Monday, May 31, 2010


This isn't a Terminator Anti-Singularity blog, I promise. Remember when I said I'd be much less scared of grinning cyberskeletons than I would be of little buzzing cyberflies? (To read about my fear of cybermosquitoes in that last link, you have to scroll down a little but it's there.)

Well now:

[Added later: via Boing Boing, a group in Zurich is doing the same thing.]

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Los Angeles Always Makes Me Think of the Terminator

...but I think I can be forgiven. After all, it's not unreasonable to confuse the silent, dusty, post-apocalyptic sprawl, towers and warehouses pressing on all sides yet eerily devoid of life, patrolled by lurking inhuman predators (on the one hand) with the fictitious future Los Angeles in the movie (on the other hand).

Above: actors flash their pearly-whites in the line-up at a casting call outside an LA talent agency.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

What's Worse Than People Who Hate Video Games?

People who hate video games, except they've spent the last week playing one from 1986. Now I realize why I hate all video games: because you dummies didn't realize that video games were perfected with Star Glider, and everything since then is but a pale imitation.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Epidemiology of Cancerous von Neumann Comets, Part II

Original post here. The following belief is probably one of my weirdest ones but I'm confident in it and would like to test it. Still it's unlikely that we'll have evidence for or against in my own lifetime. Consequently I went to to post my prediction but learned only at the end that there's a fifty dollar publishing fee. No deal.

So here's what I was going to enter.

SUMMARY: By the time we have surveyed the surfaces of 1% of asteroids and comets in the Solar System, we will have found definitive evidence of extrasolar replicators, von Neumann probes or otherwise.

SUPPORTING ARGUMENTS: The argument has been made by Tipler that the absence of von Neumann probes is in fact much more damning to the prospect of extrasolar life than the absence of signals as observed by Fermi. That we, in the infancy of space exploration, have as yet an absence of evidence of von Neumann probes is certainly not evidence of absence; this is rather like a Roman orator having claimed that there are definitely no continents besides Europe, Africa and Asia. In fact there are good reasons why the Earth's surface would not be a good place for space-traveling replicators, the economics of gravity wells among them. Using the self-indication assumption and the explosion of our knowledge about nearby planetary systems, it is becoming increasingly unreasonable to suppose that there are no other replicators (planet-bound or otherwise). This means that if space-borne replicators are possible, they are probable, and we should look for evidence associated with comets and asteroids. I make this prediction contingent on exploration because I'm not nearly as confident about when that will happen. I do appreciate that 1% is still a massive number of bodies, so I don't realistically expect this to occur within the next two centuries.

[Added later: Japan is about to test solar sail technology which is one passive way that replicators could diffuse. The design is engineered to get to Venus, on the way accelerating to 100 m/s over six months, which translates to a Sun-to-Alpha Centauri crossing in a little over five millennia, a reasonable scale even for biological diffusion on Earth.]

Alien Taliban Hijack Voyager 2

As many in the science/technical community already new, Voyager 2 is acting strangely of late. NASA has been hard at work trying to figure out what's going on, but unfortunately they're ignoring the brilliant advice of Hartwig Hausdorf, who informs us that the spacecraft has been hijacked by aliens. Well obviously.

Let me just say I'm always glad when mediagenic crackpots aren't Americans.

My computer does unexpected stuff all the time, but I don't think it's because of aliens, unless you count Bill Gates. In my case it's often what IT professionals refer to as an "I-D-ten-T" error. So what's the difference here? Because Voyager 2 is a computer in space. Space is cool and aliens are there. So if something unexpected happens to a computer in space, then it must be aliens. Case closed.

As it turns out, there are lots of smart people at NASA and they've just figured out the problem. ("Well of course that's what they would say-" Shut up Hartwig, don't you have to go to an anti-vaccine conference or something?) Fortunately for the exciteable among us who prefer science fiction to science, there's still no good explanation for the Pioneer Anomaly. Meaning, aliens are doing it.

Monday, May 17, 2010

My Nemesis Was Kind Enough to Pose for a Picture

(Kaybee Toys in Manhattan, November 2002).

Statewide California Earthquake Drill 21 October

More information here. I'll go out on a limb and say it might actually be fun, plus then people can't keep muttering "Sure they can do public earthquake drills in Japan but that would never work in the U.S." In the meantime if you have the right kind of laptop you can join the earthquake sensor network. I wonder if they'll simulate earthquake lights prior to the drill?

I Didn't Even Know Dio Was Sick

I saw him backstage when he was playing with Maiden and Motorhead in San Jose. Real nice down to Earth guy.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

My Roadtrip to Ganymede

Nine years ago I decided to make the drive from San Francisco to Denver at Christmas. I took these at dawn in western Wyoming and between the wan sun and near-sterile landscape, when I developed these, they reminded me of what I imagine the surfaces of gas giant moons look like, minus the occasional sage.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Process Architecture of Linux vs. E. coli

They look different. E. coli on the left.

Linux is modular and easier to change, but E. coli is more resistant to disruption. Very cool paper here.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Sell 10^9 Shares in Skynet

Given my obsession with linking the Singularity and Skynet, I found this Economist post about the stock market plunge last week funny.

