Saturday, June 21, 2008

The (far) Future We Are Fighting For

Startling Prescience...

BernalHere are excerpts from JD Bernal's unbelievably farsighted essay -- The World, the Flesh & the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul, published (astonishingly) in 1929!

The whole thing is well worth reading, carefully, but here are some pertinent excerpts:

-- from THE WORLD

Imagine a spherical shell ten miles or so in diameter, made of the lightest materials and mostly hollow; for this purpose the new molecular materials would be admirably suited. Owing to the absence of gravitation its construction would not be an engineering feat of any magnitude. The source of the material out of which this would be made would only be in small part drawn from the earth; for the great bulk of the structure would be made out of the substance of one or more smaller asteroids, rings of Saturn or other planetary detritus. The initial stages of construction are the most difficult to imagine. They will probably consist of attaching an asteroid of some hundred years or so diameter to a space vessel, hollowing it out and using the removed material to build the first protective shell. Afterwards the shell could be re-worked, bit by bit, using elaborated and more suitable substances and at the same time increasing its size by diminishing its thickness. The globe would fulfil all the functions by which our earth manages to support life. In default of a gravitational field it has, perforce, to keep its atmosphere and the greater portion of its life inside; but as all its nourishment comes in the form of energy through its outer surface it would be forced to resemble on the whole an enormously complicated single-celled plant....

However, the essential positive activity of the globe or colony would be in the development, growth and reproduction of the globe. A globe which was merely a satisfactory way of continuing life indefinitely would barely be more than a reproduction of terrestrial conditions in a more restricted sphere....

As the globes multiplied they would undoubtedly develop very differently according to their construction and to the tendencies of their colonists, and at the same time they would compete increasingly both for the sunlight which kept them alive and for the asteroidal and meteoric matter which enabled them to grow. Sooner or later this pressure, or perhaps the knowledge of the imminent failure of the sun, would force some more adventurous colony to set out beyond the bounds of the solar system. The difficulty involved in making this jump is probably as great as that of leaving the earth itself. Interstellar distances are so large that high velocities, approaching those of light, would be necessary; and though high velocities would be easy to attain - it being merely a matter of allowing acceleration to accumulate - they would expose the space vessels to very serious dangers, particularly from dispersed meteoric bodies. A space vessel would, in fact, have to be a comet, ejecting from its anterior end a stream of gas which, meeting and vaporizing any matter in its path, would sweep it to the sides and behind in a luminous trail. Such a method would be very wasteful of matter, and one might perhaps count on some better one having been devised by that time.

Even with such velocities journeys would have to last for hundreds and thousands of years, and it would be necessary - if man remains as he is - for colonies of ancestors to start out who might expect the arrival of remote descendants. This would require a self-sacrifice and a perfection of educational method that we could hardly demand at the present. However, once acclimatized to space living, it is unlikely that man will stop until he has roamed over and colonized most of the sidereal universe, or that even this will be the end. Man will not ultimately be content to be parasitic on the stars but will invade them and organize them for his own purposes.

-- from FLESH:

If a method has been found of connecting a nerve ending in a brain directly with an electrical reactor, then the way is open for connecting it with a brain-cell of another person. Such a connection being, of course, essentially electrical, could be effected just as well through the ether as along wires. At first this would limit itself to the more perfect and economic transference of thought which would be necessary in the co-operative thinking of the future. But it cannot stop here. Connections between two or more minds would tend to become a more and more permanent condition until they functioned as a dual or multiple organism. The minds would always preserve a certain individuality, the network of cells inside a single brain being more dense than that existing between brains, each brain being chiefly occupied with its individual mental development and only communicating with the others for some common purpose.

Once the more or less permanent compound brain came into existence two of the ineluctable limitations of present existence would be surmounted. In the first place death would take on a different and far less terrible aspect. Death would still exist for the mentally-directed mechanism we have just described; it would merely be postponed for three hundred or perhaps a thousand years, as long as the brain cells could be persuaded to live in the most favorable environment, but not forever. But the multiple individual would be, barring cataclysmic accidents, immortal, the older component as they died being replaced by newer ones without losing the continuity of the self, the memories and feelings of the older member transferring themselves almost completely to the common stock before its death.

Whew! Some people are simply ahead of their times. Though it truly is noteworthy that Bernal's essay was widely published and discussed, back in the 1930s... and no, the Harry Bellafonte movie simply used the provocative title, nothing more.

A note on Bernal’s approach to interstellar travel. Of course we would recognize the overal concept as the vast community of rotating space colonies projected in the 1970s and 1980s by Gerard O’Neil -- leading eventually to some of this vast, living “cells” leaking - as if by osmosis - intothe interstellar realm. If this gradualistic approach works, then human colonies will expand outward in a natural, even organic way. And, once the first ones are established, sending further colonies onward, the pace should accelerate. Simple calculations suggest a migration rate that might fill the galaxy with our descendants within just 60 million years.

The relevance to SETI is obvious. Why haven't aliens already done this? If they had -- and even if the Earth were missed or bypassed or set aside by those predecessors... then would we not have seen or heard signs of them by now?

Still, dig it. “The World, the Flesh & the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul,” by J. D. Bernal 1929. Ninety years ago they were talking about something that seems to have slipped completely our of our own lexicon. The “rational soul.” As Ghandi might have said -- what a quaint idea!


While we’re dipping in the past...

- Look up the prescient speech by Vannevar Bush, after WWII, forecasting many of the advantages of computers and advanced communications in the coming world.

