28 March 2007

Reno, NV: Where Men are Men and Sheep are Part Human

I'll give a shoutout to Slashdot for alerting me to this surprising item. Researchers at the University of Nevada at Reno have created a herd of sheep whose organs are, at a cellular level, 15% human. This article describes the research, but raises more questions than it answers. I found a more thorough article from 2003 in New Scientist.

The original goal of the UNR work was to study possible methods for in-utero correction of genetic defects. The idea is that stem cells can be taken from the developing human embryo, given some gene therapy to correct the disorder, and then transplanted back to outcompete the defective cells as the fetus matures. Naturally, such experiments cannot be done with human embryos. So the team used sheep fetuses. They injected them with human stem cells and some human growth factors. They then let the fetal sheep develop and observed what happened to the human cells. The lead researcher's paper can be found here.

The transplanted human cells could have all died off, but as the sheep fetus was pre-immune, they did not. Instead some became persistent human stem cells (as for bone marrow). Others, however, committed and became human organ cells. The human cells apparently coexist with the sheep cells in the organs. This has raised the possibility that such "humanized" sheep could be used as a source of tissue, or even whole organs, for transplant. Imagine a patient who sustains severe liver damage. Both the lack of available organs for transplant, and the difficulty of tissue rejection make for a dire prognosis. But this research offers a different approach as it suggests a method whereby the patient's own stem cells could be used to develop replacement organ tissue that would be harvested from the sheep after birth.

Getting stem cells to specialize and grow into organs in the lab isn't something we can expect in the near future. However by using the sheep fetus as a natural factory for tissue development the team has already succeeded. I'm surprised that the major US media have not jumped on this story. Both the medical promise and the ethical issues raised are big news. In the UK several groups are now wading through government bioethics panels so that they can begin similar research.


The market is Open

08 March 2007

Evolutionary Advantage

I have to imagine at some point in our evolutionary past, the ability to sort through and shut off sensory input was an attribute that some of us organisms had and some didn't. Presumably the ones that didn't have this mojo were unable to distinguish which of, say, that beautiful sunset or the rapidly approaching carnivorous thing required more immediate attention, and didn't live to reproduce.

I can't quite grok the current analog to this situation, even as the sheer level of input from universe to the individual continues to rise seemingly exponentially. A professor giving a talk at my undergraduate institution (and this was fifteen years ago before the rise of internet-as-information-conduit) once compared the rising network of global information exchange to a nervous system. When one part sustains damage, the information about it immediately radiates to all (connected) parts of the globe. Some parts respond, some parts don't, depending upon the input. But there doesn't seem to be an evolutionary disadvantage in the inability to handle the flood of information that comes at an individual-as-brain-cell in the information age. If the makeup of your brain is that the nonstop flood of instant everything causes it to short-circuit and you to curl up in a non-responsive little ball, well, you might not be able to function in society, but it's not the kind of thing that stops you from reproducing, is it?

So the analog is perhaps not evolutionary in the survival-of-the-fittest/luckiest sense, but evolutionary in another way?

03 March 2007

Sometimes i'm dreaming

I stand in a mall. About me rise three wide floors of shops and stalls. Ads, logos, and merchandise vie for my attention. But it's the music that arrests my mind. Am I hearing this? Is this real?

Floating through the air of this consumer palace is Charlotte Sometimes by The Cure. And yes, all the faces, all the voices blur. Overcome by a Proustian swoon I drift back a quarter of a century. This was the music of my youth. Old Cure, back when Robert Smith was just that guitarist who used to play with Siousxie. Out of the cocoon of these sounds would Goth emerge.

This was the emblematic music alternative from the pop-cultured drivel, this the edgy "New Wave". Now, in our still-new century, it plays in a mall. And if I could travel back in time, how could I explain this moment to my earlier self? But the water that passes under the bridge is far deeper than even this. More than music have I to explain. How could I describe, to the person I was, the people I have become?

Not even the science fiction of that age dreamt this moment. I look around. People shop. Most walk from store to store, arms and legs pumping with that stiff gait of those new in this world. They must go up to each display to see it because they haven't learned to use the camera. But I am content to stand, my pose changing every now and then. I stretch, or shift my weight. And with my magic sight I roam the floors of the mall.

Boots. I need boots. Shiny black with buckles and platform heels. Knee-high, I'm thinking, to go with that jacket I bought last week. Something to wear to the club tonight, live music arranged by a friend in a brand new venue.

But something else has caught my eye. I don't quite grasp what I'm looking at, but know I need to look closer. I zoom in. Suddenly it all gestalts. It's called "The Vixen Muzzle". You see, this world has a lot of non-humans, especially one type called Furries whose avatars are animal shapes. This world also has a lot of people into BDSM play. And this object is, well, it's a bondage toy for Furries. I guess your typical ball gag doesn't look quite right on a furry snout, hence the muzzle.

Somewhere a mind reels. Acting with cerebellar familiarity a hand drives a mouse. A cursor slides, dual clicks on a HUD control. In-world a grin spreads across my face. My head tilts back. And in the chat channel these words appear:
Savannah Nihilist laughs out loud.

