Showing posts from 2012

What is reductionism

A friend sent me links to the Robert Sapolski lectures on biology and behavior, specifically the lecture about Chaos and Reductionism. Nice stuff, well worth watching. Though of course I wouldn't be me if I didn't notice that there were some things about those two topics that would need to be presented a bit differently.

So today, for Christmas, reductionism and how it manifests itself. The short answer for 'what is reductionism?' is, 'modular thinking applied to science'. For the long answer, use the read more link.

I'm an a-hole

So then. It is December 22nd, 2012.

And I am watching History Channel "documentaries" about 2012 end prophecies. And gloating.

Yeah. Cheap, very cheap, I know.

But also enjoyable. Well, mostly. I never bought into the extreme End of the World things at the best of times, but the reason for gloating now is of course how obviously wrong those things were. The one blemish is that History Channel always 'hedges their bets'. It's clear they a) pursue such tripe for sensationalism and b) have the sense not to believe it themselves.

What a shame. This keeps the egg off their faces. I do wonder what happened to the 'experts' they interviewed.

On fiction: some idle napkin calculation

In preparation for writing yet another piece of fan-fiction, I browsed a bit of the AvP wiki. I'm ... impressed? amused? ... that the article on the Nostromo actually has numbers attached to the engine performance. The article on the Sulaco is a bit more skimpy on such data (and it appears to confuse acceleration for velocity).

I love hard sci-fi, and an attempt to make a space-faring future plausible is, I believe, an interesting source of stories. Sometimes though, I wonder whether it's not just better to leave the whole thing numberless. You want truckers in space, fine, postulate some magic that makes getting into space cheap. As long as you follow the implications of the magic, you'll be fine. No need to restrict yourself to tech that, maybe, could actually be built. Or else, you'll likely get in trouble.

What have our brains ever done for us?

There are some voices in the futurology/singularity/pie-in-the-sky business that are saying, sometime soon we will have electronic devices that will exceed the computing power of the human brain. The reasoning goes, when that happens, AI will really take off and the Singularity would finally occur, as intelligent machines will find ever more ingenious ways to increase their computing power. All this is supposed to start, remember, because your laptop, or whatever you'll have in about ten years, will have more computing power than you.

I wonder though where the laptop, or whatever you're having, doesn't already exceed your computing power, in a way. Let me explain.

Sci-hype: or how I learned to stop worrying and love the black-hole starship

There's a lot of, to put it mildly, hair-brained ideas being put forth these years in the service of "pop-sci". Yeah, I suppose they sorta illustrate some concepts, maybe, but they aren't really worth much. Like, say, that thought experiment from Michio Kaku about destroying a planet with nuke-powered orbital lasers. Given the notoriously low efficiency of lasers, why not scrap them and just use the nukes?

Every so often though, an idea finds its way under the rock where I live and sometimes that idea can warm my cynical hater heart. Case in point- what if we had, instead of an engine, a black hole to power our spaceship to the stars?

On fiction- logging review replies

As I've mentioned before, I'm writing a little Prometheus fanfic over at It's not 'selling like hot cakes', as they'd say, but still, some people did feel inclined to leave a comment, and it's only fair to make the responses to their public comments also public. Most of the responses were PMs to the review authors. Apart from cases where the authors reviewed "anonymously" (not having logged in), in which case this is the first time I could respond. Here goes:

On fiction- everyman revisited at a Roadside Picnic

I've recently re-read "Roadside Picnic", from the Strugatski brothers. And I must say, when Norman Spinrad praised the moral transformation present in Alfred Bester's "The stars my destination", I think he should have actually been talking about this book.

"Roadside Picnic" is famous for 'The Zone', or rather, the Zones, places where some kind of aliens have landed, then quickly departed, without attempting contact with humanity, but having left behind various bizzare artefacts.

You have an early example of nanotech in SF, 'the witches' jelly', a "colloidal gas" which turns organic matter into more witches' jelly. You have 'mosquito mange', a "graviconcentrate", a region of intense gravitational attraction that can squish unwary passers-by. You have 'empties', whose purpose is mysterious, 'so-so's, which turn out to be eternal, and replicating, batteries, and so on.