- In 1934, Belgium visionary Paul Otlet sketched out plans for the the Mundaneum - a global network of computers (or "electric telescopes") that would allow people to search and browse through millions of interlinked documents, images, audio and video files. He described how people would use the devices to send messages to one another, share files and even congregate in online social networks. He called the whole thing a "reseau," which might be translated as "network" or "web." He laid out his vision of a "mechanical, collective brain" that would house all the world's information, made readily accessible over a global telecommunications network, using telegraph messages. Like the Semantic Web, the Mundaneum aspired not just to draw static links between documents, but also to map out conceptual relationships between facts and ideas.

--- More Misc Stuff!

Spore has arrived! Well, part of it. Stefan reports: “Maxis released the first module, the Creature Creator, last week. Here is Joel Johnson's "straight" demonstration:  I once joked on Slashdot that SPORE wouldn't really take off until Wright pursued the Sims demographic with the Spore Interplanetary Brothel module.”

exorariumIt's two years since Wright had me and Sheldon Brown over to his Berkely shop, to show him our Exorarium Project. Sheldon and I felt flattered that Wil was even remotely worried about us! How could we know that the wonderful Spore prototype we saw that day would be delayed two years?

Oh, a cute moment came when we pointed out that - while our approach uses evolution - Wil's Spore is clearly Intelligent Design.

Another (pressure driven) hit?

Here’s an obscure one for the “predictive hits” registry. Scientists have found that the superconducting state in so-called "high temperature" superconductors can be induced by high pressure as well as low temperature.

Um... duh? I considered this to be so obvious that I made it a major plot element in my novel,  EARTH. When I realized that the most common mineral state in our planet’s mantle layer -- perovskite -- happens also to be the mineral state of some of the best “high temperature superconductors.” Of course “best high temperature superconductors” in 1990 still meant only a few dozen degrees above absolute zero... and the Earth’s mantle is many thousands of degrees hot. So, the two domains should have zero overlap, right? Except for the intense pressure, down in the mantle! Should this -- might it -- result in occasional highly-conductive domains down there, deep below the surface? The mere possibility led to one of the most , well, unusual plot veers in any science fiction novel. (Or so I’m told.) It seemed reasonable (to a sci fi author) to ponder that vast, vast zone crisscrossed with conductive domains that might imprint with all of human knowledge in a very short time... bringing Earth itself to consciousness.

More Misc.....

See an excellent article about why scientists need help from rhetoricians to foil the machinations of today’s malignant sophists.

For anyone interested in the long, long road of libertarianism, as it wrestles with its oversimplifying demons and creeps slowly toward adulthood, there is a new site.

A global effort to develop an open-source "self-replicating" machine that ‘prints’ three-dimensional objects, is celebrating after the prototype machine succeeded in making a set of its own printed parts. (I betcha they don’t include chips and print heads.)

NASA's Solar Probe+, a heat-resistant spacecraft, will plunge deep into the sun's outer atmosphere, the corona, where it can sample solar wind and magnetism first hand, by 2015. Trajectory of Solar Probe+ The two mysteries prompting this mission are the high temperature of the sun's corona and the puzzling acceleration of the solar wind.

Holocene related -- Researchers conducting brain scans of people listening to multiple sounds, say that the secondary auditory cortex -- located in the temporal lobe at the side of the head -- does much of the work in filtering out a single thread of conversation from a tangle of similar background noises (the "cocktail party. And why has almost no effort been made, to provide the same services to folks online?

Botnets control just over a million hacked computers on the Internet and are capable of flooding the Internet with more than 100 billion spam messages every day.

HP has announced an under-$500 laptop computer called a "Mini-Note" that weighs less than 3 pounds, with a screen that measures 8.9 inches diagonally (prices go up for Windows Vista models with faster processors). The Mini-Note will compete primarily with Intel's Classmate PCs, Asustek's Eee PC.

Vivaty of Menlo Park, California, is creating a hybrid of conventional social networking sites such as Facebook and virtual worlds like Second Life. To be offered to Facebook users, Vivaty users will get access to a virtual room where they can adorn the walls with photos, watch a virtual television that plays YouTube, invite friends...

Astronomers have discovered a planetary system orbiting a distant star which looks much like our own. They found two planets that were close matches for Jupiter and Saturn orbiting a star about half the size of our Sun and about 5,000 light-years away.

And More (thanks to Ray Kurzweil).....

Twins' DNA can differ due to copy number variants (different number of copies of the same gene). These differences in identical twins can be used to identify genetic regions and genes that coincide with specific diseases due to copy number changes. Differences between identical...

Columbia University scientists presented evidence today that desert heat, a little water, and meteorite impacts may have been enough to cook up one of the first prerequisites for life: The dominance of left-handed amino acids, the building blocks of life on this planet. The finding suggests a higher probability that there is life somewhere similar to ours.

Now that computers can emulate many of the sequential skills of the brain's left hemisphere, Daniel Pink, author of "A Whole New Mind," argues that it's time for our imaginative right brain, which sees the entire forest all at once, to take center stage.

NASA engineers are testing out a giant, six-legged robot that could pick up and move a future Moon base thousands of kilometers across the lunar surface, allowing astronauts to explore much more than just the area around their landing...

Harvard Medical School and Boston College researchers have found that taking music lessons can strengthen connections between the two hemispheres of the brain in children, but only if they practice diligently. For the children who practiced at least 2.5 hours a week, a region of the corpus callosum that connects movement-planning regions on the...

No link necessary

85 per cent of the 4.3 billion available Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, which identify devices connected to the net, are already in use. Within three years they will all be used up.

