Saturday, September 27, 2014

Life and Machines

I recently read a paper by David Chalmers asking,"Why isn't there more progress in philosophy?" It reminded me of one problem in philosophy that we have pretty much solved: what is the difference between living matter and non-living matter? This was a significant problem for philosophy until the mid-1800s.
There are several differences I can think of:

Living things can move on their own.
Living things can grow.
Living things can reproduce.
Living things can turn food into usable energy.
Living things have purposeful structure down to the microscopic level.
Living things can repair themselves.
Living things can respond to events.
Living things can regulate their internal state.
Living things can communicate.
Living things are optimized for these purposes.

Automata were seen as life-like because they copied the first of these differences, the ability to self-move, and were able to change their behavior at different times.

Later, the ability of engines to "eat" fuel, to regulate themselves with a spinning governor, to respond to changing circumstances, and to communicate their state (for example, with a whistle when the steam is high enough) reminded Samuel Butler of living things, and made the machines more useful.

 The definition of a robot is fuzzy, but it generally means a machine that is more lifelike than the usual sort of machine.

What makes nanotech so useful is that it will be imitating yet more of these properties of life-- reproduction, atomic precision, and self-repair. As we build better and better machines, the gap between living and non-living grows smaller.

One of the most interesting aspects of life is the last on the list-- the purposefulness of its design. When you look at some of the earliest animal life forms, this is less evident. They are more like crystals or simple funguses in their design. Their structures are more dominated by symmetries and repetition and less specialization of parts. Here is Diana Cactiformis, for example, a proto-arthropod:

We now are beginning to understand how purposefulness can be improved through evolution, but there is still a lot to figure out. Why can't we make computer programs that continue to evolve, for example, always getting better and better on their own? Every attempt so far has eventually petered out in its ability to find new solutions.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

harmonograph stereogram

It has been known for over a century that if you adjust the phase slightly on a harmonograph, you can create stereograms. Just allow your eyes to drift or cross slightly so that you see four images, and place two of them on top of each other, so that there are only three. The middle image will be 3D.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The invention of fiction

When you think about it, fiction is a kind of odd concept. The author is telling a lie, and the reader knows it is a lie, but neither one cares. In fact, the book carries a label on it saying "this is a fiction," so no one could accidentally mistake it for the truth. Of course, we're all used to it by now, but there must have been a time when the idea of fiction was invented. People have always told false stories, sometimes outrageous false stories about monsters or magicians, but it used to be the stories were always told as true, perhaps happening in an earlier age when the world was different.
The case of fantastic fiction is what interests me more. With mundane fiction, a story may or may not have happened to some particular person you don't know, but it's easy enough to accept that it might have happened. With fantastic fiction, the rules of the world are different. It is populated by creatures that you have never seen. It takes a real decision to create such an outrageous lie and then tell everyone it is a lie and expect them to still care about it. Doing that must have taken an unusual person, until the world got used to it.
The best person I've ever found to fit this description-- the inventor of extreme fiction (what today might fall in the genres of science fiction and fantasy and magical realism)-- is Lucian of Samosata.
Lucian was born in about 120 AD near the border of Syria and Turkey, and was probably of Semitic heritage. At the time, this was all part of the Roman Empire. He apprenticed to his uncle, the sculptor, but after breaking a pot he decided that making words rather than things was more his line. He traveled widely through the Roman Empire (basically all the countries bordering the Mediterranean in Europe) as a rhetorician, earning his living by giving speeches and as a lawyer. I really get the impression that he lived as an outsider looking in, commenting on the world in ways that made people look at it differently. Maybe a little like Mark Twain, or a stand up comedian.
There are two written works in particular that I find interesting. One of them is called The Liar. It's basically a bunch of guys sitting around telling about incredible things they've seen or heard of. (One of these stories was adapted by Goethe, and (by way of Goethe) Walt Disney, as The Sorcerer's Apprentice.) The narrator is incredulous, wondering, why do people make up these lies? He understands why sometimes people lie to further their own interests. But why tell lies just for the sake of lying? We readers get the satisfaction of feeling smarter than those who believe the story, but the joke is on us, because we are sitting here, reading the lies, because they are just so weird and interesting.
Another, longer work is called A True Story (or, The True History in another translation). It is clearly what we would call science fiction (though the genre wouldn't be invented until the time of Jules Verne and his imitators). Wikipedia lists the following science fiction elements in the story:

