Reading List: A.I. Apocalypse
Thursday, April 30, 2015 21:46
Reading List: Einstein's Unification
Saturday, April 18, 2015 15:09
Friday, April 10, 2015 16:59
Reading List: Agenda 21: Into the Shadows
Wednesday, April 8, 2015 23:49
Reading List: Living Among Giants
Tuesday, March 31, 2015 00:53
Thursday, April 30, 2015 21:46
- Hertling, William.
Portland, OR: Liquididea Press, 2012.
This is the second volume in the author's Singularity Series
which began with Avogadro Corp.
(March 2014). It has been ten years since ELOPe, an
E-mail optimisation tool developed by Avogadro Corporation,
made the leap to strong artificial intelligence and, after
a rough start, became largely a benign influence upon humanity.
The existence of ELOPe is still a carefully guarded secret,
although the Avogadro CEO, doubtless with the help of ELOPe,
has become president of the United States. Avogadro has spun
ELOPe off as a separate company, run by Mike Williams, one
of its original creators. ELOPe operates its own data centres
and the distributed Mesh network it helped create.
Leon Tsarev has a big problem. A bright high school student
hoping to win a scholarship to an elite university to study
biology, Leon is contacted out of the blue by his uncle Alexis
living in Russia. Alexis is a rogue software developer whose
tools for infecting computers, organising them into
“botnets”, and managing the zombie horde for
criminal purposes have embroiled him with the Russian mob.
Recently, however, the effectiveness of his tools has
dropped dramatically and the botnet shrunk to a fraction
of its former size. Alexis's employers are displeased with
this situation and have threatened murder if he doesn't
do something to restore the power of the botnet.
Uncle Alexis starts to E-mail Leon, begging for assistance.
Leon replies that he knows little or nothing about
computer viruses or botnets, but Alexis persists. Leon is
also loath to do anything which might put him on the wrong
side of the law, which would wreck his career ambitions.
Then Leon is accosted on the way home from school by a
large man speaking with a thick Russian accent who says,
“Your Uncle Alexis is in trouble, yes. You will help
him. Be good nephew.” And just like that, it's Leon
who's now in trouble with the Russian mafia, and they know
where he lives.
Leon decides that with his own life on the line he has no
alternative but to try to create a virus for Alexis. He
applies his knowledge of biology to the problem, and settles
on an architecture which is capable of evolution and, similar
to lateral gene transfer in bacteria, identifying algorithms
in systems it infects and incorporating them into itself. As
in biology, the most successful variants of the evolving
virus would defend themselves the best, propagate more
rapidly, and eventually displace less well adapted
After a furious burst of effort, Leon finishes the virus,
which he's named Phage, and sends it to his uncle, who
uploads it to the five thousand computers which are the
tattered remnants of his once-mighty botnet. An exhausted
Leon staggers off to get some sleep.
When Leon wakes up, the technological world has almost
come to a halt. The overwhelming majority of personal
computing devices and embedded systems with network
connectivity are infected and doing nothing but running
Phage and almost all network traffic consists of ever-mutating
versions of Phage trying to propagate themselves. Telephones,
appliances, electronic door locks, vehicles of all kinds,
and utilities are inoperable.
The only networks and computers not taken over by the Phage
are ELOPe's private network (which detected the attack early
and whose servers are devoting much of their resources to
defend themselves against the rapidly changing threat) and
high security military networks which have restrictive firewalls
separating themselves from public networks. As New York starts
to burn with fire trucks immobilised, Leon realises that being
identified as the creator of the catastrophe might be a career
limiting move, and he, along with two technology geek classmates
decide to get out of town and seek ways to combat the Phage
using retro technology it can't exploit.
Meanwhile, Mike Williams, working with ELOPe, tries to understand
what is happening. The Phage, like biological life on Earth, continues
to evolve and discovers that multiple components, working in
collaboration, can accomplish more than isolated instances of the
virus. The software equivalent of multicellular life appears,
and continues to evolve at a breakneck pace. Then it awakens and
begins to explore the curious universe it inhabits.