Researchers at IBM and the Fraunhofer Institute in Berlin have demonstrated a prototype that integrates a water-based cooling system into 3-D chips by piping water directly between each layer in the stack. The method is one of the most promising approaches to enhancing chip performance in "3-D chip stacks" beyond its predicted limits

Decreased levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin increases emotional response to a perceived unjust or unfair situation. Volunteers who had their serotonin levels temporarily lowered were much more likely to reject unfair offers in the Ultimatum Game. So, Oxytocin increases trust susceptibility and serotonin makes folks less skeptical...


As part of the push for a National Science Debate, SEA and fourteen other science organizations have come together to ask the 2008 congressional candidates seven questions on science and technology policy. There is also a handy clickable zipcode search to help you find your local Congressional candidate and to urge him/her to answer the questions. (A special hint -- they give the address of your local representative and opponent. Drop by both, and see if one of them pleases you enough to offer some help!) This is important.

Help show the politicians that a top issue is whether America will be an advanced and forward looking civilization.


Craig Comments said...

While I am unable to accept the offer for the tickets to see the re-enactment of the battle of Gettysburg, I wish I could. I was in Williamsburg, VA to see the re-enactment of some of the revolutionary war engagements – Yorktown battles – on July 4, 1976. What a great experience.

Whoever uses these tickets will have a special treat.

Gavin Craig

sociotard said...

Oh those wacky Japanese. They made a little "girlfriend" robot (not a sex doll, mind you). It's the size of an action figure, and it has infrared sensors to tell where your cheek is. When you lean in it kisses you.

Anonymous said...

A bit of explanation: My note to DB about "Spore" also included a link to what is being called "sporn." Within days of its release, folks started turning out squicky X rated stuff!

* * *

Bernal's book is both incredibly influential and strangely forgotten.

Influential: One of his notions turned up in a H.P. Lovecraft story! An alien race collects the brains of notable geniuses and puts them in jars with sensory attachments. The same idea may have inspired Lieber's The Silver Eggheads.

Bernal's spherical colonies were used in Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker. As the super-civilizations in that book face the extinction of the last stars they begin surrounding suns with layered shells of orbiting habitats and "gauzy light traps." This inspired Freeman Dyson to suggest that we could look for extraterrestrial life by scanning the heavens for . . . well, Dyson Spheres.

The ignored part: Bernal includes a lot of speculation about how technology would create schisms in society. He imagined the rift taking place between ordinary people and those who had their brains transferred into robots. (Today that might be called uploading.) In some ways SF is still catching up with the guy.

Anonymous said...

I will, sadly, not be getting Spore. I've looked forward to it for years, but it seems that the game requires internet connectivity and an activation server to install, installs a rootkit as part of its installation procedure, and won't let you install it more than three times. (My usual pattern is to completely uninstall a game when I have work to to, to remove temptation, and only have one game on my system at a time anyway.)

So great idea, but I'm not willing to trust EA with root access to my computer to use it, nor am I willing to trust that they will be in business in a decade when I want to install it on my upgraded computer.

Bleyddyn said...

(I betcha they don’t include chips and print heads.)

The do print part of the print head. The nozzle and the heated part are made out of (intentionally) inexpensive and readily available materials. There are also metal rods used in part of the frame that are not printed.

As for chips, no they don't print chips, yet. But they have done some research into liquid conductors they could use to at least print the circuit boards.

RepRap still has a long way to go to achieve true replication, but they are making progress.

Anonymous said...

RepRap is a cool idea, but it's at the "Homebrew Computer Club" stage - and it remains to be seen if it'll develop anywhere near as fast as personal computers - where's their equivalent of "Moore's Law"?

I suspect their "extruder" approach may be a dead end. Numerically controlled cutting (e.g. a lathe) would let them get to stronger, yet commonly available materials, faster.

David McCabe said...

You gotta wonder why smart folks like EA are still trying to achieve copy protection when... it never works! For example, a lot of copies of Photoshop suddenly stopped working a few months ago, because of an error in copy protection. And yet, any of us could have gone on BitTorrent and grabbed a cracked copy with more ease that it took to get Adobe to fix the problem.

Tony Fisk said...

wrt high pressure superconductors, it never occurred to me me it was a prediction either. I'm sure I saw a report on room temperature superconductivity achieved on a sample put in a diamond anvil in the mid-late eighties (around the time higher temperature 'room pressure' superconductors were discovered).

Oh well, a lot of things get 're-discovered' over time.


On another topic: our occasional 'October surprise' paranoia seems to be spreading.... to the Republicans!

Terror attack 'would help McCain'

An aide to Republican presidential hopeful John McCain has said he regrets telling a reporter that a terror attack on the US would be "an advantage".

(I think Black's regret stems from the inference that McCain would see it as an advantage.)

JuhnDonn said...

"high temperature" superconductors can be induced by high pressure as well as low temperature.

So... what's happening down in Jupiter?

Anonymous said...

Jupiter has a powerful magnetic field, about 20,000 times more powerful than Earth´s. What that says about superconductivity in the core is beyond me.

Tony Fisk said...

Interesting, and more on-topic than it might appear at first glance:

Read Jamais Cascio on 'griefing' (and a followup example)

(even with a full complement of social communication skills, we are not always successful in dealing with threats like this in the real world. Maybe something like 'Holocene Chat' isn't such a bad idea after all?)

Anonymous said...

As if we needed more proof that the Republicans were up to no good.

Anonymous said...

Doug S:

True - but it's 'Funny' what the Dems are willing to let slide (warrantless surveillance, no-bid-crony-contracts, secret rules and secret lists banning people from flying, re-defining torture, lying to start a war, etc, etc, on and on) and where they draw the line(discrimination against those they consider 'one of ours').