22 February 2007

Palindrome Riddles

Let me introduce you to a sub-genre of word puzzle which I call the palindrome riddle. You are given a clue, often in the form of a question, the answer to which reads the same backwards and forwards, excluding punctuation and case. The answer may be one or more words. For example: What kind of beer does the king drink? Regal lager, of course. Or, what innovation helps older arthritic doggies climb up onto truck beds? The pet step.
That should give you the idea so here you go.

1) What do you have to do to avoid an encounter with the Late Night talk show host who's looking for you?

2) Dance productions inspired by a character from A Streetcar Named Desire.

3) What do you call the appointed official in charge of Reggae affairs?

4) Cats with Alzheimer's.

5) What do you call the person who comes to collect you and all your effects and take you to the '60's theme (or '70's, western, Victorian era...) resort?

6) Peruvian city questions its identity.

7) The chihuahua is out. Do you know the name of the fast food chain's new mascot?

8) How did the rude customer address the young man who was stocking some tropical fruit at the time?

9) Vulcan law enforcement.

10) Impersonate a renowned fabulist.

11) What the groupies realized when they discovered that their favorite New Wave band no longer resided at the same address.

(and my favorite)

12) An owl perches on the branch of a tree on a very balmy night. Another owl flies up and lights on the branch next to him and asks,"Why are you so quiet tonight?" The first owl responds, "Oh, man, it's --------".

Have fun with these. I didn't include any of the more obscure ones but answers can be made available.


19 February 2007

Crossing the Uncanny Valley

I'm always alert for neologisms and phrases of the moment. So when I heard the term "uncanny valley" recently I knew I had to blog about it. In case this isn't already part of your lexicon, I'll give a brief description, but the wikipedia article goes into much greater detail.

I encountered the term with regards to a new android built in South Korea: EveR-2 (the pictures may take some time to load, but it's worth it). The Uncanny Valley is not a physical place, but rather a "valley" on a graph. Specifically it's a graph for how humans respond to human-like creations. Along the x axis goes increasing human verisimilitude. Up along the y axis is increasing favorable emotional response. The idea is that as robots (or other human creations) acquire elements of human appearance we tend to respond more and more favorably to them. The graph starts to rise as it goes to the right. But at some point a sharp inflection is reached, and suddenly we begin to see the robot as grotesque and even monstrous. Thus the curve falls steeply below the baseline. However, as even more humanness is added to the creation, it becomes human looking enough to rise out of the valley, so to speak, and again we have a favorable response. The wikipedia article referenced above illustrates the curve and gives several examples.

What's interesting is that since this phenomenon was first described (1970!) it has expanded beyond robotics. Characters from modern films (ex: Gollum from LOTR), TV commercials, and video games can be examined in light of the uncanny valley hypothesis. Pixar, for example, has used the uncanny valley to make their villains seem especially grotesque. Several ideas on what causes the uncanny valley response are listed in the article. The one I find most compelling is from evolutionary psychology.

When I'm hit with a feeling of the uncanny valley I note that it is a strongly emotional response that simply wells up from some part of my brain. I can't really reason out why I have that response. One thing that does it for me are the Burger King commercials. For some reason the King character is extraordinarily horrid to me. But why? It's just a mask. The evolutionary psych explanation suggests that it is some very primitive part of my brain alerting me that there is something "wrong" with this being, and I should avoid it.

As many of this blog's readers and writers know, I spend more than a bit of time in Second Life. One would think that such a place would be deep in the Uncanny Valley. Surprisingly though, I find that this isn't the case. SL avatars rarely evoke that deep grotesque reaction, and in fact usually evoke favorable responses. There are, of course, exceptions. Every once in a while my avatar will do something that looks nasty. Usually this happens while standing on uneven terrain and one of my av's legs will suddenly shoot out sideways at a physiologically impossible angle. Or perhaps my av's knees will buckle and even bend backwards briefly. Then there are self-inflicted trips to the valley which are more funny than grotesque. Like when a newbie acquires a vehicle and doesn't know how to use it, so selects "wear". Suddenly they are wearing a full-size car around their head. This is especially hilarious if they do this in a crowded room. As their head turns the cars smacks everyone nearby.

I'll end with a link to an Uncanny Valley Expo for Second Life avs. Here the focus was on making your av give a very humanlike expression, coming up the far end of the valley back into the good zone. I didn't learn about this Expo in time or I would have sent in an entry myself. Many of the entries use a simple "emoter HUD" to create the facial expressions, and then rely on framing the shot and avatar position to convey body language.

-- Per

The market is Open.

16 February 2007

(Uninformed) Thoughts on GUIs

Unlike other members of this blog, I have little to no actual technical knowledge. But I'm still a techie of sorts (early adopter, and so forth), and since this is a blog I figure my credentials matter not at all. So here are recent musings on user interface design.

It strikes me that when I read about UI as something people are thinking about on the meta level, the writing tends to take a rather narrow perspective by trying to judge which particular UI is 'better', 'easier to use', 'more efficient', or 'more intutive'. Those are all important questions to ask, but I was struck this week by a different dimension of UI and UI design. Putting aside what UI is 'better' there's still the question of what the UI encourages you to do and what it encourages you not to do.