This is a gripping thriller in which, as in Avogadro Corp.,
the author gets so much right from a technical standpoint that
even some of the more outlandish scenes appear plausible.
One thing I believe the author grasped which many other
tales of the singularity miss is just how fast everything
can happen. Once an artificial intelligence hosted on billions of
machines distributed around the world, all running millions of times
faster than human thought, appears, things get very weird, very
fast, and humans suddenly find themselves living in a world where
they are not at the peak of the cognitive pyramid. I'll not spoil
the plot with further details, but you'll find the world at the
end of the novel a very different place than the one at the start.
A Kindle edition is available.
Saturday, April 18, 2015 15:09
- van Dongen, Jeroen.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
In 1905 Albert Einstein published four papers which transformed the
understanding of space, time, mass, and energy; provided physical evidence for
the quantisation of energy; and observational confirmation of the
existence of atoms. These publications are collectively called the
Annus Mirabilis papers,
and vaulted the largely unknown Einstein to the top rank of theoretical
physicists. When Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in
1921, it was for one of these 1905 papers which explained the
photoelectric effect. Einstein's 1905 papers are masterpieces of
intuitive reasoning and clear exposition, and demonstrated
Einstein's technique of constructing thought experiments based
upon physical observations, then deriving testable mathematical
models from them. Unlike so many present-day scientific publications,
Einstein's papers on
equivalence of mass and energy
were accessible to anybody with a college-level understanding
of mechanics and electrodynamics and used no special jargon or
advanced mathematics. Being based on well-understood concepts,
neither cited any other scientific paper.
While special relativity revolutionised our understanding of space
and time, and has withstood every experimental test to which it
has been subjected in the more than a century since it was
formulated, it was known from inception that the theory was
incomplete. It's called special relativity because
it only describes the behaviour of bodies under the special
case of uniform unaccelerated motion in the absence of
gravity. To handle acceleration and gravitation would require
extending the special theory into a general theory of
relativity, and it is upon this quest that Einstein next
As before, Einstein began with a simple thought experiment. Just as in
special relativity, where there is no experiment which can be done in
a laboratory without the ability to observe the outside world that
can determine its speed or direction of uniform (unaccelerated) motion,
Einstein argued that there should be no experiment an observer could
perform in a sufficiently small closed laboratory which could distinguish
uniform acceleration from the effect of gravity. If one observed objects to
fall with an acceleration equal to that on the surface of the Earth,
the laboratory might be stationary on the Earth or in a space ship
accelerating with a constant acceleration of one gravity, and
no experiment could distinguish the two situations. (The reason for
the “sufficiently small” qualification is that since
gravity is produced by massive objects, the direction a test particle
will fall depends upon its position with respect to the centre of
gravity of the body. In a very large laboratory, objects dropped
far apart would fall in different directions. This is what causes
Einstein called this observation the
that the effects of acceleration and gravity are indistinguishable,
and that hence a theory which extended special relativity to
incorporate accelerated motion would necessarily also be a
theory of gravity. Einstein had originally hoped it would be
straightforward to reconcile special relativity with acceleration
and gravity, but the deeper he got into the problem, the more he
appreciated how difficult a task he had undertaken. Thanks to the
Project, which is curating and publishing all of Einstein's extant
work, including notebooks, letters, and other documents, the author
(a participant in the project) has been able to reconstruct Einstein's
ten-year search for a viable theory of general relativity.
Einstein pursued a two-track approach. The bottom up path started with
Newtonian gravity and attempted to generalise it to make it compatible
with special relativity. In this attempt, Einstein was guided by the
principle, which requires that any new theory which explains
behaviour under previously untested conditions must reproduce the
tested results of existing theory under known conditions. For example,
the equations of motion in special relativity reduce to those of
Newtonian mechanics when velocities are small compared to the speed of
light. Similarly, for gravity, any candidate theory must yield results
identical to Newtonian gravitation when field strength is weak and
velocities are low.
From the top down, Einstein concluded that any theory compatible with
the principle of equivalence between acceleration and gravity must
which can be thought of as being equally valid regardless of the choice
of co-ordinates (as long as they are varied without discontinuities).
