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Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Burning Down the House

Those of a certain age, towards the trailing edge of the Baby Boom, very likely vividly remember Dr. Seuss, aka Theodor Seuss Geisel.

When the first of his books came out, the pantheon of primary readers was anchored by a trio of pallid characters: Dick, Jane, and some damn dog Spot. They did boring things — run! play! — in various boring ways, enervated by cold porridge prose.

Then along came Dr. Seuss. Off kilter drawings, quirky rhythms, and hare-brained adventures.

He is how I learned to read. I made my parents read those things to me until I had completely memorized them, a process made easier not only by their novelty, but by the cadences shoving the words into my brain. Having made the connection between sounds and words and letters, learning to read came effortlessly.

So how to view Dr. Seuss?

Poisonously, of course:


In the fall of 2017, there was a furor involving Dr. Seuss, the first lady and a school librarian that many people found surprising and disconcerting. In celebration of National Read a Book Day, Melania Trump had sent a parcel containing 10 Seuss titles to a school in Massachusetts.

What could possibly be wrong with this, providing such a powerful tool to help children read?

Lots, apparently.

At that point, we were well into the first year of the “Resistance,” and the librarian, Liz Phipps Soeiro, wanted to make various political points. Attacking Dr. Seuss was one of them. “Dr. Seuss is a bit of a cliché, a tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature,” she wrote in an open letter to Mrs. Trump, adding: “Dr. Seuss’s illustrations are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes.”

Being woke must be a real burden; but then, the savior business is never easy.

To be completely fair, Mr. Geissel was not without sin.

… in Geisel’s juvenilia, his early political cartooning and some of his first books for children, he evoked ethnic and racial caricatures that were common in the early 20th century and that, by the lights of the early 21st, appear shocking and shameful.



Is the full body of Geisel’s work fatally tainted by “harmful stereotypes”? Do the origins of the hat-wearing cat really lie in minstrelsy, as Kansas State University professor Philip Nel and others believe? And if so—assuming these transgressions are detectable to the civilian eye, which is not a sure thing—do they outweigh the joy and love of reading that Dr. Seuss brought to all sorts of children and families?

The author, Mrs. Gurdon, misses a critical point: the librarians presumption of an inborn moral superiority superpower.

This librarian is not alone. Everyone of these wokelings, the ones who want to tear down statues, rename buildings, or rubbish people like Mr. Gessel are, must be, asserting that their wokeness is timeless. That had they been alive in Dr. Seuss's time, they would have been just as enlightened as they are now. We must trust their judgment not as some post hoc virtue signaling, but rather as coming from a deeper place accessible only to the vanguard, give them special dispensation to decide for the rest of us which parts of our culture must be excised.

Thus, the first question to be asked of the this librarian, and every one of her ilk: Just who the hell do you think you are?




Thursday, May 09, 2019

Only the Best and Brightest

While I have quit wasting $20/month on the NYT — at which even the least discerning puppies turn up their noses — I still get their daily news summary. From today's comes this bit of journalistic excellence:

Indonesia: A group has begun translating the Quran into sign language, helping millions of deaf Muslims get access to their holiest book for the first time.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Book I Should Have Written

I'm old enough to remember those halcyon days when Earth was going to be burdened with so many people that some would get pushed off the edge.

Ummm. Not so much.

In the recently published Empty Planet, The Government and UN Experts are — shocking, I know — lagging the fight.

The great defining event of the twenty-first century,” they say, “will occur in three decades, give or take, when the global population starts to decline. Once that decline begins, it will never end.

For roughly thirty years, fertility has been declining, starting with developed world. Since the 1990s, global fertility has plummeted far faster than anyone has predicted, and may well go below replacement rate within a decade.

The UN Population Division has systematically over estimated fertility, with projections out of date almost as soon as they are published. For example:

The U.N.’s most recent population forecasts suggest that the average U.S. total fertility rate from 2015 to 2020 should be 1.9 children per woman. In reality, CDC data shows U.S. fertility has averaged about 1.8 children per woman from 2015 to 2018. In 2019, early indications are that fertility will probably be nearer 1.7 children per woman.

Contrary to expectations, instead of recovering along with the economy, the US total fertility rate has continued to drop, now standing at 1.76. That amounts to 125 fewer daughters out of 1000 women per generation.

And the disconnect isn't limited to just the US — it is nearly global. UN population forecasts are almost certainly wrong, and not by just a little, but by billions.

Population decline isn't unique in history. The bubonic plague decimated Europe in the 1300s. War and famine have caused temporary, smaller, declines.

However, the recent, relentless, decrease in fertility during times of unprecedented peace, health, and material comfort is wholly unprecedented. So far, there is no indication that women, given a meaningful choice, choose to have enough children to prevent steady, relentless, global, population decline.

(Territory we covered here at Great Guys in 2013 and 2016.)

Yet, somehow, the woke are completely eaten up by GlobalWarmingClimateChangeChaos. Amazing.


Thursday, February 14, 2019

Justice Kavanaugh and Global Warming

What do they have in common?

When Dr. Christine Ford's accusation against now Justice Kavanaugh arrived with all the subtlety of the stricken Hindenburg, there was one thing that near as dammit to certain: the correlation between political proclivity and assault assessment.

Which is, or should be, beyond odd.

After all, in as much as they occupy entirely different realms, judicial philosophy and inclination towards coerced sex don't have any obvious correlation.

Yet when Dr. Ford's accusation came to light, the correlation between attitude towards constitutional originalism and Dr. Ford's credibility was nearly one. Progressives almost without exception found Dr. Ford credible; conservatives, incredible.

Same goes for Anthropogenic Global Warming. Conservative ≅ disdainful. Progressive ≅ dainful. Yet AGW, as an objective fact, just as Dr. Ford's accusation, is completely independent of judicial philosophy or political priors. These strong relationships shouldn't exist, yet there they are, nonetheless.

Welcome to motivated reasoning.

Clearly, a great many people simply do not think things through independently of their desire for a preferred outcome. Kavanaugh is to be resisted, therefore any impeachment of his character is true, and to heck with that bothersome evidence nonsense.

And just as clearly, should one have settled on individualistic free markets as the sine qua non of human flourishing, then AGW cannot, must not, be true.

Of course, as should be transparently obvious to even the most casual observer of reality, I am uniquely immune to motivated reasoning.

No matter that I agree with constitutional originalism, I am certain that Dr. Ford is a moral cretin.

And completely disregard the fact I am an individualist, AGW is nothing more than scientistic catechisms.

My reasoning is entirely unmotivated.

Now you know.


Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Deep Learning and Emergent Deception

With all of the processing power available, all kinds of Deep Neural Network learning topologies are possible with tens of millions of connections or "parameters" (which are similar in purpose to synapses in a biological brain).

