force. Our focus on “safety first” can lead to perverse choices. Suppose we have a launch system which we estimate that in one in a thousand launches will fail in a way that kills its crew. We equip it with a launch escape system which we estimate that in 90% of the failures will save the crew. So, have we reduced the probability of a loss of crew accident to one in ten thousand? Well, not so fast. What about the possibility that the crew escape mechanism will malfunction and kill the crew on a mission which would have been successful had it not been present? What if solid rockets in the crew escape system accidentally fire in the vehicle assembly building killing dozens of workers and destroying costly and difficult to replace infrastructure? Doing a total risk assessment of such matters is difficult and one gets the sense that little of this is, or will, be done while “safety is our highest priority” remains the mantra. There is a survey of current NASA projects, including the grotesque “Space Launch System”, a jobs program targeted to the constiuencies of the politicians that mandated it, which has no identified payloads and will be so expensive that it can fly so infrequently the standing army required to maintain it will have little to do between its flights every few years and lose the skills required to operate it safely. Commercial space ventures are surveyed, with a candid analysis of their risks and why the heavy hand of government should allow those willing to accept them to assume them, while protecting the general public from damages from accidents. The book is superbly produced, with only one typographic error I noted (one “augers” into the ground, nor “augurs”) and one awkward wording about the risks of a commercial space vehicle which will be corrected in subsequent editions. There is a list of acronyms and a comprehensive index. Disclosure: I contributed to the Kickstarter project which funded the publication of this book, and I received a signed copy of it as a reward. I have no financial interest in sales of this book.
Monday, January 27, 2014
Reading List: The Money Bubble
- Turk, James and John Rubino. The Money Bubble. Unknown: DollarCollapse Press, 2013. ISBN 978-1-62217-034-0.
It is famously difficult to perceive when you're living
through a financial bubble. Whenever a bubble is expanding,
regardless of its nature, people with a short time horizon,
particularly those riding the bubble without experience of
previous boom/bust cycles, not only assume it will continue
to expand forever, they will find no shortage of
financial gurus to assure them that what, to an outsider
appears a completely unsustainable aberration is, in fact,
“the new normal”.
It used to be that bubbles would occur only around once in
a human generation. This meant that those caught up in them
would be experiencing one for the first time and
discount the warnings of geezers who were fleeced the
last time around. But in our happening world the pace of things
accelerates, and in the last 20 years we have seen three
successive bubbles, each segueing directly into the next:
- The Internet/NASDAQ bubble
- The real estate bubble
- The bond market bubble