Friday, May 7, 2010

I am Apparently a Morbid SOB

I now have five "dark tourism" points. I didn't realize until now that I have engaged in what could be called a pattern of behavior. The five points I have are:

1. Columbine High School

2. The Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, TX, which a) is still there and staffed by Davidians and b) where I announced myself at the gate as Janet Reno, and then drove away quickly

3. Anton Lavey's last house (I picked some seed pods from noxious black weeds on the lot and planted them at my old house in Berkeley and my mom's house in Pennsylvania so there could be a sequel but so far, to my knowledge no scary music has started playing in either place, and there's not even a general sense of foreboding)

4. The last location of the Jim Jones church (where I led a run and had the group celebrate by drinking spiked grape Kool-Aid instead of our usual beer)

5. And as of this week, the Heaven's Gate house. von Neumann comets or not, boys, bad idea.

Apparently they're developing the Jim Jones site in Guyana as a "dark tourism" site, but I find that offensive. Because then you would be paying to be briefly amused by human suffering and death (instead of seeing it for free).

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Cool Job: Shooting Lasers at the Moon

I can't believe someone gets paid to do stuff like this.

Future Corporate Personhood: Union Pacific Meets Skynet

This is cross-posted at my economics and social science blog The Late Enlightenment.

In 1886, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a legal decision which is regarded as significant because it in effect granted corporations legal personhood. Southern Pacific Railroad was the defendant in a case brought by Santa Clara County, California (the modern day location of Silicon Valley).

We can all concede that this seems strange on its face. A corporation is a social and legal fiction that exists by fiat of its owners and stake-holders, and has no free will of its own. By the same token you can't get out of a car accident by saying (for example) "It was my mirror that clipped you, not me, and the mirror is the car's property, not mine." By the same token, your dog doesn't own his leash, your computer doesn't own your printer, etc. - you do - and you're responsible for them. Thinking about it this way makes it seem even more bizarre that a mere century and a half ago, in much of the U.S., you couldn't own property if your skin wasn't the right color, because you yourself were property (or could be). Again: a computer can't own a printer.

That the legal conceit of corporate personhood seems strange does not mean that it is bad. There are lots of mutually-agreed social hallucinations that have ended up benefiting their participants, materially or otherwise: social mores, nation-states, games, religions, and certifications. Some of these mutual hallucinations differ in that they are considered inarguably "real" constituents of objective reality outside of their human participants, while some are not. Some of them are more voluntary, artificial, and explicitly engineered for a purpose; the trend is toward these. This is a good thing, and corporations are a prime example. Everyone knows that a corporation isn't a person, but legal conceits are like the social equivalent of capital markets or enzymes: as long as it's above board, everyone winks and then is okay calling a spade a club until you get the loan, or you lower the energy of the transition state. Then you get over whatever barrier you had to wealth or energy generation, and everyone gets what they want.

Some seem concerned at the unnaturalness of these legal conceits and fear that once we legitimize such silliness as corporate personhood, we open the door to a future in which humans exist enmeshed in an increasingly byzantine network of such arrangements. This phobia is portrayed darkly in books like The Unincorporated Man, which attempts to convey a dystopia in which one such future legal conceit is the opposite of the Union Pacific decision, where individuals incorporate themselves and sell shares of themselves to investors. In fact, due to a desire for wealth creation driving an increasing profusion of complex social arrangements, a world like that one is almost certain to come to pass, and furthermore I hope it does! No, I personally cannot imagine a world of personal corporatehood, and if I woke up in 2100, I'm sure I would have a hard time adjusting. That in itself is no argument against such an arrangement. In the same vein Julius Caesar would have been equally clueless about (and perhaps frightened of) the concept of corporate personhood, though if he were born in 1960 I bet he would get it just fine.

There is one concern I do have for the future of corporate personhood specifically that I haven't seen discussed and which I grant will seem esoteric. Corporate personhood is a safe legal fiction only when the property owned by the corporation is not equivalent in its abilities to a person. That is, there was no confusion about the bounds of property and person in 1886 or today. None of the steam engines sitting in Southern Pacific railyards had the potential to achieve a place in the Southern Pacific boardroom. This observation will seem less pointless when we recognize that some of the property of corporations will almost certainly, by the end of this century, be at least equal in decision-making ability to board members. In 2100 the steam engines or at least the computers running them will probably have a say in corporate governance. If a corporation consists of a single powerful computer, that corporation will then be a person, both legally and (de facto) cognitively.

If you've read Stross's Accelerando, it's hard not to think of the computer system that was constantly spinning multinational shell corporations around itself to protect its owner's interests. We can argue later whether these machines are "conscious", "intelligent", or any other adjective that interests you. But will we see incorporated expert systems with no human board members? Is this a threat to the human economy? Is this an argument for or against designing a constitution in a legal programming language that has to be compiled and can't execute until its internal logic is consistent? The utility of these legal fictions is that we live in the real world and we can reel them back when they get too non-sensical or damaging; at such time that corporate personhood is deemed a threat to human happiness and survival, we can eliminate the convention. We can't do this with a corporation that has literal vested interests of its own.

Can Radon Emissions Predict Earthquakes?

Story about Nobel laureate Georges Charpak's work here. Being from Pennsylvania, I thought only certain parts of the world with lots of uranium-containing pitchblende in the bedrock (like Pennsylvania) were uniquely afflicted with radon emissions. (Hat tip Boing Boing).

To join the earthquake sensor network (geology's answer to SETI) go here.

To read about other as-yet unexplained phenomena associated with earthquakes, go here.