This musing came about when I was sitting on the sofa earlier this week and thought, 'damn OS X rocks!'. This spontaneous head-thought came about because at that moment I was doing the following:
  • ripping a DVD in Handbrake, which requires intense video encoding
  • copying a huge file over the WLAN to the Mac mini
  • copying another file over an SSH tunnel to my office computer
  • exporting a Video clip from MPEG Streamclip
  • working on a huge Keynote presentation (filled with video clips)
  • checking my email in the background
  • actively typing something in Pages
(Of course there were a dozen other apps open that I wasn't using, and quite a few *nix processes running of which I almost always remain happily unaware.)

So by 'OS X rocks' I meant to express how impressed I was that both the OS and the processor could handle all this, and not make me think for a moment that I'd have to wait for the machine.

But, of course, this is complete OS X chauvinism: any modern multithreaded operating system (OS X, XP, Vista) running on the Intel Core Duo processor could do all of this. It was not necessarily something special about OS X.

However, I then got to thinking about how my XP friends and colleagues actually use their machine, and it seems to me that they are very unlikely to really take advantage of their Core Duo chip or their multithreaded OS. Indeed, just the day before I watched as my utterly computer literature colleague interacted with his XP machine. Seriously, this guy understands computers far better than most. But like everyone I watch use XP he interacts with every app in full-screen mode. And he never really switches between apps; instead, he constantly clicks the little icon that sends the window down to the bottom of the screen, but the idea of leaving an app with 5 windows open just sitting there while sliding over to a different app is just a thought he's never had. In this particular session we were looking at a few different word files that I had emailed him, and then working out a structure in a different word Doc. We'd be working on the main doc and every time he needed one of those other word docus he would do the following:
  1. Switch to MS outlook
  2. Find the email I sent him
  3. Click on the Zip attachment
  4. Answer yes to unzipping each of the 6 files
  5. Select the file he wanted and have it open in word

My very much speculative point is this: isn't it the case that the set-up of XP encourages this type of time-wasting behavior and discourages more sophisticated multitasking? Every window wants to be full screen. App switching (as in, through the dock or command-tab in OS X) doesn't seem readily available that I can see. Users are encouraged to think about their computer the same way they thought about it in DOS. That's sad.

11 February 2007

Furtherafield reviews Amazon Noir



About one year after the release of Google Will Eat Itself the artists PAOLO CIRIO (PC), ALESSANDRO LUDOVICO (AL), Hans Bernhard and Lizvlx (both UBERMORGEN.COM (UC)) out foxed Amazon.com, the second global Internet player. The results of the Media/Art-event Amazon Noir - The Big Book Crime were presented to the public on the 15th of November 2006. In the following interview the Amazon Noir Crew talks about the framework of the project, its coding and art historical background, the official feedback and copyright issues."

06 February 2007

The Musæum at Alexandria

"Hello! Welcome to the Museum. Are you here to view a full exhibit, or are you just browsing? Not sure? Well, no problem at all. Just take your time. We've got literally billions of exhibits from which to choose here. That's why I'm here, of course, to help you narrow down your choices. Ah, you say you're not familiar with the Museum at all. Walk with me down the halls and I'll point out the highlights.

"As you know, new techniques in Quantum Historical Reconstruction have enabled us to more or less perfectly model arbitrary events from the past. Give us a time, place, and...what? Yes, more or less perfectly. Obviously it's not completely exact, but we're able to smooth out aspects, elements, or people about which the information might be incomplete. Anyway, like games and other sims, we're able to image that reconstruction on the QComp and jack you straight into it. Want to see Michaelangelo's David? Of course it and the entire city of Florence were destroyed in the Great Conflag, but we can do better than the Accademia ever could anyway--we'll reconstruct the Palazzo della Signoria on September 8, 1504 and put you in the body of a retro-human peasant wandering by for the unveiling. No, the effect is complete. We jack you in full neural--you use the peasant's eyes, ears, neural impulses, all of it. Nothing compared to our current sensory abilities, obviously, but that is the drawback of Quantum History--we're limited by the aptitude of the observer, so to speak. But as long as there is an observer, we can show it to you--any event, any time, anywhere in the past. The signing of the Magna Carta. The invention of fire. The Second Life Incident. You want to see the impact of the comet that killed the dinosaurs? We can show it to you--through the eyes of a small early rodent-like mammal, but we can show it to you.

"Well, you stay in as long as you like, obviously. Five minutes, an hour, a year if you're curious. What? No, it's not instantaneous. Please, this isn't Deep Space Nine. No, sorry, that was a reference we Quarkavists like to throw around. Obviously the QComp is able to play back historical images at nearly infinite speed, but our cortices are somewhat limited. Still, you can view a standard exhibit, about five minutes of history, more or less instantly. An hour of historical experience will take around a minute here. You could experience an entire retro-human lifetime in a couple of years here..."

"Yes, an entire retro-human lifetime. Well, of course we post-humans are online for as long as we wish, and immortality has its drawbacks. At times in our lives we are left with long stretches of...free time. Others of us spend many epochs of our time online in a search for meaning. Spending a year or two here with us is nothing compared to the experience you gain...ahah! That is why you're here! I thought so. There's nothing to be embarrassed about, the search for meaning is as old as life itself--at least so far as we've seen.