There are very few mathematical structures which have this property,
and Einstein was drawn to
tensor geometry. Over years of
work, Einstein pursued both paths, producing a bottom-up theory which
was not generally covariant which he eventually rejected as in conflict
with experiment. By November 1915 he had returned to the top-down
mathematical approach and in four papers expounded a generally covariant
theory which agreed with experiment. General relativity had arrived.
Einstein's 1915 theory correctly predicted the
perihelion precession of Mercury and also predicted that
starlight passing near the limb of the Sun would be
by twice the angle expected based on Newtonian gravitation. This
was confirmed (within a rather large margin of error) in an
eclipse expedition in 1919, which made Einstein's general relativity
front page news around the world. Since then precision
tests of general
relativity have tested a variety of predictions of the theory
with ever-increasing precision, with no experiment to date yielding
results inconsistent with the theory.
Thus, by 1915, Einstein had produced theories of mechanics, electrodynamics,
the equivalence of mass and energy, and the mechanics of bodies under
acceleration and the influence of gravitational fields, and changed
space and time from a fixed background in which physics occurs to
a dynamical arena: “Matter and energy tell spacetime how to
curve. Spacetime tells matter how to move.” What do you do,
at age 36, having figured out, largely on your own, how a large part
of the universe works?
Much of Einstein's work so far had consisted of unification. Special
relativity unified space and time, matter and energy. General
relativity unified acceleration and gravitation, gravitation
and geometry. But much remained to be unified. In
general relativity and classical electrodynamics there were
two field theories, both defined on the continuum, both with
unlimited range and an inverse square law, both exhibiting static
and dynamic effects (although the details of
would not be worked out until later). And yet the theories seemed
entirely distinct: gravity was always attractive and worked by
the bending of spacetime by matter-energy, while electromagnetism
could be either attractive or repulsive, and seemed to be propagated
by fields emitted by point charges—how messy.
Further, quantum theory, which Einstein's 1905 paper on the
photoelectric effect had helped launch, seemed to point in a very
different direction than the classical field theories in which
Einstein had worked. Quantum mechanics, especially as elaborated
in the “new” quantum theory of the 1920s, seemed to
indicate that aspects of the universe such as electric charge
were discrete, not continuous, and that physics could, even in
principle, only predict the probability of the outcome of experiments,
not calculate them definitively from known initial conditions.
Einstein never disputed the successes of quantum theory in
explaining experimental results, but suspected it was a theory
based upon phenomena which did not explain what was going on at
a deeper level. (For example, the physical theory of elasticity
explains experimental results and makes predictions within its
domain of applicability, but it is not fundamental. All
of the effects of elasticity are ultimately due to electromagnetic
forces between atoms in materials. But that doesn't mean that the
theory of elasticity isn't useful to engineers, or that they should
do their spring calculations at the molecular level.)
Einstein undertook the search for a
unified field theory,
which would unify gravity and electromagnetism, just as Maxwell had
unified electrostatics and magnetism into a single theory. In
addition, Einstein believed that a unified field theory would be
antecedent to quantum theory, and that the probabilistic results of
quantum theory could be deduced from the more fundamental theory, which
would remain entirely deterministic. From 1915 until his death in 1955
Einstein's work concentrated mostly on the quest for a unified field
theory. He was aided by numerous talented assistants, many of whom
went on to do important work in their own right. He explored
a variety of paths to such a theory, but ultimately rejected each
one, in turn, as either inconsistent with experiment or unable
to explain phenomena such as point particles or quantisation of
As the author documents, Einstein's approach to doing physics changed in
the years after 1915. While before he was guided both by physics and
mathematics, in retrospect he recalled and described his search of
the field equations of general relativity as having followed the path
of discovering the simplest and most elegant mathematical structure which
could explain the observed phenomena. He thus came, like Dirac, to argue
that mathematical beauty was the best guide to correct physical theories.