Sci-hype: peta-bytes of BS

I recently bumped into one of those estimations of the power of the human brain, the kind made to make us very proud of our hardware, here. So, apparently, says Paul Reber professor of psychology at Northwestern University, the brain has 2.5 petabytes of long-term storage available. To be fair, his article was mostly meant to reassure any worried readers that they'll never have their brain warn them about "low disk space". Putting a number on that capacity though is very dubious, and as someone with some experience in computer systems, I'll now explain why.

The AI effect - from Mechanical Turks to Deep Blue

How contradictory we are. On the one hand, we seem to ascribe too much intellectual power where just trickery exists. But we're just as likely to go in a kind of opposite direction, and dismiss a mental achievement once it is revealed as 'mere computation'. That's what the AI effect is all about, and a recent foray into history brought it in sharp focus.

On fiction: so you want to be a writer?

Apparently, the answer to that question is "yes" for many people. Certainly enough, to make the "help you become a writer" literature a viable genre in itself.

Well, I'm one of the people for which the answer is "yes", so I figured, why not check out some of the stuff that's out there, especially when it's freely available on youtube? Here's what I found so far.

Sci-hype: the traveling salesman problem, now with bees (again)

Over at slate there's an article about how the birds and the bees do it (solve the Traveling Salesman Problem). By now, this should be a genre of pop-sci article I think. "Here's this incredibly difficult problem; humans struggle with it, massive computers are needed to solve it, yet these simple beings do it so efficiently".

And it's uniformly crud, an example of the bad pop-sci that so annoys me.

On fiction- reading Spaihts' script for Prometheus

I just can't seem to get away from that, can I. Anyway, recently rumors emerged, confirmed by Spaihts himself, that his original script for Pro- actually, "Alien: Engineers" as it was called, was leaked online. Originally it could be found at scribd, but that link has been killed by the film's producers. I managed to locate a copy with a "spaihts prometheus script pdf" google search which pointed me to*, so try that, may work for a day or so more.

(*: no, I won't put a link to the pdf here.)

So I found a copy, I've read it. And now for some spoilery impressions.

Random US election musings from a non-US citizen

So as the title says, since I'm not US born nor a US-citizen, I don't really have a horse in that election and can watch it with only casual interest. It does produce some rather entertaining things, like say this video from Joss Whedon. It's really funny, go watch it if you haven't already.

He's not the only one who frames the election in such, for lack of a better word, stark terms. There's similar gnashing of teeth on the Republican side. It's very clear, for each side, that a vote for the wrong person is Apocalyptic. Literally, if you believe Whedon doesn't have his tongue in his cheek. It's shocking, for both sides, that the election can be so close when one option is so obviously wrong.

Since I don't really live in the US nor follow all the news and, more importantly, the wonk commentary, I'm the first to admit to not being a qualified judge of the situation. But my worthless opinion is that, actually, none of the choices is apocalypti…

On fiction- Prometheus (DVD) and what could have been

It's no secret by now to anyone not living under a rock that Prometheus the movie has been in cinemas, where it left a rather ... meh impression. Or rather, hostility. The film has many vocal detractors; I understand where they're coming from.

I still love the film.


Oh look, 15th post! Significant because any post beyond this arbitrary threshold which I've arbitrarily set will cause an "older posts" link to appear. Time to experiment a bit with these newfangled inventions called "tags". I wonder what they do.

Update: what the hell? I make one post with the tag 'Prometheus' and it quickly gets 20 hits from That's fairly unimpressive on its own (though compared with the other posts' viewcounts, astronomical), but what's odd is that the google search in question was for 'Prometheus stream'. If you came here looking for that I must apologize.

The ELIZA effect

Back in the 1960s, Joseph Weizenbaum made some of the first chatterbots. Some excerpts from conversations between those bots and human beings can be found here. What was rather peculiar, despite knowing that the bots were bots, many users felt an emotional connection of some kind developing. Even if there was nothing on the bot's part to support such a thing. Even if the human participant knew that.

That turn of events is particularly interesting to me and my 'mind-likeness' program, as it shows a few things ...

