Sunday, May 29, 2011

Cast Iron Crow: New Album, plus June and July Shows

From the Fertile Crescent of metal itself, Castro Valley, California!


Saturday June 11 12pm-3pm
Bayfair Mall Parking Lot, 15555 E 14th St, San Leandro

Thursday, July 7 at 7:30pm
The New Parish, 579 18th Street, Oakland

Thursday, July 28 at 6:00pm
The Englander, 101 Parrott Street, San Leandro

Cast Iron crow on Facebook

Cast Iron Crow On Youtube

Until then, here's CIC at the New Parish in Oakland.

Where Will AI Become Dangerous First?

If something like a singularity occurs and is a threat to humans, it is likely to first make an impact in those areas:

- where machines are functioning largely autonomously, and/or

- where their functioning has already been driven by something very like natural selection, usually where there is immediate material incentive for human drivers, and/or

- where machines are already specialized to remotely monitor or harm humans.

Machines will also have an advantage in areas where humans think irrationally due to the heuristics and still-very-dominant pre-rational resposnes left over from our evolutionary past. There are already a number of such examples.

Source: Southwest Research Institute

- Border control automation, particularly along the U.S.-Mexico border. At this point it's largely metaphorical to say that while you're hiking in the border areas you feel like a human being watched remotely by HK's in the Terminator franchise. The degree of metaphorical-ness is decreasing. (Category: specialized to remotely monitor or harm humans)

- Warfare, especially in theaters inaccessible or hostile to humans - i.e. in the air, in the water, in harsh climates, particularly dry or cold ones. (Category: specialized to remotely monitor or harm humans)

- Chatbots, usually trying to draw us in with promises sexual activity or at least live web viewing thereof, humorously described at Collision Detection. Alan Turing didn't see this coming. (Category: immediate material incentive. "The pursuit of purloined credit cards has probably fueled more cutting-edge AI -- and subsequent fraud-detection bots -- than actual academic AI".)

- High frequency trading algorithms (category: largely autonomous)

As an aside, it's interesting that finance has taken so well to automation, but that law is lagging so far behind. Why do we NOT have (for example) a constitutional programming language, so that only a consistent constitution will compile, or an algorithm to automate at least the majority of court cases? This, despite the lawyers' clever attempt to wake Skynet, which lies dreaming in Rlyeh, to eat them first.

As remarked before, a really smart AI will not launch nuclear weapons and send a bunch of metal Halloween skeletons out to get you. It will know we expect existential threats to come from other humans or at least corporeal forms that are similar to the threats we faced in the paleolithic. So hostile AIs will break the stock and commodities market, wreck the crops and the fuel and water infrastructures, all while distracting us with superstitions, pornography, and threats that have scary teeth.

"Man's Life Riddled with Continuity Errors"

It's often profitable to compare the decisions and events in our own lives honestly with the clean, coherent plot-lines we see in fiction. (From the Onion.)

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Some Bay Area Hardcore For You

Behold, Limnus:

Che Cafe and Other San Diego Metal Updates

1) Che Cafe at UCSD is awesome and has metal and hardcore acts. If you're in San Diego you should go there. Of course I haven't been able to make it even though it's all of 300 yards from my part of the campus. Recent visitors:

Dead in the Dirt
Run With the Hunted (they have a song called Occam's Razor so they have to be cool)
Children of God
Fed to the Wolves

Other local metal/hardcore resources:

I saw on their Twitter feed that Che Cafe got shut down last night due to a noise complaint. Really? From who?! It wasn't a metal show but that still sucks because it sets a precedent. Maybe they out to complain about the auditorium up the hill from them.

2) Of course Iraqi-American metal maniacs Acrassicauda are coming tomorrow to Brick by Brick on the 29th! Really wish I could go to this so if you're reading this, YOU go, and I'll live vicariously through you.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Best Blog Ever: Into the Void

It's Into the Void, which features about the coolest combination of metal and world travel that you've ever seen. If nothing else, check out their pictures from the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia. Yellowstone-meets-the-Sahara-meets-Io. If there's anywhere on this planet where the laws of reality break down and the alienness of other dimensions is leaking into our own, this is it.

From their blog. More amazingness there that will make you envious of their trip.

While you're checking them out, if you're in the mood for some classic 70s/80s style metal, check out Francois's band Cauchemar.