One of the more interesting nets to me are Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs) which are two (or more) connected networks that fight to win in a game to "outsmart" the other network. I've written about synthetic face generation before, and those applications use GANs. One network in the GAN learns to distinguish between real faces and synthetic faces and is called the discriminative network. The other network learns to generate synthetic faces and, not surprisingly, is called the generative network. The generative network is "rewarded" when a synthetic face is so realistic that it fools the discriminative network and "punished" when the discriminative network correctly identifies that the face is synthetic and not real. And when the generative network is rewarded, the discriminative network is punished and vice-versa. The two networks are locked in this zero sum win at all costs struggle, each trying to be rewarded and avoid punishment. If the GAN is set up correctly (being correct is mostly guesswork and trial and error), it can provide really impressive results as with the case of the synthetic faces.

But deception is an inherent part of the generative network. After all, it's designed to try an fool the discriminative network and ultimately us humans. Recently, a generative network went well past the bounds of deception expected by its creators. The application is this: transform aerial images into street maps and back to automate much of the image processing for things like google maps.



The above images show the process. There's the original aerial photograph (a), the street view (b), and the synthetic aerial view (c) that's reconstructed ONLY from the street view (b).

But wait! Looking at image (c), which is constructed from ONLY image (b), how on earth did it guess where to put the air conditioning units on the long white build? Or the trees? None of those details are in the street view image (b), right?

It turns out that the network "decided" to cheat:
It learned how to subtly encode the features of one into the noise patterns of the other. The details of the aerial map are secretly written into the actual visual data of the street map: thousands of tiny changes in color that the human eye wouldn’t notice, but that the computer can easily detect.

In fact, the computer is so good at slipping these details into the street maps that it had learned to encode any aerial map into any street map! It doesn’t even have to pay attention to the “real” street map — all the data needed for reconstructing the aerial photo can be superimposed harmlessly on a completely different street map...
In other words, the street view map has gazillions of minute variations that aren't visible to the human eye that encode the data required for the remarkable aerial reconstructions.
This practice of encoding data into images isn’t new; it’s an established science called steganography, and it’s used all the time to, say, watermark images or add metadata like camera settings. But a computer creating its own steganographic method to evade having to actually learn to perform the task at hand is rather new.
Note the last sentence. The generative network wasn't very good at generating the reconstructed aerial view the way it was supposed to. So instead, it figured out how to encode the data it needed so it didn't have to learn how to do it the right way.

The thing I find most interesting is the emergent deception. Nobody predicted this would happen (since it wasn't a desired result) and I don't think anybody could've predicted it.

We're currently able to use multiple networks with hundreds of millions of connections and we're already seeing emergent behavior that can't be predicted. Every ten years gives about a factor of 100 increase in processing power and network complexity.

It will be interesting to see what emerges when thousands of networks with billions of connections interact.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Happy 60th Birthday to the Transistor!

And what a momentous invention it has been:
The invention of the transistor-based logic engine, the integrated circuit, turned 60 this year. Today, humanity fabricates 1,000 times more transistors annually than the entire world grows grains of wheat and rice combined. Collectively, all those transistors consume more electricity than the state of California. The rise of transistors as “engines of innovation” emerged from Moore’s Law. And we’re still in its early days: paraphrasing Mark Twain, recent reports of the death of that Law are greatly exaggerated.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Artificial Deception

I've written recently about state-of-the-art creation of synthesized faces and I concluded:
I think that the day is coming within my lifetime when there'll be no need for human actors. Any screenwriter will just be able to work with AI based tools to create and produce movies. 
But what if the "screenwriter" isn't creating a work that's meant to be viewed as fiction, but rather a fictional story that's intended to look like news? In other words, what if the screenwriting wants to purposely create fake news? And what if those creations are ever more indistinguishable from real videos of real events?

It's actually beginning to happen:
Lawmakers and experts are sounding the alarm about "deepfakes," forged videos that look remarkably real, warning they will be the next phase in disinformation campaigns.
The manipulated videos make it difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction, as artificial intelligence technology produces fake content that looks increasingly real. [...]
Experts say it is only a matter of time before advances in artificial intelligence technology and the proliferation of those tools allow any online user to create deepfakes.
As a sort of expert in this area, I believe that to be true as well.

Pornography is one the biggest areas where deepfakes are developing at the moment. For example:
Deepfakes are already here, including one prominent incident involving actress Scarlett Johansson. Johansson was victimized by deepfakes that doctored her face onto pornographic videos.
“Nothing can stop someone from cutting and pasting my image or anyone else’s onto a different body and making it look as eerily realistic as desired,” she told The Washington Post in December, calling the issue a “lost cause.”
Ms. Johansson is wise enough to realize that trying to do much about it is a "lost cause." The problem is that the software to "understand" Ms. Johansson's face and to manipulate it realistically to replace the face of someone in a video, porn or otherwise, is actually fairly trivial, widely available, and getting easier and easier to access and use. The genie is out of the bottle and there's no way to recapture it.

Besides, porn is probably fairly far down in the list of things to worry about, even if it will be driver of the technology. Other sorts of fake news will generally be more of a problem:
Other cases have resulted in bloodshed. Last year, Myanmar's military is believed to have pushed fake news fanning anti-Muslim sentiment on Facebook that ignited a wave of killings in the country.
And as the fakes get better and better, inciting mobs will be easier and easier.

Of course governments, which like to regulate everything under the sun, are working to legislate against this sort of technology use:
Farid said First Amendment speech must be balanced with the new, emerging challenges of maintaining online security. [...]
Other countries are already working to ban deepfakes.
Australia, Farid noted, banned such content after a woman was victimized by fakes nudes and the United Kingdom is also working on legislation.
Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, depending on your point of view), my guess is that there's very little governments can do to stifle this sort of thing. Pretty much anybody with a high-end graphics card and a little too much time on their hands will be able to create these sorts of things.

In the end, I believe that the main reason fake news, including deepfake news, is a problem is that we're too damn gullible. The reason fake news works is because we want to believe it:
“We have to stop being so gullible and stupid of how we consume content online,” Farid said. “Frankly, we are all part of the fake news phenomenon.”
My guess is that after the first couple of outrageous deepfakes that catch us unawares, we'll quickly learn to be more skeptical. Hopefully, the first deepfakes don't drive us to nuclear war or anything completely catastrophic first.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Kicking Tin: Lion Air 610

A month and a half ago, Lion Air 610* crashed 13 minutes after takeoff. Weather was not a factor. The aircraft had been delivered new to Lion Air ten weeks previously. (*The link is worth following. As shoddy as reporting on aircraft mishaps generally is, this is very well done.)