Unknown said...

I don't feel much like posting a lot of good new after the FISA business has depressed my serotonin levels. Of course, that's exactly when you should remain vigilant for good news. Fortunately, there's plenty:

Scientists can now convert one cell type directly into another:

Prof Melton told the annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research in Philadelphia how he took specialist "pancreatic exocrine cells" that secrete digestive enzymes, which make up to 95 per cent of the pancreas, and converted them directly into another cell type, called beta cells, which make the hormone insulin to control blood sugar levels.
Although there is a long way to go to show that this could be used to help treat diabetes, it adds to the existing evidence that a cell's destiny is no longer fixed.


Even better medical news:

A patient whose skin cancer had spread throughout his body has been given the all-clear after being injected with billions of his own immune cells.
Tests revealed that the 52-year-old man's tumours, which spread from his skin to his lung and groin, vanished within two months of having the treatment, and had not returned two years later.
Doctors attempted the experimental therapy as part of a clinical trial after the man's cancer failed to respond to conventional treatments.
The man is the first to benefit from the new technique, which uses cloning to produce billions of copies of a patient's immune cells. When they are injected into the body they attack the cancer and force it into remission.


The original article from the New England Journal of Medicine:

This is the future of individualized gene-therapy medicine I was talking about, and it's happening now, not 20 years from now. The good news? It'll revolutionize health care and cure diseases previously incurable. The bad news? It's going to drive our medical costs up even faster than their current rate.

New poll shows Obama has taken a substantial lead of McCain in key swing states.

Weirdly, McCain seems to be following Charles Krauthammer's loopy advice to "make victory in Iraq the central winning issue of this campaign." Yeah...hey, listen, good luck with that one, guys.

Speaking of Obama, no one seems to have noted how revolutionary Obama's initiative to reject public funds for his election campaign really is. Breaking the corporate PAC stranglehold on campaign financing destroys much of the giant corporations' power over public policy. If corporations can't legally bribe politicians with campaign contributions to the point where corporate contributions dwarf those of the general public, then it becomes much harder for corporations to influence public policy. Harder, but still not impossible: the other trick the corporations pull involves funding dishonest junk science from homebrew "institutes" and ginned-up "foundations" which are in effect fronts for disseminating corporate agitprop. However, the solution to that one involves, as Dr. Brin has pointed out, transparency. By shining enough light on those bogus white papers from phony corporate-front "foundations," and revealing the fraudulence of the so-called "research" which backs up corporate claims such as "there is no global warming," or "marijuana is a gateway drug," the essentially hollow nature of this junk science gets quickly revealed to the public and it loses its power to delude gullible voters. We had an example of this with the cigarette-cancer research, in which transparency won the day handily.

If Obama were doing this just by himself, it would be a big enough transformation. But Obama has now managed to get the entire Demo party to reject corporate contributions, and that seems huge. If we can force corporations out of the campaign finance game for both major political parties, this could really re-ignite popular grass-roots democracy in way we haven't seen since William Jennings Byran's run for the presidency in 1895, or Huey Long's candidacy in 1932. Obama's use of the netroots (an initiative started by Kos) strikes me as brilliant and potentially game-changing.

Retired general who headed the Abu Ghraib probe says the reptiles infesting the White House committed verifiable and impeachable war crimes. "Good" news insofar as it proves (yet again) that evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors by this maladministration abounds, if anyone were inclined to used it to impeach the Lovecraftian lurker in the shadows of the Oval Office.

More good news -- the sub-prime meltdown is finally forcing regulators to rein in the world's unregulated casino-capitalism options trading:

Regulators finally crack down on the world's "shadow banking system," which has now grown to 10 trillion dollars -- as large as the regular banking system, but (until now) totally UNregulated!

And with all the headlines about how other countries hate America, here's some welcome good news about America's "soft power":

All across the former Soviet Union, thousands of students are making the same choice—turning away from the Russian language to embrace English, as well as the education standards of Western Europe and America. "Our students want to integrate into the European community rather than keep up with their Russian," says Anatoly Bourban at one of Ukraine's leading universities, Kiev's Mohyla Academy, where courses are taught in Ukrainian and English only. Azerbaijan's leading private university, the Khazar University in Baku, teaches primarily in English and offers U.S.-style M.B.A. courses. So do the Georgian American University and the Black Sea University in Tbilisi, and the American University of Central Asia, based in Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek, which also offer Western syllabi and Western standardized tests—in part in order to enable their students to pursue studies abroad. "I have been watching the Russian language disappear in Georgia since 1992," says Prof. Charles Fairbanks of the Washington-based Hudson Institute, who teaches a course on great books at Chavchavadze University six months a year. "Now only one third of my students can read Russian," he says. "The majority communicate and read fluently in English."

The implications extend far beyond the classroom. The language and culture in which people educate their young say a lot about the world they expect their kids to grow up in.

(..) Many in the West (and in Moscow) see Russia as a resurgent power, pumped up by oil money and flexing its muscles around the world. But as Saakashvili points out, this bravado masks a deeper weakness. Moscow has asserted itself mostly by picking fights with its neighbors—with Ukraine over gas prices, with Estonia over the removal of a Soviet war memorial and with Georgia over two breakaway enclaves supported by Moscow. Harvard professor Joseph Nye, who came up with the term "soft power" to describe the attractiveness of a civilization and its culture, says those "bullying attitudes [are] destroying trust and undercutting [Russia's] soft power in other countries." Ukrainian kids might still listen to Russian pop and go see Russian movies, and an estimated 3 million Ukrainians still go to Russia for work. But a January poll showed that 64 percent of Ukrainians would vote to join the EU—and support for a pro-Russian political bloc has been steadily slipping.