Where Are the Post-Singularity Replicators: A New One for Fermi and Bostrom

One of the underlying assumptions of singularity arguments is that not only will technology improve sufficiently to hit an inflection point beyond which tools improve themselves to the point of something usefully called intelligence and reproduction, but that this is basically inevitable, as long as we don't destroy ourselves before then. (Whether the singularity would destroy us is another question.) A final assumption is that sufficiently advanced post-singularity machines will be able to preserve or add to themselves, or replicate, by recruiting "dumb" matter far better than current Earth biology can, as we do when we eat and breathe.

If we make the additional assumption that any intelligence in the universe which uses tools and has behavior will incrementally improve those tools - then the same should happen for any other species.

Taking these assumptions as valid, we should assume that the universe we observe should already be heavily influenced by singularity events. But it is NOT obviously behaving in any way that dumb matter doesn't behave. I observed in a previous post that singularity arguments, taken to their conclusion, track Bostrom and Fermi: if these are such powerful principles in the evolution of the universe, shouldn't we already be experiencing the consequences?

Even more generally speaking (outside of singularity arguments) shouldn't we assume that, given enough time, most matter and energy will eventually be locked up into replicators, if living things and/or intelligence continues to expand? It's worth emphasizing that all of the arguments are some version of the self-indication argument, although the where-are-all-the-singularity argument is a hypothetical SIA, which I am using to argue against the probability of a singularity.

The most likely answer, based on what we know so far, is that there have been no singularities, which in turn means that it is less likely than we might otherwise have thought that we will have a singularity. While some version of panspermia seems more and more plausible, the seeding of young worlds with nucleobases and amino acids isn't exactly what people have in mind in these discussions. Indeed the absence of expanding "life clouds" argues not just against singularities as such but against the indefinite expansion and survival of life. But there are a number of possible counterarguments:

- Entropy wins; matter and energy also get locked up into black holes faster than life and/or intelligence can employ that matter for their own preservation.

- By the nature of physics, only a very small fraction of matter and energy can be pressed into service as a substrate for life and intelligence.

- Replicators are always unstable processes. This solves Fermi's paradox by making Drake's omega attrition factor much more influential to the outcome.

- Most of what we observe is indeed the result of such processes (galaxies, stars, our own solar system?) and we either don't have the pattern recognition skills to see it or are only observing a vanishingly small slice of possible data. (This one makes for the best science fiction ideas, and also is more analogous to Bostrom than Fermi.)

- Humans are the only species that uses tools and improves them.

- We're lucky and we're the first, or one of the first, and the expanding sphere of others' computronium hasn't hit us yet.

If I had to bet, I would bet against the last two.

The Bangles, Hazy Shade of Winter

Yes, really. So it makes me less metal, so sue me. I've liked this version ever since they released it when I was in seventh grade. My excuse is that I was listening to it on a hike yesterday and posting it here seemed like a good idea when I was at altitude and oxygen-deprived. But in fact I would say that liking the guitar part was an early indicator of my descent into metal, much like the guitar solo in Prince's Let's Go Crazy. That's what I tell myself anyway.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Investigating a Comet Lifecycle

Comets are appearing more and more chemically interesting. They contain amino acids, they contain clays and compounds that are associated with liquid-water chemistry. Delivery of nitrogen to the early Earth by comets seems increasingly plausible. Most speculatively, for reasons I argued previously, we should expect to find evidence of von Neumann probes on chemically rich and active carbonaceous chondrite asteroids and comets.

However, in our brief encounters with the comets (always near perihelion), we may not be getting a complete picture of the chemistry that takes place on or around the comet. A small permanent probe or probes may be useful. Because of the volatility and small size of a comet, a single probe is quite likely to be lost after a short period.

Consequently the small ("thumbnail") satellites which were recently designed by Cornell and are now being investigated may be a good option. A comet with a short period could be targeted, so we could get results sooner and the probes wouldn't have to last as long. Multiple small probes could actually be designed to be blown back off at some point and collect data from the tail may givve us a clearer view into the full lifecycle of a comet as it warms during its descent to the sun.

What We Need More Of: Pointless Tribute Videos with Rock Music

You know what we all really want to see? MORE Youtube videos where the video is random scenes from a movie, and the audio is rock songs that 15 year-olds like, so you can't enjoy either the movie scene or the rock song. Those are really useful. After all, when I click on something I never want to see the scene from the actual movie. There are JUST NOT ENOUGH OF THESE.