Attention quickly focused primarily on four factors: the Boeing 737 Max flight control system; Lion Air's maintenance; aircrew training and performance; and the Aircraft Flight Manual (AFM).

The B737 Max, the latest variant in the seemingly immortal 737 series, adds something called Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). The point of MCAS is to automatically trim the aircraft in the nose-down direction in the event of excessive angle-of-attack (AOA). (Angle of attack is the angle between the wing and the relative wind. Imagine an airplane completely level, but falling straight down — its AOA is 90º; same airplane, but in level flight, the AOA would be 0º. Stall AOA is defined as that AOA beyond which lift decreases, and is around 20º. Typical AOA varies between about 2.5º in cruise, and up to 7º during some phases of departure and approach.)

Avoiding as many details as possible, the B737 Max had engines that were larger in diameter than anything that had ever been installed on the 737. This presents an engineering problem, as the original 737 design had very short landing gear struts. As engine diameters have gotten larger, this has required more elaborate ways to keep them from hitting the ground during crosswind landings. With the Max, this meant mounting the engines further forward, and higher, than previously.

The result aggravated what has always been a handling issue with airplanes having wing mounted engines. The correct response to stall recovery is to do two things simultaneously: reduce AOA (lower the nose) and increase thrust. However, because the engines are below the wings, increasing thrust creates a very pronounced nose-up force, to the extent that if a stall is entered at and low speed and idle thrust, the upward force generated by increased engine thrust can overcome the aerodynamic force available to push the nose down.

With the Max, Boeing decided that the thrust induced nose-up pitching moment had gotten sufficiently pronounced that the flight control system needed to step in and automatically trim the airplane nose down in order augment the pilot's response.

In and of itself, that is a good thing — if AOA gets too high, lower it. Easy peasy. And it really is easy. AOA sensors are brick-simple: they are really nothing more than wind vanes hooked to a variable resistor. As one might expect, simple means rugged and reliable. In nearly forty years of flying, I have never experienced an AOA failure.

The problem here should be obvious: what never fails, did, and as a consequence, MCAS tried to take control of the plane. The crew ultimately lost the fight.

In the mishap sequence, this first leads to Lion Air maintenance. The aircraft had experienced airspeed indicator problems on the preceding four flights. Inexplicably, Lion Air's maintenance replaced an AOA sensor — this would be akin to replacing your steering wheel to fix the speedometer. Not only did that predictably fail to fix the problem, they likely failed to install the new AOA indicator properly, because on its penultimate flight, the airplane suffered an AOA failure, accompanied by MCAS intervention, which that crew was able to manage.

Now over to the pilots. They should have been aware of the issues with airspeed and AOA. The first item on the Captains preflight is reviewing the maintenance logbook; for the First Officer, that is the first thing following the exterior preflight. Yet either they didn't do so, or the logbook failed to convey sufficient information, or the crew failed to consider the ramifications of erroneous AOA readings.

Whatever the reason, they were both surprised and insufficiently aware of not only how MCAS works, but that there even was such a thing. Had they been familiar with MCAS, they would have known that it is inhibited until the flaps and slats are retracted. Simply selecting Flaps 1 (which brings the leading edge slats to half travel, and slightly extends the trailing edge flaps) would have put paid to MCAS; it is inhibited unless the flaps and slats are fully retracted. As well, following the pilot adage "if things suddenly go to shit, that last thing you did, undo it." would have put things right no matter how aware they were of MCAS.

Alternatively, they could have gone to the Unscheduled Stab Trim procedure, which goes like this:

1. Position both (there are two completely independent trim systems) Stab Trim switches to cut-out.\
2. Disengage the autopilot if engaged.
3. Alternately reengage the systems to isolate the faulty system
4. If both primary systems are borked, proceed using the alternate trim system.

As with almost all aircraft mishaps, there are a great many links in the chain. Documentation, training, maintenance, and aircrew performance will each appear in the final report. It will perhaps fault Boeing for inadequate MCAS documentation in the AFM, and faulty MCAS implementation (more on that below). Lion Air maintenance will take a shellacking for not just likely poor maintenance procedures, but also shortcomings in documentation.

Finally, the pilots. Even if Boeing takes a hit for providing insufficient MCAS documentation in the AFM, it remains true that the crew had the means to shutoff the MCAS — cut out the primary pitch trim system — and then resort to the alternate trim system. That they didn't is clear; however, until the cockpit voice recorder is found, we will never know for certain why. I suspect fingers will be pointed at training. Outside the Anglosphere, EU, and Japan, the rest of the world doesn't put nearly as much emphasis on, and money into, training and standardization.

Fine.

But I am still baffled

Modern airliners, and by that I mean anything built since the mid-1980s, have three sensing systems: Air Data, Inertial Reference, and GPS. Air Data provides altitude, true airspeed, air temperature, angle of attack, and vertical speed (how fast the airplane is changing altitude). Inertial Reference measures acceleration in all three axes, and through first and second order differentiation, calculates horizontal and vertical speed, as well as position. Finally, the GPS measures position, and integrated over time calculates speed in the horizontal plane.

As well, the airplane knows how much it weighs, how it is loaded, trim, wing configuration, and control positions.

All of these things are interrelated, all the time. For example, given set of values for airspeed, weight, air temperature, and so forth, there is only one altitude for which they can all be true. It is possible, in theory, to calculate any of those parameters given values for all the rest.

Yet so for as I know, no airplane anywhere even tries.

Presuming what is known about the Lion Air mishap is roughly true, MCAS provides a perfect example: if it sees an impending stall angle of attack, it effectively assumes control of the pitch axis, without checking to see if, given all the other parameters, a stall angle of attack is reasonable.

Instead, it should go like this:

Scene: shortly after takeoff, accelerating through slat retraction speed, when MCAS wakes up.

MCAS, "YIKES WE ARE STALLING WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE. Oh, wait, let's ask around the office.

"Hey, GPS, you space cadet, what are you seeing for groundspeed?"

"MCAS, at the moment, 195 knots, with plus 20 knot change over the last ten seconds."

"Inertials, what have you got?"

"MCAS, ten degree flight path angle, fifteen degree pitch attitude, 195 knots, plus 20 knots over the last ten seconds, 1.2G vertical acceleration"

"Okay, Air Data, over to you."

"MCAS, 198 knots true airspeed, vertical speed 2500 feet per minute, and AOA off the charts."

MCAS to self: With all that info, AOA should be about 5º, not 20º. Hmm, Inertials says the difference between pitch and flight path angle is 5º. We are accelerating AND climbing. Not only that, but at this airspeed, a stall AOA would put about 5G on the airplane which a) isn't happening, and b) would have long since shed the wings.

