Sunday, September 30, 2007

My Dilemma

What is divided must unite; what is united, must divide

Chinese proverb
(I think)

My homeland is slouching towards fascism, and there's nothing I can do about it except write these words on a blog nobody reads.

Oh sure, you can quibble that I'm a Canadian if you want, and everyone knows it's really America that's getting buggered by history. But while Canada might be America's kinder, gentler and slightly dull kid brother, the sad fact is that we also follow the American lead in more or less all things. Legislation that gets tried out in the states is introduced in Canada within a decade. The sad fact is that the only reason Canada's been a free country throughout the 20th century, is that America has too. If America loses it's freedom, Canada will too. You can take that to the bank.

I'm not going to belabor the North American descent into tyranny. Naomi Wolfe does it much better here, in Fascist America in 10 Easy Steps, and Carolyn Baker does an excellent job as well in her article Speaking Truth to Power. Go there, read those articles, and if they - and the events of the last several years, which sadly I'm only just now really waking up to - don't scare your bowels empty you're not paying attention. Or you're working for the fascists, and the various incidents they detail make you all warm and tight down in your unmentionable areas (if you are, and you're reading this post, I'll just say this to you: you and the cockroaches you work with might just succeed in hollowing out the greatest nation on the planet. Good for you! But you know, eventually, we'll hang you from a lamp-post.)

I'm seriously conflicted. You see, right now I live in Japan, making my humble living teaching the fine people here how to speak my language. It's undemanding and reasonably well-compensated, one of the better compensations being that I get to live in Tokyo. But it's been a few years, and I'm getting the itch to return home, to rejoin my kith and kin, and start something approaching a real career.

But is that so wise? North America's on the brink of a precipice, and the only thing keeping the entire continent from a rapid fall into tyranny is just one more big terrorist attack ... and if 9/11 really was a false flag operation (I'm not %100 certain on that, but the doubt is there, and the doubt is enough), that terrorist attack could come at whatever time is convenient to the state. Like, say, shortly before a presidential election.

Going back right before that would be a really bad move. I'm a very loud person, with a tendency to sound off if someone's annoying me. At the very least, any career I started would be very short-lived; at the worst, I might be 'detained', or simply executed.

At the same time, this is my homeland these execrable fucks are ruining. Not fighting the bastards smacks of cowardice, but fighting them is basically suicide.

So that's the question I'm looking at. Stay in Japan - or at any rate Asia - and continue plying a trade I fell into more or less accidentally. Or return home, very likely jumping down the rabbit hole with the rest of my country, deep into Orwell's darkest nightmares, and hope to God it all blows over quickly.

Although I know it won't. If America loses itself, it'll be a century before it's people wake up and remember who they used to be. If I go back, I'm not just fucking myself ... I'm risking any kids I might have, too.

History's a bitch, isn't it?

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Progress towards the iFly continues apace. Meet the German microdrone.

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English Needs the Chinese Alphabet

Ohhh, my poor synapses. It's at times like this I'm reminded why I swore off certain psychoactive amphetamine derivatives years and years ago. Six hours of awesome fun, six days of sub-par mental performance. Still, expensive as it all was, a rave up in the Japanese Alps is an experience I won't soon forget (though the memories might be a little fuzzy at times :-p )

Anyhow. The preceding is not the point of the post, but merely a weak excuse for the recent lack of posting (as I've spent myself into poverty until the next paycheck, I expect I'll be posting quite a bit more frequently in the future.)

You think you know a country. You've been there a few years, can speak the language, and have talked to enough people and had enough strange experiences that you get to thinking that there's nothing more that can really surprise you. And then out of nowhere something pops out that smacks you right upside the head and forcefully reminds you of how alien a place you're in.

Japanese people can read a novel in three hours. That's average. A fast reader can do it in under an hour; a slow reader takes maybe eight or nine. Now, I'm a fairly fast reader. I've been literate since about the age of three or four (thanks, Mom!), and I've spent an excessive fraction of my life with my nose stuck in a book. If I'm really going, not pausing to digest what I'm reading but just flying through it as fast as possible, I can get finish a three hundred page, hundred-thousand word novel in maybe eight hours. At that rate I read maybe two books a week (lately significantly less than that, as I've been immersing myself in Japanese media the last few months as part of an effort to master the language in time for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test in December, which I'll probably fail anyway.)

I've dreamed about being able to read faster for years. Most of those dreams involve some sort of cyborg prosthesis that reduces cover-to-cover elapsed time to a matter of seconds. So you can understand why, when I found out that the average Japanese reading speed is over twice as fast as that of a Westerner, I felt just a twinge (well, maybe more of a stab) of jealousy, heightened by the knowledge that it's far too late for me to ever be able to read Japanese at native-level speeds (maybe if I'd started at three or four....)

