Thursday, March 09, 2006

Non-Political coolstuff....

Our universe may one day be obliterated or assimilated by a larger universe, according to a controversial new analysis. The work suggests the parallel universes proposed by some quantum theorists may not actually be parallel but could interact – and with disastrous consequences.

WAY cool images from the Space Telescope.

A handful of genes that control the body's defenses during hard times can also dramatically improve health and prolong life in diverse organisms. Understanding how they work may reveal the keys to extending human life span while banishing diseases of old age.

Dutch psychologists found that people struggling to make complex decisions did best when they were distracted and were not able to think consciously about the choice at all. The research not only backs up the common advice to "sleep on it" when facing difficult choices, but it also suggests that the unconscious brain can actively reason as well...

Tony offered this and it belongs at top-level. Wow!: “There's a neat photo in the Planetary Society weblog showing an occultation of the Moon by the ISS. The detail visible is astonishing.”

otherculturewarSomeone wrote in having spotted an item in the news that relates to my "Citizens are Competent" meme. A senator and a congressman have suggested turning over copies of some of the documents seized in Iraq (but not yet translated due to a desperate shortage of Arabic translators with US security clearances) to interested citizens. Apparently we have bales of Saddam-era files still sitting around. The idea here is 1) untranslated files don't do us any good and 2) they're Iraqi secrets, not ours, so why not? I think we would be better off with Saddam's secrets out in the open than unread and under wraps. Given the strong government tendency towards secrecy and turf protection, the files will probably wind up stored next to the Ark of the Covenant in that Washington warehouse...

==News Bits==

E-Weapons: Directed Energy Warfare in The 21st Century -- (Space -- January 11, 2006)  There is a new breed of weaponry fast approaching, and at the speed of light no less. They are labeled "directed-energy weapons" and may well signal a revolution in military hardware, perhaps more so than the atomic bomb. Directed energy weapons take the form of lasers, high-powered microwaves, and particle beams.

The 50 Best Robots Ever -- (Wired -- January 31, 2006)
They're exploring the deep sea and distant planets. They're saving lives in the operating room and on the battlefield. They're transforming factory floors and filmmaking. The growth of robots in our lives has prompted this website to list its top 50 favorite robots.

Joshua O'Madadhain suggests we might be interested in this website that People for the American Way have started: Basically, it facilitates making a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request.

Spray-On Solar-Power Cells Are True Breakthrough -- (National Geographic -- January 14, 2006)  Scientists have invented a plastic solar cell that can turn the sun's power into electrical energy, even on a cloudy day. The plastic material uses nanotechnology and contains the first solar cells able to harness the sun's invisible, infrared rays. The breakthrough has led theorists to predict that plastic solar cells could one day become five times more efficient than current solar cell technology.

New System Could Cut Solar Costs -- (Mercury News -- February 16, 2006)
A new solar energy system devised by entrepreneurs in a Silicon Valley garage could cut the cost of solar power in commercial buildings by at least half. The first version cuts the cost of power per watt of energy by as much as half. A more advanced version will be commercially available in two to three years, and save even more money.

Also: Until recently, most of us believed the telephone dated to March 10, 1876. (Alexander Graham Bell calls his lab assistant, standing 20 feet away in the next room, to say: (Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.) But Bell's invention of the telephone has lately come into question; five years ago Congress voted to give Florentine immigrant Antonio Meucci credit for building the first phone in 1860. The unlucky Mr. Meucci lacked the $250 he needed to file a patent on his phone. Another phone anniversary, though, remains more or less unchallenged; the first mobile-phone experiment dates to 1946, done in St. Louis, by AT&T and Bell Labs.

Now two observations on the chatty world of the future:

* By 2015, Africa Will Have More Mobile Phone Users Than The United States.... Most new mobile phone users will be in middle- and low-income countries. African mobile use is growing especially fast; the continent had fewer than a million mobile subscribers in 1995 and has 135 million today. As the cost of phones and services fall, Africa may add 265 million more subscribers in the next six years. (The United States has 195 million, and is likely to add 66 million more before growth slows.) China, India, and Brazil are also looking ahead to rapid mobile-subscription growth.

