« May 2011 | Main | July 2011 »

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Reading List: The Age of Spiritual Machines

Kurzweil, Ray. The Age of Spiritual Machines. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. ISBN 978-0-14-028202-3.
Ray Kurzweil is one of the most vocal advocates of the view that the exponential growth in computing power (and allied technologies such as storage capacity and communication bandwidth) at constant cost which we have experienced for the last half century, notwithstanding a multitude of well-grounded arguments that fundamental physical limits on the underlying substrates will bring it to an end (all of which have proven to be wrong), will continue for the foreseeable future: in all likelihood for the entire twenty-first century. Continued exponential growth in a technology for so long a period is unprecedented in the human experience, and the consequences as the exponential begins to truly “kick in” (although an exponential curve is self-similar, its consequences as perceived by observers whose own criteria for evaluation are more or less constant will be seen to reach a “knee” after which they essentially go vertical and defy prediction). In The Singularity Is Near (October 2005), Kurzweil argues that once the point is reached where computers exceed the capability of the human brain and begin to design their own successors, an almost instantaneous (in terms of human perception) blow-off will occur, with computers rapidly converging on the ultimate physical limits on computation, with capabilities so far beyond those of humans (or even human society as a whole) that attempting to envision their capabilities or intentions is as hopeless as a microorganism's trying to master quantum field theory. You might want to review my notes on 2005's The Singularity Is Near before reading the balance of these comments: they provide context as to the extreme events Kurzweil envisions as occurring in the coming decades, and there are no “spoilers” for the present book.

When assessing the reliability of predictions, it can be enlightening to examine earlier forecasts from the same source, especially if they cover a period of time which has come and gone in the interim. This book, published in 1999 near the very peak of the dot-com bubble provides such an opportunity, and it provides a useful calibration for the plausibility of Kurzweil's more recent speculations on the future of computing and humanity. The author's view of the likely course of the 21st century evolved substantially between this book and Singularity—in particular this book envisions no singularity beyond which the course of events becomes incomprehensible to present-day human intellects. In the present volume, which employs the curious literary device of “trans-temporal chat” between the author, a MOSH (Mostly Original Substrate Human), and a reader, Molly, who reports from various points in the century her personal experiences living through it, we encounter a future which, however foreign, can at least be understood in terms of our own experience.

This view of the human prospect is very odd indeed, and to this reader more disturbing (verging on creepy) than the approach of a technological singularity. What we encounter here are beings, whether augmented humans or software intelligences with no human ancestry whatsoever, that despite having at hand, by the end of the century, mental capacity per individual on the order of 1024 times that of the human brain (and maybe hundreds of orders of magnitude more if quantum computing pans out), still have identities, motivations, and goals which remain comprehensible to humans today. This seems dubious in the extreme to me, and my impression from Singularity is that the author has rethought this as well.

Starting from the publication date of 1999, the book serves up surveys of the scene in that year, 2009, 2019, 2029, and 2099. The chapter describing the state of computing in 2009 makes many specific predictions. The following are those which the author lists in the “Time Line” on pp. 277–278. Many of the predictions in the main text seem to me to be more ambitious than these, but I shall go with those the author chose as most important for the summary. I have reformatted these as a numbered list to make them easier to cite.

  1. A $1,000 personal computer can perform about a trillion calculations per second.
  2. Personal computers with high-resolution visual displays come in a range of sizes, from those small enough to be embedded in clothing and jewelry up to the size of a thin book.
  3. Cables are disappearing. Communication between components uses short-distance wireless technology. High-speed wireless communication provides access to the Web.
  4. The majority of text is created using continuous speech recognition. Also ubiquitous are language user interfaces (LUIs).
  5. Most routine business transactions (purchases, travel, reservations) take place between a human and a virtual personality. Often, the virtual personality includes an animated visual presence that looks like a human face.
  6. Although traditional classroom organization is still common, intelligent courseware has emerged as a common means of learning.
  7. Pocket-sized reading machines for the blind and visually impaired, “listening machines” (speech-to-text conversion) for the deaf, and computer-controlled orthotic devices for paraplegic individuals result in a growing perception that primary disabilities do not necessarily impart handicaps.
  8. Translating telephones (speech-to-speech language translation) are commonly used for many language pairs.
  9. Accelerating returns from the advance of computer technology have resulted in continued economic expansion. Price deflation, which has been a reality in the computer field during the twentieth century, is now occurring outside the computer field. The reason for this is that virtually all economic sectors are deeply affected by the accelerating improvements in the price performance of computing.
  10. Human musicians routinely jam with cybernetic musicians.
  11. Bioengineered treatments for cancer and heart disease have greatly reduced the mortality from these diseases.
  12. The neo-Luddite movement is growing.