Thank you. Go about your business.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Some Problems and Gems in the Asimov Canon

Josh Wimmer and Alasdair Wilkins have a really excellent discussion series at io9 about Asimov's Foundation novels. Though as sf fans we pride ourselves on being smart, ironically too often criticism of the genre comes across as fawning. Much of the rest is un-useful negativity with overwrought graduate-school vocabulary. But Wimmer and Wilkins capture a tone of deep appreciation that highlights problems and further questions which can only come from a true passion for the genre, and their reflections are a real pleasure to read. Of course I can't resist adding my own thoughts.

Aliens do make occasional appearances in Asimov's work, but it's true that they're conspicuously absent relative to the rest of the genre. I've long wondered why this might have been. It could be that Asimov wasn't interested in imagining a species without some realistic speculation about their biochemistry (which was after what Asimov's PhD was in). It could also be that he saw what passed for "alien" elsewhere in sf and he didn't want to make the same mistakes. By that I mean, most aliens in written science fiction are the prose equivalent of humans with ridges on their foreheads. To this end, don't be too eager to mock Klingons. An amoeba the size of a mountain that has humanly-comprehensible motivations seems no less ridiculous than an alien with copper-based blood that ended up looking like an elf. At least many of the limitations of TV science fiction come from creators' budgets rather than their brains. Gregory Benford said that rendering the alien is the holy grail of science fiction, so maybe Asimov recognized it for the feat it was, and chose (logically) to expend his efforts elsewhere. I can't claim to feel robbed of the fruits of his talent as a result.

Possibly, whatever questions science fiction authors are exploring with aliens weren't questions that interested Asimov. (Assuming the alien is being used to explore any questions; having them in the story just as mind candy is still a legitimate use of aliens as a literary device, assuming they're actually cool.) Although there is clear technical problem-solving in Asimov's story as Wimmer pointed out (e.g. how to find our solar system from the center of the galaxy), I would argue that Asimov's chief concerns are the interplay between history, psychology, logic and morality. Yes, morality. In adulthood, I have a much greater appreciation for the Three Laws as a vehicle for the discussion of moral dilemmas than I did when I read the books in my mid-teens, and in the intervening years I've also wondered to what extent the atheist Asimov was influenced by an upbringing with the explicit moral dicta of Judaism. (Wondered, because I don't know if he was raised religious or in a predominantly secular community.)

Foundation and Earth is not a "dead end" for the Foundation series. A writer in a corner doesn't draw attention to the corner. To be clear, I'm not making one of those irritating arguments that central figures in literary canons can do no wrong, and that therefore when we find problems in their work, they must just be some clever device or game that we philistines can't appreciate. Asimov no doubt missed points here and there, but this isn't one of them. I'm going to requote the closing lines of Foundation and Earth, as Wimmer and Wilkins did:

"In all human history, no other intelligence has impinged on us, to our knowledge. This need only continue a few more centuries, perhaps a little more than one ten thousandth of the time civilization has already existed, and we will be safe. After all," and here Trevize felt a sudden twinge of trouble, which he forced himself to disregard, "it is not as though we had the enemy already here among us."

And he did not look down to meet the brooding eyes of Fallom — hermaphroditic, transductive, different — as they rested unfathomably, on him.

How could he possibly have drawn more attention to this ending? This passage has resonated in my mind for over two decades now. By announcing this so deliberately, I think he was quite explicitly leaving the way open for future works that would take place after Foundation and Earth. Asimov respects his readers enough to assume they're paying attention and know what he's up to. An excellent example is the change in tone, particularly with regard to sex, between his 1957 The Naked Sun (1956) and The Robots of Dawn (1983). Of course, a major cultural shift had taken place in the real world in the years that elapsed between the two publications, and the books reflected that - to the point where an event in the first novel was explicitly reinterpreted in the second novel as an orgasm! The discussions between Lije Bailey and Gladia Delmarre on this matter highlight to some extent why this should be so, but even without this, it's obvious to even the most tone-deaf reader that the emergence of sex as an Asimov theme had more to do with contemporary changes in the real history of twentieth century Earth than with any revolution in Spacer culture. As before, the alternatives are that either a) Isaac Asimov didn't know what he was doing, or b) that he knew exactly what he was doing and why, and assumed you would too. It also bears pointing out that option (b) is more in keeping with Asimov's famously transparent prose.

Above: Janov Pelorat, shortly before his famed discovery of humanity's homeworld in the Sol system.