* More mobile use in poorer countries can mean faster development, narrowing digital divides, and interesting shifts in services trade. One study finds that in low-income countries, an extra 10 phones per 100 people raises GDP growth by 0.6 percent, as (for example) farmers, fishermen, and street market vendors use phones to find market prices, pay bills, make payment orders and cut transactional costs. For richer countries, more mobile phone use in developing regions can help providers of financial services, telemedicine, weather reports, and the like find new customers. (Source: "Progressive Policy Institute")



Stefan Jones said...

One of the small-scale businesses started with the help "microloans" involves cell phones.

The entreprenuer, often a woman, gets a cellphone and then loans it, for a small fee, to villagers.

The "$100 laptop" that Negroponte and others are working on ( ) would hopefully be another development-enabler.

Something I'd like to see, if it hasn't been done already: A home lighting system based on those solar driveway lights. Imagine something about the size of a penlight, but with a 6" wide circular cap and a hook on one end. The top of the cap would have solar cells; the bottom, a shiny diffractor. Right below the diffractor would be a ring of LEDs.

You'd hang the lights in the sun all day. As night fell, you'd gather them up, hang them up in your house, and turn them on. Result: Several hours of clean, free lighting.

Fhydra said...

Here's another cool news item. It came out shortly after your post:

Water on Saturn moon could support life

Anonymous said...

Mini solar systems with the gas giants, it would seem! Cassini truly has impressed . . . and only has just begun.


Stefan Jones said...

Here's a neat one:

A Force More Powerful is a conflict simulation game . . . but it doesn't simulate armed conflict.

A unique collaboration of experts on nonviolent conflict working with veteran game designers has developed a simulation game that teaches the strategy of nonviolent conflict. A dozen scenarios, inspired by recent history, include conflicts against dictators, occupiers, colonizers and corrupt regimes, as well as struggles to secure the political and human rights of ethnic and racial minorities and women.

Order a copy, get your name registered with DHS as a potential subversive!

Tony Fisk said...

Mobile phones are often touted as an example of 'leapfrogging' technologies. ie things you can introduce to undeveloped countries without all the pain and cost of evolving through older technologies.

Now, this is a perennial topic at WC, and Jamais Cascio has recently pointed out a counter-argument from Kevin Kelly (basically, that the infrastructure tends to get neglected, and that is usually provided courtesy of older technologies: eg landlines to support the bandwidth demand created by mobile usage). It's a fair point, although I don't agree with his conclusions (I feel that the landlines fulfil a service different to that provided by mobiles. I'd like to see whether the China experience is repeated in Africa if high altitude balloons are used to provide coverage)

Liquid water on Enceladus and AFMP: the game ... Stolen thunder!

(What gives with Enceladus? My favourite theory is the waste heat from an alien power plant buried in the ice. But why? (hint: read 'Footfall';-) It is more likely to be something more mundane, like the aftermath of a meteor strike.

AFMP: the game
Heh! I think this comes under the category of political coolstuff...
I've been waiting for this for a year (if you find Lukashenko's address, it'd be worthwhile referring him a copy of that as well, except it's probably classified as 'innappropriate' literature.)

Unfortunately, AFMP the game is only available on Windows! (what were they thinking?).

Stefan's link is for the gamesite itself, the movers behind it may be found at the International Centre for Non-Violent Conflict.
And from Peter Ackerman comes this real world example of where the game (and book) might come in handy: Iran 's future? Watch the streets
(somebody care to point this out to Condi? Somebody care to predict the response? Or am I just a cynic?)

David Brin said...