I'm not going to score these in detail, as that would be both tedious and an invitation to endless quibbling over particulars, but I think most readers will agree that this picture of computing in 2009 substantially overestimates the actual state of affairs in the decade since 1999. Only item (3) seems to me to be arguably on the way to achievement, and yet I do not have a single wireless peripheral connected to any of my computers and Wi-Fi coverage remains spotty even in 2011. Things get substantially more weird the further out you go, and of course any shortfall in exponential growth lowers the baseline for further extrapolation, shifting subsequent milestones further out.

I find the author's accepting continued exponential growth as dogma rather off-putting. Granted, few people expected the trend we've lived through to continue for so long, but eventually you begin to run into physical constraints which seem to have little wiggle room for cleverness: the finite size of atoms, the electron's charge, and the speed of light. There's nothing wrong with taking unbounded exponential growth as a premise and then exploring what its implications would be, but it seems to me any forecast which is presented as a plausible future needs to spend more time describing how we'll actually get there: arm waving about three-dimensional circuitry, carbon nanotubes, and quantum computing doesn't close the sale for me. The author entirely lost me with note 3 to chapter 12 (p. 342), which concludes:

If engineering at the nanometer scale (nanotechnology) is practical in the year 2032, then engineering at the picometer scale should be practical in about forty years later (because 5.64 = approximately 1,000), or in the year 2072. Engineering at the femtometer (one thousandth of a trillionth of a meter, also referred to as a quadrillionth of a meter) scale should be feasible, therefore, by around the year 2112. Thus I am being a bit conservative to say that femtoengineering is controversial in 2099.

Nanoengineering involves manipulating individual atoms. Picoengineering will involve engineering at the level of subatomic particles (e.g., electrons). Femtoengineering will involve engineering inside a quark. This should not seem particularly startling, as contemporary theories already postulate intricate mechanisms within quarks.

This is just so breathtakingly wrong I am at a loss for where to begin, and it was just as completely wrong when the book was published two decades ago as it is today; nothing relevant to these statements has changed. My guess is that Kurzweil was thinking of “intricate mechanisms” within hadrons and mesons, particles made up of quarks and gluons, and not within quarks themselves, which then and now are believed to be point particles with no internal structure whatsoever and are, in any case, impossible to isolate from the particles they compose. When Richard Feynman envisioned molecular nanotechnology in 1959, he based his argument on the well-understood behaviour of atoms known from chemistry and physics, not a leap of faith based on drawing a straight line on a sheet of semi-log graph paper. I doubt one could find a single current practitioner of subatomic physics equally versed in the subject as was Feynman in atomic physics who would argue that engineering at the level of subatomic particles would be remotely feasible. (For atoms, biology provides an existence proof that complex self-replicating systems of atoms are possible. Despite the multitude of environments in the universe since the big bang, there is precisely zero evidence subatomic particles have ever formed structures more complicated than those we observe today.)

I will not further belabour the arguments in this vintage book. It is an entertaining read and will certainly expand your horizons as to what is possible and introduce you to visions of the future you almost certainly have never contemplated. But for a view of the future which is simultaneously more ambitious and plausible, I recommend The Singularity Is Near.

