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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.

Posted at 23:53 Permalink

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.

Posted at 23:16 Permalink

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.

Posted at 21:50 Permalink

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Lunar Halo


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.

Posted at 21:24 Permalink

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.

Posted at 00:26 Permalink