Good news insofar as is suggests that if America can only stop doing things that make the rest of the world hate us, we'd prove hugely influential due to the "soft power" of our culture.

And thank heaven so many deeply serious people are being "silly" : Feingold to filibuster FISA bill.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: "Even worse are the provisions of the bill that will make it very easy for the government to essentially suck up the communications, all communications of Americans that go overseas, whether it’s an email or a text message or a phone call to a daughter, junior year abroad, or a child who’s in Iraq or a reporter or a business associate. This is one of the greatest intrusions, potentially, on the rights of Americans protected under the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution in the history of our country.
And unfortunately, it’s going to go through with the help of some Democrats. So this is a very, very sad day for our Constitution and for our rights, and it’s not justified by the terrorism issue, because we do not have any problem at all with going after anybody that we have reasonable suspicions about. It has to do with sucking all this information into a huge database in a way that is very intrusive on the privacy of all Americans."

"How cops really want to police." This is the endpoint at which the security state will ultimately arrive -- citizens forced to perform gladiatorial games to the death for cops' amusement.

Why the culture war looks like it's going to get a lot worse before it gets any better.

Military tribunals to continue at Guantanamo in defiance of the Supreme Court ruling.

These last three are not good news. The last article, in fact, shows the complete breakdown of the rule of law in America. The White House is now acting in open defiance of the Supreme Court and the law...yet no one does anything.

Countdown to Dr. Brin calling me "silly" for pointing this fact out in...3...2...1...

Tony Fisk said...

Is that how cops really want to police?

It is more like how some with an authoritarian streak think cops *ought* to police, and it ain't necessarily how cops *want* to police.

The manner in which counter-terrorist and wire-tapping legislation was slammed through by the Libs in Australia actually received a rebuke from the federal police because it stuffed up ongoing investigations (See my wafflings on it here)

(...0...-1, -2, -3 ;-)

Anonymous said...

Well, the reason cops have never been allowed to do that, in a free society, was because it made them unaccountable: a bad cop could easily become a tyrant because he could exercise the Middle and Low Justice without oversight or restraint. The same complaint -- that the law does not reach to the streets -- applies equally to the cop and the dealer alike.

What we really have here is a complaint that justice is too inefficient to be effective. And that's a valid complaint.

Perhaps -- in a world where the Panopticon is recording all the actions of a cop -- the old tradition of a spontaneous trial could be revived. Pull the jury and the advocates from the people on the street, and have a quick proceeding followed by a quick sentencing. It would be scandalous if there no appeal... but if a judge reviewed each case? And everyone had the right to appeal promptly to such a judge? Could it work?

On some other links -- Zorgon, the logical consequence of the Big Sort is not Kulturkampf, but greater decentralization of cultural matters. Southerners have always known that Yankees acted differently. What has changed is that Southerners don't just want to be left alone, but to tell Yankees what to do -- a trait formerly associated only with Yankees. (Just to take one long-standing American cultural divide.)

Unknown said...

Provocative Wired article: The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete.

Sounds like crap to me. Conceptual models prove useful for a lot more than predictions -- they provide a coherent narrative for reality. With statistics you don't know why something happens, but with a conceptual model at least you think you do... sufficiently to navigate reality to some degree anyway. But then what do I know?

None of you appear to have read the actual "How Cops Really Want To Police" article. It consists almost entirely of quotes from actual police. In many cases the police describe how they actually do things on the streets. Organizing gladiatorial games between rival gangs isn't something cops would "like" to do -- it's something the cops who were interviewed described how they actually did policing on the street.

Also: the shadow banking article link appears broken. Here's the link:{FA23DF5A-918F-41DA-B794-7E553ADAFAA7}


Anonymous said...

Another triumph for the non-reality-based community:

White House Refused to Open Pollutants E-Mail

"The White House in December refused to accept the Environmental Protection Agency’s conclusion that greenhouse gases are pollutants that must be controlled, telling agency officials that an e-mail message containing the document would not be opened, senior E.P.A. officials said last week.

The document, which ended up in e-mail limbo, without official status, was the E.P.A.’s answer to a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that required it to determine whether greenhouse gases represent a danger to health or the environment, the officials said.

This week, more than six months later, the E.P.A. is set to respond to that order by releasing a watered-down version of the original proposal that offers no conclusion. Instead, the document reviews the legal and economic issues presented by declaring greenhouse gases a pollutant.

Over the past five days, the officials said, the White House successfully put pressure on the E.P.A. to eliminate large sections of the original analysis that supported regulation, including a finding that tough regulation of motor vehicle emissions could produce $500 billion to $2 trillion in economic benefits over the next 32 years. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter."

They need to go.

Cliff said...

Zorgon - while some of the things the cops describe doing are excessive (like the gladiator fights), on the whole I don't mind seeing cops being able to improvise and come up with fine-tuned responses to crime.

Given a perfect justice system, these cops would be way out of line. But the justice system is far from perfect. So I can see the appeal of rapid-response justice.

But I also see the danger in giving cops so much power, with no accountability.

Anonymous said...

To comments on the wired article(
Provocative Wired article: The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete.)

1. Correlation isn't causation.

2. You still need models to find correlations/do statistics.

3. The examples given in the article still make predictions that can be evaluated. Prediction: pages with high Google rank are contain relevant information for that search term. Prediction: Venter's statistical blips represent a new species.

Anonymous said...

About the Wired article re: the scientific method...