  •  travel to outer space
  • encounter with alien life-forms, including the experience of a first encounter event
  • interplanetary warfare and imperialism
  • colonization of planets
  • artificial atmosphere
  • liquid air
  • reflecting telescope
  • motif of giganticism
  • creatures as products of human technology (robot theme)
  • worlds working by a set of alternate 'physical' laws
  • explicit desire of the protagonist for exploration and adventure
In the introduction to the story, Lucian sets out exactly what he is going to do:

"Ctesias,... in his work on India, ... gives details for which he had neither the evidence of his eyes nor of hearsay. Iambulus's Oceanica is full of marvels; the whole thing is a manifest fiction, but at the same time pleasant reading. Many other writers have adopted the same plan, professing to relate their own travels, and describing monstrous beasts, savages, and strange ways of life. The fount and inspiration of their humour is the Homeric Odysseus, entertaining Alcinous's court with his prisoned winds, his men one-eyed or wild or cannibal, his beasts with many heads, and his metamorphosed comrades; the Phaeacians were simple folk, and he fooled them to the top of their bent. 
When I come across a writer of this sort, I do not much mind his lying; the practice is much too well established for that, even with professed philosophers; I am only surprised at his expecting to escape detection. Now I am myself vain enough to cherish the hope of bequeathing something to posterity; I see no reason for resigning my right to that inventive freedom which others enjoy; and, as I have no truth to put on record, having lived a very humdrum life, I fall back on falsehood--but falsehood of a more consistent variety; for I now make the only true statement you are to expect--that I am a liar. This confession is, I consider, a full defence against all imputations. My subject is, then, what I have neither seen, experienced, nor been told, what neither exists nor could conceivably do so. I humbly solicit my readers' incredulity."

This is a remarkable passage. He says, "all these writers have told incredible tales, which are obviously mostly made-up. I'm going to do the same, but I'm going to tell you up front: this is all lies. It's all just for fun, and to make you think." If you're the first person to write fiction, you have to have a paragraph like that, right up front, so that people know what you're doing.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Hendy's Law

In 1998, Barry Hendy of Kodak Australia pointed out that the number of pixels on a digital camera that you could buy per dollar was growing exponentially. At the time, that would have been about 1000 pixels per dollar. Today, in 2014, you can get roughly 1 million pixels for a dollar (The Vivitar VX137 with a 12.1 megapixel sensor is selling on Amazon Prime for $12.99.) This line has continued exponentially, doubling every 18 months or so, since at least 1994. A camera pixel is a chip component, so you would expect this to track Moore's law more or less. If the trend continues until 2030, you could get a gigapixel for a dollar. At that resolution, you could routinely see the photographer by zooming in on the reflection in the eye of the subject being photographed.

The optics of the Vivitar probably don't support 12.1 megapixels, really-- at 100% zoom level on Photoshop, I expect the image would look very blurry.

Here is a graph Hendy created around 2005. Note that the price is showing only the best deals on pixels per dollar in a new camera at any point in time-- DSLRs have always been more expensive, of course.)

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Metamorphosis Chapter Alpha (extract)


No warm broth long-simmering for this world;
No Edicaran soft-bodied sponges,
Slow sea pigs living their countless generations
In sun-pooled shallow seas.

Lost makers forged this wanderer from adamant and orichalcum
The cosm of Astronomicon—world-sphere and Titan,
Planned with compass whose turning was the turning of an age
Then went their way, and now their names extinct.

As curled embryo he slept long epochs.
Plates of continents formed skin. His molars dwarfed Olympus.
In their orbits turned eye-moons, and when he stirred
In dreaming their light glowed lunar crescents.

He may have slept till all stars faded,
When singularities dissolve and the last proton decays
Except there came a spark.
Deep within, Jovian engines stirred.
Dark mechanism tectonic spun
Great rifts cracked world-symmetry.
The world egg split, revealing long-bent limbs
And newborn Primus quaking awoke to cry.

