Saturday, May 26, 2007

Digital Nomads

A fascinating article here about a couple that travel all over the World in an orange camper-van to create accurate, digital maps for GPS devices. This is the kind of amazing job that would not have been thought of ten years ago.

It is also similar to what this gentleman is doing, Ulenaers and Vanlaar are being paid to document their whereabouts. Elahi is recording his whereabouts and regularly photographing his day-to-day experiences in order to persuade the FBI that he is not a terrorist.

Lifelogs then, are presumably going to be The New New Thing after online social networking has become normal.

In a completely unrelated story: an orangutan has escaped from a zoo in Taiwan! There's video footage. Please watch.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

My God, it's full of stars...

...but in one trillion (a million millions, or a thousand billions) years time (alien) astronomers won't be able to see much beyond our own local galaxy, according to this interesting article from

As time goes on, and the universe continues to expand much of the evidence that lead to our own conclusion that the universe began about 13 billion years ago in a Big Bang will become undetectable. From the hypothetical point of view of our hypothetical astronomers the universe will appear static.

The article notes that this could mean that there are crucial things about our own universe that we don't know about.

I've always found this aspect of science, that there are probably huge, fundamental and profound unanswered questions that we don't even know we should be asking. It seems every generation or so someone says "we basically know everything, we just need to fill in the details" then something turns up that changes everything.

I'm rather looking forward to the next time such an event occurs.

Interesting news from The War on Viruses: a new sort of software that analyses potential viruses on the basis of their predicted behaviour, rather than from the software's memory of what viruses look like.

It is reassuring that the conflict between virus-makers and antivirus software-makers has resulted in an essential standstill, or equilibrium. I have never experienced a particularly destructive, targeted virus, so I can only assume that the viruses are being held at bay.

Hooray for superconducting electric motors, coming (in a long while) to a Prius near you.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Today in Technology

It really is wonderful to be living in whatever this era is: a casual browse through the news today suggests many hopeful advances, and some rather worrying (but utterly predictable) developments.

As to the former we have the world's first "tiny implantable biocomputers". These are very similar to something Eric Drexler describes in Engines of Creation: tiny autonomous robots that manipulate the interiors of cells for medical purposes.

I've read quite a lot about this sort of idea, and it is sometimes difficult to separate fact from speculation. I wonder how Drexler's ideas of "tiny nanotechnological robots that allow us to live forever" will actually be instantiated in the real world.

Anyway, this new development looks like another concrete step towards the medical revolution.

In other news, it was only a matter of time before some bright spark thought of this. Attaching cameras to toy-helicopters is fairly middle-of-the-road near future SF, and I'm surprised it hasn't already happened (I've always had a guilty sense that it is worthwhile this sort of thing happening just for the slight thrill of realising that you're living in a cool cyberpunk-ish world, but what cyberpunk and SF often fails to get across is how rapidly such things become mundane, irritating, and a damned infringement on our civil liberties).

I'm fortunate enough to live in a fairly low-crime area, but nevertheless a friend of mine was beaten up the other night. As often is the case, it wasn't quite a mugging, but occupied the kind of frustrating grey-area of mindless intimidation and spontaneous violence that ASBOs are meant to target.

Antisocial behaviour is an interesting problem: by which I mean it's one that I can't see a solution to and have always had the luxury of not having to worry about. I instinctively feel that politicians should concentrate on the causes of antisocial behaviour, but I don't really know what they are, or what we'd have to sacrifice to remove the cause.

I can empathise with people who want to see something concrete done quickly to deal with the problems of young men like myself making life unpleasant for these people, but I can also see that there must be some deeper cause. Perhaps if the legal age at which you can purchase alcohol in pubs was lowered to 13 then there would be less of a problem with young people hanging around on street corners.

Anyway, back to technology, and this article(2) in The Times, which claims parents are starting to spy on their children through their kid's social networking pages. I'm not sure why it is "spying" when your parent does it (as opposed to some anonymous figure from another country).

A point is made in another article that my generation are leaving behind an "indelible electronic" trail of images and comments we may come to regret in later life. I can think of only a couple of pictures that might cause me some embarrassment, and they appear to have dropped out of the public view on the web, and in any case neither are particularly horrific.

I suppose that we will have to adapt to having every aspect of our lives recorded in hi-def, 7.1 surround sound, smell-0-vision, tagged to a precise date and global location. Charles Stross has written an article on this topic, containing the usual raft of brain-zapping insights and ideas.

It is interesting how rapidly the reality of George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World has come around and become mundane, and how much more complicated the reality actually is. The real world generally seems to be more complex and more boring than fantasy.

This is an interesting trick to pull off.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Technological Senses

A very cyberpunk/Sterling/Stephenson/Gibson-esque article at Wired Magazine here. The article explores how people can develop "artificial senses" with the aid of synthetic devices. From the article:

"Figure out how to change the sensory data you want — the electromagnetic fields, the ultrasound, the infrared — into something that the human brain is already wired to accept, like touch or sight. The brain, it turns out, is dramatically more flexible than anyone previously thought, as if we had unused sensory ports just waiting for the right plug-ins. Now it's time to build them."