Westerners are often baffled by the Chinese alphabet (the Japanese use a modified version of the Chinese alphabet, which is why from here on I'm going to talk about Chinese rather than Japanese characters.) It seems ridiculous to us - at least it certainly did to me - that their alphabet is isomorphic to their dictionary, with thousands of characters that have to be laboriously memorized. The roman alphabet seems intuitively more practical: fifty-two characters, combined with some fairly simple phonetic rules, are perfectly sufficient for recording all the words of our or any other language.

Then again, so is binary.

Think about what happens when you read. In order to understand a printed word, your eyes have to scan it from beginning to end, picking out the letters, putting them into syllables, and eventually forming it all into a coherent word. This is an entirely different process from that involved in reading Chinese characters. The characters contain no clues as to how to pronounce them (although in Japanese - which actually has three alphabets, two of them phonetic - have a way around that, by writing tiny furigana above the kanji. This is a Japanese thing, though; the Chinese do quite well without it.) Reading Chinese characters is all about pattern recognition: your eyes settle on the character and it's meaning flashes instantly into your brain (assuming you know the character, that is; if you don't, it's just a disturbing blank spot.) You still have to scan in order to get the high level grammatical structures, of course, but the individual words are much more quickly available.

I first noticed this a while ago, actually, maybe a month or two after I started studying Japanese. As I mentioned above, Japanese has three alphabets: kanji (Chinese characters), hiragana (phonetic characters), and katakana (phonetic characters used in a roughly analogous way to italics, ie for emphasis or rendering foreign words.) TV shows over here often have subtitles (not just western shows; the Japanese ones too. Not sure why), so when watching TV I'd also try and read the subtitles. I noticed that any kanji I happened to know I would recognize instantly, but for the kana I'd have to stop and sound them out, a much more laborious process.

It wasn't until a week or so back, though, that I really put two and two together, and started asking my students how long it takes them to read a book. Three hours, ladies and gentlemen, was the resounding answer. And this is for a language that, truth be told, uses phonetic alphabets very extensively. I can only imagine how much faster the Chinese must be, with a written language that dispenses entirely with phonics.

Hence the title of this post. English would be, I think, enormously improved if it started adopting Chinese characters. There's a tradeoff, of course. Mastering the Chinese alphabet is no small task; Asians generally aren't fully literate until they graduate high school (though considering the number of semi-literate college grads back home, this isn't such a big difference ... and indeed, I have to wonder what the hell their excuse is. It's not like the roman alphabet is hard to learn. But I digress....) That investment in time, however, pays off later with the ability to take in information at over twice the speed possible with a phonetic alphabet.

I'm not suggesting a complete abandonment of the roman alphabet, here, but more of a marriage. The Japanese example is instructive: they do their nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs with kanji, but put most of the grammatical structures together with kana. Here's an example of what this hybrid written language might look like:

I went to the store and bought some running shoes.
I 行t to the 店 and 買t some 走靴.

The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution banning arms sales to Venezuela.
The 国連安全保障理事会 判決d a 決意 禁止ing 兵器 販売s to Venezuela.

Those are just examples, in which I just substituted the Japanese compound kanji directly. A fully anglicized Chinese alphabet could well be even more compact.

It sounds crazy, I know, but English has become the language of the world, and that world includes well over a billion people who use kanji as a matter of course. It wouldn't be at all unheard of for some kind of hybrid language to emerge, and I for one am all for it. Both styles of writing have their advantages, and putting them together could well create the ultimate written language.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Yound Bodies and Old Spirits

A month back Michael Anissimov wrote about the connection between immortalism and existential risks. After all, if aging can be reversed and all disease prevented, our lifespans might stretch out into thousands of years ... unless, of course, something like a meteor (or a nuclear war, or a plague of killer nano-machines, or a superintelligent AI that happens to take a disliking to us) happens. In which case, everyone dies at the same time, and your shiny new immortality just isn't so great anymore.

Anissimov thinks people should take this kind of thing more seriously, and you know, I think they will, very quickly and likely in the bare nick of time. Once medicine progresses to the point that it's obvious to everyone that aging and disease are a thing of the past (two things that could happen very rapidly, possibly even near-simultaneously), the parts of their brains that assess risk will be left with little but the existential ones. After flailing about for a while, and finding that none of the old risks are really around any more (because any breakdown in the body up to and probably including death are eminently fixable), they'll settle on the existential risks as being, well, pretty well the only game in town.