I know, instead of having a helmet fire over something that cannot possibly be true, I'll throw an AOA Unreliable alert, disable direct AOA inputs, then just sit on my digital hands.

In essence, this is what pilots are supposed to do all the time. If I was flying my airplane and the stall warning system activated under those conditions, I would correlate that with all the other available information and immediately reject it as impossible.

The list of mishaps such data integration could have prevented is almost beyond counting. AF447 ended up in the middle of the Atlantic because the airplane didn't have the sense to calculate that an airspeed of zero was impossible. It had enough information available to replace the erroneous measured value with a calculated value, instead of throwing up a perfect shitstorm of worthless warnings. (Granted, the pilots then proceeded to kill themselves and everyone else, but the airplane forged the first link in that chain.)

Less famously, about five years ago my company had a tail strike on landing in Denver that did about $11 million in damage to the plane. It happened because the airplane was told it had 100,000 pounds less freight than was actually on board. Yes, there were multiple lapses that caused that error to go undetected. And the crew failed to note the slower climb, and higher pitch attitudes throughout the flight; to be fair, the performance differences weren't glaring. But comparing measured and calculated parameters would have highlighted something was out of whack: fuel flow too high, angle of attack too high, trim wrong, and that thing has to be aircraft weight.

The Buffalo mishap was due to undetected clear icing on the wings. The crew should have noticed the pitch attitude was too high for the configuration and airspeed, but there is absolutely no reason that problem couldn't have been highlighted well before things got out of hand.

To me, this seems simple. (Maybe Bret can tell me otherwise.) A set of a dozen or so simultaneous equations each calculating a given parameter using the measured values of the remaining parameters. Each calculated value should be roughly the same as its measured value, and everything has to be internally consistent; otherwise, something is wrong.

Yet, despite what seems simple to me must no be, because such a thing does not exist.

Well, actually, it does, it is called Pilots. If there were never any circumstances where a BS flag needed waving, then pilots wouldn't be required. Those circumstances are far more common than the rare Lion Airs, AF447s, et al would indicate. You never hear of the crash that didn't happen because the pilots effectively said "Yeah, no. We aren't doing that, because it doesn't make any sense."

Unfortunately, error cues can be subtle and easy to miss if everything else appears correct, or if the pilots aren't very experienced, or their training isn't very good, or they aren't on their A-game, or their background doesn't include much hands-on flying.

And this seems to have implications for autonomous vehicles of any kind. I don't think we fully comprehend how much expertise is within the operator, because operators themselves can't fully articulate what they are doing. Go ahead, try to describe what is required to ride a bike. It takes pilots years to reach a point where accumulated experience provides sufficient judgment to stop oddball situations getting worse.

It seems that these guys couldn't deal with a manageable situation, but those sorts of things get handled every day without making news. Take the human out of the system, though, and we will start finding out how much we don't know about what we know.

Monday, December 17, 2018

I've written about Artificial Intelligence based face and scene creation before but now the same researchers have taken it one step farther. The top eight pictures were generated with those previous algorithms - pretty realistic but not quite right, especially around the eyes. The bottom pictures were generated by the updated algorithms and it's very hard for me to see the fakeness.




The article is here and the relevant video follows:



I'll admit than I'm not quite following all of the explanation, but it's still fascinating for me to watch.

I think that the day is coming within my lifetime when there'll be no need for human actors. Any screenwriter will just be able to work with AI based tools to create and produce movies.

More Computing Efficiency

Not only have computers gotten exponentially faster per dollar, they've also gotten amazingly more energy efficient:

Over the past 60 years, the energy efficiency of ever-less expensive logic engines has improved by over one billion fold. No other machine of any kind has come remotely close to matching that throughout history.
Consider the implications even from 1980, the Apple II era. A single iPhone at 1980 energy-efficiency would require as much power as a Manhattan office building. Similarly, a single data center at circa 1980 efficiency would require as much power as the entire U.S. grid. But because of efficiency gains, the world today has billions of smartphones and thousands of datacenters.
Of course an iPhone would have been impossible to build at any price in 1980 and even if possible would have required the space of an entire Manhattan office building!

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Is Anybody Out There?

Back in the 1950s, Enrico Fermi posed the eponymous paradox: surrounded by an uncountable number of stars, why haven't we encountered extra-terrestrial intelligence?

After all, no matter even if life, and subsequently intelligent life, is statistically unlikely, its existence elsewhere is statistically certain. Further, since it is extremely unlikely that humans are the first intelligent life to emerge in our galaxy, then the seeming absence of intelligent life is a puzzle that needs explaining.

A decade later, Frank Drake formulated an equation supplying the terms that must be considered in contemplating how many extra terrestrial intelligences (ETI's) there might be.

In successive decomposition, it goes something like this: the number of stars, the fraction that have planets, the fraction of those that have habitable planets, the fraction of them that go on to develop life, the fraction of life bearing planets that yield intelligent life, the fraction that release detectable signals into space, and the duration those signals are emitted.

Of all those parameters, only the number of stars is approximately known, is large enough so that even the multiplicative combination of very low probabilities means the existence of ETI's is certain.

There are two potential resolutions to the Fermi paradox.

The first wasn't even remotely predictable in the 1950s and 1960s. At the time, radio and TV signals were often broadcast from 100,000 watt transmitters. What no one could predict then is a near certainty within a couple decades: our planet going dark. The combination of low power satellite transmitters, cellular networks and near-pervasive landline networks have rendered high power transmitters all but obsolete.

Now that alone doesn't eliminate the Fermi paradox, because even if other ETI's don't radiate enough energy to be detectable is of no real help. The likelihood that even one ETI has developed long before we did is a near certainty; therefore, such a civilization should long ago have pervaded the galaxy.

That, in turn, requires a more or less heroic assumption — that moving even anything more than trivial masses to other stars is possible.

Taken in combination, it is possible that the galaxy is littered with ETIs that will be forever confined to their stars, and undetectable from every other ETI.

But what if the certainty the Drake Equation predicts is? What if there has been widespread optimistic presumptions about some of its elements greatly overstating their likelihood?

The problem with the Drake equation is that it provides discrete estimates to each of the factors.

To quickly see the problems point estimates can cause, consider the following toy example. There are nine parameters (f1, f2, . . .) multiplied together to give the probability of ETI arising at each star.

Suppose that our true state of knowledge is that each parameter could lie anywhere in the interval [0, 0.2], with our uncertainty being uniform across this interval, and being uncorrelated between parameters.

