Monday, September 25, 2006

More tech-heavy potpouri...

Some cool items (from var sources like Ray Kurzweil and the Progressive Policy Institute.)

The Royal Society has digitized and onlined all of its publications (1665-present). This is an unbelievable sci/tech resource -- 60,000 articles by folks from Newton and Leibniz to Hawking and Chandrasekhar. Access is free until December; they'll start charging for access after that. Grab the good stuff while it's still free.

Big Brother is shouting at you. Middlesbrough has fitted loudspeakers on seven of its 158 cameras, publicly berating bad behaviour and shaming offenders into acting more... Ah but can we shout back?

A delightfully true urban legend:

Here’s a cutie from Peter Jenkins that’s reminiscent of my story “Stones of Significance.” --

A future society will very likely have the technological ability and the motivation to create large numbers of completely realistic historical simulations and be able to overcome any ethical and legal obstacles to doing so. It is thus highly probable that we are a form of artificial intelligence inhabiting one of these simulations. To avoid stacking (i.e. simulations within simulations), the termination of these simulations is likely to be the point in history when the technology to create them first became widely available, (estimated to be 2050). Long range planning beyond this date would therefore be futile. (Again, see that story of mine!)

Kurzweil himself pushed the “lifeboat” concept for spaceflight justification. The Moon as backup drive for civilization.

How to Burn a Three Terabyte CD A new nano-optical device can focus laser light tighter than traditional optics, which could may possible storage of three terabytes on a CD-size...

Tracing the limits of quantum weirdness news service Sept. 13, 2006 -The uncertainty principle is being harnessed to see if it is possible to identify a point at which matter begins to exhibit weird quantum behavior by detecting quantum...

Experimental AI Powers Robot Army -The Air Force Research Laboratory is developing software that lets robots learn, walk, see and interact far more intelligently than ever before. Based in Stephen Thaler's Creativity Machine software, the software is a type of neural network with two special features. One introduces perturbations, or "noise," into the network so that...

Relevant to finding tech solutions to today's aggravations.... Will airport of the future fly? -The airport of tomorrow might have virtual intelligence agents that check your bags, "smart dust" sensor networks that vet passengers heading through security, and commuter pilots who fly the plane from a home...

Good news! Black hole won't destroy Earth -Fears raised collider would create black holes that could swallow planet.

Well, I’ve been involved in these discussions. and as usual I am a contrarian to everybody! To those who fear the worst, I point out that Earth is bathed each day in cosmic rays more powerful than the new collider will produce. To those who blithely reject all fears, I point out the Fermi Paradox. As long as we are so eerily alone, we must ponder why. See my novel EARTH! Also my next one will deal with existential threats.

A projector the size of a sugar cube -No larger than a sugar cube, a video projector developed by researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Photonic Microsystems contains just a single mirror which can be rotated around two axes....

Tiny fuel cell might replace batteries in laptop computers, portable electronics September 12, 2006 -Chemists at Arizona State University have created a tiny hydrogen-gas generator that they say can be developed into a compact fuel cell package that can power electronic devices three to five times longer than conventional batteries of the same size and weight. The generator uses a special solution containing borohydride, an alkaline compound...

Colleges see the future in technology L.A. Times September 12, 2006
Cutting-edge videogame and artificial intelligence technology are on the way to provide more individualized instruction. Some of the most futuristic devices could even monitor students' brainwaves to keep track of how they're doing.

Years ago scientists learned to detect the "aha!" moment when a person "gets" something that had puzzled them. Picture this incorporated in next-gen teaching games! Imagine the rapidity of learning. The tools our kids will have for THEIR kids....


Anonymous said...

Links to articles mentioned but not quoted:

Tracing the Limits of Quantum Weirdness

Projector the Size of a Sugar Cube (couldn't find the original article, but this seems to be the same story)

Tiny fuel cell might replace batteries in laptop computers, portable electronics

Colleges see the future in technology

Anonymous said...

Re the Fermi Paradox, I've recently had an idea I'd like comments on. The current wisdom seems to be that either something causes the extinction or the inability to increase technological capability before any civilization reaches, becoming visible over long distances, or that we are the first technological civilization in the local cluster, if not the universe.