And what a terrible game it is, because we're talking here about things that can kill everyone - perhaps even everything - and in a very short time. The effect this will have on society will be interesting to see. It will be a massive - perhaps even the dominant - influence on mass consciousness. Universal fear will be universally shared.

I sometimes wonder if perhaps progress won't come to a slow crawl at some point. A planet full of immortals who are desperately afraid of being killed by something they can't control is likely to be a conservative place indeed. With thousands of years ahead, there's no need to rush, and every reason to take every additional step into the unknown as cautiously as possible. Earth's people will all have the bodies of twenty-year olds, but it will be a culture of old women at heart. Nanomachines can't keep your soul from getting old.

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Life, and it's Intrusions on Blogging

How careless of me. It's been a week since my last post, and really, I am trying to get at least a few out per week (preferably a few day, but hey, I do have a day job.) I have no really good excuses, really I've just been partying for a week, ie drinking beer with my friends and clubbing instead of relaxing with a beer in my six tatami mat room (that's small, in case you didn't know) with my iPod plugged into the speakers, while I sit at my computer and blog. Okay, it wasn't all clubs and parties. In fact, clubbing was only Saturday - went to Womb, best goddamn club in Tokyo - and I spent both Friday and Sunday using my computer to watch Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig instead of type (highly recommended, by the way, but then I'm a huge fan of koukaku kidoutai, or攻殻機動隊 as they say in Japanese.)

Long weekend, you see.

The nightcap of the binge was my first visit to a hostess club. It was expensive (though I did manage to escape before paying for the talk-time, which I honestly didn't know I was supposed to do. In my defence, the only reason I was there was that the guy I was with completely lied about where he was taking me, and I still dropped a wad of cash on drinks for me, two hostesses, and that same guy.) I'll admit it was ... interesting attending an establishment where you pay money to talk to pretty girls, a cleaner though deeply weird take on strip clubs that so far as I know is unique to Japan. Prostitution of the soul instead of prostitution of the body (both forms of which exist here, I can assure you). I can understand how the taste developed; there's something to be said for a place where you can talk to beautiful women who seem genuinely interested in your conversation, especially if the wife isn't looking so pretty these days and is starting to hate your guts to boot. It's quite pleasant, and the strict prohibition on physical contact avoids pushing most (though not quite all) of the sexual prurience buttons inside the cultural psyche.

Anyhow, sorry for the lack of posts. Can't promise it won't happen again, but next time I'll at least try to give a 'slow post' warning.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Greening The Deserts

Global Seawater, Inc. plans to make forests grow with nothing more than seawater, sand, and sun.

The plan is to combine mangroves and salcornia - two plants that grow in seawater, and can be used for both food and biodiesel production - with shrimp living in artificial ponds fed by canals to the ocean. The shrimp provide food, their effluent feeds back into the mangroves, the mangroves (which enrich the soil very quickly, by trapping lots of carbon ... great for stopping global warming) allow the growth of salicornia, and the end result very quickly transforms a wasteland into a forest.

Link to Accelerating Future's Singularity Summit liveblogging (it's a big and growing post, so you have to scroll down a bit. The rest is just as interesting, though.)

Link to youtube video, Greening Eritrea.

Combined with vertical farming, technologies like this might make famines a thing of the past for the entire species.

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The ZPrinter 450

Wow, now this is just amazing. Can't believe I'm just hearing about it now.

The ZPrinter 450, probably the most user-friendly rapid prototyper to date. It's still a long way from real desktop manufacturing. It can't print off its own parts and, worse, can work only with very specialized feedstock, thus limiting it to making non-functional models and toys rather than actual technology.

Still, it's a step in the right direction. My prediction for this company, though, is that they'll do well enough but not for too long ... they're so early in the game, their product still such a comparatively primitive piece of technology, that they'll get sidelined by some later competitor, like a working reprap.

Once that's out, it won't take long at all for today's ZPrinter to evolve (literally) into tomorrow's nanofactory.