Posted at 04:35 Permalink

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Tom Swift and His War Tank Now Online

The twenty-first installment of the Tom Swift adventures, Tom Swift and His War Tank, is now posted in the Tom Swift and His Pocket Library collection. As usual, HTML, PDF, PDA eReader, and plain ASCII text editions suitable for reading off- or online are available.

In this episode of the Tom Swift saga, originally published in 1918, war has come to America and war fever ginned up by the proto-fascist regime in Washington has begun to corrupt even the world of Tom Swift. Tom's chum Ned Newton has left his job as the Swifts' financial man to peddle “Liberty Bonds”, his girlfriend's father reproaches Tom as a “slacker” for not volunteering to jump into the meat grinder, and Tom turns his attention from productive inventions to an engine of destruction: an enormous tank (big enough to have two engine rooms with their own crews, multiple gun emplacements, as well as a conning tower for the commander) intended to crush any obstacle in its way, breach trenches and barbed wire, and massacre any “Boche” who dare oppose it. Naturally, nefarious German spies (one curiously named “Simpson”) conspire to steal Tom's design as Tom and his entourage try to thwart them.

It is all rather sad. Tom, in earlier adventures the very model of rectitude, drives his tank onto a neighbouring farm and destroys private property because “the blood was up”. Nobody questions what quarrel the United States has with the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, or why it is conscripting its young men (by what right?) and converting its productive capital to fight on behalf of the British and French Empires. Tom, whose constant goal has been to invent the fastest, the longest-range, the highest-flying, the deepest diving, now turns his talent to “do his bit” by building a machine whose only purpose is to destroy property and kill men. Purely as an adventure, the novel works superbly, but it also provides, in its own naïve way, an insight into the moment in twentieth century U.S. history when everything started to go wrong.

Four public domain Tom Swift novels remain to be posted. When all are complete (this is a long-term project begun in 2004; I have averaged between two and three novels a year), I will revise the already-posted books, bringing their production standards up to those of the more recent postings and incorporating corrections to typographical errors spotted by readers.

Posted at 18:42 Permalink

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Reading List: Misery Bay

Hamilton, Steve. Misery Bay. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2011. ISBN 978-0-312-38043-4.
I haven't been reading many mysteries recently, but when I happened to listen to a podcast interview with the author of this book set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, less than twelve hours before departing on a trip to precisely that destination, I could only conclude that the Cosmic Coincidence Control Centre was telling me to read this book, so I promptly downloaded the Kindle edition and read it after arrival. I'm glad I did.

This is the eighth novel in the author's Alex McKnight series, but it is perfectly accessible to readers (like myself) who start here. The story is recounted in the first person by McKnight, a former Detroit cop who escaped the cruel streets of that failed metropolis after a tragic episode, relocating to the town of Paradise in Michigan's Upper Peninsula where he intends to make a living renting cabins, but finds himself reluctantly involved as a private investigator in crimes which cross his path.

In the present book, McKnight agrees to look into the circumstances of the apparent suicide of the son of a friend and former colleague of McKnight's nemesis, police chief Roy Maven. This errand, undertaken on behalf of a distraught father who cannot imagine any motive for his son's taking his life, spirals into what appears to be a baffling cluster of suicides and murders involving current and former police officers and their children. McKnight seeks to find the thread which might tie these seemingly unrelated events together, along with a pair of FBI agents who, being feds, seem more concerned with protecting their turf than catching crooks.

Along with many twists and turns as the story develops and gripping action scenes, Hamilton does a superb job evoking the feel of the Upper Peninsula, where the long distances, sparse population, and extreme winters provide a background more like Montana than something you'd expect east of the Mississippi. In the end, the enigma is satisfyingly resolved and McKnight, somewhat the worse for wear, is motivated to turn the next corner in his life where, to be sure, other mysteries await.

Posted at 19:09 Permalink

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Recipes: Fourmilab Plausibly Paleo Meatloaf

Here is a modified version of the Fourmilab Can't Fail Meatloaf recipe which is closer to the guidelines of the paleo diet. (If you don't know what that is, read my reviews of The Paleo Diet and The New Evolution Diet and, of course, the books themselves.)

