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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.


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.


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.


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.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Photobombed by a Seagull

Here I was, just trying to take a nice sunset picture for your enjoyment and I see I was photobombed!

Ah well, consider it an action shot sunset:

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Damn, I must be transforming into a Leftist! Now I agree with something Noam Chomsky said regarding Russia interfering in the 2016 (and other) elections!
It’s a pretty remarkable fact that—first of all, it is a joke. Half the world is cracking up in laughter. The United States doesn’t just interfere in elections. It overthrows governments it doesn’t like, institutes military dictatorships. Simply in the case of Russia alone—it’s the least of it—the U.S. government, under Clinton, intervened quite blatantly and openly, then tried to conceal it, to get their man Yeltsin in, in all sorts of ways. So, this, as I say, it’s considered—it’s turning the United States, again, into a laughingstock in the world.
Of course Russia interferes in our elections! Of course many other countries do as well. And, of course, Chomsky is quite right that we interfere in other countries all the time.

I still personally dislike Chomsky since I think he personally set natural language processing and semantic analysis back decades, but in this case I think he's right.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Good For Obama!

"Democracy demands that we're able also to get inside the reality of people who are different than us so we can understand their point of view. Maybe we can change their minds, maybe they'll change ours. You can't do this if you just out of hand disregard what your opponent has to say from the start. And you can't do it if you insist that those who aren't like you because they are white or they are male, somehow there is no way they can understand what I'm feeling, that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters." Barack Obama, July 2018

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

My New Favorite Word


[dith-uh-ram, -ramb]
  1. a Greek choral song or chant of vehement or wild character and of usually irregular form, originally in honor of Dionysus or Bacchus.
  2. any poem or other composition having similar characteristics, as an impassioned or exalted theme or irregular form.
  3. any wildly enthusiastic speech or writing.

I saw it in the following paragraph:

Having produced not one iota of discovery in this criminal case the unlawfully appointed Special Counsel requests a special and unprecedented blanket protective order covering tens of millions of pages of unclassified discovery. Having made this special request based on a secret submission to the Court and a hysterical dithyramb about the future of the American elections, one would think that the Special Counsel would cite to case holdings that support this remarkable request. But no, instead, the Special Counsel seeks to equate this make-believe electioneering case to others involving international terrorism and major drug trafficking, and relies only on irrelevant dicta from inappropriate, primarily out-of-circuit cases. In short, fake law, which is much more dangerous than fake news.

The Great Tragedy of Our Age...

... is that you can't differentiate anymore real life from The Onion.

Sessions’ own church accuses him of child abuse over immigration policy

Seriously, I often open up multiple tabs of my web browser, The Onion being one among many of the other supposedly serious news websites. Lately I do need to check, multiple times, which page I am really in.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Intelligent Dodder Weeder

I've been really busy lately at work building BIG machines. My latest creation is the Intelligent Dodder Weeder shown here ambling down the road between fields:

It's 40 feet wide when the wings are down, weighs about 20,000 pounds including the tractor, finds and kills dodder weed in fields of safflower at the rate of about 20 acres an hour, which replaces a crew of roughly 100 people.

With a network of 54 computers with total computational power of 75,000,000,000,000 operations per second (75 teraflops), it processes 720 images per second coming from 36 cameras and identifies the dodder weed using a traditional machine vision algorithm approach coupled with a deep convolutional neural net recognition system. Wherever the weed is found, it's sprayed with an herbicide to kill it.

At this moment in time, it may well be the most advanced mobile agricultural machine in the world in commercial operation. There are probably experimental machines that are at least as advanced, but our Weeder is operating 12 hours per day, 6 days per week in actual working conditions.

It was fun to design and develop this latest machine, but it was a huge amount of work to get it up and running.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

"There’s a hole, and, uh, someone went out"

I sincerely don't know if, upon flying a huge and heavy machine such as a Boeing 737 with 144 passengers, with an exploding engine and a hole, I would have the nerves to behave as she did.

Maybe I could, but I would need a few expletives while profering the phrase she did up above. Right there you see the difference between men and women when driving (or flying?).