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The eX-Prize

It seems that the X-Prize foundation - if you've never heard of them, they're the ones who enabled this - is going to be endowing a prize for education. Via the Speculist, who overheard it at the Singularity Summit,

Over Lunch, we saw a presentation from Michael Lindsay of the X Prize Foundation. The Foundation is considering doing a prize for education. They're looking at starting out by measuring Algebra, Reading Comprehension, and Second Language acquisition. Lindsay's intent was to gather feedback from the Singularity Summit crowd. There was a good deal of push-back, particularly concerning the fact that the Foundation plans to use standardized tests to measure the results. It will be interesting to see whether an X-Prize for education ever materializes.
This is an interesting direction for engineering contests to take. Spaceships and cars that drive themselves are one thing, but trying to redesign how kids are taught ... that could be revolutionary. I have no doubt that we already possess the tools to turn every school into a genius factory by turn of the century standards; the problem is, the tools are still so new we're still floundering around trying to find a way to use them. An educational X-Prize could be just thing to focus people's minds.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Strategic Implications of Robots

This paper, Theoretical, Legal and Ethical Impact of Robots on Warfare, makes the point that warfare may well become much more common as a direct result of the widespread of use of robots.

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Killer Robots

Let's consider for a moment the implications of a military armed with robots. Lots of robots.

If you want to be pedantic, you could argue that this had already begun with the use of cruise missiles. Certainly the introduction of the Predator in Afghanistan, and it's rapid conversion to a missile-platform, marked a milestone. The development of the SWORDS, though, is something you sort of have to sit up and take notice of. Read this Defense Review article for the details on that, if you haven't already heard of it.

Now, this year's models are rather clunky, with their tracks and their hydraulics; a supplement but certainly not a replacement for actual boots on the ground. The technology is only going to advance, though, and it will do so quite rapidly. It could easily progress to the point where the robots are agile enough and smart enough that they can wage war with very minimal human supervision, perhaps nothing more than a token authorization to kill. At the same time, as the cost of manufacturing robots decreases, it could eventually get cheaper to manufacture ten robots and send them in the place of a single human.

(As a side-note, while soldiers could very well be replaced by mechanical killing machines, I very much doubt aid workers could be, at least not as easily. Post-conflict reconstruction ops are likely to be the very last service to be mechanized.)

The US could simply build up stockpiles of robots to be deployed at a moment's notice, to make war on anyone within strike range. Admittedly, this is a capability they already have, but robots would allow them to concentrate military force as never before; support units (mechanics, mostly) who never leave the base would be able to support ten times as much destructive potential, all the scarier for the fact that it can be wielded with a precision unthinkable in any previous war.

Territory could be defended the same way, and of course if the US can build lots of cheap killer robots, well, so can any other country. Which they will, and which development will undoubtedly lead to the odd spectacle of wars in which only machines are destroyed, with nary a drop of human blood shed in the process (I can't help but mention the explanation for warfare at the end of 1984, that it served primarily to burn off wealth and prevent the people from becoming rich.)

That bit about blood not being spilt doesn't necessarily follow, and indeed I expect a long time will pass before any war is truly free of bloodshed. Nevertheless I expect robotic warfare to make war gentler on humans than it has ever been. The men pulling the trigger are no longer, after all, in life-or-death situations; they're sitting at an easy-chair, somewhere in a control building (or maybe their apartment) back in the home country. People will naturally assume that a certain coolness should accompany that absence of risk; soldiers (if indeed they are still referred to as such) will be expected to behave more as judges do. Incidents such as gang rapes will disappear as a matter of course (given that the troops are no longer within sexual range of any potential victims); accidental killings will not be tolerated; and massacres will simply not happen. The operator of a remote killing machine will be held to a standard higher than that required of a chivalrous knight, and he will be held to it more strictly.

A lot of people get nervous at the idea of killer robots, and I don't blame them. The idea of an autonomous mechanical killing machine is pretty scary, especially if they go fully autonomous and start killing everyone a la Terminator. I think it will be a positive development. Wars might ultimately become a mixture of law enforcement and public spectacle along the lines of a sporting event.

But just to keep you from thinking I'm too rosy on this, I'll leave you with this:

It is well that war is so terrible - we should grow too fond of it.

Robert E. Lee

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Sunday, September 9, 2007

Knowledge Webs and What Schools Should Be

Via Al Fin, a post about virtual schools.

Reading the Wired article he linked to, this part jumped out at me:

Struggling students such as Kelsey-Anne, who suffers from attention deficit disorder, can take more time to finish courses while those who are gifted can go at a faster speed.

Casey Hutcheson, 17, finished English and geometry online in the time it would have taken to complete just one of those courses at his regular high school in Tallahassee.

"I like working by myself because of no distractions, and I can go at my own pace rather than going at the teacher's pace," he said.

I wish dearly a system like this had been in place when I was Casey Hutcheson's age, or better yet an eight-year-old. The slow pace at which new things were taught to us from kindergarten on onwards was a constant source of frustration to me, become particularly acute in high-school but present throughout. This irritation led me to take a long, deep look at modern education, and into the philosophy and aims that spawned it (most of the structure has it's aims in a social engineering project designed to raise good factory workers.) If our aim is for kids to learn as much as they can, as fast as they can, well hell we can do a lot better.