Ingredient Quantity
Ground bison 1000 g
Ground lamb 500 g
Chopped onion 1½ cup
Eggs 3
Worcestershire sauce 3 Tbsp
Oregano (dried) 3 tsp

Preheat the oven to 175°C in circulating air mode if available. Place the cracked eggs, oregano, and Worcestershire sauce in a bowl and blend until well mixed. Put the ground bison, lamb, chopped onion, and blended eggs and spices into a large bowl and mix well.

Mold into a glass or aluminium baking pan and place in the preheated oven. If the pan is over-full, it may bubble over, so if you're worried, place a baking tin beneath the pan. Let it bake for 90 minutes; if you prefer going by core temperature, look for 72°C in the middle of the meatloaf.

Remove from the oven and if there's fat around the outside of the pan, drain it and feed it to the hogs or otherwise dispose of it responsibly. Let the meatloaf cool; if you indulge immediately, slices are prone to disintegrate as you remove them from the pan.

This recipe makes about five servings. It's great as leftovers, either cold or reheated.

I have precisely zero interest in debating the “paleo purity” of this or any other recipe with purists and fanatics. I have adapted the recipe to the goals of paleo by eliminating the bread crumbs and salt from the original recipe (I was worried the loaf would tend to crumble without bread crumbs as a binder, but in fact the eggs hold it together perfectly well), and by substituting ground bison and lamb meat for beef and pork. Bison is a very lean meat, and the lamb compensates for this, avoiding a dry and crumbly result. If lamb is on your paleo no-go list, feel free to experiment with other ground meats.

I won't tell if you enjoy this with catsup.

Posted at 20:38 Permalink

Friday, June 10, 2011

Reading List: Fashionable Nonsense

Sokal, Alan and Jean Bricmont. Fashionable Nonsense. New York: Picador, [1997] 1998. ISBN 978-0-312-20407-5.
There are many things to mock in the writings of “postmodern”, “deconstructionist”, and “critical” intellectuals, but one of the most entertaining for readers with a basic knowledge of science and mathematics is the propensity of many of these “scholars” to sprinkle their texts with words and concepts from mathematics and the physical sciences, all used entirely out of context and in total ignorance of their precise technical definitions, and without the slightest persuasive argument that there is any connection, even at a metaphorical level, between the mis-quoted science and the topic being discussed. This book, written by two physicists, collects some of the most egregious examples of such obscurantist writing by authors (all French—who would have guessed?) considered eminent in their fields. From Jacques Lacan's hilariously muddled attempts to apply topology and mathematical logic to psychoanalysis to Luce Irigaray's invoking fluid mechanics to argue that science is a male social construct, the passages quoted here at length are a laugh riot for those willing to momentarily put aside the consequences of their being taken seriously by many in the squishier parts of academia. Let me quote just one to give you a flavour—this passage is by Paul Virilio:

When depth of time replaces depths of sensible space; when the commutation of interface supplants the delimitation of surfaces; when transparence re-establishes appearances; then we begin to wonder whether that which we insist on calling space isn't actually light, a subliminary, para-optical light of which sunlight is only one phase or reflection. This light occurs in a duration measured in instantaneous time exposure rather than the historical and chronological passage of time. The time of this instant without duration is “exposure time”, be it over- or underexposure. Its photographic and cinematographic technologies already predicted the existence and the time of a continuum stripped of all physical dimensions, in which the quantum of energetic action and the punctum of cinematic observation have suddenly become the last vestiges of a vanished morphological reality. Transferred into the eternal present of a relativity whose topological and teleological thickness and depth belong to this final measuring instrument, this speed of light possesses one direction, which is both its size and dimension and which propagates itself at the same speed in all radial directions that measure the universe. (pp. 174–175)

This paragraph, which recalls those bright college days punctuated by deferred exhalations accompanied by “Great weed, man!”, was a single 193 word sentence in the original French; the authors deem it “the most perfect example of diarrhea of the pen that we have ever encountered.”