1. Human beings are very keen on/easily tricked into applying mind-likeness/intentional stance. However, the fact that spurious correlations may appear between unrelated phenomena does not make correlation a useless statistical tool, and similarly mind-likeness/intentional stance is often useful to deploy. All the more reason to understand how to deploy it correctly.

2. The nature of the trickery appears misunderstood in the accounts of the experiment. It doesn'…

Want to model minds? Need to model stupidity

A recent post dealt with a puzzle involving perfect deductive intellects, beings who could, instantly, deduce every possible implication of their current state of knowledge. Obviously, it's not something that can be achieved with physical computers nor brains. Indeed, there's at least one whole art form concerning itself with the control of how people allocate their cognitive resources. So it's not too insightful to suggest that any model of a human mind -or any mind- needs to account for that mind's limitations.

The problem is not just one of limited resources. In particular, in some regards the human mind is patently weird, as a few other puzzles show.

A common knowledge puzzle

Here's a nifty gem of epistemic logic, a little puzzle that crops around in many forms. It appears at Terence Tao's blog, there's also an xkcd page about it, and there are several variations on it. Consider this one, simpler but complex enough to capture the subtlety: suppose there's a group of five aliens who are highly logical beings (whatever one can deduce, will be immediately deduced by that alien) but also rather quirky. None of them know the color of their own eyes, they don't speak with each other about eye colors, and they live where no reflective surfaces or such will ever tell them that information. So each alien knows only the colors of the others' eyes and not their own. If it matters, possible eye colors that the aliens know about are blue, green, red, black. As it happens, two out of the aliens in the group have blue eyes, and the remaining three have black eyes. A further quirk of these aliens: if ever one of them discovers the color of his/her …

Playing with centrality measures

Toyed a bit with the Graph parts of BOOST C++. Very useful tool, I'll need to learn more of it. So far, I've revisited an older post from this blog. A brief recap: in some grid of 'workshops'/'research centers' that are making their way up a tech tree by discovery and/or knowledge transfer from their neighbors, workshops that are closer to the center of the grid/farther away from obstacles to knowledge transfer are more likely to reach the top of the tree first. For some general graph, not just a grid, what measure of centrality would capture this behaviour?

So, what about space jumps?

A few days ago, Felix Baumgartner flew in a Helium-filled balloon to an altitude of 39 kilometers and then jumped out. The data is being pored over by the FAI to get the exact figures, but he did indeed perform the highest to date manned ascent in a balloon and highest parachute jumped, achieved supersonic velocity while free-falling, and the longest recorded free fall distance, but not longest free fall time- that record still belongs to Joseph Kittinger, the first man to do a sky dive from the stratosphere in 1960. Kittinger also served as the ground-based adviser to Baumgartner today, a nice passing the torch moment.

Baumgartner's jump was a nifty Red Bull project, a daredevil stunt and good tv (hey I liked it loads). Back in Kittinger's day, there was another concern- would an astronaut be able to bail out of a malfunctioning craft and get to ground safely?

What about simple mind-likeness for a change?

I recently received a link to an article by David Deutsch about why Artificial General Intelligence (allegedly) is going nowhere even though by all indication it should be possible. One thing about that and the discussion it generated is fairly uncontroversial: the problem of what intelligence means is so ill specified so as to make any answer pointless. I don't think it's the case that AGI has been standing still, but for every new, and genuinely cool development, the usual response is that it's just some small task part of a larger unknown whole. If we have a clearly defined problem (like, say, make suggestions for other items of potential interest on then we can make progress. If the problem is ill-defined, one can always shift the goal-posts.

Which results in discussions about consciousness and intelligence and the meaning of it all that are actually rather sterile, merely occasions for the posters to sound smart. At least in their own eyes. I can certainly…

On fiction: subversive aliens

There's a tendency for creative types living in the West to pat themselves on the back, "at least we don't have to work under the constraints imposed by Soviet propaganda". True, but not quite a complete picture. Censorship has many forms, many disguised by the mechanisms that power the publishing and distribution industry, and it can be found everywhere, including in countries that value freedom of speech. Conversely, how censorship manifested itself in the Soviet world and its satellites varied from place to place and time to time. It wasn't necessarily the case that an unpleasant author would find themselves with a new unwanted hole in their head, or splitting rocks in some frozen wasteland.