In the last forty years of his life, Einstein made no progress whatsoever
toward a unified field theory, apart from discarding numerous paths
which did not work. He explored a variety of approaches:
“semivectors” (which turned out just to be a reformulation
five-dimensional models including a cylindrically
compactified dimension based on
and attempts to deduce the properties of particles and their
quantum behaviour from nonlinear continuum field theories.
In seeking to unify electromagnetism and gravity,
he ignored the strong and weak nuclear forces which had been discovered
over the years and merited being included in any grand scheme of
unification. In the years after World War II, many physicists ceased
to worry about the meaning of quantum mechanics and the seemingly
inherent randomness in its predictions which so distressed Einstein, and
adopted a “shut up and calculate” approach as their
computations were confirmed to ever greater precision by experiments.
So great was the respect for Einstein's achievements that only rarely
was a disparaging word said about his work on unified field theories,
but toward the end of his life it was outside the mainstream of
theoretical physics, which had moved on to elaboration of quantum
theory and making quantum theory compatible with special relativity.
It would be a decade after Einstein's death before astronomical
discoveries would make general relativity once again a frontier in
What can we learn from the latter half of Einstein's life and his
pursuit of unification? The frontier of physics today remains
unification among the forces and particles we have discovered. Now we
have three forces to unify (counting electromagnetism and the weak
nuclear force as already unified in the electroweak force), plus two
seemingly incompatible kinds of particles: bosons (carriers of force)
and fermions (what stuff is made of). Six decades (to the day) after
the death of Einstein, unification of gravity and the other forces
remains as elusive as when he first attempted it.
It is a noble task to try to unify disparate facts and theories into a
common whole. Much of our progress in the age of science has come from
such unification. Einstein unified space and time; matter and energy;
acceleration and gravity; geometry and motion. We all benefit every
day from technologies dependent upon these fundamental discoveries.
He spent the last forty years of his life seeking the next grand
unification. He never found it. For this effort we should applaud him.
I must remark upon how absurd the price of this book is. At Amazon as of this writing,
the hardcover is US$ 102.91 and the
Kindle edition is US$ 88. Eighty-eight Yankee dollars
for a 224 page book which is ranked #739,058 in the Kindle store?
Friday, April 10, 2015 16:59
In December 1947 there was a single transistor in the world, built at AT&T's Bell Labs by John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley, who would share the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery. The image at the right is of a replica of this first transistor.
According to an article in IEEE Spectrum, in the year 2014 semiconductor manufacturers around the world produced 2.5×1020 (250 billion billion) transistors. On average, about 8 trillion transistors were produced every second in 2014.
We speak of large numbers as "astronomical", but these numbers put astronomy to shame. There are about 400 billion (4×1011) stars in the Milky Way galaxy. In the single year 2014, humans fabricated 625 million times as many transistors as there are stars in their home galaxy. There are estimated to be around 200 billion galaxies in the universe. We thus made 1.25 billion times as many transistors as there are galaxies.
The number of transistors manufactured every year has been growing exponentially from its invention in 1947 to the present (Moore's law), and this growth is not expected to abate at any time in the near future. Let's take the number of galaxies in the universe as 200 billion and assume each has, on average, as many stars as the Milky Way (400 billion) (the latter estimate is probably high, since dwarf galaxies seem to outnumber large ones by a substantial factor). Then there would be around 8×1022 stars in the universe. We will only have to continue to double the number of transistors made per year an additional seven times to reach the point where we are manufacturing as many transistors every year as there are stars in the entire universe. Moore's law predicts that the number of transistors made doubles around every two years, so this milestone should be reached about 14 years from now.
This is right in the middle of the decade I described as the "Roaring Twenties" in my appearance on the Ricochet Podcast of 2015-02-12. It is in the 2020s that continued exponential growth of computing power at constant cost will enable solving, by brute computational force, a variety of problems currently considered intractable.
Wednesday, April 8, 2015 23:49
- Beck, Glenn and Harriet Parke.
Agenda 21: Into the Shadows.
New York: Threshold Editions, 2015.