My own private vision of the school of the future is that the formal learning would migrate mostly online, with the network replacing both the textbooks and testing. Read this essay by W. Daniel Hillis, Aristotle: The Knowledge Web to get some idea of what I'm talking about.

The gains in efficiency from really learning to use networks as education tools are pretty staggering. Right now, the situation is that slow learners struggle along, never really gaining mastery over anything because there simply isn't time to let them catch up; while fast learners are held back from acquiring the full range and depth of knowledge open to them. Of course, in the real world there aren't three different types of people (subnormal, mediocre, and exceptional), there are six billion, spread out over a bell curve of ability levels. So in truth, everyone's under-served by the old model.

Of course, there are always critics, and the Wired article finds one of them, trotting out the same old argument that "There is something to be said for having kids in a social situation learning how to interact in society," said state Rep. Shelley Vana. "I don't think you get that if you're at home." Well, yeah, I have to agree with that. Homeschooled kids might learn faster and better, but yeah, the ones I've met have been odd people. In my case - growing up in deep cottage country, surrounded by trees and old people - school was the only opportunity I really got to socialize at all.

The thing I see schools evolving into is basically a place for teenagers to hang out, under adult supervision, and not so much learn stuff as participate in various collaborative projects. Adult staff won't be there to teach them, exactly. The teaching will be done by an educational network, one that knows exactly what every one of its users has mastered (dispensing with old-fashioned metrics like As and Bs and courses passed: instead of a transcript a university or employer could see a map of a student's acquired knowledge that much more accurately delineates what they do and do not know), and exactly how each user learns best (be it watching, reading, listening, or doing.) The job of teachers in this environment isn't to lecture, but rather to provide support to student projects; to advise, to help, and to keep discipline. Basically, their job will be one part guidance councilor and one part after-school club-leader.

Classrooms as they're now understood (ranks of desks facing a chalkboard where a teacher talks to them for an hour) can also be dispensed with. In their place would be a mixture of general-use areas - where students can withdraw to converse or study or whatever else they want to do - and spaces dedicated to single uses, such as sports, laboratories, and fabs. Instead of joining classes, students could simply reserve time in the dedicated areas when needed, either individually or as part of a group, spending the rest of their time where they please.

Of course, there would be no point in enforcing attendance at such a school. Since the formal learning is entirely web-based, students could either learn at home (if they're the shy sort), or small groups could meet at places of their own choosing and educate themselves there. Schools would have to attract students' voluntary attendance, by offering services and facilities - computational, industrial, and above-all recreational - that students could not find elsewhere. Essentially, schools would be forced to become cool places to hang out, instead of prisons in which society locks you eight hours a day.

It's possible concepts like 'graduation' might cease to exist, as well. If a person's acquired knowledge can be mapped out in enough detail, accreditation can take place both gradually and instantly. One danger is hyper-specialization; a 15-year-old student might, for instance, master what would today be a grad-school level of knowledge about history, but only an elementary school level of math. But an upshot is that it would no longer be necessary for there to be a strict dividing line between school and the outside world; elementary school would blend seamlessly into highschool, university, graduate school and the workforce, with people returning to educational institutions whenever they wanted - for an afternoon or a decade - to pursue whatever educational goals they have.

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Saturday, September 8, 2007

Singularity Summit 2007

Michael Anissimov is liveblogging. So far he's seen Rodney Brooks, Eliezer Yudkowsky, and a few others. Interesting stuff.

So is Considering the Universe. The Speculist is there too.

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Immigration in America

I am in awe. Orson Scott Card - the man who wrote Ender's Game - types a polemic against the anti-immigration movement that is simply stunning in it's power.

Seriously, go read it. You'll never take border fences seriously again.

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Brains and Wings

Fascinating article at Developing Intelligence pointing out that for all the similarities between brains and computers, there are some serious differences as well.

My take: guy knows a lot about brains and a lot about computers, no question. But I'm not so sure you should draw the conclusion that AI is more difficult than it is already perceived to be.

"These airplanes, sure they can fly but they're completely different from birds' wings or bugs' wings. They don't move, for one. They're not self-repairing (within limits.) The surface of an animal's wing is almost infinitely more complex than that of a an airplane's, fantastically ordered on a scale an artificial wing can't possibly but match."

All true. But when you get down to brass tacks, wings are made for flying whether they're attached to a hummingbird or a helicopter, and brains and computers are both designed for processing information. Tell me again which wing it is that breaks the sound barrier?