Another difference is, I wouldn't have had to hear what she did while trying to be a pilot:

“During my senior year of high school in 1979, I attended a vocational day where I heard a retired colonel give a lecture on aviation,” Shults told author Linda L. Maloney for the book “Military Fly Moms.” “He started the class by asking me, the only girl in attendance, if I was lost.”
“I mustered up the courage to assure him I was not, and that I was interested in flying,” Shults said. “He allowed me to stay, but assured me there were no professional women pilots.”
Out of college, Shults was rejected by the Air Force — who did offer her brother a chance to enlist. After more than a year of trying, Shults caught on with the Navy in 1983. Shults, of Texas, spent 10 years with the Navy, and was among the first women to fly an F/A-18 fighter jet when her squadron transitioned from the A-7.

I wonder, were the technical qualifications to fly in the Navy any different from the Air Force, or the gender was really the point?

Saturday, April 07, 2018

My Brief History of Hawking

I was fourteen years old when I first met Stephen Hawking, in 1995. Not the flesh and bones Hawking, of course, but something more interesting: his brain, in the form of his ‘A Brief History of Time’. 

I wish I could say the book inspired me to pursue Physics further, but the best I can say is that it was funny and insightful at many points. I felt myself a failure at understanding many of the ideas there discussed. Today, I know it was not entirely my fault, but back then I finished the book a bit frustrated. While Hawking was quite an example of life and the power of mind over matter, I can’t say I much admired him as a science writer. My real inspiration to do Physics end up being another brain’s creation, that of Mr. Albert Einstein. I was back then trying to understand Relativity and its many ‘paradoxes’, so thrilled by the whole thing I needed no further inspiration: it was a done deal I could do nothing else but Physics, to try to get to the bottom of it.

And I am glad that I did, because only afterward I could appreciate the greater insights Hawking’s brain had to offer me - not as a science writer, but as a scientist. It is about that Hawking I want to talk about.

Back in the 60’s, very many things we now take for granted weren’t well understood. ‘Black holes’ were not branded yet, and its most distinguishing feature, the event horizon wherefrom nothing can escape, was a source of great confusion. Due to a 1939 work of Openheimer et al (the same one from Manhattan project fame), people initially thought the collapse of a dying star would get ‘frozen’ at the Schwarzschild (or event horizon) radius, which we nowadays identify as the ‘point of no return’ from a black hole. It was a very strange result, because no one could figure out why the attractive gravitational force would somehow ‘stop’ working to make the collapse go all the way down.

It took almost 20 years for Relativists to realize, in a work by David Finkelstein in 1958, that Openheimer’s results were a mirage caused by the coordinate system he used. If you addressed that mistake, you end up concluding that every dying star, above a certain threshold of mass, will end up as a black hole: a most simple solution of Einstein’s Equations, where all matter ends up dying in a central ‘singularity’ surrounded by pure vacuum, all hidden behind that ‘point of no return’ event horizon.

For many people, such a simple universal result sounded too good to be true, or pretty weird. ‘Too good’ because it would render all big stars, which could differ in so many ways, all exactly alike in their deaths (aren’t we all?). And ‘weird’  because that central singularity was, well, singular - a point where Einstein’s equation breaks down and nothing else in the theory can be calculated meaningfully. 

So it is not surprising some physicists, in particular the Russian school represented by Landau & Lifschitz, got second thoughts about those results. The initial calculations were all based in simplifying hypotheses, like perfect spherical symmetry of the collapsing star for example, that could be easily broken in any real life star. They launched themselves into the task of showing that, in any more realistic setting, stars could well end up in other configurations, maybe without a singularity and preserving some of their initial complexity, as opposed to being a mere point of mass ‘M’ in spacetime. At some point in the 60’s, they published their final theorems in prestigious scientific journal, supposedly showing the end state of stars would generically be free of those nagging singularities.

And that’s the point where Mr. Hawking comes again to our narrative. Starting his PhD studies in the begin of the 60’s, his advisor gave him the problem of studying how general would be the presence of singularities in the begin of the Universe, what we call nowadays the ‘big bang’. The Russian school results looked to imply that, maybe, the universe would be born out of a well behaved solution, instead of an initial all-encompassing singularity.