The authors survey several topics in science and mathematics which are particularly attractive to these cargo cult confidence men and women, and, dare I say, deconstruct their babblings. In all, I found the authors' treatment of the postmodernists remarkably gentle. While they do not hesitate to ridicule their gross errors and misappropriation of scientific concepts, they carefully avoid drawing the (obvious) conclusion that such ignorant nonsense invalidates the entire arguments being made. I suspect this is due to the authors, both of whom identify themselves as men of the Left, being sympathetic to the conclusions of those they mock. They're kind of stuck, forced to identify and scorn the irrational misuse of concepts from the hard sciences, while declining to examine the absurdity of the rest of the argument, which the chart from Explaining Postmodernism (May 2007) so brilliantly explains.

Alan Sokal is the perpetrator of the famous hoax which took in the editors of Social Text with his paper “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, which appears in full here, along with comments on construction of the parody and remarks on the motivation behind it.

This book was originally published in French under the title Impostures intellectuelles. This English edition contains some material added to address critical comments on the French edition, and includes the original French language text of passages whose translation might be challenged as unfaithful to whatever the heck the original was trying to say.

Posted at 21:28 Permalink

Monday, June 6, 2011

Reading List: The New Evolution Diet

De Vany, Arthur. The New Evolution Diet. New York: Rodale Books, 2011. ISBN 978-1-60529-183-3.
The author is an economist best known for his research into the economics of Hollywood films, and his demonstration that the Pareto distribution applies to the profitability of Hollywood productions, empirically falsifying many entertainment business nostrums about a correlation between production cost and “star power” of the cast and actual performance at the box office. When his son, and later his wife, developed diabetes and the medical consensus treatment seemed to send both into a downward spiral, his economist's sense for the behaviour of complex nonlinear systems with feedback and delays caused him to suspect that the regimen prescribed for diabetics was based on a simplistic view of the system aimed at treating the symptoms rather than the cause. This led him to an in depth investigation of human metabolism and nutrition, grounded in the evolutionary heritage of our species (this is fully documented here—indeed, almost half of the book is end notes and source references, which should not be neglected: there is much of interest there).

His conclusion was that our genes, which have scarcely changed in the last 40,000 years, were adapted to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that our hominid ancestors lived for millions of years before the advent of agriculture. Our present day diet and way of life could not be more at variance with our genetic programming, so it shouldn't be a surprise that we see a variety of syndromes, including obesity, cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, and late-onset diseases such as many forms of cancer which are extremely rare among populations whose diet and lifestyle remain closer to those of ancestral humans. Strong evidence for this hypothesis comes from nomadic aboriginal populations which, settled into villages and transitioned to the agricultural diet, promptly manifested diseases, categorised as “metabolic syndrome”, which were previously unknown among them.

This is very much the same conclusion as that of The Paleo Diet (December 2010), and I recommend you read both of these books as they complement one another. The present volume goes deeper into the biochemistry underlying its dietary recommendations, and explores what the hunter-gatherer lifestyle has to say about the exercise to which we are adapted. Our ancestors' lives were highly chaotic: they ate when they made a kill or found food to gather and fasted until the next bounty. They engaged in intense physical exertion during a hunt or battle, and then passively rested until the next time. Modern times have made us slaves to the clock: we do the same things at the same times on a regular schedule. Even those who incorporate strenuous exercise into their routine tend to do the same things at the same time on the same days. The author argues that this is not remotely what our heritage has evolved us for.

Once Pareto gets into your head, it's hard to get him out. Most approaches to diet, nutrition, and exercise (including my own) view the human body as a system near equilibrium. The author argues that one shouldn't look at the mean but rather the kurtosis of the distribution, as it's the extremes that matter—don't tediously “do cardio” like all of the treadmill trudgers at the gym, but rather push your car up a hill every now and then, or randomly raise your heart rate into the red zone.