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Thursday, September 6, 2007

One Last Post

It's late and there's a typhoon raging outside my window so I'm getting sleepy. I'll just post these three articles from 10 Zen Monkeys without comment, suggest y'all read them, and then go to bed.

Without further comment, I present to you:

The Scientific Laws of Romance

The Male Scale: 10 Archetypes


Don't Go There: Top 20 Taboo Topics for Presidential Candidates

Funny shit, and all very true.

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More Pretty Pictures

You know, two things sort of pop out at me from this: first, the temperature seems to do a lot of quickly darting up and then easing it's way back down into a nice long ice age.

That, and if you lean in and sort of squint, it looks like the rise in temperature leads the rise in CO2 by, oh, eight hundred years or so.

(Image found at New Scientist.)

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Your Odds of Dying

In light of the recent posts about afterlives and immortality, I sort of felt this was appropriate:

Ultimately, something's gonna getcha. Neal Asher - a man whose books I've never not loved - gives the appropriate math-based rant over at The Skinner.

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The Bomb and The Bug

Let's say for a second the false flag theory of 9/11 is true. I'm not going to discuss this in the article (or bother debating it in the comments, if anyone's so inclined), as there are much better places for that.

It would imply the reason there's been no terrorist attack on American soil in the past six years is nothing to do with better security and everything to do with the fact that the government sees no need for another. The anger/fear reaction elicited by 9/11 were sufficient to get the war they wanted, and if we're lucky they're happy with that.

If their ambitions go deeper, though....

9/11 worked once. There's no reason another, similar attack couldn't work just as well. Just knocking down a building with a plane or a bomb wouldn't be sufficient, though; there are security measures already in place against that (so maniacally and rigidly focused on preventing that kind of attack, so useless for preventing any other.) And besides, now that the war's going it'll probably keep going forever, or at least as long as it keep paying for itself (see this post by John Robb at Global Guerrillas, Unleashing the Dogs of War.)

Maybe the ultimate plan is to complete the short-circuiting of democracy in America. Of course, for that you'd need something much scarier than a plane flying into a building. If you want to get something like, say, nation-wide martial law you'd need a really serious emergency or a really massive shock. I see two ways to go about this: either a Bomb or a Bug. Lets take a closer look at these two scenarios.

1. The Bomb, or "Shit, what happened to Springfield?"

If Americans woke up one day to hear that a city had been nuked out of existence, that tens of thousands of people were dead, with hundreds of thousands more on the way due to the radiation, their first reaction would be that someone, somewhere would pay.

There's an easy way, I think, to tell if the nuke is planted by the government or by al Qaeda. If the latter, they'll pick a target like LA or New York, one that'll maximize the economic damage, and kill the largest number of people. If the former, a smaller city will be picked, one that the US will be able to live without, wounded and angry. Let's call the city Springfield, an everytown that can be plucked out of existence without the economy noticing.

Where did the nuke come from? Oh, that's simple enough. Iran, Pakistan, the Soviet Union. If it's one of the first two there will be nuclear retaliation, and everything east of Iraq and west of India will be radioactive waste. If the latter - a plausible source for the device, as their poor security and corrupt officialdom of the 90s (not that they're so much better now) means that any number of their nukes might have leaked out onto the market - then while terrorists will be blamed for detonating it their countries might possibly escape total culpability in the eyes of the American people, and thus be spared a nuclear revenge that would be history's greatest genocide.

They would not, however, be spared bloodshed. The conventional war would most likely escalate greatly (aided by a large expansion in the robotics industry), with the aim not so much of conquering the Middle East, but of militarizing US society as thoroughly as possible. A militarized society, after all - especially one still in shock - is more accepting of public regimentation, and of the steady erosion and eventually total loss of their freedom.

2. The Bug

The outbreak hits a major city somewhere, and is suppressed with only a few thousand people dying (conversely, it wipes out a Springfield). Almost as soon as it hits the entire city is put under quarantine: anyone not involved in medical or security services is advised to remain at home, until further notice. Quickly suppressed outbreaks occur in a few other cities, claiming several hundred more lives, and other outbreaks occur in a few other countries around the world (likely claiming many more.)

The Quarantine would have to last for a few weeks to be effective, and in that time martial law could be slipped into place. All manner of restrictions on travel could be justified afterwards, in order to prevent any further outbreaks from taking place.