In this example, the point estimate for each parameter is 0.1, so the product of point estimates is a probability of 1 in a billion. Given a galaxy of 100 billion stars, the expected number of life-bearing stars would be 100, and the probability of all 100 billion events failing to produce intelligent civilizations can be shown to be vanishingly small: 3.7 × 10−44. Thus in this toy model, the point estimate approach would produce a Fermi paradox: a conflict between the prior extremely low probability of a galaxy devoid of ETI and our failure to detect any signs of it.

Instead, the authors account for our uncertainty by applying a Monte Carlo simulation — randomly assigning a probability in the range [0, 0.2] for each factor, then combining the values for each of the factors.

The result?

More than 22% of the simulations produce a galaxy devoid of even one ETI.

But wait, there's more.

If, instead of assigning point probabilities to each factor, model each factor as itself a combination of factors. Take the existence of life as an example. Abiogenesis is a transition from non-life to life that "… occurs at some rate per unit time per unit volume of a suitable prebiotic substrate." Using informed guesses about rate, volume, protein folding, etc, yields a range of estimates for the existence of life on suitable planets spanning 20 orders of magnitude. (There is much more to this than I am presenting, btw.)

Applying uncertainty distributions reflecting current knowledge to each of the factors in the Drake Equation, what do you suppose the likelihood is that we are alone, not just in the galaxy, but in the entire observable universe?

Nearly 38%.

I sure didn't see that coming.

Friday, November 02, 2018

The Next One Is Always The Enemy

In the comments for the previous post (The King of Cattle), Clovis wrote: "The next one is always the enemy..." I started responding in a comment, but I decided to make this verbiage its own post because it was getting a bit far off topic. And hey, I haven't posted in a while, so two birds with one post and all that...

I think viewing others as enemies is an inherent part of the human condition. Anyone not part of our tribe(s) is a potential enemy and we (many of us) are continuously monitoring those outside our tribes for signs and symptoms that they are the enemy and the most trivial bit of evidence is taken as conclusive that they are indeed the enemy.

I believe that the period from the end of WWII until now (and hopefully at least a while longer) was one of a very unusual and probably unsustainable peace and a workable type of tolerance. By workable type of tolerance I mean this: sure, there was still plenty of suspicion, prejudice and hate between tribes/nations, but the world was so weary of war and violence that for those decades a substantial majority of people were willing to tolerate otherness and perceived slights, insults, injuries, etc. without a willingness to try to obliterate that otherness or right the wrongs of the slights, etc.

Sure, that's a tremendous simplification and yes, I'm aware of other factors like amazing prosperity on the one hand and Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) on the other had a lot to do with the workable tolerance as well. For example, MAD allowed us to still have the "other" to hate, an enemy to blame the ills of the world on, but in this case we were able to do it without massive war (barely!). However, that fits into this paradigm I'm describing here fairly well.

From an evolutionary point of view, our capacity (and dare I say need?) to hate could very possibly have a purpose: to spur us to violence and war to take out competing strains of DNA. Hitler used DNA supremacy as a reason for genocide, but Hitler was neither the first nor the last leader to hate the Jews and the Jews themselves are not immune from hating.

Note that I'm not saying that hate and genocide are moral, right, excusable, or anything like that. Instead, I'm saying that to be moral we have to fight with everything we have against our own inherent human nature and if we let down our guard for even a brief instant, horrific evil can and often will follow. Even worse, it's almost certain that from time to time our vigilance will slip and violence, war, genocide and other massive atrocities will follow.

Some of us were alive and aware during WWII. I wasn't born until after WWII but my parents' generation was very, very much aware of the horrors of that war and the memories of WWI. It seemed to me that those wars had an extremely powerful antiwar effect on that generation and on their children (such as me). Now that period is ancient history and even the cold war is something most of the younger generation has only a dim awareness of.

Having very real and mortal enemies is long past, so our younger generation is looking for new ones. And sure enough, they find enemies everywhere they look. Some of the ones looking hardest for enemies are called Social Justice Warriors.

The "Social Justice" part of that label is interesting because it begs the question of whether or not there's a difference between "Justice" and "Social Justice." If they're the same thing, why waste the space by prepending the word "Social"? If they're different, another way of saying something that isn't "Justice" in "Injustice" which is both shorter and perhaps less misleading. [Note that this observation isn't original to me but I can't find a link at the moment in order to give proper attribution]

But the more important part of that phrase is "Warrior." What we have is a fairly large group of people who very much want to be warriors. In other words, to find enemies to hate and fight. They claim to hate and fight those who hate, yet they're obviously uninterested in hating their own hate.

I would say, like many who've come before them, they've let down their guard against their own human nature and I doubt that anything good will come of it and perhaps evil will arise instead.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The King of Cattle

While I contemplate the crash, yet again, of our last run at that old lady, Ms. Democracy -  already a troubled woman way back in its younger Greek days - it comes to my mind a few memories with my grandfather. 

Clovis Maia, to whom I own my identical name, was born in 1914 in a middle-size farm in Passos, a city in the state of Minas Gerais. His father owned the farm and was himself born from farmers of Portuguese heritage, back when they dominated both the land and its workers - slavery was in place when my great-grandfather was a kid.

But this is not a story about my grandfather. This is a story about a lad 3 years younger than Clovis, his cousin Sebastião Maia, better known as "Tião" Maia, born in a nearby farm too. I still remember my grandfather telling me about the little youngster following the older cousins while they were taking care of the cattle, learning how to lead it through the pasture. 

After learning the basics, the boy would offer his services to the family in exchange not of money, but cattle. At 16 years old, he already owned a few of his own. At 20, he moved to the farmlands of Araçatuba, in the state of São Paulo, and started a business selling and buying cattle by the hundreds. 

Tião Maia soon realized who had the upper hand to set up the cattle prices: the companies who bought from the slaughterhouses and run the distribution of the meat to the bigger cities across the country, mostly in the hands of a few American and British firms. So when the 40's and WWII came, and Oil became gold, he made a double business of deforesting land and selling the wood for the railroad companies to burn, while planting grass in the same land to later on feed the cattle. With the extra cash, he mounted a reserve to buy up land and cattle from troubled farmers at every drop of the meat prices. Soon he set up his own slaughterhouse, the TMaia Company, and reproduced the same strategy of buying up every slaughterhouse around who got in trouble too. Now he was dictating the price of the meat to the Gringo's companies, before taking over a few of them too, and establishing a multinational distribution system. He was one of the first entrepreneurs to send a mission to recently established Israel, in order to hire Rabbis to ensure a kosher process (and market access) to his production line.

By the end of the 50's, Tião Maia was the richest man in Brazil. And a folkloric figure among the parties and socialites of Rio de Janeiro, where his cowboy mannerisms and language (he never finished basic school) made him the darling of gossip tabloids. He married a Miss Brazil and soon divorced, because she was "too jealous" (women tend to be, when their rich husbands take every girl at every party). 