As it happens, geniuses rarely operate in a vacuum. They often are immersed in a battle of great ideas, provoking and being provoked by other great minds. And here comes to our story the great mind of Roger Penrose, the British mathematician who first showed, right in the begin of Hawking studies, that for the case of black holes, their singularity was indeed a universal phenomena: that, no matter how the stars started (spherical or squared, you choose), their end state would indeed be that of the singular black hole. 

Penrose’s mathematical methods were new and alien to much of the community of Physicists, and to the credit of Hawking, he not only learned well and fast that new mathematics, but went on to apply it to what is, in a way, the inverse problem: matter being born out of a singularity, as opposed to it being the graveyard of a star. Adapting many of Penrose’s methods and hypotheses, Hawking was able to show that cosmological singularities are also a generic feature of cosmological spacetimes (actually, there are ways to dodge that theorem too, by changing its initial hypotheses, but let me play fast and loose here). The Russians ought to have made a mistake after all, it was the inexorable conclusion. They did (and they didn’t, it is much about which definition of singularity you take, but let me keep playing fast and loose). 

Such results were of great impact in the initial days of black hole physics, giving the young Hawking a position in Cambridge right after his PhD. To our luck, he was only beginning. His contributions in the following decades were many, but I will fast forward to what is, perhaps, the greatest of all.

By the begin of the 70’s, a young graduate student of John Archibald Wheeler in Princeton, one Mr. Jacob Bekenstein  (a jew born in Mexico - apparently and contra D. Trump, the country did send people other than rapists to America), made a most ingenious argument. By gedankenexperimenting what should happen to a box full of an ideal gas approaching a black hole, Bekenstein showed that, were we allow for a black hole to keep being defined as a void labelled only by its mass, we would run into big trouble. You could continually unload the gas of boxes brought into the vicinity of black holes, in such a way to make its entropy to disappear out of our universe.

So what? Well, by doing so you would promptly violate our cherished Second Law of Thermodynamics - which is like opening the Pandora box, for once you violate the 2nd, you can violate them all, virtually engendering any sort of perpetual motor giving you infinite energy out of nothing.

Physicists love free lunches at faculty meetings, but they abhor them in our theories. The solution was simple though, a black hole ought to have entropy, and one proportional to its horizon area, postulated Bekenstein in order to save our well ordered world.

Hawking, who already (sort of unseriously) played with the idea of black holes mimicking our First Law of Thermodynamics (in the way they absorb energy and grow their horizon areas), was not happy at all. As every physicist know,  macroscopic entropy translates to internal degrees of freedom, quantifying how they may all sum up to give us a well defined macroscopic state. But much of Hawking’s career so far was built upon showing that no such internal degrees of freedom exist: stars die into (and universes are born out of) faceless simple singular states!

So, trying to prove Bekenstein wrong -- while coping with his final loss of walking capacity, in the middle of absolute immersion into his calculations -- Hawking ends up proving him right, and incidentally gives us one of the most beautiful results of last half-century Physics: black holes do have entropy, an enormous one, maybe the greatest possible to achieve in Nature. Furthermore, they are not so black at all: they emit wavelight in one of the most precious ways Physicists can think of, the Planck-like (or blackbody-like) one, which is the same kind of radiation a red hot stove often emits, and was also the key through which Max Planck first  discovered quantum physics in 1900.

In other words, a self gravitating collection of bodies like stars and black holes, while being described by Einstein’s Equations of general relativity, end up obeying the very same laws of Thermodynamics we discovered while building steam machines in XVIII to XIX-century Europe. Being the physics of relativistic stars and universes so different from our classical mechanics of old, who ordered that Thermodynamics should transcend it all in such a way? Our Lord is subtle indeed, as Einstein once reminded us.