"The process is simple. You choose a particular period and place, or a particular life, and we jack you in at the birth of the entity and jack you out at the moment of death. In between you experience every moment of that being's life as if you were him, her, or it. Always admired Michaelangelo? Be him. Or Albert Einstein. Or Zarf VIII, the inventor of the neural coupling techniques we use to jack you in to the historical image. Whom have others chosen to be? Well, of course trends change from time to time. We used to get lots of, you know, Fan Boys who wanted to be their favorite artist, musician, actor, virt star. Of course, they always came out existentially disappointed when they discovered the being they'd idolized to mythic levels turned out to be an ordinary man, woman, or construct, with ordinary problems and banalities of day to day existence. They came out quite shattered. A couple of them...well, anyway, that's not common at the museum now. Most people just choose a time and place and jack into a being that hasn't been heretofore historically noted. Some come out uneffected, some come out quite changed. They might jack into a life of ease or one of great torment and suffering, of power or penury. Then of course they walk out of the exhibit and it all becomes just one more memory in their neural network.

"Now obviously there are some parts we can't quite reconstruct correctly--the quantum resolution isn't high enough--but we cover those so you don't notice. Usually with the presence of retro-human chemical narcotics or...what? Oh, no no no. Obviously I haven't made myself quite clear. As I said earlier, the life you experience is limited by the aptitude of the observer, and retro-humans had no capacity for the type of consciousness we post-humans possess. As long as you're jacked in, your consciousness is limited by that of your retro-human host. You'll have no awareness of your post-human self. Oh, I've heard anecdotal evidence of retro-humans in the midst of an historical sim somehow expanding their consciousness enough to realize the truth of their greater selves, but I've never seen any scientific evidence for it. No, for as long as you're jacked in, you are, for all practical purposes, the retro-human whose life you're living. What? What do you mean does that cause any confusion? What kind of confusion? For whom? What is there to be confused about?"

Next: Ripping off Borges in some slightly less obvious way!

05 February 2007

Merciful Zeus!

Last month I discovered a story which pitted a group of revivalists against the Greek Orthodox Church. The object of the revival was ol' time religion -- or in this case ancient time religion. For these worshippers hold to the twelve Olympian gods of ancient Greece. The controversy began because they wanted to worship at Temple of Zeus, whose ruins are now a tourist spot. There's actually not much more to say about it: they were denied; they held their ceremony anyway.

So then what's up with this post? Well, it gave me the idea for a game. To play you need either Google Earth or NASA's World Wind. It's simple really, like scavenger hunts. Here's your task:
Find the Temple of Zeus. Here's a site with some photos: http://ah.phpwebhosting.com/a/OUTofBFLO/greece/ath/zeus/

Use the info in the site, and the photos (backgrounds are particularly useful) to help you locate the ruins of the Temple of Zeus from satellite imagery. For a baseline, it took me about ten minutes. Your mileage may vary depending on what tools you avail yourself of (and whether or not you've actually been to Athens).

If you have any ideas for other geo-hunts please post them. Oh, and for extra points you can identify the TV show in which a character utters the words that title this post. No, it's not Battlestar Galactica --- but, by the gods, a good guess. Cheers!


The market is Open.

27 January 2007

Consciousness Caused My Collapse

In my previous post I ripped a Horatian quote totally out of context merely to introduce some ideas on trans-humanism. Now in this post, as promised, we're going to pimp our Descartes. The nature of consciousness is something that will steer, or limit, our post-human possibilities. We'd better explore it vigorously. So fasten your seat belts, make a save game, and back up your mind's state matrix onto that two exabyte flash drive you bought at Target last week. Here we go.

Descartes' fame, in addition to the famous "cogito ergo sum" quip, is his much discussed idea now called substance dualism. To him Mind -- our conscious thoughts, intentions, awareness is not something of this material world. It is of different substance than Body. For Descartes, when he says "mind" it's clear that he really means "soul" (thus you see the stakes on the table in this debate).

This theory has taken a huge beating in the intervening centuries. The most topical criticisms come from neurobiological research. In case you haven't already, check out the Transient Gadfly's recent post "Ghost in the Machine, Schmost in the Machine" in his blog. Recently Chalmers (the aussie philosopher, not the superintendent) introduced a novel example of "real" substance dualism inspired by the movie The Matrix. Today we have something better; we have Second Life. From the perspective of this virtual world Mind really is something not of the world (the second life world) since all intentionality in SL actually springs from people at computers in the real world. In SL, substance dualism is reality.

So now consider a Second Life avie named "Rene Descartes". Let's imagine that he has to puzzle out his theory of mind because he doesn't know that he's really at a computer running a simulation. This could be because: (a) he's the first truly emergent artificial consciousness, a sapient program that was created in SL, (b) he was a grotesque freak at birth, a bare human brain (his parents, neurobiologists, raised him in a vat and linked him into SL to give him a sensorium), or (c) he's just a guy who has absolutely NO LIFE and has been playing online games so long that his conscious mind is no longer aware of the real world -- just lets his limbic system run his body. Take your pick.