Why is there an early- and latter-day Asimov? Wimmer and Wilkins also make a comment about the difference between early and late Asimov; one of the stylistic differences is his interest in sexuality as discussed above. But this raises the question that there's a big gap in Asimov's fiction-writing in the 1960s and 70s; in his biography he even commented that at the time he feared his writing career was over and described the stylistic changes that overtook the genre as "un-Asimovian". Has anyone ever done a graphic presentation of Asimov's prodigious output? (Hint hint. Someone else do it. Not me.)

The two best works from the Foundation universe that you haven't read: Psychohistorical Crisis and The Currents of Space. Yes, Psychohistorical Crisis is apocryphal to the canon, but it's an outstanding work in its own right, discussed more at length here. The Currents of Space is a proto-Imperial-era work which manipulates setting to turn a familiar injustice on its head, and here dark-skinned people are oppressing light-skinned people. In the 1950s this may have been a more striking work than today, but it's still pleasant to see someone using setting-manipulation for allegorical ends in the genre that's best-suited for exactly that. If your genre allows you to change most of the elements of literature from constants into variables and you don't do it (consciously or otherwise) then you're just going through the motions. Asimov certainly was not.

Of interest: The real-life Hari Seldon? Peter Turchin's work is worth a look; He even has a book with math specifically about the fall of empires. If he is suddenly exiled to Easter Island and starts a university there, start worrying.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Organ Legging

Over forty years ago, Larry Niven predicted that organ transplantation and harvesting would become a problem. From the good summary of his concept of organlegging of Niven's use of the concept of organ-legging at Wikipedia:

On Earth, the problem led to a repressive society almost unrecognizable by today's standards. Since the average citizens wished to extend their lives, the world government sought to increase the supply by using condemned criminals to supply the organ banks. When this failed to meet the demand, citizens would vote for the death penalty for more and more trivial crimes. First violent crimes, then theft, tax evasion, false advertising, and even traffic violations became punishable by the organ banks. This failed to solve the problem, as once the death penalty was passed for a crime, people stopped committing it. This resulted in nearly every crime meriting the death penalty. Further attempts to alleviate the problem by declaring certain groups of cryogenically frozen people to be dead in law (the so-called "Freezer Bills") and harvesting their organs also proved to be unsuccessful. The freezer vaults represented a finite supply and therefore were eventually exhausted.[1]

Then you read things like this Al Jazeera story (via Boingboing), and you wonder why Larry Niven isn't more of a household name:

A young woman, posing as a migrant worker from Hebei province, calls a man who has advertised on the website, identified as Mr He.

"I need money," she says over the phone. "Do you want a woman's kidney?"

Mr He asks her age. Twenty-five, she replies.

"Of course we want your kidney."

Mr He tells the woman to travel to Xuzhou city, Jiangsu province, where somebody will be waiting when her train pulls into the station. She'll be given a physical examination and, if she's found to be in good health, Mr He will find a suitable transplant candidate. He says he'll pay RMB 320,000 (50,000 dollars) - a dubious offer, since most kidneys in China sell for around RMB 100,000 (15,000 dollars) - and promises to transfer the money before surgery.

In China, around 1.5 million people require organ transplants, but just 10,000 receive them each year. The vast majority of organs in China still come from condemned prisoners, but new government regulations have reduced the number of organs available for transplant. Meanwhile, few Chinese agree to donate their organs upon death, widening the gap between supply and demand.

I concede that there's a libertarian/free trade argument to be made here, more often applied to egg donation, which is essentially: "You can sell things you own, right, and if your kidney isn't yours, then whose is it? And there are people dying for want of kidneys (and other organs)." The problem is that not everyone knows what their kidneys really do, or what the consequences of giving one away might be - and the organ dealers aren't going to go out of their way to educate sellers.

So, before my fellow techno-libertarians tell me I'm a paternalistic sell-out, either convince me that what's happening in China, and what happened to Hu Jie and thousands like him, is morally optimal, or alternatively that it's only not morally optimal because it's currently a black market. Look at your own positions too - are you ready to legalize all drugs, not to mention do away with all prescription control? That is a far, far less fraught issue than this. And some are ready for that; congratulations, you're consistent. If on the other hand you are not ready for such changes, then you're certainly not ready for legal organ markets.

[1] I left the part about freezer vaults in for my cryopreservation friends. (You should also see the next Darren Aronofsky movie, with George Clooney.)