There’s been a lot of online buzz, lately, about Wil Wright’s new game SPORE... in which a player builds up a new alien species starting from scratch in a drop of water, using a creator’s tool kit of phenotype traits (like jaws, weapons, movement tricks, etc) to “sim” evolution, working up to sophisticated beasts, tribes and spacefaring cultures.

The 35 minute online demo certainly is impressive, using startling advances in procedural-based realtime animation, allowing a myriad entities to interact in dynamic ways, utilizing an almost infinite suite of combined characteristics.

Ever since Wright unveiled his prototype at a recent Game Expo, lots of people have written to me to mention (a) that he incorporates “uplift” (even using that word)... and (b) that Spore seems to partially scoop the somewhat competing "product" that I have been working to develop!

See the Exorarium Project (designed in conjunction with the brilliant tech artist Sheldon Brown) described at

My initial thoughts on Spore.

1. It looks terrific. If I had time, I know I would play it. I know my kids will.

2. How could this not be bad news for my own project? Of course Wright is the 600 lb gorilla in simulation gaming and it will be hard to persuade funders to back us, instead. Even harder? To elucidate the major differences between our approaches.

Ah but those differences are substantial in so many ways. For example, Wright emphasizes a sim-style approach, like his other games, that boils down to a type of "creationism or intelligent design" - though I do not mean those words in any pejorative sense. There are attractions to being a creator god, Lord knows. (And I guess He does, at that!) Elsewhere I speculate on the theological implications of a humanity that seems designed to be... well... apprentice designers! In that respect, Wright may qualify as a bona fide prophet. (As well as profit.)

On the other hand, our Exorarium approach takes a very different approach and methodology to creating and developing new ersatz life forms. As in the early-crude approach I developed years ago, for both CONTACT and GURPS Uplift, we aim to combine real science with the always surprising effects of random chance, in order to let new species evolve, mutating and interacting and following surprising adaptation paths, as they may, in totally unexpected ways.

As you’d see at the Exorarium web site, half of the purpose is educational, since everything from stellar astronomy to ecology and hydrology can influence what kind of food chain and evolutionary pathways might develop on a given world.

Ah, well. One can hope that someone out there will have some vision to add to ours, and to see potential for something very new and different.

3. On the other hand, it is possible to look at the bright side in being scooped by Wright! (Whose resources we never stood a chance of competing with, anyway.)

First, I expect that his sim-game will be dynamite fun and a huge success.
Indeed, that very success may stimulate cash flow from those hoping to compete, or to have a taste of this market. Those imitators may not "get" or understand the differences that make the Exorarium vastly more educational and realistic, with far more downstream potential. But what they almost certainly WILL understand is that Sheldon Brown and I are on record as having worked on this for years, already.

We are thus grandfathered a sense of creative originality that dates from well before Spore entered the news, or even the rumor mills. Nobody can call us copycats.

Of course it's sad, at another level. Yes, Wil Wright mentions "uplift," but I doubt he'd talk to me about collaboration. Too bad, since his tool set would lay nicely on top of our Exorarium world models, concepts and evolutionary process. But that's unlikely to happen. So let’s just wish him well and be glad that at least someone out there with imagination and class also has the resources to make things happen.

Anonymous said...

Not fair mentioning another SF writter on your blog david but donald kingsbury wrote about an equivalent of the International Centre for Non-Violent Conflict. in "the moon goddess and the Son" which included explicitly creating computer games to be distributed inside the old Soviet union to model NON agressive or more optimal solutions - i remember one war game based on ww2 where the objective was for russia to WIM ww2 (ie get all of europe to go Comunist) but to succesfully do this required yoiu got rid of stalin by 1938 - the idea was for russians to win russian goals not for the west to win. without everyone killing each other

Anonymous said...

"If I had time, I know I would play it."

Write novels instead. Please!

Stefan Jones said...

I used to really be into Sim (fill in the blank) type games, but I've pretty much burned out on both playing them and designing them.