He was on a roll, but no party can go on forever: 1964 came and Tião Maia was a friend of João Goulart, the deposed President of Brazil back in the day. He was also a friend to the previous President, Juscelino Kubitschek (the president who created Brasilia in 1960, the city I live in now). Both presidents where friends for a reason: they were also fellow farmers and cattle businessmen. Imagine that, my dear friends who bought up the idea that Brazil needed a coup in the 60's in order to save it from communism: what were the odds that Tião Maia and his presidential/farmer friends would support a Marxist movement that would take away their wide and vast farmlands?

Tião was imprisoned in the first days of the coup in 1964, but as they had nothing else to accuse him of, he was fred after a few weeks. To show that his Midas touch was not related to political connections, I mention that, in the begin of the 70's, Tião was also a founding partner of TAM, a small airline taxing company he was invited to take part at, because he was the first businessman in Brazil to buy his own private airplane. TAM later on grew up to be the biggest Brazilian airline company, merging with LAN Chile a few years ago, being now the mighty LATAM group.

But life under autocracies isn't always fair, even one installed under the pretext of saving our capitalism: the regime started price controls in order to fight back the recession and inflation of middle 70's, and soon Tião was in jail again, accused of holding up his cattle from the market in order to not sell it at the low prices our purported "saviors of capitalism" mandated. Oh, the ironies of life. 

Fed up by the State interference in his businesses, Tião called it quits. He disinvested and sold everything he could, and in 1976, almost 60 years old, decided to start anew. Tião didn't know a word in English, but he knew Australia was a main source of the meat sold for Americans and British, so there he goes. He arrives and in 6 months buys up so much land in Queensland, the local governor calls him for a personal meeting and asks "Why in this crisis, when no one is buying cattle anymore, a Brazilian comes up here and buys all this land? You will undo the agrarian reform we just finished!". European Common Market new regulations had recently caused a massive slaughter of cows, and crashed the price of cattle worldwide. Tião just answered the Governor, with the help of a translator: "The prices will rise again". And it did, making Tião an ever richer man, famous back then in Australia for herding the cattle with the help of helicopters. 

Tião in Australia



He now used the extra money to make what he liked best: to have business and fun, all at the same time. He went to Las Vegas, not only for the parties and girls he would enjoy, but with the idea of starting a business in the real state sector. He realized the city had far too many hotels and casinos to attend for the tourists, but the people working for all that to happen would need houses themselves, so he set up the Tiao United States (TUSA) company and made up some more money building and selling residential condos. He made the point of building a near replica of the White House for himself too.

The life of partying and gambling was fun, but Tião could never fulfill a dream at any of his many marriages: to have kids. It turns out he was sterile, maybe a function of the many times he contracted malaria while running cattle as a young boy back in the day. At some point he adopted one, Mr. Aramis Maia, and we can maybe hypothesize that his life of partying and dealings did not allow for a proper bonding of father and son. A stroke in 1998 made Tião a shadow of his former self, and his son used the opportunity to take up business by every means. Tião, once the richest man in Brazil, a successful businessman at world stage, an inspiration for a famous 80's Brazilian soap opera character, was now a poor old man who couldn't cater for himself.

Fortunately, his siblings back in Brazil were also made prosperous by the cattle business, and "Juquinha" Maia, his brother still living in Araçatuba, provided for him a decent life till the end. Tião Maia died in 2005 in an apartment in São Paulo, not too far from where I was then living while doing my PhD. 

Staring back at Great-Uncle Tião and his entrepreneurship, I confess to be ashamed that, at the verge of a new round of 'saving the country from communism' (or so our new-but-so-old military men winning this election tell me), I feel afraid for my own future. When asked what he would do in Australia, not knowing the language, Tião answered "I don't need to, I am rich".  The lore says that, in Vegas, the only words in English he knew were "steak and eggs" (which was what he asked for at the restaurant every day). I know a bit more English than that, but the idea of starting anew abroad, approaching my 40's years old, is a bit daunting. Am I made from the same stuff Uncle was? I guess few people are...


Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Kavanaugh and Power


This Kavanaugh brouhaha reminds me (yet again) of my favorite Heinlein quote:
"Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal." (1953)
It's clear to me that those on the right would want Kavanaugh confirmed and would rationalize him to be a saint (he's been literally called a boy scout by some) even if he were an ax murderer. It's also clear to me that those on the left would rationalize Kavanaugh to be an evil rapist and liar even if he were the most perfect human to have ever existed.

And it makes sense because who he is doesn't matter at all - only how one can guess he will influence SCOTUS decisions. For the right, he'll probably be quite good; for the left, he'll probably be very bad.

If on the right, I too would want him confirmed even if he were an ax murderer. I too would smear his opponents and detractors and do everything I could to see him confirmed. I too would then rationalize my actions by actually deceiving myself into believing them to enable me to continue to feel good about myself.

If on the left, I too would want the Senate to vote against confirmation even if he were a wonderful person. I too would dig up folks willing to make damaging allegations against him whether or not true. I too would focus on everything he's ever done wrong because, of course, I'm perfect and only perfect humans should be allowed on the supreme court. I too would then rationalize my actions by choosing to believe those making the allegations and by pointing to the long list of flaws that a human more than a half-century old and in the public eye for much of that time will have exhibited.

For me personally? I really don't much care if he's confirmed or not.

However, I do conclude from this circus that SCOTUS has way, way, waaaaaaay too much power and that the federal government overall has way too much power. Otherwise, people wouldn't find it necessary to do so much rationalizing.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Worst Is Yet to Come

That's the subtitle of an article in The Atlantic. That may well be - we'll see. The surprising part is that my mother sent me the link to the article. I think my response to her is somewhat entertaining so here it is:

Hi Mom,

I didn't know you were such a political animal! I'm not much of a political animal anymore and probably wouldn't've even read this article if it wasn't you who sent it.

You'll probably find it kinda funny, but the sentence that caught my eye most in the entire article was this one:

"These kinds of views [all political] make it difficult for me and some of my New Year’s [from decades past] guests to speak about anything at all [anymore]."

Really? Political views make it impossible to talk about the weather? About your favorite restaurant? About a cool new jazz song you heard? About your family? About going for a bicycle ride? And a million other things?

One thing I really, really like about barbershop singing is that, via the Barbershop Harmony Society rules, discussing politics (and religion) is forbidden at all official society meetings (which includes rehearsals). Yet somehow, hard as it is to believe, we still find things to talk about! Even stuff other than barbershop music, though that topic does feature prominently. It really is possible to have friendships and positive collegial interactions without ever even knowing each others' preferred ideologies! Who'd have thunk it!

