Friday, August 24, 2007


Armadillo Aerospace's lander has a flame straight out of Industrial Light & Magic. Armadillo is the company founded with the profits from the video game DOOM.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Steampunk Starwars II

Here is the "Centennial Falcon." It's an ornithopter.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Diamagnetic Levitation

Humans are weakly magnetic. With a strong enough magnet, you can levitate them. This could cancel out extreme accelerations: for example, you could launch someone into space with a cannon if they were levitating during the firing of the cannon. This would require a very strong magnet, but only during the explosion, so you could build a magnet that self destructs (due to overheating.) Perhaps it could be powered by the explosion itself.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


Just a neat website about the future of the past.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Brain Science

An interesting Discover article on "Mysteries of the Brain". I think this is one area that will see a lot of progress in the next few decades. Notice how many metaphors in the article are based around computers.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Blake Ostler

I have recently read bits and pieces of Blake Ostler's Mormon Theology and have found myself agreeing with him. In a review by FARMS, his overall position is laid out, and it very closely matches the ideas that I had come up with, namely:

1. Libertarian, incompatiblist freewill

This means that our choices can change the future. There is no fixed future that can be known beforehand, only a set of possibilities.

2. Conditional prophecies

Because of 1, prophecies in general are conditional on our free choices.

3. God exists within time

God is still a person: he can think thoughts, take actions, feel emotions. All of these are impossible if God doesn't experience time.

4. Choice is an act of creative perception.

I'm inferring a bit here, because I can't find a direct quote. But my idea, which I think he would agree with, is: Creativity, perception, and will are all essentially the same thing. Whenever our nerves bring information to our consciousness, we have a choice about how to interpret it as a perception. This includes our own state of thought and emotion. This interpretation isn't caused by the signal; instead, it's literally new, created information. It is that perception that causes our future actions. For example: when you have two conflicting desires, you can percieve one as unimportant and the other as important. The one you percieve as important is the one that will influence your actions. Creative artwork is an act of choosing to see things in a new way.
An example is the "Necker cube" illusion (the illustration to the right.) You can choose to see it as open to the upper left or open to the lower right. There is a measurable change in the state of the neurons in your brain when you make this choice. All choices, I propose, are this sort of choices.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Watch motorcycles

Some motorcycles made of watch parts.

A Lego creation

This is an ostritch-like robot I made out of Legos.


A slideshow from flickr.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Kauffman's Investigations

A year or two ago I bought a book at the Strand called Investigations. (The author is Stuart Kauffman, who works with Lee Smolin, Roger Penrose, and Fotini Markopoulou-Kalamara on Loop Quantum Gravity.) I often don't know whether a book is good or not while I am reading it. The way you can tell if a book is good is if it comes into your mind for months or years later. This was one of those good ones.

The main idea that struck me from it was: in creative or inventive thought, and in evolutionary development, the space of possibilities can't be defined beforehand.

Evolutionary biologists talk about the "fitness landscape." The idea is that there is some high-dimensional space of possibilities (leg length, tooth sharpness, number of toes, are three of the axes, perhaps) with some regions marked as high fitness and others as low fitness. The organism that is evolving can be pictured as moving through this space blindly, but responding to its local conditions like a ball rolling downhill, so that it ends up in areas of high fitness.

But when you try to actually create such a space (for a computer simulation, for example) you find that you can only label axes that already exist in nature. But nature doesn't just recombine old forms to create new species; instead, entirely new features appear. What seemed a minor, irrelevent detail in any previous species is the critical key to a new ability or structure.

This is exactly like Hofstadter's point about Metafont: you can't capture the space of all possible typefaces with a predefined set of parameters. Instead people invent new parameters with each new font.

(Those who studied math in college are likely to object that technically you could define a space large enough to contain all the possibilities-- for example, the space of 100 x 100 pixel squares contains essentially all fonts. But this kind of characterization isn't useful due to the sheer number of possibilities and the fact that so few of them actually are typefaces.)