When I read the authors' first
Agenda 21 (November 2012)
novel, I thought it was a superb dystopian view of the living hell
into which anti-human environmental elites wish to consign the
vast majority of the human race who are to be their serfs. I
wrote at the time “This is a book which begs for one or more
sequels.” Well, here is the first sequel and it
is…disappointing. It's not terrible, by any means, but
it does not come up to the high standard set by the first book.
Perhaps it suffers from the blahs which often afflict
the second volume of a trilogy.
First of all, if you haven't read the original Agenda 21
you will have absolutely no idea who the characters are, how they
found themselves in the situation they're in at the start of the
story, and the nature of the tyranny they're trying to escape.
I describe some of this in my review of the original
book, along with the factual basis of the
real United Nations plan
upon which the story is based.
As the novel begins, Emmeline, who we met in the previous book,
learns that her infant daughter Elsa, with whom she has managed
to remain in tenuous contact by working at the Children's
Village, where the young are reared by the state apart from
their parents, along with other children are to be removed
to another facility, breaking this precious human bond. She
and her state-assigned partner David rescue Elsa and, joined
by a young boy, Micah, escape through a hole in the fence
surrounding the compound to the Human Free Zone, the wilderness
outside the compounds into which humans have been relocated.
In the chaos after the escape, John and Joan, David's parents,
decide to also escape, with the intention of leaving a false
trail to lead the inevitable pursuers away from the young
Indeed, before long, a team of Earth Protection Agents led by
Steven, the kind of authoritarian control freak thug who inevitably rises
to the top in such organisations, is dispatched to capture the
escapees and return them to the compound for punishment
(probably “recycling” for the adults) and to serve as
an example for other “citizens”. The team
includes Julia, a rookie among the first women assigned to
The story cuts back and forth among the groups in the Human Free
Zone. Emmeline's band meets two people who have lived in a cave
ever since escaping the initial relocation of humans to the
compounds. They learn the history of the implementation of
Agenda 21 and the rudiments of survival outside the tyranny.
As the groups encounter one another, the struggle between normal
human nature and the cruel and stunted world of the slavers
comes into focus.
Harriet Parke is the principal author of the novel. Glenn Beck acknowledges
this in the afterword he contributed which describes the real-world
U.N. Agenda 21. Obviously, by lending his name to
the project, he increases its visibility and readership, which is
all for the good. Let's hope the next book in the series
returns to the high standard set by the first.
Tuesday, March 31, 2015 00:53
- Carroll, Michael.
Living Among Giants.
Cham, Switzerland: Springer International, 2015.
In school science classes, we were taught that the solar system, our
home in the galaxy, is a collection of planets circling a star,
along with assorted debris (asteroids, comets,
and interplanetary dust). Rarely did we see a representation of
either the planets or the solar system to scale, which
would allow us to grasp just how different various parts of the solar
system are from another. (For example, Jupiter is more massive than
all the other planets and their moons combined: a proud
Jovian would probably describe the solar system as the Sun, Jupiter,
and other detritus.)
Looking more closely at the solar system, with the aid of what has
been learned from spacecraft exploration in the last half century,
results in a different picture. The solar system is composed of
distinct neighbourhoods, each with its own characteristics. There
are four inner “terrestrial” or rocky planets: Mercury,
Venus, Earth, and Mars. These worlds huddle close to the Sun, bathing
in its lambent rays. The main asteroid belt consists of worlds like
Ceres, Vesta, and Pallas, all the way down to small rocks. Most orbit
between Mars and Jupiter, and the feeble gravity of these bodies and
their orbits makes it relatively easy to travel from one to another
if you're patient.
Outside the asteroid belt is the domain of the giants, which are the subject
of this book. There are two gas giants: Jupiter and Saturn, and two ice
giants: Uranus and Neptune. Distances here are huge compared to the
inner solar system, as are the worlds themselves. Sunlight is dim
(at Saturn, just 1% of its intensity at Earth, at Neptune 1/900 that
at Earth). The outer solar system is not just composed of the four giant
planets: those planets have a retinue of 170 known moons (and doubtless
many more yet to be discovered), which are a collection of worlds as diverse
as anywhere else in the domain of the Sun: there are sulfur-spewing
volcanos, subterranean oceans of salty water, geysers, lakes and rain of
hydrocarbons, and some of the most spectacular terrain and geology known.
