Saturday, 22 November 2014

Finding out things

Y'know, all this recent hoopla about the Rosetta mission got me thinking. Over the past fortnight I've encountered a very strange version of conspiracy theorist, who insists that the current models of the Universe are deeply flawed. Let me first say that there are indeed a good number of challenges and inconsistencies with our current understanding of how things work.
But a broken window does not mean that the house must be razed.

Many of the points raised by these unconventialists I could counter by recourse to specialized knowledge - I've seen water ice sublimating in vacuum chambers I have built - I've poked regolith with 100nm photons - and so on. These are, I fully admit, not common experiences but they were part and parcel of the job of getting instruments to other worlds.

So the arguments I tended to fall back on were those based on personal experience, and then the experience of other workers as published in peer-reviewed journals. And that is the point of this musing: how many folk would know where to look if they wanted to find the underpinnings of modern science? Where would they go to find the original authors, their data, and their techniques?

Well, I thought it apt to put some links together if one finds oneself having to defend the notion that the Moon is not made of cheese.
<Believe me, this is not as kooky as some ideas I've met>

So here we go with a few of my favourites:

1. First and foremost, the NASA Astrophysical Data Service:

Head to the link for the subject that interests you (say, Physics and Geophysics search) and then you'll see this:

Pump some search terms into the 'Title" or 'Abstract" fields - you can see that I'm interested in lunar dairy products - and tick the box 'Require text for selection', hit the 'Send Query' button and you're done.

And thus I've found one article by L.A. Haskin about the creation of foodstuffs (eventually) from the lunar regolith, given enough added carbon and nitrogen. Wonderful!

2. The NASA Technical Report Server

An utter hoot.
Want to find studies for the economics of mining Europa? Torchship designs to Pluto?
<okay, maybe not those two>
But you will find the effects of thermal cycling on high temperature titanium composites.
And so on.
Ultimate geek-fodder.

3. ArXiv
For when the paywalls around most reputable journals are just too much to bear.

Hope that this helps, and may your experiments always be falsifiable and your hypotheses testable!

Monday, 7 April 2014

What's in a word?

Languages are funny creatures. They defy control, evolve into the strangest of things, and refuse to obey anything but the simplest of rules as to how words become adopted and adapted.

Recently I've been thinking about robots.

Strike that. I've been thinking about robots for a long time, and more recently my Martian-in-crime wondered as to what connotations are associated with the names that we have for robots, and how does the name of a thing alter our perception of it? I still think that the cognition depends on some strong way on the ability to categorize and perceive items and concepts. So in some sense the naming of a thing is a critical step - as names, even invented ones, will always carry some resonances with existing words in a language. I may not go so far as to take this to the end point of Le-Guinism, where the truename is a sort of undisclosed API that allows reality to be subverted. But it seems obvious that the act of naming a character Voldemort is not a naïve choice to anyone with a passing knowledge of indo-european languages.

Thus, prompted by my Martian, I wondered about the systems that we're building that have lifelike characteristics. One might be tempted to broadbrush them all as being 'robots', but let's unpack that word. You may know that this is a fairly recent neologism, coined by a Czech chap in the '20s. What you may not know is that it wasn't Karel Čapek, but his brother, Josef Čapek, who invented it, drawing on the perfectly good pan-Slavic word robota that means drudgery or servitude.

So we have this word: robot. And along with it come connotations of serfdom and slavery. If we label complex systems as robotic then we also constrain our expectations of them and will perpetuate the master/slave relationship. Such a dialogue is probably harmless when the worst that your house can do is to burn your toast, but subconsciously treating your Doctor as a mechanical peon probably will do you no good.

So how else might we describe a synthetic complex system?

Well, we might describe it as being:
automatic from αὐτόματον, (pron. automaton), which means "acting of one’s own will"
or even
mechanicalfrom μηχανικός (pron. mekahnikos), which means "a device or tool"

But mechanical carries with it a sense of rigidity and inflexbility - which is probably a good thing sometimes. You don't want an elevator to have emotions.

Even automatic, which at least has some semblance of self-direction, has mutated in English to be almost a perjorative term.
"I was on auto-pilot M'lord, I didn't know what I was doing!"
And so it goes.

I suggest that English lacks a word to describe the autonomy and complexity of probable artificial life-like systems. To describe a postulated 'Google car' as being automatic is to overlook its ability to react like a person would to changes in a road's state. To describe an embodied synthetic intelligence as being an 'android' is to suggest that it ought to be manlike in some way, and if the form that it operates is not shaped like a human, do we have to use unwieldy concepts such as an android-octopus?