This conclusion assumes the (usually implicit) postulate that any Type II civilization would develop interstellar travel and would begin to colonize outward pretty much isotropically, making them visible from greater and greater distances as time goes on. In fact, Ray Kurzwiel makes this postulate explicit in "The Singularity is Near", arguing that a post-singularity civilization would immediately set out to turn the entire universe into computronium so as to increase their available computational resources to the maximum.

But ... assuming that the speed of light puts a limit on the rate at which civilzations can expand, and assuming that a post-singularity civilization would be interested in optimizing computation in terms of both power and time to compute a given result, it's not clear to me that heading in all directions and grabbing whatever mass and energy you find would be an optimum strategy. First, the matter and energy are pretty thin out here in the spiral arms, and they get thinner as you move away from the galaxy's core and its equitorial plane. Second, for a given density of matter and energy, the distance between computational nodes will increase proportionally to their size, since each will use up the accessible matter and energy within some volume. At some point, the distance between nodes results in communication latencies which degrade computational efficiencies, perhaps to a point of diminishing returns for the overall system.

Maybe a better strategy would be to move to a galactic center, in close to the central black hole. There is a great deal of free energy down there, between the hot mass in the hole's accretion disk and the large number of stars orbiting it close by. Even the relatively small central hole in our own galaxy has a mass around 3 million suns, and more than a million stars orbiting it within one lightyear. This is far more density than available in any other type of location in the current universe, and would allow building a very large mass of computing material with relatively low communication latency. Once ensconced in the core, it would be difficult for any civilization to justify colonizing outside it while there were unexploited resources inside. And the nature of the place would make it very difficult for anyone far from a galactic center to see even a near-Type III civilization amidst all the chaos.

If this argument is correct, then there may be highly advanced civilizations, perhaps even in our own galaxy, and we just can't see them.

Anonymous said...

If the Earth was destroyed...wouldn't the moon go flying off along whatever path it happened to be on at the time?

Maybe straight at the sun?

Anonymous said...


The moon would probably assume a slightly more eccentric version of Earth's orbit around the Sun. Not enough to cross Mars's or Venuses' orbit, I imagine.

In "bummer" news:

SF author and game designer John M. Ford passed away last night.

He had lingering, serious health problems, stemming from diabetes, and occasionally hinted at living on borrowed time, but still, a bummer.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm...the uncertainty about whether moon would survive anything that takes out the Earth probably means it is a dubious "lifeboat" for humanity.

Are Dr. Brin and his Strangelovian snake oil salesman pal Ray pulling our legs here?

A new life awaits you in the Off-World colonies!

David Brin said...

Bruce, quick get Gregory Benford’s GALACTIC CENTER novels.

Also read reviews of Frank Tipler’s PHYSICS OF IMMORTALITY in which he explicates why vast future consciousnesses might want to be physically expansive, even despite the light/time delay.

(The book itself is Kwazy-dense. Best way to “read” it is via book on tape.)

Monkyboy, mass doesn’t just vanish. If a black hole eats Earth, then moon will orbit that black hole exactly as before. Read EARTH!

Anonymous said...

True, Dr. Brin.

But if an asteroid hits the Earth and smashes it like a walnut, doesn't billiard physics tell us the Earth's mass would be scattered across the ecliptic pool table around the sun?

Where would the moon go then?

Now if you guys were pushing ten females, selected based on their youth and beauty, for each moonguy...

Tony Fisk said...

Monkyboy: that would be some asteroid! Of the same order of magnitude as the Earth!!

Adding to the mix:

Jamais Cascio has a gorgoeus photo in one of his recent postings that, given NASA's recent visionary debacles, put me firmly in mind of the legend of Icarus.

Via the same source, and augmenting that 'back from the dead' snippet you posted earlier:
The sleeping pill zolpidem (sold in the US as Ambien) awakens people in persistent vegetative states as often as 60% of the time..

On 'Stones of Significance' article. Does this suggest the world will probably end in 2050? As a singularity?
How does a simulation go about escaping its environment?