Jupiter's moon Ganymede is larger than the planet Mercury, and appears to
have a core of molten iron, like the Earth.
Beyond the giants is the
with Pluto its best known denizen. This belt is home to a
multitude of icy worlds—statistical estimates are that
there may be as many as 700 undiscovered worlds as large or larger
than Pluto in the belt. Far more distant still, extending as far
as two light-years from the Sun, is the
about which we know essentially nothing except what we glean from
the occasional comet which, perturbed by a chance encounter or
passing star, plunges into the inner solar system. With our present
technology, objects in the Oort cloud are utterly impossible
to detect, but based upon extrapolation from comets we've observed,
it may contain trillions of objects larger than one kilometre.
When I was a child, the realm of the outer planets was shrouded
in mystery. While Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus can be glimpsed by
the unaided eye
just barely, under ideal conditions, if
you know where to look), and Neptune can be spotted with a modest
telescope, the myriad moons of these planets were just specks of
light through the greatest of Earth-based telescopes. It was not until
the era of space missions to these worlds, beginning with the
then the orbiters
that the wonders of these worlds were revealed.
This book, by science writer and space artist Michael Carroll, is a tourist's
and emigrant's guide to the outer solar system. Everything here is on an
extravagant scale, and not always one hospitable to frail humans. Jupiter's magnetic
field is 20,000 times stronger than that of Earth and traps radiation so
intense that astronauts exploring its innermost large moon Io would
succumb to a lethal dose of radiation in minutes. (One planetary
scientist remarked, “You need to have a good supply of
grad students when you go investigate Io.”) Several of the
moons of the outer planets appear to have oceans of liquid water
beneath their icy crust, kept liquid by tidal flexing as they orbit
their planet and interact with other moons. Some of these oceans
may contain more water than all of the Earth's oceans. Tidal flexing
may create volcanic plumes which inject heat and minerals into these
oceans. On Earth, volcanic vents on the ocean floor provide the
energy and nutrients for a rich ecosystem of life which exists
independent of the Sun's energy. On these moons—who knows?
Perhaps some day we shall explore these oceans in our submarines
and find out.
Titan is an
amazing world. It is larger than Mercury, and has an atmosphere 50%
denser than the Earth's, made up mostly of nitrogen. It has rainfall,
rivers, and lakes of methane and ethane, and at its mean temperature of
93.7°K, water ice is a rock as hard as granite. Unique among worlds
in the solar system, you could venture outside your space ship on Titan
without a space suit. You'd need to dress very warmly, to be sure,
and wear an oxygen mask, but you could explore the shores, lakes, and
dunes of Titan protected only against the cold. With the dense
atmosphere and gravity just 85% of that of the Earth's Moon, you
might be able to fly with suitable wings.
We have had just a glimpse of the moons of Uranus and Neptune as
sped through their systems on its way to the outer darkness. Further
investigation will have to wait for orbiters to visit these planets, which
probably will not happen for nearly two decades. What
Voyager 2 saw was tantalising. On Uranus's moon Miranda,
there are cliffs 14 km high. With the tiny gravity, imagine the extreme
sports you could do there! Neptune's moon
appears to be a Kuiper Belt object captured into orbit around Neptune
and, despite its cryogenic temperature, appears to be geologically
There is no evidence for life on any of these worlds. (Still, one
wonders about those fish in the dark oceans.) If barren,
“all these worlds are ours”, and in the fullness of time
we shall explore, settle, and exploit them to our own ends. The outer
solar system is just so much bigger and more grandiose than the
inner. It's as if we've inhabited a small island for all of our
history and, after making a treacherous ocean voyage, discovered an
enormous empty continent just waiting for us. Perhaps in a few
centuries residents of these remote worlds will look back toward the
Sun, trying to spot that pale blue dot so close to it where their
ancestors lived, and remark to their children, “Once, that's all