This is something about which I can speak with some authority. I am an engineer by training, teach some fairly advanced statistics at the graduate level, and have used them in solving industry problems for over ten years.

Blind data mining or data sweeps can find interesting possibilities to test. We have used this method on huge databases of lots of process parameters that no one ever looks at, and have identified interesting relationships. But there is no explanatory power in these models for the same reason that eliminating ice cream sales on the beach will not eliminate death by drowning, though the two are highly correlated. This (correlation is not causation) is mentioned by the article, but then handwaved away without explaining anything.

The other issue is more subtle. In any large data set you will find relationships that are unlikely, but given a large enough data set, you expect to find those due to chance. Similarly, when flipping a fair coin, you expect to see runs of heads and tails every once in a while, and should actually get suspicious if you don't.

So if I do a huge data sweep and find no relationship, then I think that someone has been monkeying with the data. If I find relationships, I can then test them experimentally. (Note that there is a strict definition of what an experiment really is. Basically, you have to manipulate the system and compare it to the non-manipulated system. Correlation is not an experiment, though it is based on data.) In no case would I take a statistically significant relationship from an after the fact analysis and say that represents something real. I take my hypotheses from the data sweep, select an appropriate sample size, manipulate the process experimentally, and THEN make a conclusion about the relationship. That still sounds like the scientific method to me. (By the way, Popper's overly simplistic representation of the scientific method gives anti-science groups ammunition, but that is another story....)

I have also worked with neural nets trying to deduce (in this case) optimum mixtures. They don't really "understand" interactive (multiplicative) effects, so they tend to "average out" these effects and never find optima and settle on OK mixtures that might or might not be robust to variation.

So to sum up, in my experience, an empirical model followed by an experiment, leading to a provisional explanatory model is far more useful in real life (e.g. business). The missing element from the article was the experimental aspect - the manipulation of the variables in the system that actually assesses whether your numerical and/or explanatory model has any validity.

I just don't see in reality how you can get away from that, or the scientific method. I mean, let's say we meet an alien race that doesn't believe in atoms. Granted it will be tough to convince them to change their paradigm, but the ONLY way I know to even have a chance is through the scientific method.

(By the way, my own personal explanation for the Fermi Paradox is that the scientific method is a very rare discovery even amongst otherwise intelligent critters. I think there are probably lots of pre-Roman-era civilizations out there that are stable and will never discover science vs. dogma.)

Anonymous said...

Or, to occam-ize it...

Thou shalt understand science, and keep it wholly.

Unknown said...

Let me get this straight: we're struggling against the forces of obscurantism and superstition and anti-rationalist warmongering so...we can all become cyborgs with collective intelligence travelling in hollowed-out asteroids near the speed of light to the other side of the galaxy?

Jeez. I think the average person would look at that and say, "Count me out. I'm voting for McCain!"

More good news:

Why Dr. Dobson Just Handed Obama Victory

"[T]he new generation of evangelicals is sick of being labeled as backward rednecks because of their association with fossils like Dobson. There are many evangelicals like Cizik too who are not all about homophobia, nationalism, war-without-end and American exceptionalism or the Republican Party. ...They believe that the [sic] America has a responsibility to do something about global warming, poverty, AIDS, human trafficking and other issues. They see through Dobson and the other so-called pro-life leaders, who have actually done nothing to reduce abortion. In fact Dobson has increased abortions because of his "abstinence only" crusade.

As a result of his power grabs and bullying of other evangelicals, not to mention his telling people how to vote and pointing them to the failed W, Dobson & Co. have zero credibility with a growing number of otherwise conservative evangelicals who happen--this year--to be looking favorably at Senator Obama's holistic Christian-based world view."

Can A Million Tons Of Sulphur Dioxide Save the Planet?

"Geoengineering schemes sound like they're pulled straight from pulp sci-fi novels: Fertilize the oceans with iron in order to sequester carbon dioxide; launch fleets of ships to whip up sea spray and enhance the solar reflectivity of marine stratocumulus clouds; use trillions of tiny spacecraft to form a sunshade a million miles from Earth in perfect solar orbit. They all may seem impractical, but among a small but growing set of climate scientists, one idea that Wood and Teller started pushing in the late 1990s (before Teller's death in 2003) is gaining acceptance: Inject sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to reflect a portion of the sun's rays back into space, thus cooling the planet.

Spray-On Skin Gun Shoots Stem Cells To Heal Your Open Wound

Not a real device -- yet -- but an example of the kind of thing we're going to see soon that will revolutionize medicine.

The Obamacons Who Worry McCain

""The Republican Party is a dead rotting carcass with a few decrepit old leaders stumbling around like zombies in a horror version of 'Weekend With Bernie,' handcuffed to a corpse."

Syd Mead's visualization of Doha, Qatar in the late 21st century.


But where's Jabba the Hut?

Oh, that's right, he's in the Oval Office...

Tony Fisk said...

Zorgon: No, I hadn't read the tale on police advocating themselves judiciary powers (mea culpa! Fixed now!)

It's risky to make generalisations from a case or three, but what I see is a bit of satiation in action. The coppers on the beat felt they needed more powers to administer 'rough justice' to do their jobs. The counter-terrorist unit did not.

The point being that that the guys who did not feel the *needed* the extra powers objected to being granted them.

(As to the guys on the beat: I can see they have a point, although I don't approve of their 'out of line' antics... which the article rightly portrays in increasing levels of outrageousness: it's a slippery slope down to the gladiatior ring). A better approach is to get a bit of legitimacy into what they do: get verifiable community support for their tactics. Present it to the justice department. Otherwise, they're ultimately no different to the people they are applying these tactics to.)