I have, or had, piles of notebooks with ideas and tables and algorithms for big interstellar civ simulations. I actually implemented one, in compiled BASIC. WorldSmiths, it was called. It was essentially a spreadsheet, with the Y axis listing types of worlds (barren, prebiotic, simple life, on up to homeworld of Elder Race) and X being the world's relationship to you (newly discovered, contacted, friendly, enemy). You spent resources to explore, colonize, uplift, terraform, contact, etc. These actions caused worlds to change type or their relationship.

I got disillousioned when I started looking into how to scale it up and make it finer grained. The thing is, when you look at what things are really like out there, you realize how ludicrous the whole Empire of Stars model is. The sheer number of stars, the amount of time . . . if you really want a galactic civilization simulation, you end up with something you don't so much play as watch, and even then it won't be very interesting; more like watching a petri dish than a game board.

Likewise, evolution. After reading books like E.O. Wilson's _The Diversity of Life_ and Loren Eisely's workds, I realized how shallow software toys like SimEarth or SimLife are. How inadequate they were to the task of teaching anything essential or meaningful. If you scale them up to the point of being realistic, you once again run into the problem of the lack of fun and interaction and meaning.

Tony Fisk said...

I think some of the fun in sim games would be the pleasure of observing 'emergent' behaviour. Exorarium seems to be aiming for that. (ahem! any significance to the purple golems?)

If some of the articles I've read are any guide, the 'Creatures' series was a good example of this. Interactive tamagotchi backed up with some serious neural networking (emulating biosystem feedback loops!). I like the account of two creatures that learned to play ball...with each other!

Anonymous said...

Just to correct a few glitches, the SIR2 gene story is old stuff
Anti-aging gene's function may be tied to metabolism

It is now controversial (fortunately for the best)
New technique multiplies life span in simple organisms

Also your link is either wrong or not working in Opera, Firefox and Konqueror browsers
But I rather suspect a silly session cookie trouble from SCIAM, the article can currently be fetched from the the SCIAM front page (for how long?) under heading "Unlocking the Secrets of Longevity Genes"

Matzebrei said...

Dutch psychologists found that people struggling to make complex decisions did best when they were distracted and were not able to think consciously about the choice at all. The research not only backs up the common advice to "sleep on it" when facing difficult choices, but it also suggests that the unconscious brain can actively reason as well...


I've often put difficult problems "on the back burner" for a while, and then have the solution (or resolution) appear magically in my thoughts.

doris said...

Regarding the directed-energy weapons:

Has anyone considered countermeasures? First off, if the enemy-du-jour gets a copy to use against us, how will we protect ourselves against it? Second, the enemy-du-jour will develop its own countermeasures, and the measures and countermeasures will co-evolve. For example, what if the enemy-du-jour hurls a missile at us that is harmless until we hit it with our ray-gun? Then it melts or opens up and releases its deadly payload. Perhaps the laser heat would be a necessary ingredient in creating the poison or explosive. In other words, it doesn't become an actual weapon UNTIL we hit it.

Nicq MacDonald said...

"Likewise, evolution. After reading books like E.O. Wilson's _The Diversity of Life_ and Loren Eisely's workds, I realized how shallow software toys like SimEarth or SimLife are. How inadequate they were to the task of teaching anything essential or meaningful. If you scale them up to the point of being realistic, you once again run into the problem of the lack of fun and interaction and meaning."

Inadequate? Hardly! Both games (as well as their cousin, SimAnt) came with manuals that practically doubled as biology and ecology textbooks; I learned quite a bit from those games and books; enough that I managed to ace every biology and ecology test that I took up until high school AP Bio without even cracking a "real" textbook. They introduced me to quite a few concepts of genetics, natural selection, ecological systems and terraforming that I've continued to study years later, even though I chose not to enter the hard sciences as part of a career track.