This also applies to the space of useful inventions. There's no way it can be precharacterized. It can only be represented as a growing, branching tree.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The problem of evil

Eugene England wrote a powerful essay explaining why bad things happen to good people. It is the only answer I've ever found that makes sense. One thing I like about the essay is that it shows how morally wrong the other answers I've heard so often really are. Here is a long quote where he address the cruelty of the other answers one by one:

1. Pain and loss are God's punishment of the wicked. (Fine, if you are a normally sinful adult, or even a rabbi trying to live righteously, but what about the innocent child born with progeria or "rapid aging," as Kushner's son Aaron was, or struck with horribly painful bone cancer?)

2. The child (or mother) was needed on the other side; God has a more important mission for them. (A loving God would at least take them without pain. Besides, you mean God needs my wife more than I and my six small children do? And more than he needed the wonderful single woman down the street? That's like saying to my daughter, "It's your fault that your mother died. If you had needed her more, she would still be alive.")

3. She is happier there, freed from this world's sin and pain. (Then why keep any of us here so long. Are you saying that I should rejoice and thank God that my daughter was killed in an airplane collision? That it is just my own selfishness that makes my sorrow? That what looks like evil really isn't?)

4. God has some inscrutable purpose in doing this to you; if you could see the big picture, you'd understand. (But that's hypothetical; we don't see any such big picture in 250 randomly gathered lives snuffed out in an airliner disaster. Besides, if a human artist or employer made children suffer so that something immensely impressive or valuable could come to pass, we would put him in prison. Why then should we excuse God for causing such undeserved pain, no matter how wonderful the ultimate result might be?)

5. But suffering can be educational; it even ennobles us. To a primitive, doctors performing an operation might look like they are torturing the patient when they are really helping him. This accident that has made you a paraplegic will also make you more sensitive. (What right do you, [p.95] who can walk out of this hospital and drive a car and play tennis, have to tell me it is in my best interest to be paralyzed? It's obvious that not all trouble and suffering improves people, and if it could, why doesn't your all-powerful God precisely control what he sends each person so that we are all improved, in fact, all made perfect? And if that's what we think he's doing, why should we interfere, why try to prevent suffering or do away with the pain?)

6. Well, God only let this happen to you because he knew you are strong enough to bear the loss of your son. (You mean, if only I were a weaker person, Aaron would still be alive? I have seen many people's faith and lives destroyed by such tragedies. If God is a perfect and all-powerful tester of us, why does he miscalculate so often?)

His answer is to say that God's power to intervene in our lives must be limited. I'd like to know what you think.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Steampunk Star Wars

Of course, Star Wars is already about anachronistic technology. There's a swordfight-- but it's in the future! There's a dogfight-- but it's in the future! Chewie's crossbow shoots plasma. The Star Destroyers are covered in rivets.

Steampunk sets Star Wars in an alternate future of our own past. If you like this sort of thing (Steampunk, I mean) I recommend The Difference Engine, by Gibson and Sterling.
These images are from this forum. I'll post my own addition soon (a picture of an ornithopter called The Centennial Falcon, piloted by a hairy Russian named Subakov.)

Friday, August 3, 2007

The Toys of Peace

While we're on the subject of literature, I thought you might like this, also. The first story, about toys, echoes some of Lesli's sometimes less than successful efforts to get Daniel interested in something other than war robots. I also like the ones that mention wolves.

Christian Bök

I've just discovered a new author who reminds me a lot of Jorge Borges. His name is Christian Bök. They call him a poet, which is right, I guess, though only sometimes does what he writes look like poetry. He invents languages and imaginary sciences. He discovers and creates strange fantasies by ancient authors. He expresses the beauty in structure.

Here's a short snippet of one of his poems.

Fractals are haphazard maps

that entrap entropy in tropes.

Fractals tell their raconteurs

to counteract at every point

the contours of what thought

recounts (a line, a plot): recant

the chronicle that cannot coil

into itself – let the story stray

off course, its countless details,

pointless detours, all en route

toward a tour de force, where

the here & now of nowhere is.

Don’t ramble – lest you dream

about a random belt of words

brought to you by Mandelbrot.