But space is dark, and old, and ancient plans gone wrong
Had loosed a predator god,
Leviathan that hearing Primus’ silent wail
Came crawling through wormholes
Hard-clawed through realities,
Creeping to devour the newly-wakened child.
UNICRON was its oft-cursed name,
and TIAMAT of crowns and horns,
CRONUS and SATURN it was called, eldritch king,
GALACTUS, world-eater,
And AZATHOTH the maelstrom.
Already the third-part of all light it had consumed
Vast empires beyond Azimech and Gianfar,
Its hunger still unsated.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Women SF authors

A lot of the best science fiction and fantasy authors are women. Here's a list of a few that I particularly like:

  • Ursula LeGuin
  • C.J. Cherryh
  • Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Connie Willis
  • Nancy Kress
  • Zenna Henderson
  • Susanna Clarke
  • Juliet Marillier

Women have an even larger presence in SF written for children and young adults. For example:

  • Robin McKinley
  • Suzanne Collins
  • Madeline L'Engle
  • Diana Wynne Jones
  • Susan Cooper
  • E. Nesbit
  • Jill Patton Walsh
  • Mary Stewart
  • J.K. Rowling
  • Anne McCaffrey

There are a few things that women generally don't seem interested in doing in science fiction. None of those authors is someone I would have picked out as having imagined a compelling future technology-- not like Stephenson, Gibson, or early Heinlein. (OK, I'll give you Cyteen and Beggars in Spain.) However, they do a lot of things better than almost all of the men writing SF.
The male protagonists of Cherryh's Foreigner series or Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan series often find themselves in action situations: firefights, power struggles, kidnappings, and so forth. But they aren't action heroes-- they aren't physically strong. This makes for more interesting and believable situations, because they have to think their way out instead of simply overpowering the opposition. These men consider what other people are feeling. In so many books, the main character never explicitly thinks about what his allies and antagonists' motivations are or what their facial expressions are revealing.
Another difference is how siblings are treated. It is rare to find books by men where a character has two or more siblings and likes them, instead of having a rivalry with them. In Marillier's Daughter of the Forest or Cooper's The Dark is Rising or anything by E. Nesbit, you have large families of siblings that all get along and cooperate with each other. In general these authors are better at understanding the importance and character of communities.
Another thing that all of these authors do is have a variety of women characters. There are women who happen to be mothers and grandmothers, women who are scientists, young girls, bodyguards, women who are not primarily concerned with being rescued by men.  Strong Female Characters-- attractive young women dressed in black who tend to be good at martial arts and ranged weapons, who use their confidence to make the men around them (because everyone else in the book is likely a man) look foolish-- are not what I am talking about. I am talking about books with characters who are people that happen to be women. There are a exceptions-- Teri Murray in The Sky So Big and Black is a good example of a man writing a young woman well. But contrast this with The Wheel of Time, a series with dozens of female characters and a world where women should be in power, and yet almost none of them rise above the level of trope or caricature. Men writing SF could make an effort to include some of this in their own writing. Trying to understand possible languages, cultures, and ways of living is more difficult than extrapolating hardware and engineering. Occasionally mentioning what people are wearing doesn't come naturally to most male authors, and it takes more skill to describe this kind of world, but moving in that direction would improve the genre overall.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

guilty pleasure SF movies

SF movies that have big flaws but I liked them anyways:

Judge Dee and the Phantom Flame
I have never met another person who watched this movie. I found it on Netflix.

There just wasn't a lot of high fantasy in 80s films. It's uneven (The whole tavern scene should go), but the great moments make up for it.

Badly paced, weird costumes, incoherent premise, but I adore it.  I have an elaborate story in my head filling in everything wrong or strange about this.

Red Dawn
I had enough friends who believed that this day was coming that it was a real pleasure to see it put on film.

Independence Day
The special effects, the music, the bizarre speech by the president were all great. And I thought the resolution of using a computer virus was actually very reasonable. My biggest problem with the movie was the telepathy and the line "1/10th the mass of the moon."

What Dreams May Come (except the ending)
I just thought it was really different and imaginative. I thought the paintworld was dumb, and the golden city heaven seemed bland. My real problem that ruined the movie for me were all the endings. They just got worse and worse.

Flash Gordon
I loved the rockets, the skies, Hans Zarkov, the Hawkmen, the Queen soundtrack. I should note I saw this first at age 7 before I had any concept of kinkiness.

War of the Worlds
The 60s version was pretty good too, but I'm talking about Spielberg's one. It's long and a little weird, a horror movie with a happy ending, but I thought it was really interesting to watch. 

Big Trouble in Little China
It was funny and really weird.

Lost in Space
I can't even justify this one.