Yeah... it's some future: rapture either way!

Speaking of slippery slopes: geo-engineering can have consequences even more dire to the environment than doing nothing: iron sulphide may lead to increased acidification of the oceans (bye bye shellfish)

Even the sunshade idea (which is at least reversible) has been shown to have uneven effects: actually warming India!

Jubba the hutt in the oval office?
Bill Solo entombed in culture-war carbonite on the wall. Hil-Leia in chains at his, feet. Selacious W Crumb chained to a desk furiously scrawling pardons for the eructations coming from the various guests feasting around the room.

... and a tall shadow in the doorway: '... a young jedi to see you , sire!'

Beware of trapdoors (and stretched metaphors)!

Travc said...

SteveO, you really do sound like an engineer (not a bad thing IMO, since I have a BS in engineering myself).

How scary is it that 'law enforcement' types want to do data-mining? Lets see, people with little or no clue about statistics looking through mountains of data successively testing for one condition after another... oh, and these people have the ability to arrest you (or worse).

An interesting tidbit... My boss (population geneticist) actually served as an expert witness *against* DNA fingerprinting in several cases something like 10 years ago. Turns out, the FBI used incredibly faulty methods to estimate the frequency of a pattern's occurrence... so when they said "1 in 1,000,000" match or something like that, it was pretty much BS. Now they have fixed that error, and the (famous) lawyer my boss testified for works with the Innocence Project using DNA fingerprinting to exonerate people.

On the other hand, I think you are off-base dismissing non-manipulative analysis as 'not experimental' and therefore not science. A lot of systems really can't be manipulated in the controlled way you imagine. Testing for correlations which are consistent with one theory vs a different theory (and eventually inferring causality when a single theory is successful in a sufficient set of cases)... this is how most science is actually done.

Of course, I totally agree with you that there are lots of possible confounding factors that must be accounted for in such a setup... and it is much much less powerful than a 'keep everything else the same and vary only one parameter' idea of an experiment... but since you know statistics, you know that uncontrolled factors can be accounted for with sufficient data (with variation in the proper places).

This is a bit of a wonky point, but it is something I have thought a lot about.

BTW: You can do much better than neural-networks for most optimization problems. Evolutionary strategies (GAs are just a small subset) tend to work much better at providing robust good (though not guaranteed global optima) solutions. They can also handle much more complex cases with more constraints.

One real big problem with using learning systems to design or analyze is the 'black box' nature of the solution... sadly they are just as bad if not worse than raw statistics at providing a causal theory.

David McCabe said...

This sounds like a volumetric display to me:

Travc said...

@David McCabe... Cool. Though not quite display material yet. What we really need is something which changes color only when excited by two different frequencies (3 would work even better). You really need to be able to excite a single point in space.

David McCabe said...

I was hoping that the intersection of two beams would put it over a threshold. But I have no idea how these things work. Perhaps it would be possible to excite it using the harmonic of two interfering beams?

Anonymous said...

Hey Travc,

Yeah, I had to watch my post length so I had to simplify.

For example, astronomy is sure a science but it is non-manipulable (at least at macro scale - it is fascinating to me that cosmology and quantum physics have so much to say about each other). But there are gradations in science and other sources of knowledge. (and this is something I have thought a lot about) Astronomy is another level of science, where you still make hypotheses based on data and continue observations to see if it is confirmed or denied. Less powerful, but still valid - e.g. that smoking causes cancer in people. No one set up a randomized control experiment for that but given the amount of data we now have, we feel pretty confident that the correlation there is real.

I would not say "most" science is done this way, but although inefficient it can find answers when manipulation is not possible.

I like evolutionary algorithms, but just as in nature, they may or may not home in on an optimum. It is highly dependent on initial conditions and constraints. But there are many situations where that, or other control algorithms, can be useful and indeed really efficient. But again as you say, it is not explanatory, so it doesn't help you in setting up the initial conditions and constraints for the next iteration. And usually evolutionary solutions as set up today are not robust to departures from the chosen environment. (I remember reading about using evo-algorithms to evolve a programmable chip for a specific use. The algorithm found a really great solution, but it only worked on that one chip since it took advantage of a current leak that was accidental - still fascinating though!)

I still see explanatory science as more powerful that way, though again data sweeps provide interesting things to look into.

The thing about data mining for terrorists is that you are far more likely to make an alpha error (conclude someone is a terrorist) than you are to catch a real terrorist, and/or far more likely to miss a real terrorist (beta error) than catch them for the reason that the number of terrorists is small and even with a stated alpha error of 1% or something, a positive indication is almost certainly an alpha error - unless you reduce the power of detection down to where you won't catch anyone anyway. (Same reason that a single positive AIDS test has a high probability of being a false positive - if you are not in a high-risk population.) This is also why airport security is silly, since you are almost certain to miss a real terrorist and all the signals that you get are almost certainly false positives. So people ignore them and become complacent and have an even higher chance of missing a real signal.

By the way, the "keep everything the same and manipulate one variable" is a terrible way to experiment, even though that is what I was taught as an undergrad engineer too. This is about the least efficient way you can find out what is going on, and you cannot assess for multiplicative effects. What you really need is to manipulate multiple variables at once and use ANOVA for analysis. You can even use fractional factorials to vastly reduce the total number of experimental runs (e.g. 16 runs to test five factors at two levels and all two-way interactions, rather than 2^5 runs). If you are interested in learning more, I have a boring case study and a more interesting article on the concepts. Confounding factors are fairly easily handled with "blocked" effects or with other experimental techniques. How's THAT for wonky? :)

To sum up, I am a stats geek, but blind search algorithms will not replace the scientific method - though they may be a tool in the process.