It is thus easy to understand why Hawking, playing a final joke upon us physicists, wanted for his tomb to display his cherished formula for the black hole entropy, mimicking the famous entropy formula in the grave of Ludwig Boltzmann, the man who created the concept of entropy as we know it. After all, “life would be tragic if it weren’t funny”.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Social Media May Be Really Unhealthy For Civilization

In an article I found fascinating, Jordan Greenhall describes a number of things about social media apps like Facebook that are detrimental to civilization. He groups them into four categories:

  1. Supernormal stimuli;
  2. Replacing strong link community relationships with weak link affinity relationships;
  3. Training people on complicated rather than complex environments; and
  4. The asymmetry of Human / AI relationships

Each category is too involved to describe here with any detail so I urge you to read the whole article. However, here is an excerpt from category (4):
Imagine if your spouse, your therapist and your priest all entered into a conspiracy with a team of world class con men to control and shape your behaviour. Sound a bit unsettling? Well consider what the Facebook algorithms alone know about you. Every conversation you have — even those that you type out but don’t send — are perceived by the Facebook AI, and then analyzed by technology designed by thousands of researchers schooled in the very cutting edge of psychology and cognitive neuroscience. 
Every conversation you have — and every conversation the other 1.4 billion people on the platform have. In one second, the Facebook AI learns more about how people communicate and how they make choices as a result of their communication than an average person will learn in fifty years.
This is somewhat of an exaggeration at this point, but won't be in a decade or two. AI is becoming more capable than humans in many areas and, to the extent that AI is "intelligent" at all, it's a completely alien intelligence. While it sometimes seems almost human, there's nothing human about it. For example, when you're having an oh-so-pleasant conversation with Siri or Google's Assistant or one of the many automated phone systems you regularly encounter, the entity with which you're conversing has nothing in common with a human. Nothing at all. It's not even programmed by a human in any sort of conventional sense. It's just an alien entity trained to do various tasks like set your alarm clock when you ask it to do so.

When the trainers train it to do benign and helpful things it will be (mostly) benign and helpful. However, if the trainers, such as those working for social media companies, train it to manipulate social media users via emotional and other human weaknesses in order to increase profits and power, it will do that too - without having any understanding whatsoever of what it's doing. It's not immoral, just amoral. In fact, the trainers themselves may not really know what they're doing. They may just be trying to sell more advertising or whatever.

The problem is that we are changing our behaviors in ways that are simply bad for social cohesion and civilization itself. We'll see how that works out. Even those of us who are a little older we'll get to see how this one works out because I believe much of the impact will be experienced within the next 20 years.

Related: Nvidia DGX-2 is 2 petaflop AI supercomputer for $399,000

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

When you've lost Ann Coulter...

She wrote a book called "In Trump We Trust", yet she nowadays is only one tweet away from asking for his impeachment:
It was four nights after Coulter had aimed a bitter Twitter blast at the 45th president of the United States—who had complained last Friday, after signing the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill that contained generous funding for liberal social and cultural programs favored by Democrats, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but zero dollars for his vaunted wall, that he would never do such a thing again.
“Yeah, because you’ll be impeached,” Coulter had tweeted to her 1.94 million followers, one of whom is Trump. (Later during the debate, she repeated a report that the president was seriously considering vetoing the spending legislation, but after White House chief of staff John Kelly explained that such a veto would mean missing his planned weekend at Mar-a-Lago, Trump said “f--- it!” and signed the bill instead.)

Of course, it is not easy to defend Trump and yet be coherent with any system of thought, if we can be kind enough to call her Nativism as such, given Trump is so erratic a thinker (again, I am very kind). It is then no surprise she nowadays hedges like this:

“I knew he was a shallow, lazy ignoramus, and I didn’t care,”

Well, I can't quite agree the man is lazy - he could be spending all of his time in Mar-a-Lago,  like any other good Floridian retiree, yet he is out there making the biggest reality show we've ever seen. No, lazy he is not.

At least Mrs. Coulter, sad as she is because that Wall keeps not coming, can still keep her sense of humor:
So you are in favor of giving the president a spanking?” Long quipped—the night’s only reference, and a veiled one at that, to the Stormy Daniels situation.
At which Coulter laughed and said, “I do not remind him of his daughter!”