On fiction- common heroes, the best heroes? (review of "The Stars my destination" by Alfred Bester)

A warning. This review of The Stars my destination will contain mild spoilers, and since it's usually not considered decent for a review to do this, I must offer a justification.

I found out about Bester's work from one of Norman Spinrad's critical essays, "Emperor of Everything". It's one of the pieces collected in Spinrad's Science-Fiction in the Real World, a book I recommend for its insightful analysis, witty writing, and quaint overuse of the word 'puissant'. Seriously, go read it, not just the excerpts here.

But it was that essay of Spinrad's that made me very interested in Bester's book, so I'd say that whatever is revealed there is not a spoiler, but a teaser:

A look at Endosymbiosis- a crazy idea that worked

While researching for the latest chapter in my Prometheus fanfic I stumbled (well, stumbled again) on the theory of endosymbiosis. Which is that, sometimes, a collaboration between two or more organisms, who may even have been in a predatory race at some point, results in them permanently merging into one single individual. In particular, the structure of the eukariotic cell, which is the type of cell that animals and multicellular plants are made of, appears to be the result of several endosymbiotic events.

On fiction: this bushel of PhDs non-sense must stop. Now.

I'll freely admit that, when writing biographical details for the characters in my Prometheus fanfic, my approach is "if it's consistent with the movie, then it works (without needing the Alternate Universe warning)". For the most part, the details I invent would easily not need mentioning in the film, and are rarely that pivotal to events, so I think I can get away with this. Besides, I'm not sure which biography is canon after all.

I sure hope though, it's not the one on the Alien vs Predator wiki. There we read that Elizabeth Shaw, a woman who doesn't look past thirty, has PhDs in paleontology, archaeology, comparative mythology and memetics. Oooh dear.

Space-walks: a few basics

Over on, I have this story set after the ending of Prometheus (the 2012 film). And just because I can, I had one of the main characters, Elizabeth Shaw, do a spacewalk outside the Doughnut of Death 2.0 and using a Colt .45 semiautomatic to propel herself around. I was asked, is any of this even possible? Read on!

On fiction- sorta reviewing "The Newsroom"

Recently a friend of mine showed me, or tried to, the first episode of the new-ish series from Aaron Sorkin, "The Newsroom".

Do I need to preface this by saying that the following is my opinion? The show has been renewed for a second season, so obviously quite a lot of people like it (including at least one of my friends), but I can't for the life of me see why. As the first episode reached its halfway point, I took out my decades old mobile phone and started a game of Snake Xenzia in a desperate bid to escape the boredom emanating from the TV screen.

"An idea whose time has come"- why do independent discoveries happen

I've been watching The Mindscape of Alan Moore, and I recommend you do too. I love Alan Moore. He's a particular mix of crazy and lucid that's always interesting to watch, even when not entirely agreeing with him, and in The Mindscape, he hints at a kind of philosophical approach to the world that's both infused by magical thinking and materialistic rationality. There will be more on that particular mix in this blog, a kind of ongoing project of the BLAND Corporation, but the inspiration is Moore and it is fitting that one of the first posts here is dedicated to discussing one of the ideas Moore puts forth in that film.

An idea whose time has come

Hello and welcome to the BLAND Corporation. Or BLANDCorporatio, and the missing 'n' is not a typo. Well, not anymore.

This will be the place for me to post whatever stuff strikes my fancy. Which will eventually be mostly mathy things, especially since writing about them is one of the ways in which I try to learn. As Feynman said, you only really understand something if you can explain it in an undergraduate course. And most of the things I'll tackle will be fairly non-esoteric, at least if one followed a science/engineering study path. I'll also write about science in general, because I love it. Doing some computer simulations and maybe some simple experiments, pursuing some of my own musings on the thing, time and resources allowing.

I'll also write about art and fiction, sometimes my own, sometimes reviews of other people's work. I can't say I read as much as I should/want to. Not fiction anyway. So trying to review some story or novel every week or so …