This short-cut removes the tedious necessity of developing extremely complex "neural interfaces". Something very similar to this concept is explored in Greg Egan's Teranesia (excellent, like all of Egan's work that I've read), in which a blind character develops a sense of sight via a mat-like haptic interface on his back.

In the book, a camera feeds input to the mat to generate an image using the tiny lumps on the surface of the mat. The blind man gradually learns to interpret this input as visual information.

Anyway, it's wonderful to see this sort of thing happening in the real world.

What is means to be a Humanist

I’ve been reading Humanism by H.J. Blackham. It is a “Pelican Original” published in 1968. I suppose it is the equivalent to the X for Dummies genre today – a short, casual read to give you a basic understanding of a subject.

The basic precepts of humanism, according to this book, are that “man is on his own and this life is all” and that “there is an assumption of responsibility for one’s own life and for the life of all mankind.” I strongly advise that anyone reading this acquire the book (unfortunately published in the era before ISBNs) and read it. The ideas the whole concept of humanism raises are fascinating, even if you have no interest in coming to consider yourself a humanist.

As I drop in and out of the book, reading a few pages here, then coming back to reread them, it occurs to me how profoundly our society would change if the fundamental precepts of humanism were more generally accepted.

Every so often the implications of humanism hit me. Iain M. Banks refers to this experience as “swim”, in his book The Algebraist. Ken MacLeod mentions the experience on a number of occasions, most notably in Learning the World and his most recent work Execution Channel. For me the feeling often, but not always, begins with a sudden rush of blood to the head, usually after standing up too suddenly after having been sat down for some time.

The experience lacks any of the notable features of a divine experience. There is sometimes a feeling of intoxication, even of euphoria. The key insight that is granted by this experience, this “swim”, is not new knowledge, but rather a casting aside of the assumptions we make so much a part of our lives that we would find it very difficult to live without them.

As far as I know, it is impossible to induce this state. It will generally only arise when you do not suspect that it will. I don’t know if expectation precludes it, because I’ve never been expecting it when it happens.

The insight? You realise that you are who you are. I realise (like Popeye) I am what I am. The little homunculus I carry in my mind, my self-image, is an utter fiction. I am Tom James, I live in a small town, and I go to school. I’ve never been to any of the places I see on the news regularly. I have never met the vast majority of people in the world. I exist.

It sounds profound, but it isn’t. It is the opposite of profound. It isn’t about being at one with the Universe. It is the brief, momentary understanding that, despite all your fantasies and abstract, unsubstantial problems you exist within the Universe. And you are alone.

The Christian dictum: “do unto others as you would have done unto yourself” is a fair basis for morality. But when you truly reject the existence of God, gods, a supreme, all-powerful force controlling everything a lot of rather unpleasant thoughts emerge.

The moral of the nice story about the poor woman who anonymously gives a small but, to her, significant amount of money to the charity and the rich man who boastfully gives a much larger but, to him, less significant quantity of money falls flat. As boorish as the man is, once you reject the idea of heavenly pixie-points, he becomes the person who has accomplished more, has alleviated more suffering in his act of charity.

“Do unto others…” becomes the basis of all morality, once you reject the whole idea of there being some kind of “natural morality” that emerges from the way things are.

Indulging in a humanist mindset has made me more apolitical. I know that people should be afforded life, liberty, and the happiness of pursuit. I know that equality, freedom and society are important. I know that the strong should help the weak. But I’ve also come to realise that all these ideologies, important though they are, are very much secondary to the basic rule of ensuring everyone is as happy as they can be.

From this angle the daily grind of politics in Westminster becomes more a point of picking a team for tribalistic reasons. I vote Labour or Liberal Democrat mostly because their basic ideologies reflect, in some way, the way I think the whole world should be run: economic growth and wealth-generation without exploiting the poorest. Freedom balanced against justice and self-fulfilment balanced against responsibility.

Being humanist, for me, means removing all the words and ideologies and concentrating on action and what people are actually doing. It means actually trying to imagine how the people who suffer so that I don’t have to actually feel. It means very little as far as politics is concerned, but it means a lot to how I see the world. We’re all alone, and we’re all aware, on some level (even that of flat denial), that this is it. We’ll maintain state-integrity for a couple of gigaseconds if we’re lucky and then whatever construct believes itself to be Tom James will have gone.

Still, this is the only life I'll ever have. So now, after dispensing this vague but heartfelt essay to the howling wastes of the consumer-content revolution, I will take my leave and go and find some other worthwhile activity with which to fill my day.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Providence and Black Swans

This article from The Guardian mentions Felix Dennis’ book How to Get Rich. At some point in HtGR Dennis quotes Goethe (according to some website I looked at, this quote may not be attributable to Goethe):

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.