Rene studies the world and notes that the basic unit of matter is called the prim. Prims come in a handful of varieties which differ only geometrically (cubes, cylinders, spheres, for example). These prims can be stretched, holed, twisted, and textured to account for the abundance of form he sees in the world. All things, from castles to clothing accessories, are built from prims. All things, that is, except for people (well, and particles -- but they are not salient to this). Avatars are not built-up from prims, but instead are single irreducible objects described by the coordinates of a wire frame mesh (and some textures). In a way, avatars (people) are a special, different kind of primitive -- one that demonstrates intention. The behaviors of avatars do not result from the perceived mechanics of the universe. Prims, by contrast, are entirely deterministic based on their properties. For Rene things are much simpler than for his real world namesake, for he has readily at hand a fundamental, non-divisible element of the universe, the avatar, whose behavior is non-deterministic (and at least in his case definitely inspired by intention). Rene ponders this for a bit and concludes that his avatar, being a simple object with no internal structure, cannot possibly be the seat of his complex Mind, with all its intention and qualia. Thus the avatar must really just be an "interface" for his Mind, which is something not of the world.

Perhaps there are other SL philosophers who disagree. They note that avatars are described by a set of numbers just as prims are. For prims the set of numbers gives their geometric dimensions, specifies twists, cuts, etc. For avatars a *much* larger set of numbers describes the wireframe of body shape, eyes, hair-style, and so on. The other philosophers note the difference in numeric complexity and respond that Mind results from it. They say that data structures of sufficient size can become conscious. Put another way -- Mind emerges from sufficiently large data sets. But Rene scoffs at this. If that were true, he says, then sufficiently large linked builds (lots of prims put together to make a large or detailed object) should have the required data size for thought. Does this mean Aimee Weber's solar system build is conscious?

However you analyze it, the presence of bodies which have no internal structure and whose behavior flows directly from intention is a big "tell" for the universe. But suppose now that you are a designer at Linden Lab, the creators of Second Life. You've been given a mandate to obfuscate the substance-dual reality of SL. In fact, you have unlimited budget and access to all the server computation you desire.

You'd probably start by adding micro-detail to the universe. Avatars would no longer be special objects, but would be constructed from prims just like everything else. You'd even add internal mechanical details -- muscle, tendon, and bone prims. Perhaps even a brain composed of neuron prims. The person sitting at the keyboard in the real world would be sending signals to the prim-brain which would then make the prim-muscles move. The problem you'd run into is that Rene and his ilk have something I'll call the "edit sense". In SL you can easily apprehend the structure of any object, and zoom in to any level of detail with the camera. This edit sense obviates the need for electron microscopes, imaging, supercolliders that are the tools of our science for exploring inner structure. So no matter how micro you design, Rene's going to be able to dive down very quickly and find your interface -- the level of matter where the user's intentions map to physical (in SL) objects. He will discover objects at some level which do not behave deterministically, and conclude that these are special objects which serve to connect the world of Mind with the universe.

So you realize that you can't defeat Rene's attempts to reverse engineer reality with mere detail. At some scale you have to allow the interface, and objects whose behavior does not flow from the mechanics of the universe. At this point you decide to get really clever. Since you can't eliminate the indeterminacy that results from the interface, instead you decide to make indeterminacy a fundamental property of the universe! You craft the physics of SL so that *all* objects, at a suitably small level, behave indeterministically. To keep this universe from just falling apart you weave in rules that will make the observed macroscopic determinism flow from the statistical behavior of the large number of constituent parts. In this universe Rene will never be able to find the interface where intention flows into the universe because it is concealed in the greater indeterminism of all things. In other words, to obfuscate the nature of reality from Rene, you'd create quantum mechanics.

How interesting that the world we actually live in, with Schrodinger's Cat and the Uncertainty Principle, is just the sort of one you'd build if you wanted to make things tough for philosophers. Now I'm not going to go so far as to suggest that we all are actually brains-in-a-vat in some other universe and that this-is-all-a-sim. That would be outrageously speculative (even for me!). I'm not even going to say that this gives credence to the Consciousness Causes Collapse interpretation of quantum mechanics favored by the "What the bleep..." crowd.

No, I just think it's interesting, and worthy of further exploration. Meanwhile I'll email the folks at Linden Lab and ask them to put quantum physics into the next version of Second Life...

22 January 2007

(1) Horace, (2) Descartes

It's a cheesy old Latin joke, but one that I can't help retelling. Philosopher Descartes said "Cogito ergo sum" -- I think therefore I am. Poet Horace said "Non sum qualis eram" -- I am not what I was. Some people don't realize that Horace wrote his words seventeen centuries before Descartes' utterance. Yes, without some knowledge of history one can mistakenly put Descartes before the Horace. Buh dum bum.

So in this post I'm going to carpe blogem and spin the ancient poet's quote wildly out of context. It will serve as an intro to the next post, which will resurrect Descartes in a virtual world and watch him puzzle out his mind/body dualism in a much simpler space.

The Horace quote appears to be just your mundane nostalgia -- a look back to a time of youth and vigor. Not much fun there, so let's just look at the phrase at face value -- the recognition of a transformation of being. I invite you to consider how we as individuals are morphing slowly (but with acceleration) along a transhuman evolution. I'll suggest that this began with the emergence of human civilization. The awareness that "we are not what we were" is already visible in the earliest writings. In Gilgamesh, for example, Enkidu is at first a "wild man" -- a human animal who hasn't yet made the change to civilized consciousness.