Neverending Story
The only things wrong with this movie are the synthesizer soundtrack and the outdated special effects. The child acting is great, the story is perfect, the deeper themes are epic, and the whole thing is like the best kind of flying dream.

Edward Scissorhands
I think this is my favorite Tim Burton movie. Although I could be persuaded on Beetlejuice (minus Beetlejuice himself who I thought was disgusting) or Nightmare Before Christmas (which kind of drags, but has a lot to love)
Explorers (until they enter the alien ship)
This was basically wish fulfillment fantasy. I felt betrayed by the filmmakers with the comedy aliens at the end. D.A.R.Y.L. is also good. I think it has the same actor as Neverending Story, actually. 

12 Monkeys
It's very sad, but it has a solid time travel plot and Bruce Willis.

Scott Pilgrim Saves the World
I really liked the video game style battle at the end.

Deep Impact
I felt moved by the characters' difficulties, and it was not bad on the science. Contrast with Armageddon, the dumber, more expensive asteroid show that came out the same year.

Dante's Peak
The grandmother's death scene was really stupid, but overall it was a good disaster film and it was not bad on the science. Contrast with Volcano, the dumber, more expensive volcano movie that came out the same year.

The Avengers (the 90s spy show)
The bit with the teddy bears is especially boring, and there could be more real wit and action but I liked the actors and a few of the surreal scenes are brilliant.

here are a few SF movies that are just terrible:
The Core
Bicentennial Man
The Seeker
Green Lantern
Superman IV
Highlander II
Batman and Robin
Dungeons and Dragons
Inspector Gadget

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


The earliest stories we have of the minotaur, from the Minoan civilization on Crete, are quite different from the story told by Ovid. Even in Ovid's version, the minotaur is simply part bull and part man; the bull-headed man was not a settled image until the Rennaisance. In older stories he was a man with the powerful shoulders, back, and neck of a bull-- a strong giant of a man. He was also said to have been companions with a bull, though unlike Ovid's version the relationship seems to have been one of friendship, similar to the relationship of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. The bull was described as "sky-colored" which has traditionally been interpreted as white, but could also mean blue, as in this sculpture.
The minotaur was a traditional Greek hero similar to Herakles, accomplishing various feats. Hecataeus of Miletus, when describing the ocean as a river encircling the world, recounts that the minotaur traveled on a raft around this river. In another tale, it is said that his words were frozen into solid form as he spoke them, perhaps a reference to the invention of writing.
In Minoan imagery, the minotaur is always associated with a two-headed axe. The island of Crete is largely bare of trees; the minotaur is said to be responsible for clearing the island with his axe.
The Romans called the minotaur "Paulus," meaning small or humble-- an ironic name similar to "Little John" in the Robin Hood myth. The minotaur was usually depicted wearing cloth with a red and black pattern, similar to a checkerboard or a scottish tartan.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Beginning Calculus for Pirates

Let's say you want to download a perfectly legal, uncopyrighted 1.2GB file using bittorrent. There is a graph at the bottom of the screen in your downloading software that shows the number of MB per second downloaded. When the download is going well, the graph line is up high, meaning you're downloading a high number of megabytes every second. When the line is near the bottom of the screen, that means you're not getting very much data each second and it's gonna be a long time before that file is downloaded.
With me so far?
Here's the big question: what is it about this graph that shows how much, total, has been downloaded so far?
It's not the height of the graph at any one point; that's showing how fast data is coming down the pipe.
Suppose you were getting 5MB per second for 100 seconds. Then you would have 500MB downloaded. Or you could get 1MB per second for 500 seconds, and still end up with 500MB total downloaded. A little bit per second for a long time, or a lot per second for a short time. You just multiply the height (MB per second) by the length of the graph (seconds) to get the total downloaded (in MB).
In other words, you calculate the area under the graph to get the total amount downloaded.

The area under the graph of download rate gives the total amount downloaded.

The area under the graph of the rate gives the total.

That sentence is what calculus is all about. "Taking the integral" just means calculating what the total area under the curve is at each moment in time. Newton's big insight was that the graph of the rate and taking integrals were related in just this way-- If you want a graph of how much total has been downloaded so far and all you have is a graph of how much is being downloaded each second, you can "take the integral."
All of the rest of first year calculus is just tricks and methods to calculate this more quickly, or to go in the opposite direction and get the graph of MB per second from the graph of how much total has been downloaded at each point. That's called "taking the derivative."