Sunday, July 27, 2008

BYBS: 10 More Things I Like About You

This is a continuation of a previous BYBS posting that takes a more outward look than inward. Rather than blather about myself or how I see someone as being a blessing for me, I thought I would talk about things that I like about other bloggers/commenters/etc.

  • The one: who can be awfully determined, has a memory that would make an elephant blink, and and has a postive outlook that I envy.
  • Shay: who writes in the hopes of making a better world.
  • The Blue Panther: who came up with the idea for BYBS. I also admire his relentlessly positive attitude.
  • Sandy: I don't pretend to understand how she manages to visit so many sites and still remain so thoughtful. I also like the way that she can look at the world and see it a different, more beautiful way.
  • MsDemmie: who maintains a positive outlook on life in spite of some very trying times.
  • Paulie: whose eyes see beauty and who shares that vision with others.
  • Cybercelt: who shows that you can come at blogging and writing from very different perspectives.
  • Steve: I admire his willingness to share his thoughts with the rest of the world and to think about how that world responds to him.
  • NREL: an organization that is working towards a better world.
  • Roger Z., JRR, Greg B., Vernor and a host of other writers both living and kaput. They have the ability to share a dream or an idea that make the world a bit brighter.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

BYBS: Podcasts

I like listening to stuff while I drive to work. Over the years, I've found myself gravitating to National Public Radio (NPR). Not sure if they are particularly objective - they are sometimes branded a "tool" of (insert affiliation here) by (insert other organization here), but they have interesting topics and shows. The most important thing for me is that NPR does not have an endless stream of commercials. Instead, they tend to have endless, whining fund raisers.

Podcasts to the rescue! By listening to a Podcast, I can skip most (but not all) of the regular drivel I would otherwise have to endure. Furthermore, when someone mumbles or otherwise makes their utterance incomprehensible, I can backup and listen to said spot again. Furthermore, I can skip blather that I don't care about. Finally, podcasts are free.

Apple, the company I love to hate less than Microsoft, deserves a lot of credit for helping the world of podcasts. In particular the combination of the I-Pod and the I-Tunes service created a place where podcasts of all types could come together for people to search. Apple also made subscribing to a podcast quick and easy.

There are many other ways that Apple really made online music a reality, as well as hindering it, but I don't care so much about the world of for sale content. I'm also hard up for ideas to blog about, so I'm going to save that topic for another post.

A few of the podcasts that I recommend:

  • NPR: Fresh Air (depends on topic)
  • NPR: 7PM News Summary (depressing)
  • Science Talk: The Podcast of Scientific American
  • NPR: Sound Medicine (annoying musical interludes)
  • News Hour with Jim Lehre (depressing)
  • NPR: Driveway Moments (depends on topic)
  • InfoWorld Daily
  • Java Posse (on their good days)
  • NPR: Technology Podcast
  • General Psychology Lectures

Another nice aspect is the lack of obvious gnomish influence. Yes, I understand that you can't see them. No, the fact that I can see the little buggers does not make me insane...but it's not a good sign.

Anyhow, enjoy :-)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

What's all this "Singularity" stuff?

The short answer:

The Singularity is the idea that humanity, using technology, will become gods/super-powerful/whatever.

I don't think this will happen because I believe there are limits to what science/technology can do and because I think that humanity will run out of motivation before we even reach that limit.

The long answer:

The way I understand it, the idea of a technological singularity is that advances in technology have been coming faster and faster for the last 200 years. If the pace of increase continues, then advances will come so quickly as to be simultaneous – humanity will achieve in a week what used to take 10 years.

At that point, humans will effectively become gods: immortal, all-knowing and all-powerful.

The big problem(s) that I see with such theories are:

  • Unlimited technology
  • Motivation

Unlimited Technology

Inherent to the idea of a technological singularity is the notion that technology is infinite. I don't think there's any reason why this has to be the case. In my own field of computers, for example, there are definite limits to what you can and cannot do. Mind you, the limits may be ridiculous, like taking the total energy in the universe and feeding it into a big-honkin computer, but there are limits. From classical physics: force = mass times acceleration, at least at the level that you and I are familiar with.

So, if technology is limited, or at least limited in some areas, then it may well be the case that humanity can reach that limit very rapidly, but then very rapidly stop increasing. The question is: where is that limit? I think it is well short of what most people would consider "godhood."

Around the year 1900, there seemed to be the same belief that mankind would suddenly develop vast powers, using steam engines or electricity, but it didn't happen. In fact, we have many of the same problems we did then: war, disease, governments, etc.

What's worse is that some of the basic technologies like trains, batteries and fuel cells are the very same that we are looking at right now.


One of the driving forces behind technological advancement is a motivation to advance. But if you can transcend your limitations, especially with respect to intelligence, then why have motivation at all?

Looking at this from a different perspective, we assume that we will always be motivated. What if this is not the case? At some point, the pace of advance would slow, maybe even reverse.

This is not quite as crazy as it sounds. For example, the Japanese went through a period where they actively suppressed development of guns and firearms. As I understand it, this was because the samurai did not like the idea that some clown could learn how to utterly defeat them in the course of an afternoon (i.e. learn how to shoot someone), while it took years to learn how to be effective with a sword.

Then there was the Dark Ages in Europe where the pace of advancement slowed, or even went backwards.

So just to sum up, I don't think technology and science are unlimited. I also don't think that motivation is a given in all cases. In particular, don't believe that we can assume a motivation for science/technology to fuel unlimited advancement.

P.S. This blurb ignores the whole possibility of AIs "taking over" style of thing. If anybody is actually curious, I can babble on about that too :-)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Vernor Vinge

The author of several popular "hard" science fiction novels, Venor Vinge is responsible for many happy hours spent reading and daydreaming. The theme of a "technological singularity" runs through many of his works. The technological singularity, or simple "The Singularity" is the notion that, if scientific advances keep coming at a faster and faster pace, then eventually you reach a point where advances are essentially simultaneous. At that point it's hard to say what happens, but in his books, races in that situation seem to "ascend," vanishing from the world of mortals. In 1993 Vinge is quoted as saying:

Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.
Given that this is 2008, that means that we have 15 years to go. At that point he will be 79, so that still gives his books a decent amount of time to sell :-) Some of the ideas that I found interesting about Vinge's works are:
  • The timespans involved: Marooned in Real Time for example takes place over the course of 50 million years.
  • The approaches he takes to super-human intelligence: rather than out-and-out replacement, his works gravitate towards gradual enchancement.
  • The notion of The Singularity.
At the end of the day, it is just reading a book or daydreaming. A far more rewarding activity would be to do something like going out and living. But, as silly activities go, I find it enjoyable :-)