Biological change happens very slowly, over thousands of generations. Cultural change, however is much faster. Human civilization allowed us to grab the reigns of evolution, but with a certain amount of dissonance. As beings adapted to the pace of biological evolution we were ill-prepared to deal with the rapid pace of social change. So the first side effect felt by our proto-transhumans is a that feeling of having to keep up with an ever-increasing speed of life. The idea of the "fast-pace" of modern life is not actually a modern idea. It pre-dates even the industrial revolution. In fact, it may pre-date Horace by several centuries. I remember reading a quote from Aesop (at least I think it was Aesop -- I can't find the quote anywhere or I'd give you a link) which went something like "I saw a man pissing while he walked hurriedly along. Good gods! If this is what our life is like now, in the future will we have to shit as we run?" I'd be indebted to anyone who can track down this half-remembered quote.

Since the dawn of the Internet age I find that there are fewer citations on the fast-pace of modern life. That rapidity seems to be pretty much accepted as a given nowadays. Possibly we've already morphed on to the next stage which is more about abundance than speed. Now we complain not about life's pace, but about being overwhelmed (hence the reason for this blog). It's the "not one song, but 10,000" that Transient Gadfly posted about here (BTW -- you should check out his delightful blog: http://theoddsareone.blogspot.com/). The 20th century metaphor for our life's speed was the jet. The 21st century's emblem for our life's surplus is the Web.

I'm not going to speculate on where we're headed. Not yet, at least -- I'm still "processing". Like most of you I live in a world where my methods of communication (cell phones, email, blogs), my entertainment (digital media, computer games), my primary access to information (duh) all did not exist in my childhood. Like the guys in Firesign Theater said: "Dealing with today's complex World of the Future is like having bees live in your head. But, there they are!" Sure we're future shocked, but these are likely just growing pains. Non sumus qualis eramus -- we are not what we were. You may feel overwhelmed, but the fact is that if you're reading this blog you're no longer an Enkidu. You've already made the change. In the game of posthumanity, you a playah.


For further exploration: http://www.singinst.org/, http://www.natasha.cc/primo.htm

19 January 2007

The Tragedy of the Commons in Low Earth Orbit

The media have jumped on the report published in Aviation Week a couple days ago concerning a successful Chinese anti-satellite test. Most of the articles discuss the possibility of a newly emerging "space race" and the possible militarization beyond the atmosphere. I'm not going to speculate on the true intention of the Chinese in the asat test -- hey, for all I know this is just a ploy to introduce a new sport, satellite shooting, into the Beijing Olympics. Instead I want to look at the "environmental" impact such an action causes.

In this case the environment is the increasingly crowded near earth space we call Low Earth Orbit (LEO). In terms of outer space real estate this is the prime beachfront property. The only other tony spot is the geosynchronous zone -- but that's a more specialized neighborhood. LEO doesn't really have a well-defined boundary. Basically it starts where the atmosphere is thin enough that orbits are possible (without frictional heating slowing the satellite so much that it plunges and burns up). Wikipedia suggests this is roughly 200km up from the surface. It extends a couple thousand kilometers further. The idea is that fuel/payload costs just keep rising the higher up an orbit you want. Additionally the power required to communicate with a satellite increases as well, of particular concern for satellite phones. Thousands of satellites currently reside in this space, and with the exception of the Apollo moon voyages, *all* of manned space experience is in LEO. We depend on it for communications and imaging.

The article states that the destroyed satellite was the victim of a kinetic energy kill (as opposed to, say, an explosion or laser pulse). Basically, we're talking about a smart bullet, delivered by a suborbital ballistic missile, which scored a direct hit and blasted the satellite to bits (see http://www.armscontrolwonk.com/1359/chinese-test-asat).

The trouble with blasting an orbital object is that the bits don't "settle down". Instead they create a debris field. One satellite in a nice, circular polar orbit at 800km becomes 40,000 tiny fragments all spreading outward. But because this is LEO, and because the fragments don't have escape velocity, they just go into individual eccentric orbits around Earth. As their orbits are now all wonky they don't move "in-step" with satellites moving through LEO, and thus present a hazard. They become fast moving shrapnel that weave back and forth through the surrounding circular orbits. Only after years will their orbits degrade (from minute atmospheric friction effects at perigee) and they burn up on re-entry. A single hit from one of these fragments would likely knock out another satellite, or puncture the hull of a manned spacecraft.

So for me the issue with the Chinese asat test is about polluting this finite resource that is Low Earth Orbit. I think the spacefaring nations need to get together and produce some comprehensive regulation. Without international agreement on the usage of LEO, we risk a devastating Tragedy of the Commons situation where the region becomes nearly unusable. Satellites launched will only have a short lifetime before some stray fragment destroys them. Manned missions will no longer be safe.

Will we as a species, I wonder, be any better at managing the outer space environment than we are with our terrestrial one?


The market is Open.