I could see the Quarantine become something very extreme. Restrictions on travel could mean that most office jobs converted to telecommuting, just to avoid the hassle of checkpoints. The fear of getting sick would motivate people to spend a lot of time at home, and the technology industry would be thrilled to play the enabler. In the long run, people could buy robots so they didn't actually have to leave their houses to perform errands.

There's a great advantage to that kind of situation for a tyranny. If you always know where everyone is, it's much easier to keep very close track of what they're doing. They could have all the free speech they wanted and it wouldn't mean a damn, for they'd all be under voluntary house arrest.

Which method is used is largely irrelevant. Both could be accomplished with relatively small teams; both would make fear pervasive to a degree we can't imagine today; both would thus, in short order, lead to autocracy of one kind or another. The forms need not be changed. There would still be a President, a Congress, Supreme Courts and a Constitution that they all pretended to love while ignoring utterly. But their grip on power would be absolute, insulated utterly from the will of the people they purport to serve and in fact rule with an iron fist.

Another thing they have in common is the Springfield factor. A real attack, either nuclear or biological, would claim not tens but hundreds of thousands of lives. It would target a large, dense city, and the economic damage would bring America to it's knees, wiping it out as a dominant world power. I'm betting that any cabal that merely wants to solidify their power over America also wants to preserve America's power as much as possible, and will thus avoid anything that causes real structural harm.

But hey, I could be wrong about that, in which case we're really in shit.

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Wednesday, September 5, 2007


Welcome, Speculist readers! Come for the iFly and the Baby Universes, stay for the ... ummm ... whatever else strikes my fancy (and hopefully yours.)

Thanks to the linkathon, my numbers have jumped up higher than they've ever been on this blog (that would be about thirty. Ah, obscurity ;)

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Dreams Come True

Humans have always dreamt of an afterlife. It's something we had to create, if only in our minds, once we made the conscious realization that try as we might to survive we would inevitably one day die. This must have come as a terrible shock to our ancestors in deep prehistory (for it was surely many hundreds of thousands of years ago that the realization was made); centuries, even millennia might have passed between the realization of death and the invention of an afterlife, and the interim must have been a melancholy period indeed. One can only imagine the neuroses that plagued the period during that time.

Belief in an afterlife is one of the only memes that nearly every religion seems to share. It doesn't need to be an endlessly delightful heaven: reincarnation, ancestor spirits, the empty gray afterworld of the Greeks, or even the endless torment of hell are all preferable to simple nothingness. Dreams of something after the grave are universal in our species.

It's in the human character, though, that we try to make our dreams real. Whether we're dreaming of breakfast or bridges, we make our dreams manifest, if we dream them long enough, and hard enough, and enough of us share it. There are a lot of us now, and we've been dreaming of an afterlife for a long time. You might say it's become the survival imperative apotheosized at the species level. With a dream that big, at some point the universe has to give.

That point will come soon.

Our dreams become more sophisticated with time. Once we dreamed of crossing small streams, and we cut down some trees; now, we dream of connecting islands to continents, and lay down strips of steel and concrete. Our dreams of an afterlife have grown the same way, accreting complexity as our numbers swelled and our records grew longer. Tales told around the campfire became towering religions, though remaining fantasies for all that. Fantasies are are still all we have, but for the first time those fantasies are starting to resemble technical blueprints rather than stories. We're learning what makes us us, deep inside our brains: neuroscience is mapping it in every relevant detail, cognitive science is figuring out how the parts all fit together, and information science is starting to put together working models.

Before many more decades are out, we'll be able to lift a persons soul out of their mind and put it in a computer. In all likelihood people won't even have to die first; some distant successor of an MRI might be able to read a person's soul in a matter of minutes, at which point you can either use it to back yourself up (in case of death, regrow a body and imprint the soul on it), or animate it, inhabiting either a simulation or a robot body (or another you, if you have extra bodies kicking around.) It's the latter options that I find really interesting; a backup is useful if all you want is immortality, but being able to inhabit multiple bodies simultaneously, now that has some interesting applications. Imagine being able to run a million you's in parallel, having a million times the experience you could have on your own (a million at least; that's assuming the sims aren't running much faster than you). Having bodies distributed around the world would lend people some interesting new capabilities as well, especially as robots - unlike people - are well-suited to survival beyond the Earth's biosphere. A person would live a life of ease at the center of a network of millions of their own personalities, spread through microchips and robots, that do all of their work for them.