David Brin said...

Travc and Dave, what you are talking about is "sequential excitation of flourescence."

I worked with those guys at Bettelle labs and it looked like THE way to make REAL 3D displays... except the problem is you don't want a whole lot of BRIGHT pixels in a 3D display. What you want is DARK pixels that block what's behind them. It was great for a 3D movie about ghosts.

A similar method was tried (and I was involved) to do TRUE 3D prototype manufacturing. Today's methods are all half-assed 2D ratcheted systems, adding or cutting layers at a time. It shoulda worked. Dang.

Anonymous said...

PROOF that there is something sinister about Obama.

David McCabe said...

Anonymous, I don't get it.

Come to think of it, is there any practical use for a volumetric display?

David McCabe said...

Congress gets wise, re-funds Fermilab:

Anonymous said...

The joke is that "sinister" is Latin for "left", as in "left-handed". Now go look at that picture again.

Dave Rickey said...

Back to "Iran War as October Surprise": This New Yorker article goes into quite a bit of detail. The number of sources, especially the "Senior Congressional Leadership" (this can only be one of 8 people) that are giving information on this, combined with a lot of other information that is probably classified somewhere around "Drop Dead Before Reading", in itself is a message that there are a lot of people scared that Cheney and McCain have cooked up a plan to keep the GOP in power.


Travc said...

SteveO... I'm a biologist (at least for now) and so the quibble over "most" science being explicitly manipulative or not is probably just a matter of perspective. BTW: You do know that lots of basic statistics were invented by biologists (have to deal with that messy data somehow)? ;)

Pretty much agree with you. I'd actually forgotten the alpha vs beta error terms, though not the concept. People who don't know that concept (and a lot of other statistics tidbits) should not be using results from data mining!

I'm an evolutionary algorithms geek... the circuit design you mention was done on an FPGA, and illustrates a very important point (I've used it as an example in many a talk). Evolutionary algorithms will find solutions for the actual environment you use, not what you think the environment is. If you want to evolve a solution to be robust to variations in the environment, you have to vary the environment it evolves in. Another example was with Karl Sims Evolved Virtual Creatures... when evolving for speed, there was a bug in the physical model simulator and 'creatures' developed which would just quiver at a particular frequency, overflow/whatever some variable in the simulator and *poof* be teleported to a new location. There was another solution evolved which was just a long stick, which would fall over and be counted as very fast (since it movement was measured from center of mass).

This problem with evolutionary algorithms is also a bit strength. If there is an aspect of the environment which can be exploited, evolution can find it even if you don't know it exists.

@David McCabe: I could certainly use a volumetric display. Currently I'm working on a method which evaluates a function in 4 dimensions... It is a pain in the ass to visualize.

Travc said...

This is cool:

Willis Conover, who was hugely influential using 'soft power' working for the VOA (hosting a world famous nightly music (jazz) hour) and setting up 'good will' tours of famous jazz musicians... Was a huge HP Lovecraft fan and corresponded with him for years. He also started a Sci-fi fanzine in his youth.

It is too hard to properly summarize... just click through.

Travc said...

Here is that link in a better form... sorry.

JuhnDonn said...

Come to think of it, is there any practical use for a volumetric display?

For RPG games set in space, would be really useful with star maps and such.

Anonymous said...


Yes, I did know that - and much of the terminology is from agriculture!

I interviewed for a job at a major medical laboratory testing business to be their guy in charge of teaching stats, and their best and brightest had "never understood beta" so at least you remembered it! It is a killer for a business if you don't understand it, since you can run your test on ten samples, do your stats correctly, and find no reason to conclude there is a difference - while a HUGE difference is there, you just have massive beta error (inability to detect what is there). I have not infrequently averted massive dollars lost due to just this. (It is how stats are taught out of psych departments is the problem.)

Actually, our discussion gave me my topic for my monthly article and I take that Wired article to task. I'll post a link here once it is posted if anyone is interested. So thanks! Getting a topic is always the hardest step!

Evo algorithms are very cool - I'd like to test how they do with some data examples. Can you point me to references?

Anonymous said...

If Robert Sheckley novel and "The Velveteen Rabbit" had a love-child, it would probably look like Wall-E.

That is one seriously amazing movie.

David Brin said...

I have hopes for Wll-E.

Otoh... I'm glad I paid nothing to see JUMPER. Finally saw it by Netflix. Gawd what a wretched-evil horrid thing. Poor Alfred Bester. More on this soon.

Anonymous said...

If you see WALL-E, stay for at least the first half of the credits.

There's a negligible "surprise" at the very end, but it's hardly worth waiting for. But the visuals behind the first part of the credits is a coda of sorts.

Rob Perkins said...

Okay, I teared up at the end of Wall-E, and I think this may be Pixar's best work of art to date.

Wall-E and EVE (the egg-shaped "love interest") are bit players in a much more interesting story. (And the casting of Fred Willard as the World CEO of Buy-n-Large was genius, in my opinion.)

It reminds me of "Rosenkranz and Gildenstern Are Dead", or the "View from the Gallery" episode of Babylon 5, where the main characters are not really the heroes of the story. That belongs to the captain of the AXIOM.

I suggest seeing this one in the theaters.

But, I don't understand David's reaction to Jumper, which I also watched "free" over NetFlix. I just switched my brain off during the opening credits and had a fine time riding the FX-coaster. When else am I going to see the inside of the Roman Coliseum for so little money, after all?