I'm extremely happy to hear about SPORE. While it's unlikely I'll ever play it, I'm glad that something like that is being made again. My biggest disappointment with what I've seen of the game industry in the past ten years is a noted lack of educational games. Not quiz games, or tools to help children learn basic mathematics, but truly immersive games that actually teach. The sort of thing that a 10 year old boy will burn his entire weekend playing. Will Wright used to be the master of these- all of the early Sim games were great brain-builders, and endlessly interesting. Then he gave us... The Sims. While the online version is of interest to sociologists, psychologists, and economists, it doesn't really have very much pedagogical value.

(The first sim-type game I've seen lately with such value is Civilization IV; I have fond memories of how much history I learned either directly from, or by being inspired to read about events in, the original Civilization. I'll probably pick up a copy of the new one as soon as they port it to OS/X. Sid Meyer is also one of the greats in the category of "edutainment", not only for Civilization, but for his masterpiece, Alpha Centauri)

Stefan Jones said...

I'm guessing that it was the success of The Sims that has allowed Wright the luxury of working on Spore.

Most game designers and programmers are cubicle drudges with hardly any creative control over their work.

An interesting rant on the subject:

Palliard said...

@ Doris:

Directed-energy weapons are the "weapons of the moment". The warfare of the future really lies in the technological equivalent of asymmetic warfare. A RAND paper I saw described this as "fire-ant warfare", which is an apt description: self-adjusting mine-fields, clouds of shrapnel bombs, passive grids of "smart dust" gathering intelligence...

And that isn't even counting wetware stuff like genetically-engineered virii or poisonous bee-poop. (Yes, I'm dating myself on the bee-poop thing. Fie on you whipper-snappers.)

The day is not far off when people you wouldn't want to have these things will be able to make them without anyone's help, thanks to advances in information technology, smart networks, and minifacturing.

No nation or group with eyeballs is going to engage the U.S. toe-to-toe for the foreseeable future. But desperate people can be pretty clever. And there are those people who do so desperately hate us.

Anonymous said...

This might not have direct technological consequences in the immediate future, but 'twould certainly represent a profound change in basic physics, if accurate:
History shows that radical new technological breakthroughs are seldom anticipated by futurists or scientists. The MOS transistors in ICs that form the basis of modern computers came out of quantum tunneling, a phenomenon not anticipated by pre-1920s writers or scientists.
The great energy breakthroughs of the 21st or 22nd century will probably likewise arise ex nihilio, unanticipated...probably as an unnoticed minor side effect of some entirely unrelated basic theoretical advance. It seems vaguely possible that some reformulation of cosmological physics might lead to hitherto-unanticipated energy source, or at least some orders-of-magntiude more efficient method of storing energy.
If a battery (or fuel cell, or what-have-you) were to be invented which offered, say, 2 orders of magnitude more efficiency than current hydrogen fuel cells or voltaic cell batteries, the world as we know it would change beyond recognition. An entirely new power source (no, not pseudo-science zero-point crap or cold fusion mumbo jumbo, but something genuinely new and physically plausible) would wreak similarly vast changes in the global economy and American society.
History shows that these world-changing technologies tend to arrive every 70 to 90 years. 1796 = steam engines and galvanic cells, 1893 = internal combustion engine and Haber's ammonia extraction process, 1947 = transistor and nuclear power, so sometime within the next 10 to 30 years we're due for a few more breakthrough technologies. It seems likely that most of the current problems everyone worries about will be rendered moot by whatever technologies arrive as a side effect of new theoretical advances. Myself, I'm voting for bionegineered organisms that synthesize fuels or photovoltaic power organically out of surrounding old old idea pioneered by Freeman Dyson. (The fact that someone anticipated them is a strong negative mark against them. Genuinely disruptive & entirely new technologies will not be anticipated.)
In any case it's a good bet that by 2047 high school students will chuckle when they read about OPEC and the energy crisis of the early 21st century and ask one another, "Why didn't they just use [fill in with breakthrough 2030 technology]?"