This is similar to the “Black Swan Theory” explored by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who also contributes to here. Taleb argues that random and utterly unexpected and unexpectable events like 9/11 are occurring with greater frequency because their frequency, number, and effect are amplified by the networked and highly technological world we now live in. From Edge:

Against what one might expect, this makes me extremely optimistic about the future in several selective research-oriented domains, those in which there is an asymmetry in outcomes favouring the positive over the negative — like evolution. These domains thrive on randomness. The higher the uncertainty in such environments, the rosier the future — since we only select what works and discard the rest. With unplanned discoveries, you pick what's best; as with a financial option, you do not have any obligation to take what you do not like. Rigorous reasoning applies less to the planning than to the selection of what works. I also call these discoveries positive "Black Swans": you can't predict them but you know where they can come from and you know how they will affect you. My optimism in these domains comes from both the continuous increase in the rate of trial and error and the increase in uncertainty and general unpredictability.

I am convinced that the future of America is rosier than people claim — I've been hearing about its imminent decline ever since I started reading. Take the following puzzle. Whenever you hear or read a snotty European presenting his stereotypes about Americans, he will often describe them as "uncultured", "unintellectual" and "poor in math" because, unlike his peers, they are not into equation drills and the constructions middlebrows people call "high culture". Yet the person making these statements will be likely to be addicted to his Ipod, wearing t-shirts and blue jeans, and using Microsoft Word to jot down his "cultural" statements on his (Intel) PC, with some Google searches on the Internet here and there interrupting his composition. Well, it so happened that the U.S. is currently far, far more tinkering an environment than that of these nations of museum goers and equation solvers — in spite of the perceived weakness of the educational system, which allows the bottom-up uncertainty-driven trial-and-error system to govern it, whether in technology or in business.

It fosters entrepreneurs and creators, not exam takers, bureaucrats or, worse, deluded economists. So the perceived weakness of the American pupil in conventional and theoretical studies is where it very strength lies — it produces "doers", Black Swan hunting, dream-chasing entrepreneurs, or others with a tolerance for risk-taking which attracts aggressive tinkering foreigners. And globalization allowed the U.S. to specialize in the creative aspect of things, the risk-taking production of concepts and ideas, that is, the scalable and fat-tailed part of the products, and, increasingly, by exporting jobs, separate the less scalable and more linear components and assign them to someone in more mathematical and "cultural" states happy to be paid by the hour and work on other people's ideas. (I hold, against the current Adam Smith-style discourse in economics, that the American undirected free-enterprise works because it aggressively allows to capture the randomness of the environment — "cheap options"— not much because of competition and certainly less because of material incentives. Neither the followers of Adam Smith, nor to some extent, those of Karl Marx, seem to be conscious about the role of wild randomness. They are too bathed in enlightenment-style causation and cannot separate skills and payoffs.)

I like this point of view. I have great plans for the future, but I they aren’t currently too specific. Obviously I’ll need to write up a sober business plan, but as long as I keep my wits about me I should be able to spot potential Black Swans when they occur. Felix Dennis mentions “the search” in his book. This corresponds, I suppose, to the time when you try to sensitise yourself to BSE (lol) and leap in when you find something useful. This must also be the reason that large corporations and governments engage in “blue sky research”, and Google employees dedicate 1/5 of their time to personal projects.

All the while institutional science is largely driven by causal certainties, or the illusion of the ability to grasp these certainties; stochastic tinkering does not have easy acceptance. Yet we are increasingly learning to practice it without knowing — thanks to overconfident entrepreneurs, naive investors, greedy investment bankers, and aggressive venture capitalists brought together by the free-market system. I am also optimistic that the academy is losing its power and ability to put knowledge in straightjackets and more out-of-the-box knowledge will be generated Wiki-style. But what I am saying is not totally new. Accepting that technological improvement is an undirected (and unpredictable) stochastic process was the agenda of an almost unknown branch of Hellenic medicine in the second century Mediterranean Near East called the "empirics". Its best known practitioners were Menodotus of Nicomedia and my hero of heroes Sextus Empiricus. They advocated theory-free opinion-free trial-and-error, literally stochastic medicine. Their voices were drowned by the theoretically driven Galenic, and later Arab-Aristotelian medicine that prevailed until recently.

This idea applies to so many other technological domains. The only bad news is that we can't really tell where the good news is going to be about, except that we can locate it in specific locations, those with a high number of trials. More tinkering equals more Black Swans. Go look for the tinkerers.

I like the idea of opinion-free science. It also strikes me that from an investment point of view, I wonder if taking a million dollars and investing in a thousand companies would be better than simply investing in one company. If you had even one Microsoft to start off with, and a few 3663’s and other success-stories, would you achieve greater growth in wealth than if you invested in an ISA account?


I’ve been reading Humanism by H.J. Blackham. It is fairly good. The book claims that the basic message of humanism is that “this life is all we’ll ever have, and that we are alone as individuals”. There’s an interesting, if somewhat rambling article on humanism in The Times today. There was also an article on smart drugs or “nootropics”. It is interesting to see discussion of humanism juxtaposed with a discussion of what might be the early glimmerings of advancement in transhumanism.

Thursday, May 10, 2007