Outside of official rehearsals, political discussions are allowed. One singer was complaining about Trump and racists and fascists and nazis to which I mostly just politely listened. At one point he asked if I would "sing with a Nazi." I said, "Of course. I'll sing with anybody, anytime - any race, any religion, any gender, any ideology. Singing is separate and above all that. Besides, it's not like not singing with this hypothetical nazi would somehow change him (or her) into a non-nazi. Indeed, the opposite is plausible - that he'd see me as a human being even though I'm of jewish ancestry and soften his nazi beliefs because of the singing together. Isolating said hypothetical nazi will do nothing good and probably just make him more extreme."

This singer quit shortly after that and at least partly because any organization that accepted folks like me who would even contemplate hypothetically singing with a nazi was evil (even though he'd readily admit that I wasn't a nazi) and he wanted no part of that. Too bad, because he was a really good singer and his leaving the chorus has noticeably damaged it. If that's my fault, then oops!

To me, the fundamental problem underlying every problem discussed in the article is the inability or unwillingness of people to even talk (or sing) with others if they don't have the same professed ideology.

Yet politics is really not that important. Vote for who you think is best and speak out if you must, but beyond that it's so much less important than almost everything else in life. Ten or twenty years ago I was complaining about some politician or other and a friend asked, "So has this politician really had a major direct impact on your life? I mean other than the mere fact of his existence pisses you off?" It was a good question and the answer was no, it really didn't much affect me. Indeed, my being annoyed about whatever it was negatively impacted me far more than any of the actions or policies of the politician. In fact, none of the presidents or congresses of my lifetime have made any provable substantial difference to me. Have they made a difference to anybody? Of course, they're always winners and losers. But to me, not really much of a difference and far less difference than more immediate events. At that point I decided it was really silly to take political stuff so seriously. I'll do my homework and vote and that's it.

And I'll sing with whoever wants to sing with me!

Friday, September 21, 2018

Elections, Brazilian style.

Brazil is in the middle of an election process that, if you believe that's possible, is a bizarre-world version of Trumpland - so maybe the square of bizarre, if you like.

The candidate far ahead on polls, Mr. Bolsonaro, who is more of a Duterte figure than a Trumpian one, is famous for many infamous declarations. Not only the usual racist, homophopic stuff you can easily hear on America, but a more refined art.  Mr. Trump could learn with Mr. Bolsonaro.

For example, where Trump got on defensive mode denying ever assaulting women, Mr. Bolsonaro plays on offense: he once yelled at a congresswoman (he being a congressman himself) something like "I only won't rape you because you are too ugly".

He is famous for his defense of our last dictatorship. Mr. Bolsonaro himself is a former Army captain, nearly expelled for planning to plant a bomb in an Army bathroom while in service in the begin of the 80's, mad because the generals were moving to give power back to civilians. He has been elected and reelected to Congress for the last 27 years, basically counting on the vote of fellow armed force men.

In 2016, he famously gave his vote, on national television, to impeach the previously elected president, Mrs. Roussef, "in honor of Colonel Ustra", one of the most infamous torturers of the dictatorship, with at least 40 deaths plus a few hundreds of people tortured and raped under his eyes (Mrs. Roussef was herself tortured in the period, hence the jab).

His most repeated and emphasized campaign point is, you could easily guess, about guns. In a country where violence is rampant, he promises to solve it all by abolishing human rights and giving free rein for the police to kill. Not only the police, but citizens. He wants Brazilians to arm themselves against the bad guys, so we can all be more like America.  I am not such an anti-gun kind of person - maybe I would like to have one myself - but I sure think incidents like the previous link would be the norm down here, for I know my countrymen pretty well.

More worrying though is not the soon to be elected Captain, with a long record of incompetence: in his 27 years in Congress, he was able to pass exactly 2 projects. Who I truly fear is the General, Mr. Mourão, his fellow Vice-President candidate.

In 2016 Mr. Mourão was the General in charge of Brazil largest and strongest military force, the South Command, when he gave public declarations asking for the Army to revolt. He was not successful, and was demoted of the position to a more bureaucratic one until retirement last year. Since their election campaign started, Mr. Mourão already gave a number of high caliber declarations, the most prominent being that he believed the necessity of self-coup after winning the election could not be discarded, and that he'd like to order the writing of a new Constitution by his appointed "notable experts", without the need of elected people involved. The General, contrary to the Captain, has a long record of achievements.

Being a firm believer of a Big and Strong State his whole life - and that's clear on his voting record and projects - Mr. Bolsonaro has converted recently (six months ago, what a coincidence) to economic liberalism, which has apparently attracted the support of a number of businessmen and financial operators to his side. Not everyone was fooled though, and publications widely read by the international markets look to have seen Mr. Bolsonaro for whom he really is.

There are at least other three candidates with liberal economic programs - Chicago school style - on the race, but none of them were able to provide the masses what they really want: the smell of blood. Social networks - both virtual and real - are clogged by the same kind of divisive rhetorics you can see in America (hey, we import everything) in a dumbed down version (yes, that's possible). If you enter into those magical bubbles, Brazil is turning into Venezuela any minute now if Mr. Bolsonaro doesn't win (though he is the only candidate uttering anti-democratic discourses), the elections are being frauded by the Supreme Court, and the Universities must be closed down to fight Communism. The gay community will destroy families by teaching kids how to be gay, so they urge Brazilians to vote for him to "defend God and family" (the candidate is on his third marriage and famously said he uses his official residential apartment in Brasilia, paid for by the People, only to fuck women).

Quite tellingly, the politicians and businessmen most promptly turning to the new fanaticism are often the ones from old corrupt oligarchies, and crony capitalists who hardly can make their business to get by without a little hand from their friends. Many come from the groups who were in power back in the good old days of dictatorship, and they really long for a better and stronger Pinochet this time around. What we will really get, though, is fury and chaos, for in Brazil the economic elite always fear totalitarism from the Left, while it is always delivered by the Right.

Having a few laughs from you guys before - particularly our readers who are supportive of Mr. Trump - it is now my turn to be the butt of the joke.


Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Why We're Mostly Immoral

I've posited in the past (and present) that government is inherently immoral. Here is my explanation in response to a facebook post and a comment from someone who supports "social democracy" or "socialism" as the desired political and economic organization for the United States and the world. Note that I put "socialism" in quotes because apparently they don't go by the dictionary definition of socialism where the means of production are owned and/or controlled by the government, but it's unclear exactly what they do mean by socialism.

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The following is how I view the political structure of the United States in regards to, say, redistribution. You may completely disagree, but keep in mind that millions of citizens view it like I do.