Chemists at Arizona State University have created a tiny hydrogen-gas generator that they say can be developed into a compact fuel cell package

What was with that earlier remark about the hydrogen economy being a pernicious scam?

And now something completely left of field. A question of ethnicity which has been perplexing my gentile brain ever since I overheard a plea from a desparate customer at the local greengrocer a few days ago.

What is the link between horseradish sauce and the Jewish new year?
(If thallium oxide figures in the answer, I'm going to get worried!)

Anonymous said...

Re: Fermi Paradox

I often refer to our SETI efforts as the smoke-signal project. The analogy being to Native Americans looking for other intelligent life by searching shores or sky for their best form of long-distance communication. In fact, this likely flatters our present efforts since the truth would be more like a group of monkeys scanning for hand-signals in the sky.

Humans are not likely to make the jump to the stars. Our children are. Those children (or perhaps grandchildren) are likely to be as different from us as we are from the Chimpanzees, probably a great deal farther.

We look now for the kinds of constructs or signals that we would make or need. We have no idea what those children will use or want.

Now, don't get my wrong, I think that these are still valuable efforts! Keeping our eyes turned outward, in space and time, is the best hope we have for making sure that we hold on long enough to be good parents! I gladly kick in my dime when donation time rolls around and spend many a night looking up and imagining.

But, when the Fermi paradox comes up, I tend to think that it's probably more likely that we don't know what to listen for as that there is nothing to listen to...

Of course, I have long held that it's likely we're in a simulation, so perhaps it's just that 'they' prefer to simulate one intelligent species at a time :).

David Brin said...

Horseradish is more a feature of Passover than the New Year.

As for the hydrogen economy, the "scam" has been to redirect scads of federal research dollars into an illusion (hydrogen-powered cars) via sweeheart contracts, thus achieving (1) another vampiric suck on our necks, and (2) preventing real research into useful things.

Look, I portray H2 powered cars in several futurist novels. It will happen! But only organically, after maybe a hundred parallel breakthroughs allow POINT GENERATION of H2 instead of the model of shipping it all over (like Natural gas or gasoline). Shipping CANNOT WORK FOR HYDOGEN.

In any event, tiny personal power supplies will happen earlier, the size of butane cigarette lighters. In fact, I almost invested in a company 2 years ago that was READY to offer fuel cells with such cartridges in ALCOHOL, that'd power your laptop for 12 -20 hours!

Alas, imagine the TCA allowing us to take them on planes... sigh.

It's a plot. gotta be. The future... prevented at every turn.

Anonymous said...

How about this:

Borrowing from Hitchhiker's, Curb and the Truman Show...

Find a few top NASA and Russian space guys who are sick of the neofeudalist's crap.

Have them "secretly" communicate to Bush, Cheney, Rummy, Limbaugh, O'Reilly, etc. that:

1. The Russians already have a secret lifeboat deep beneath the Moon's surface.

2. There is a huge asteroid heading towards the Earth.

3. The Russians will sell them passage to the lifeboat and a bunk there for, say, $10 million each.

Fake the trip, which actually transports them to a mineshaft here on Earth.

Hidden cameras in the mineshaft turn it into the set for a monster reality TV show.

Periodically screw with the "elites" (running out of oxygen, etc.) to boost ratings and for our own pleasure.

Use all the money this project generates to fund good works...

Make a decent novel :)

Anonymous said...

"What is the link between horseradish sauce and the Jewish new year?"

Traditional part of a seder dinner, standing in for bitter herbs which represent the bitterness of slavery.

Wait . . . do I have that right? I used to work in a company full of orthodox guys, but it has been many years.

I know seder dinners are held at times other than passover, but now I'm remembering something about actual herbs in salt water.

Maybe horseradish just tastes good on a brisket?

SpeakerToManagers said...

Thanks, David, I've read all of the Galactic Center books; they were one of the inspirations for my thoughts about the Fermi Paradox. I've tried to read Tipler's book; it defeated me the first time. It's on my list of books for a second attempt. From what I've read about his thesis, though, doesn't he require certain global assumptions about cosmology to be true, particularly that the universe has to be closed, finite, and have a singularity at the end of its future light cone? I'm a little leery of arguments that make assumptions about cosmology not in evidence.