You might question what need the network would have of that crusty old lump of meat sitting at its center, directing it's actions. Certainly there's no need for a template; once the first copy has been made, copies of that copy can be made with near-perfect fidelity a near infinite number of times (in practice, every copy could be so copied.) David Brin's idea in Kiln People - a novel that explores the nature of a world where people live in parallel - was to give the dittoes a maximum lifespan of days, and to make ditto-to-ditto copying impossible. In practice I don't see that as a likely technical limitation, although you never know. Still, I like to think humans as such would be kept around over the long run, if only as ornaments, much the same way many countries retain their politically non-functional monarchs.

In the world I see, that is exactly the place I see humanity as occupying. Every man a king of a country of himself, his soul become an eternal thing that survives beyond any one body, for it occupies many.

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Tuesday, September 4, 2007

How Likely is Life to Get Laid?

Via Considering the Universe, this fascinating 1998 essay from Robin Hanson, in which he applies the probability theory of hard steps to the Great Filter, the idea that the reason the universe is not already teeming with life is that there is at least one and very likely far more hard steps between dead matter and a wave of colonizing life moving out at the speed of light:

To support optimism regarding our future, we must find especially improbable past evolutionary steps. And in fact we can find a number of plausible candidates for groups of hard trial-and-error biological steps: life, complexity, sex, society, cradle and language. Presuming there are about nine hard steps total here, the Great Filter could be explained if the expected time for each of these steps averaged (logarithmically) to about thirty billion years, if only one percent of stars could support such steps, and if we have only about a one percent chance of not destroying ourselves soon (or permanently banning colonization).

It's a little technical but nothing the educated reader can't handle. It's certainly something to think about, and a little comforting to think that the explanation isn't that intelligent life always manages to wipe itself out when it hits the Singularity.

Also, this excellent essay from George Dvorsky over at BetterHumans, in which he brings everyone up to date on the latest developments in science pertaining to the Great Silence.

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Year Zero

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Year Zero is the best album Trent Reznor has ever done. A concept album whose plot is an alternate reality game is a really great idea, one that lends the album an intellectual and emotional depth that's simply not available otherwise. Here's the wiki if you're already interested.

For those who haven't heard about it, the idea is that the album is a warning from the near future - around the year 2020, as best as people have been able to tell - sent back in time along with a number of cached webpages through some quickly squelched development in quantum computing. The world that is revealed by this information is one in which the sinister cabal that currently controls the US government has metastasized. Democracy has been completely destroyed in all but name, a feat accomplished by scaring the shit out of the population through repeated and ever worse false flag operations, first a nuke and then a bioweapon. The latter gave them the excuse to start dumping a drug into the water supply that was purported to defend against the pathogen, but in reality is simply a drug designed to stupefy the population. The government is using it's newfound power to savage every part of the world with which it has contact: organ-farming the population in Guatemala, mass drug testing in Africa, and of course a continued war in the Mid-East - Iran's been nuked - which has long since ceasing making any sense save as a way of keeping the population distracted (it was those damn terrorists who nuked us and released the virus!)

That's the setup. What happens is that aliens, or God, or the entities that are running our simulated universe - my favored hypothesis, but really it's moot - appear and give humans an unmistakable warning. Either we change our ways right quick, or we get wiped out. They've been watching the species very closely, for a very long time, without interfering in our development, but things have reached a crisis point and they've revealed themselves.

In the end, of course, we get wiped out, deleted utterly from the universe. That's why the warning gets sent back.

This makes a kind of sense to me. We're approaching a time when a single state will be able to control the entire world, and once it's in place it will be stable for a very long time, having subsumed all other competitors. The initial form of that state will thus be of enormous importance to the future evolution of humanity, and more to the point, post-humanity: what spreads out from the Earth will either bless the universe around it or taint it with a horrible blight.

The aliens were hoping for something good. That's why they watched us so long, let us develop and grow. It's probably something they've done many times in the past, on millions or billions of other worlds (or in billions of other computer simulations): patiently watching a world for hundreds of millions of years, waiting for it's life to develop intelligence, and then closely watching the civilization as it advances through the inevitable technological stages. Eventually, the Singularity approaches, and it's at that point, one way or another, that the watchers reveal themselves. If the growing seed looks like it will grow into a benign coinhabitant of the cosmic civilization, it's inducted; if it's become something malign, it's terminated, quickly and without ceremony.

Neither permanent dystopias, which the state in Year Zero would have developed into, nor god-like aliens - the only creatures that could put an end to the malignancy - are exactly new ideas. Nevertheless Reznor has managed (uncharacteristically enough for a musician, though not so surprisingly given the obviously collaborative nature of the project) to combine them into a superlative and thought-provoking work of SF, one that is both deeply thoughtful and creepily plausible. It's not really a warning from the future, but it most certainly is a warning, sincere and frightening, one that all of us should take the time to think over.

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