I further suggest that we need a new word to cope with the probable rise of synthetic embodied intelligences: note, I deliberately avoid the use of artificial as a description. We don't talk about artificial flight when describing the motion of an airplane when compared to that of a bird. Both fly, even if the bird does so in a different manner than that of an airplane. But only one is a synthetic actor. Similarly, a synthetic intelligence may appear to perform thoughtful acts, despite it doing so without goo and meat.

So - I open the floor. What would you call a system that may or may not be embodied, may or may not take the form of a human, and yet appears to have free-will and perform thoughtful activites?

Answers on a post-card please.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Carbon, energy, and blame.

Another sunny day in Vancouver, and another burst of news on the radio with regards to LNG, fracking, and the whole situation of natural gas in BC.

{how apt: I've just rescued a local paper - Burnaby Now - that was flapping around in the wind outside our office porch. Front page story, "Climate change ignored in pipeline hearings" about how global impacts have been disregarded in the ongoing pipeline debates}

 The emphasis in BC has primarily been one of concerns about spills from piplelines carrying diluted bitumen (dilbit). This is a legitimate worry, and it is inevitable that accidents will happen - spending more on spill prevention just reduces the likelihood and the magnitude of a spill, but cannot eliminate it. Heaven knows, as an engineering species we strive to optimize the multi-dimensional problem of safety, cost, and efficacy. Part of the problem is that there is no simple metric for any of those three variables.

{digression: is safety considered over the lifespan of the project, and if so, how does that square with, say, the ever-lengthening operational lives of nuclear power stations? What is the efficacy of a project? How does one weigh the impact of burning coal vs. gas?}

But there's another story, and it's simply that the combustion of any hydrocarbon leads to a global threat to our wellbeing. The challenge then is to maintain our society without poisoning our biosphere. Energy usage per capita is rising at around 10% per decade (could be worse)...

(thanks wikipedia)

... but the global headcount is likely to rise for a while. So steps should be taken to switch to cleaner fuels that require the least energy to generate, and when burned produce the fewest moles of carbon dioxide per Joule. Nuclear is an obvious option, but politically the hottest potato imaginable. Non-traditional oil sources are similarly problematic - the price point at which tar sands become non-viable isn't very far from current market prices.

And there's the problem. LNG projects have become inextricably linked in the popular press with the diluted bitumen schemes - as there are a multitude of proposals currently under discussion. What is not happening is a serious attempt to address the benefits and drawbacks of two very different topics: the transmission of dilbit, and the transportation of natural gas as part of an LNG scheme. Tarring both subjects with the same brush gets us nowhere and simply builds resentment and distrust - before we can move to a low-carbon economy we need to think and act in accord with the best evidence.

Homo *sapiens*, surely.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Economics, CryptoCoins and Entropy

Three small words. Two old, one new, and I've been trying to figure out they interplay.

Now, I'd be the first to admit that my knowledge of economics is less than sound. We're told by the Great and the Good that the invisible hand of the market ensures that goods are bought and sold in such a manner that their price stabilizes at some magical equilibrium value.

Well, at least that's the idea. A loaf of bread has a certain visceral value - as does a pair of shoes and so on. Matter, in a sense, matters. But it's no longer the only thing of value and we merrily consume services at a cost that would confound earlier generations.

So, with the recent furore over cryptocurrencies,  I started pondering the wider implications of having shiny hardware acting as glorified room heaters. I've heard it said more than once that the act of mining a coin (scrypt or SHA256, etc.) is 'wasteful', and at first glance the power currently driving the Bitcoin network is rather respectable - Forbes last year was bandying around a figure of 15M$ for the daily energy use, leading to something like 6GW of dissipation. 


Probably accurate to a factor of a few, but let's not forget that then the market capitalization was around 1010$. 

So, is it worth thinking of an efficiency figure? If so, to keep the present blockchain activity going 'costs' less than a cent for every dollar of value.

But how much energy is used by a traditional bank to keep itself ticking over? Think of the lighting, air conditioning, servers, etc. For fun let's plug in some figures.

HSBC employs 0.3M people and has assets of 3x1012$. Let's say that each person uses around 1kW continuously to do their job. In which case HSBC dissipates at the very least something like 3MW continuously. So it might seem that a traditional bank is about a million times more efficient than the Bitcoin network in terms of its cost per dollar - and that should surely count for something. Of course, the choice of whether or not to trust a bank has very little to do with its energy efficiency. The set of all Google returns for '<insert name of bank> bank + laundering' is not an empty set.

One point to think about is that the nodes of a cryptocurrency network don't need to be close to people or cities. Indeed, one might argue that communities with significant hydroelectric power reserves would do well to replace electrical heating schemes with 'plumbed-in' mining machines. After all, why waste the heat? With 'instant-on' PCs one could construct an electrical water heater that, at present rates, would actually pay to be used.

Now there's a thought.