This all makes perfect sense to me. I happened to finish this book almost precisely six months after adopting my own version of the paleo diet, not from a desire to lose weight (I'm entirely happy with my weight, which hasn't varied much in the last twenty years, thanks to the feedback mechanism of The Hacker's Diet) but due to the argument that it averts late-onset diseases and extends healthy lifespan. Well, it's too early to form any conclusions on either of these, and in any case you can draw any curve you like through a sample size of one, but after half a year on paleo I can report that my weight is stable, my blood pressure is right in the middle of the green zone (as opposed to low-yellow before), I have more energy, sleep better, and have seen essentially all of the aches and pains and other symptoms of low-level inflammation disappear. Will you have cravings for things you've forgone when you transition to paleo? Absolutely—in my experience it takes about three months for them to go away. When I stopped salting my food, everything tasted like reprocessed blaah for the first couple of weeks, but now I appreciate the flavours below the salt.

For the time being, I'm going to continue this paleo thing, not primarily due to the biochemical and epidemiological arguments here, but because I've been doing it for six months and I feel better than I have for years. I am a creature of habit, and I find it very difficult to introduce kurtosis into my lifestyle: when exogenous events do so, I deem it an “entropic storm”. When it's 15:00, I go for my one hour walk. When it's 18:00, I eat, etc. Maybe I should find some way to introduce randomness into my life….

An excellent Kindle edition is available, with the table of contents, notes, and index all properly linked to the text.

Posted at 23:53 Permalink

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Reading List: Thoughts and Adventures

Churchill, Winston S. Thoughts and Adventures. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, [1932] 2009. ISBN 978-1-935191-46-9.
Among the many accomplishments of Churchill's long and eventful life, it is easy to forget that in the years between the wars he made his living primarily as a writer, with a prolific output of books, magazine articles, and newspaper columns. It was in this period of his life that he achieved the singular mastery of the English language which would serve him and Britain so well during World War II and which would be recognised by the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.

This collection of Churchill's short nonfiction was originally published in 1932 and is now available in a new edition, edited and with extensive annotations by James W. Muller. Muller provides abundant footnotes describing people, events, and locations which would have been familiar to Churchill's contemporary audience but which readers today might find obscure. Extensive end notes detail the publication history of each of the essays collected here, and document textual differences among the editions. Did you know that one of Churchill's principal markets across the Atlantic in the 1920s was Cosmopolitan?

This is simply a delicious collection of writing. Here we have Churchill recounting his adventures and misadventures in the air, a gun battle with anarchists on the streets of London, life in the trenches after he left the government and served on the front in World War I, his view of the partition of Ireland, and much more. Some of the essays are light, such as his take on political cartoons or his discovery of painting as a passion and pastime, but even these contain beautiful prose and profound insights. Then there is Churchill the prophet of human conflict to come. In “Shall We All Commit Suicide?”, he writes (p. 264):

Then there are Explosives. Have we reached the end? Has Science turned its last page on them? May there not be methods of using explosive energy incomparably more intense than anything heretofore discovered? Might not a bomb no bigger than an orange be found to possess a secret power to destroy a whole block of buildings—nay, to concentrate the force of a thousand tons of cordite and blast a township at a stroke? Could not explosives of even the existing type be guided automatically in flying machines by wireless or other rays, without a human pilot, in ceaseless procession upon a hostile city, arsenal, camp, or dockyard?

Bear in mind that this was published in 1924. In 1931, looking “Fifty Years Hence”, he envisions (p. 290):

Wireless telephones and television, following naturally upon their present path of development, would enable their owner to connect up with any room similarly installed, and hear and take part in the conversation as well as if he put his head through the window. The congregation of men in cities would become superfluous. It would rarely be necessary to call in person on any but the most intimate friends, but if so, excessively rapid means of communication would be at hand. There would be no more object in living in the same city with one's neighbour than there is to-day in living with him in the same house. The cities and the countryside would become indistinguishable. Every home would have its garden and its glade.

It's best while enjoying this magnificent collection not to dwell on whether there is a single living politician of comparable stature who thinks so profoundly on so broad a spectrum of topics, or who can expound upon them to a popular audience in such pellucid prose.

Posted at 20:44 Permalink