13 January 2007

All Your Bayes Are Belong To Us

The war went badly for us in 2006. Here I'm referring to the global war of all computer users against the vile Spammers. Our inbox's best defense against villainy, the Bayesian filter, was soundly defeated by the spamming hordes. First they started with using "found text" to add to their illicit emails -- text random enough to confuse our filters into thinking the mail is probably legit. But by the summertime I started seeing their latest bit of simple devilry -- the image spam. Instead of placing their pharmacology ads or "pump and dump" schemes in text, they use a jpeg. Naturally, this completely bypasses the spam filter.

Apparently anti-spam companies are trying to adapt by developing apps that use OCR to identify image spam (http://lwn.net/Articles/196704/). I admit to being astonished by this. It seems an utter waste of processing power to bring such heavy weaponry to bear. Far simpler, and less CPU intensive, methods should suffice. The strategy depends on how the image is sent. One article I read said that the images are sent as a link, and automatically displayed via most mail client's HTML capability. Another article said that the actual jpegs are sent as basically an attachment (and again, automatically displayed by the mail client).

If the images are sent as a link, that means that the spammers have servers somewhere, or at least some Web repository (perhaps on a free personal site) where the image is stored. Those servers/sites then become targets we can shut down. More immediately the links themselves are text which Bayesian filters should learn to reject.

If the images are sent directly with the emails then we have an additional problem. Since images are much larger than text these image spams are at least 10X the size of text spams. This means that 10X the Internet bandwidth is taken up sending them everywhere. Such spam poses problems not just for the recipient but, in aggregate, for all users of the public Internet. As for stopping this spam from reaching our inbox, again -- we don't need to waste cycles doing OCR. Mail clients can simply checksum all attachments. That checksum can then be used as a word for the Bayesian filter. This is going to be most effective at the mail server level -- if the same checksum shows up on emails going to a lot of users you can be pretty sure of its spamminess. To defeat this simple strategy the spammers would have to steganographically alter (slightly) each image. While not difficult, at least it puts the CPU burden on the spammers, not on us.

I scanned the "bulk" folder of my Yahoo mail account. In the last 24 hours I received 12 spams. Two of them were simple text (one was so-called "empty spam" -- just words without a spam payload). The other ten were image spam with the actual images sent. The image spams were about 30K each. So that's 300 kilobytes of spam waste that had to traverse the Internet to get to me. Just some back of envelope work: if there are on the order of a billion email inboxes worldwide, and they receive this much spam daily as I do, then we are talking about 300 terabytes of image spam devouring our bandwidth each day. Nasty.


The market is Open.

12 January 2007

The Good Comet

The windows of my flat look out to the west, across Elliot Bay and the Sound towards Bainbridge, the Olympics, and the setting sun. Last evening a minor miracle (given Seattle's recent weather) occurred and the sky was clear. This, I determined, meant that I had one shot to catch the supposedly brilliant but hard to find comet McNaught -- the Bringer of Hope for our troubled times.

McNaught is very close to the sun, and (I read) only visible in the first half hour after sunset. It emerges slowly from the deepening twilight and then descends below the horizon. When the stark red light streaming sideways through my windows began to fade, and the shadows cast on the wall opposite the windows blurred, I knew the time had come. I went to the window and gazed, seeking our astral visitor. One account said McNaught was so bright that the author initially mistook it for a plane. I looked. And there it was! Amazing! And she was right -- it does look just like a plane. Oh, wait...that *is* a plane. Crap. Contrails highlighted by dusk light look pretty cometlike.

Over the next fifteen minutes I scanned the horizon, peering above the distant hills of Bainbridge Island, searching in vain. Then Venus emerged, higher in the sky than I had expected. This meant that the comet was likely also still well above the horizon. I pressed my search higher, beyond the red of the sunset and into the blurry blue.

Another fifteen minutes passed before I finally found it. McNaught appeared, quite suddenly it seemed, in exactly the part of sky I had been searching all along. How had I not seen it before? It sported a long wispy tail, easily the best of the handful of comets I've observed. I reached for my binoculars and, naturally, lost sight of the comet. The sky was still plenty bright, and there wasn't much contrast for my visual system to work with. But soon I found it again, and this time noted the point on Bainbridge directly below it, so that I would be able to easily get a lock on it again after turning my eyes away. Under 15X from my IS binoc's McNaught was extraordinary, and seeing it against the deep red cyclorama of the sunset, with the sky still bright, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Now IANAA (I am not an astrologer), but I can only conclude that this beautiful comet, appearing in our skies at the beginning of the year, is a good omen for the shape of 2007. Here it is so close to the sun, our source of life. That must mean that 2007 will be a marvelous year of sunlight and warmth. Wait a minute. Greenhouse gases. Global warming. Predicted record temperatures worldwide --- um, forget I said any of that. There's no significance to the comet being near the sun. It's a good comet, bringing a message of hope. Yes, look at it -- it's almost setting. Its feathery tail pointing up while its tiny little head almost touches the hills. Like a cute little missle about to descend upon Bainbridge bringing nuclear-tipped terrorist destruction. What am I saying!? No -- strike that. This is a *good* omen. It has to be. This comet has journeyed far to see us. All the way from the frozen depths of the outer solar system. It has trekked its narrow elliptical path from the deep silent dark straight for the bustle and life of the inner system. It's an emissary, an ambassador of goodwill from the great emptiness. One by one it's crossed the orbits of the planets, greeting them with its message of peace as it passes. Hello, Earth. Looking good, Venus. Hot enough for ya, Mercury? Soon it will swing round the sun, with perihelion a scant 15 million miles, half the distance of Mercury. There the intense radiance of Sol will boil it, ice and rock alike, so that only a cinder remains for its return trip. Aw, geez. I give up. Happy 2007.