Michael: granted many problems are easily decomposable, would it be acceptable to farm out N parts of a problem, each of which takes 1000 seconds to complete (that's a lot of operations for a Sol-size computer) but requires 3 or 4 years of communication lag each way (about how far apart those computers have to be out here in the galactic boonies).

SpeakerToManagers said...

I just noticed that I've posted twice under different usernames. I am both Bruce Cohen and SpeakerToManagers. Sorry for any confusion about identities.

Tony Fisk said...

Getting back to symptoms of creeping feudalism for a moment...

Not snooty air services, but snooty DRM: some good news in the form of an IP manifesto issued by the British Library.

"Finally! Somebody gets it that DRM is altering the copyright law bargain, by not allowing fair dealing/fair use...

The IP Manifesto's key recommendations include, quoting from the press release:
* Existing limitations and exceptions to copyright law should be extended to encompass unambiguously the digital environment;
* Licenses providing access to digital material should not undermine longstanding limitations and exceptions such as ‘fair dealing';
* The right to copy material for preservation purposes – a core duty of all national libraries – should be extended to all copyrightable works;
* The copyright term for sound recordings should not be extended without empirical evidence of the benefits and due consideration of the needs of society as a whole;
* The US model for dealing with ‘orphan works' should be considered for the UK;
* The length of copyright term for unpublished works should be brought into line with other terms (ie: life plus 70 years).

In other words, copyright law should not change in the digital environment, and if it doesn't change, then fair dealing and fair use are just as applicable there..."

via Groklaw

Tony Fisk said...

...oh, and thanks for the 'sauce'

Sidereus said...

I'll chime in with the weekly global climate change (bad) news:

Global warming nears ‘dangerous’ level.
Researchers say average temperatures are close to a million-year high

"This evidence implies that we are getting close to dangerous levels of human-made (anthropogenic) pollution," said study leader James Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies."

Shazam McShotgunstein said...

I think the answer to the Fermi paradox has to be considered in terms of one overwhelming known and three crucial unknowns that are amenable to further research:

The one known, based on local experience, is that a species can go from animal-level intelligence to the capability for interstellar colonization in an eye-blink of time relative to the time scales of the developments of stellar systems, planets, ecospheres, and life. The overwhelming likelihood then is that the first species in the galaxy to achieve intelligence as we understand it could spread throughout the galaxy and achieve unimaginable technological capability prior to the second species ever evolving into sentience. In fact, the first species should be capable of monitoring the entire galaxy for the rise of the second potentially intelligent species, and interfering with that rise or not.

The three crucial unknowns are:
1. are the conditions that make possible the rise of intelligent life are statistically likely to have given rise to any such species prior to ours - i.e. is the present age of the universe, at which we have just achieved sentience, high or low relative to the expectation value for the rise of an intelligent lifeform;
2. is faster-than-light transportation physically possible, given a high enough understanding of physics and a high enough technological and economic capability, or is it strictly impossible; and
3. is an intelligent lifeform capable of achieving a singleness of mind or purpose across vast scales of time and space, or is an intelligent species capable of spreading across the galaxy only compatible with separate individuals of inexorably potentially competing interests.

Obviously the second question is crucial in answering the third; and all three are crucial in determining the answer to the Fermi Paradox, and should be amenable to scientific research in the immediate future. The second and third questions are necessary to figure out if it actually might be possible that there are competing groups of intelligent species more advanced than ourselves, and even that the apparent loneliness of the universe involves competing groups keeping a low profile.

If faster-than-light communication and transportation are possible, I doubt it would also be possible to have competing interests in the galaxy - the only statistically significant options would be that a united interest dominates the galaxy and has elected, for whatever reason, not to make itself known to us, or that we happen to be the first intelligent species in this region of the universe (I won't limit it to this galaxy, since crossing between galaxies would also be trivial relative to the time scales involved).