There are four groups:

A. Voters and their elected representatives
B. Bureaucrats and law enforcement
C. Taxpayers
D. Recipients of the redistribution

In the case of redistribution, the United States is A directing B to take from C and give to D.

The first immoral part is B taking from C. If C is willing or nearly universally willing, this wouldn't be immoral, but that's not how it is in reality. When a substantial part of C is NOT willing, then this step has a lot in common with banditry - C is forced, with ever increasing levels of violence to comply. In political philosophy the government is described by some as a "stationary bandit" for this very reason. Most people consider banditry by non-government entities to be immoral. Since you've noted that our government is just a covenant between private citizens and a ruling entity, group A is basically directing B to be bandits and are accomplices to the banditry. Since banditry is immoral, group A is also immoral. Group D is the recipient of money that has been acquired immorally and that makes them willing participants and also immoral.

Lastly, you'll probably be quick to point out that group C is immoral because they don't volunteer their money to group D or willingly and happily give it to group B to do what they like with it. I agree with that assessment as well. We therefore agree that at least part of group C is immoral. Note that most people consider banditry even against immoral people to be immoral so that doesn't absolve any of the other groups.

Therefore, since we all belong to one or more of these groups, we are all immoral and so is the government.

Again, I know you don't agree with that and find it "laughable." Nonetheless, that is how millions of people view it to some degree so if and when you lose another election, you'll know what us laughable deplorables are thinking and why we vote against people like you and Hillary. You think we're immoral and you're right. We think you're immoral and we're right, in our unshakably strong opinion.

Also again, we believe government to be a necessary immoral evil. Yes, we're all immoral, but there's no choice but to be so. The human animal is simply a nasty, evil, immoral creature and no matter how we organize ourselves, we will still be that. We can be somewhat more moral by limiting the banditry, but we can only limit it so far and maintain a working civilization.

The last point is that when people make the argument that X is immoral, the answer is yes, but so what? Those sorts of arguments hold no water for me since we're all immoral.

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I suppose some of group C might be "moral" if they willingly and happily pay their taxes and would do so without enforcement AND they're not part of group B or D AND they vote against candidates that agree with the forcible extraction of taxes from group C. However, I think those folks are basically suicidal because without said forceable extraction of taxes, I doubt civilization would survive for long and without civilization, the vast majority of us are dead in short order.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

You Are Here (Update)

In 2005, I posted about a new PowerPC processor we were starting to use in some of our robots. At processing capability of around 200 billion floating point operations per second (200 GigaFLOPS), it was big news at the time as it put the potential intelligence of our robots into the range of "mouse" instead of lizard as shown by the blue dot in the graph below.


I was thinking about this graph recently with the announcement of NVidia's new Xavier system on a chip computer. With processing capability of 30,000,000,000,000 (30 trillion) operations per second at a price of $1,299, this can be represented by the magenta square labeled "You Are Here" on the above graph. We will have this new processor incorporated into a new product prototype this October, so just like the PowerPC of yesteryear, this is something that's real and used by actual developers as opposed to some theoretical gadget.

It shows the potential intelligence of this device to be somewhere between monkey and human. What does that mean? First, while it's not known how much of the brain works, the functionality of parts of the brain are known really well, for example, the first part of the visual cortex. It's then straightforward to estimate how many computations are required for that functionality. The weight of that portion of the brain is known and it is assumed (this is the leap of faith) that the rest of the brain's processing happens with approximately the same efficiency. Divide the weight of the organism's brain by the weight of that part of the visual cortex, multiply by the number of operations required for that part of the visual cortex, and voila!, the total number of operations per second required for the entire brain of a given organism can be estimated.

A reasonable reaction is, "yeah, sure, whatever, but without the appropriate software, how will this computer be intelligent at all, much less at a monkey or human level?" And that was my first reaction as well, but I've since concluded it was misguided. Just like nobody has to know how a human brain works for it to work just fine, nobody has to know how a neural net within a computer works in order for it to work just fine, and, in fact, that's exactly what's happening, and at a very rapid rate. A number of research groups are trying different structures and computation approaches and are steadily improving the functionality and accuracy of the neural nets without really understanding how they work! It's basically a trial-and-error evolutionary approach.

With this new Xavier processor, using already known neural nets, it will be able to recognize objects in an image with a high degree of accuracy and tell you which pixel belongs to which object 100 times per second. Is that intelligence? Well, when a person does it, we think that's a form of intelligence and since nobody can tell you how the neural net works, I don't think we can say whether or not it's intelligent. If it is intelligent, it's certainly an alien intelligence, but looking at it operate, it looks to me as if it's intelligent.

For me personally, if something seems intelligent, then it is intelligent.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Sunday Photoblogging


Okay, you could be easily forgiven for wondering what the heck you are looking at.

Early this morning, as in 0300 early, we were en route from Paris to Helsinki, just south of Stockholm at 39,000 feet. At exactly the same time as I was mentally formulating the question, my First Officer asked "Do you know what you are looking at?"

"Yeah, Noctilucent clouds."

Noctilucent clouds, or night shining clouds, are tenuous cloud-like phenomena in the upper atmosphere of Earth. They consist of ice crystals and are only visible during astronomical twilight. Noctilucent roughly means "night shining" in Latin. They are most often observed during the summer months from latitudes between 50° and 70° north and south of the Equator. They are visible only during local summer months and when the Sun is below the observer's horizon, but while the clouds are still in sunlight. Recent studies suggests that increased atmospheric methane emissions produce additional water vapor once the methane molecules reach the mesosphere - creating, or reinforcing existing noctilucent clouds.

They are the highest clouds in Earth's atmosphere, located in the mesosphere at altitudes of around 76 to 85 km (47 to 53 mi). They are too faint to be seen in daylight, and are visible only when illuminated by sunlight from below the horizon while the lower layers of the atmosphere are in Earth's shadow

In an absolute sense they are rare, and the very restricted observation conditions make seeing them far rarer still; this was a first for me. (As an aside, it doesn't hurt my Captain credibility when the FO asks a question he expects to be a stumper, and I just happened to have the correct answer right there. The big question is how it is that I was able to, within three-quarters of a second, use tenuous visual information to retrieve a term I had read at least a half dozen years prior. Humans do this all the time; it is extremely difficult to imagine AI ever managing it.)

Unfortunately, the camera in my now ancient iPhone 5S doesn't really do the scene justice -- there were patterns and structure that disappear in the noise.

Also worth noting is that this picture clearly shows a very sharp boundary between between the Troposphere and the Stratosphere, and, in so doing, also reveals the Earth's curvature.


More of the noctilucent clouds, with Stockholm in the foreground.

You have no idea how much I had to pay that damn seagull to bomb my photo.