The market is Open.

11 January 2007

Clearing The Overhead

I used to work for that software giant across the lake (vis-a-vis Seattle-proper), and the whole time I was there I walked around the office in a little bit of a fog. It was my first real job, and I functioned there with only the dimmest idea of the larger machine in which I was a cog, let alone how it worked. I would tell myself that it didn't matter, that these things were implementation details with which I need not concern myself. But regardless it seemed to take up space in my brain, operating there, sucking up the back end memory cache, sometimes sneaking in and using a portion of the hard drive as RAM. It was an active process in a partition of my active memory I couldn't access or sudo kill -9. In order to work where I was working, the process had to keep running and be given free reign of as much extra brain space as it wanted.

When I moved over to a company that was just as complicated, but was and still is a Unix/Linux shop, that process halted and I was left with a whole new load of free memory and a blinking command line prompt. It's probably not surprising that working at MS is an incredibly apt metaphor for using any one of their applications--in order to get the simple function that one wants, one must accept the enormous overhead of the process that performs it as well as 10,000 other ones that one doesn't. It's perhaps no more surprising that it's a similarly good metaphor for Being In The World these days. If one wants to be able to select ones media/information/entertainment/identity without having it fed directly to one by, say, a major corporation or network television, one has to buy the entire bloated application. One cannot find one new song, one can only find 10,000. One can no longer have a pocket calculator that adds, subtracts, multiplies, divides, and takes square roots. One can only have "...a powerful tool you can use to analyze, communicate, and manage information, to make more informed decisions...publishing a financial forecast for an executive review or providing a business report to an external auditor...communicate your analysis in professional-looking reports and charts that are much easier to create." No longer satisfied with your eyes and ears, the information age wants your brain space.

10 January 2007

Just Stuff

It is probably no surprise to you that there is a website devoted to photos of cats with "stuff" on them. Still, the pics at: http://www.stuffonmycat.com/ make for an enjoyable moment or two. While some shots are of costumed (and very patient) felines, many are more candid and funny.

-- Per

The market is Open.

08 January 2007


About twenty years ago an English professor named Howard Hertz taught me to read. Though arguably I was reading fine long before, he showed me how to approach a text with considerably more sophistication than before. I learned to appreciate Keats, to delight in Derrida, and to slog bravely through Hegel's Phenomonology of Mind.

He used Blake's The Sick Rose as an example of the power of poetry to simultaneously manifest many levels of meaning. Here I give you my 21st century take on that little gem:

O n00b, thou art pwned!
The zero-day worm
That flies on the 'net,
In the activeX control,

Has found the IP
Of thy Windows XP,
And its dark secret code
Makes thee a zombie.


The market is Open.

05 January 2007


Back in the 80's a frequent statement given to newbie undergrads at Caltech was "Studying at Tech is like taking a drink from a firehose". In that vein one can look at the monstrous information space now available to anyone with sufficient bandwidth and hardware, and declare: "Finding cool stuff to read/learn/do in today's Internet society is like taking a drink from a tsunami". The allocation of the non-scarce resource we call information presents extraordinary challenges to us, the future-shocked inhabitants of this still-accelerating age. Agalmics, a term still new and arcane enough that it can't be found in Wikipedia (Jan, 2007), is a nascent field of study which explores "non-scarcity" -- in a way it's the B side of the Economics album. I first acquired the term in Charles Stross's book, Accelerando (http://www.accelerando.org/book/), and have since discovered this paper: http://www.openverse.com/~dtinker/agalmics.html.

With respect to our information overload, the agalmic problems of discovery and filtering replace the economic problems of demand and supply. RSS feeds and the blogosphere provide ways we currently navigate and chart these vast waters. Until we can spawn intelligent agents to surf and filter for us in real time, these tools will have to do. That is my intention for starting this blog.

Dragging the academic obfuscation slider far to the right: This blog asymptotically tends towards the creation of a textual protocoled Hamiltonian network of minds with demographically entangled world lines who use it to exchange packets of broadly filtered, highly relevant content.

And to the left: It's like a group journal of a bunch of people who share similar views and write about the cool shit they've discovered.

The rules:
Anyone can read this blog (wouldn't be in the agalmic spirit otherwise).
Anyone registered to blogspot can comment.
Posting is limited to a relatively small group of authors, initially pulled from my space of friends and cohorts. This list will expand to include others as desired by the original set of authors.

Posts can, and should, be about anything: news, jokes, recipes, ideas, art. They can be long and rambling discourses, or simply "Hey check this out: ". Anything that you might consider passing on in an email to friends is fair game for content. I'll try to prime the pump for a few days with regular postings of interesting tidbits, and hope that critical mass is reached.

Happy Posting!

The market is open.