If faster-than-light travel is strictly impossible regardless of any advance in understanding of physics, and if physics places absolute limits on other ultimate technological capabilities such as the effectiveness of von Neumann machines, I think that makes it far more likely for independent intelligent lifeforms to evolve, or far more likely, for disparate groups with different interests from the same intelligent species to remain separate from each other. In that case, given the inevitability that different interests by definition means the potential for competition, and the inevitability that a separate group of interstellar colonizers necessarily has the means to wreak serious destruction and necessarily exhibits behavior that is not fundamentally not reducible to predictive laws, disparate groups would always have an incentive to strategically minimize their potential vulnerability to competing interests, including by masking evidence of their physical locations and activities.

In fact, even given an intelligent lifeform with a single united interest in any given volume of space, there remains the possibility - and will for a good deal into the future - that a competing intelligent interest from outside that volume, even across the expanses between galaxies, could take notice of the first lifeform's existence and come to compete with it. So, until the accelerating expansion of the universe puts all unexplored territory at an absolute separation, any intelligent entity would have a logical interest in preventing unnecessary dissemination of information about itself other than in controlled circumstances.

Anonymous said...

Two things. I forget if I posted this one before, Engine on a chip promises to best the battery.
MIT researchers are putting a tiny gas-turbine engine inside a silicon chip about the size of a quarter. The resulting device could run 10 times longer than a battery of the same weight can, powering laptops, cell phones, radios and other electronic devices.

And the second, thanks to hilzoy again, is Uber-decorated Major General John R.S. Batiste, who retired last year "on principle," delivers a bruising point by point indictment of Sect. of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld

Tony Fisk said...

Shipping hydrogen: does this pose significantly higher challenges/risks than shipping gasoline? After all, assuming that a hydrogen powered car is possible, you would be 'shipping' it in your tank/fuel cell.

One solution was presented in July's Scientific American: transport liquid hydrogen in power lines, using it as a coolant for superconducting cables. (it sounded a little ornate, to be honest)

Point generation brings us to the question of where the energy used to crack the water comes from in the first place.

Anonymous said...

The problem with hydrogen is that it's, at best, a way of transporting energy and gives back as much as you put into making it. And the energy to make the hydrogen has to come from somewhere, probably electricity.

Gasoline, on the other hand, takes less energy to pump out of the ground and refine than we get when we burn it. (Yes, it takes energy to make it, but not energy from us)

But the other big advantage gasoline has over hydrogen is energy density. Hydrogen stored in gas form takes up a lot more space than an amount of gas that can be burned for the same energy. Liquid hydrogen is better, but still less than gasoline, and requires extreme temperatures or pressures (and the energy to create it and keep it at those). Gas can be carried in a metal can at room temperature.

More at

David Brin said...

Tony, I agree that the neo-feudalists are waging war on us on yet another front in the area of intellectual property rights. Certainly the Bono Act was a travesty... nicknamed the Immortal Mouse Law because it reserves Mickey long past any reason would have allowed.

These endeavors - and the judges that support them - are based on the notion that copyright and patent law was about “ownership.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. As I point out in The Transparent Society, modern patent law was an effort to end the age-old tradition of craft SECRECY in which innovations were close-held to maintain a business advantage and stymie competitors. This was a total drag on society-wide inventiveness!

Hence, a way had to be found to LURE CREATIVE PEOPLE OUT IN THE OPEN... to eagerly share their innovations, allowing others not only to use them, but to improve upon them. This method was a slim but reliable income stream from royalties... with an end date designed to JUST satisfy the lure requirement but then throw it all into the open domain.

Now, note that I live by royalties on my books and hope for much more from my recent patents. I think the open source community is often as cluelessly self-righteous about the benefits of patent/copyright as the IP vampires are clueless about the fundamental reasons for it all! In both extremes, romantic incantations substitute for pragmatic/modernist awareness of the way these are OUTCOME OPTIMIZATION RULES!

They have very little to do with natural “rights” and everything to do with getting the markets fine-tuned to be as creative and effective cornucopia producers as possible!

Now, as to the IP Manifesto. I agree with much or it. Very sensible.

I do cavil a bit with the Orphan Works provision in US law, which again serves the mighty at the expense of little guys. Yes, some works have been abandoned effectively to the open commons and this method makes their use more efficient. Quick. Still, there should be a small fee associated with LARGE SCALE commercial use of such works, with the trickle going into a fund that will (1) finance a search for the owners of these properties, (2) compensate those who can be found, and (3) help finance programs that stimulate creativity and invention.

Socialistic? Only in that govt would play a small role doing something that inarguably helps markets to work. Adam Smith would approve.

As for the FERMI PARADOX... guys... please. If you are serious, read my Great Silence paper. It catalogues 50 explanations and ranks them according to criteria you REALLY need to apply.

Like the “exceptions rule.” SUppose 99% of humanity dives into an insular singularity and just Hell’s Angels send out a single colony ship. Then their colony sends more. Then everybody in the galaxy will be descended from the 1% exceptions. MOST clever “explanations” fail utterly under the exceptions rule.

One thing I do NOT believe is in any sort of universality of motives on the part of ETICS.Sapients descended from carnivores are likely to think differently from herbivore descendants... and from gregarious omnivores... forever. I deal with the universality notion when I have to face SETI fetishists, who accept a Stalin-era dogma that all ETICS will automatically and universally be altruistic.

See my article on this under Real Science at

Staying cosmic
Speaker, yes, Tipler is vying for the encomium as Greatest Theologian since Aquinus or Maimonedes. Depends on the universe being CLOSED. (Not looking good for him, right now.)

In contrast, Freeman Dyson is the competitor musing on godliness in an OPEN universe. Freeman reads my stories. But I’m not sure that’s reason enough to root for such a cold destiny.

Tony Fisk said...

David, I must confess that I tend strongly to the open side of the argument when it comes to patents. I do retain some idea that they are intended to provide some compensation for innovators for going public, and I certainly don't want to deny you a crust (thinking of the system as a set of 'checks and balances' clarifies things, thanks).

However, if I feel I have to 'lean' heavily in a supposedly optimising system, it suggests something's not working properly. What I've seen of how the game's played these days appalls me (Too much effort is spent in litigatious infighting, there are too many squatters like SCO, and 'submarine' patents are just parasitic!) I hope those HC patents of yours are well structured, or you could find yourself playing a rather nasty game of Othello.

Well, that's IP and air travel. Any other feudal conspiracies out there? (The recent Australian Industrial Relations reforms spring to mind)

Moving on to politics, 'Blistering' Batiste is an understatement.

Speech excerpts:

"Secretary Rumsfeld and the Administration are fighting a war in secret that threatens our democratic values..."

"I challenge the American people to get informed and speak out. Remember that the Congress represents and works for the people. Congressional oversight committees have been strangely silent for too long, and our elected officials must step up to their responsibilities or be replaced."

On the same broadcast, see also Maj. Gen Paul D Eaton (ret) and Col. Thomas X. Hammes (ret)

(You heard it first at...)

And they have a plan for Iraq! (Having Rumsfeld removed is step one)

I guess the mid-term campaign has started.

Rob Perkins said...

I've read Benford's Galactic Center books, and I have to say that he is at his best when collaborating with someone like David. The Big Ideas often need more than one voice to be clear. The Galactic Center books were not clear to me. Nor was _Beyond the Fall of Night_.

Then again, I'm not the type who can naturally read works like his, or Larry Niven's, of whom I've often said needs an editor and is too famous to get a good one. But I go back to Niven's books at least, and if I read them like I'd read a poem, slowly and carefully, rather than at the speed of most novels, stuff becomes more clear.

Maybe Benford is more like that. Maybe I'll try again.

And honestly, Le Guin is still better than the lot of 'em at prose. But David's poetry is more fun than her stories. :-)

As to the hydrogen cell batteries, I say figure out a way to make the cells inert if exposed to air. Then they can go on the planes.

SpeakerToManagers said...

I said:
"would it be acceptable to farm out N parts of a problem ..."

And Michael replied:
"Yes, for sufficiently large N. :)"

Probably true, but large N adds another complication: 3-4 years isn't the average time lag, but the minimum. Granted that the number of available solar systems (read: "sources of mass for computronium") increases as the cube of the distance, the maximum time lag still increases with N.

I like the suggestion that nodes will spend much of their computation simulating the replies of other nodes, but if the simulations are good enough, why bother to talk long-distance at all? 8-)