Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Hydrogen Sonata: Iain M. Banks

Iain Banks's final Culture Novel The Hydrogen Sonata goes into greater depth than we've seen before on the process and consequences of a culture's subliming, in which they disappear from reality, and are presumed to gain access to some higher reality. It's a process that requires that an entire society make the decision collectively, and then nearly all of them must carry through roughly simultaneously, or it doesn't work somehow. The process is treated as some kind of graduation for civilizations, and its rhetorical role in the universe of the Culture is to make room for a constant influx of new civilizations arising anew. It's not absolutely required, and many societies have been around since the oldest known sublimations without making the choice.

The Hydrogen Sonata of the title is a composition designed to be played by someone with 4 arms on an eleven-stringed instrument. It's extremely difficult to play, and the focal character Vyr Cossont has been attempting to play it correctly all the way through as her life's project. The point, of course, is that she (and her civilization) is wealthy enough to be able to afford to work on completely frivolous projects like this.

The Gzilt, of which Cossont is a member, has voted to sublime, so Cossont has a limited time to finish her project. While she works on it, she gets embroiled in some shenanigans swirling around the circumstances of the sublimation. When a society decides to sublime, it's customary for others to clear the air if they had any unresolved grievances or issues. The Gzilt's progenitors, the Zihdren had a big secret, but they sublimed quite a while ago. Some Zihdren who missed the event would like to spill the beans, but other parties would prefer the secret remain hidden.

Cossont is reactivated by her old regiment who have heard what the Zihdren plan to say and want to know if it's true. The secret would undercut some of the Gzilt's most cherished beliefs about their civilization's rise. There's not a lot more I can say without giving away the plot. I enjoyed the adventure, and thought that Banks' adventure around the galaxy was quite entertaining. There are interesting chases, fights between highly armed AIs, bizarre characters, awe-inspiring architectural feats, and plenty more.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Julia Robinson Math Festival: November 23 in San Mateo

The Julia Robinson Math Festival has a new web page, and there's an event scheduled for the morning of November 23 in San Mateo. If you want to share your love of math and problem solving, and would enjoy a chance to mentor kids who are having fun puzzling things out, plan to spend the morning at the San Mateo County Office of Education.

They're also looking for sponsors and hosts. Contact them if you can help.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Space Elevator Competitions

A couple of weeks ago someone mentioned Space Elevators, and I said "Oh, it's the end of August, there ought to be results from a Space Elevator challenge. Weren't they doing that annually?" That started me down a path of research and compiling information. It turned out that the International Space Elevator Association was having their annual conference that weekend in Redmond, but without a competition, and the Japan Space Elevator Association had held their competition a week earlier, but there didn't seem to be a place where results were compiled.

As I collected links and results and cross-checked them, and wrote up results, a wikipedia page came into being. I've just posted it, though there's no telling whether it'll last, given wikipedia's unknowable rules and processes.

I've found some details about 9 different competitions, mostly for fast climbers and/or strong tethers. There were a few other competitions that were announced, but which never took place either because no one was ready, no one qualified, or the site fell through.

The most recent climbing results were in Japan in August, where two different teams built climbers that climbed more than a kilometer. The most recent Tether competition I found was in 2011, but I haven't found results for any finisher since 2007, which I think, means the competitors haven't been beating the existing benchmark by a large enough margin. I'm disappointed that the best finishers haven't been published, so we could see how capabilities are growing each year.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Scar: China Miéville

China Miéville's The Scar is as dark as Perdido Street Station, which I reviewed previously. The Scar takes place mostly on Armada, a mobile floating pirate "city" of hundreds of lashed-together seafaring vessels. The main viewpoint character is Bellis Coldwine, a linguist who fled her home in New Cobruzon because the authorities seemed to be following her and becomes intimately involved in the future of Armada, all the while scheming to find a way back to her homeland.

This is dark fantasy, with Miéville's colorful prose showing us many shadowy corners of the world. Bellis plans to pay her way to temporary exile by selling her skills as a translator to a sea captain heading to what she hopes will be a short-term destination, but the ship is attacked by pirates, where she is joined by several remade prisoners. Tanner Sack is one such; as punishment for his crimes, he has had tentacles grafted on to his body. After reaching Armada, he adapts to the seafaring life by paying to be magically and surgically transformed into an even more amphibious form, which makes him quite useful in the mobile floating city.

Armada's past peregrinations were mostly random, going to where there were juicy targets for its piratical deprivations. When people are captured, unless they're expected to be a danger to the city, they're welcomed as new citizens, who can find lodging in any of the variously governed ridings that will accept them. Armada's inhabitants include vampires, cactacae (intelligent warrior cactus-people), scabmettlers (who mold their blood into armor before it coagulates), and others. The city is organized as a dozen different "ridings" with separate local government, and no real overall organization, though they manage to coordinate well enough to navigate to places where they can commit piracy and find the sources of information and tools their plans rely on. But the Lovers (a pair infatuated with each other who seem to hold the reins) have a plan that requires Bellis' linguistic skills to read a book in an obscure language, and a dangerous trip to interview the author. Once that's done, Bellis is of little use to them, but she still longs to leave Armada, and willingly assists in the skullduggery of Silas Fennec a spy from New Cobruzon who desperately wants to get a warning back to their home.

The success of Silas' message, and its disastrous consequences for Armada, as well as the initial success of the Lovers' plan and the violent outcome of that adventure keep the story riveting. Miéville continually throws in details of all the different races and societies, which are nearly always unsettling. It is the kind of fantasy where new kinds of magic constantly arise, though he keeps a kind of rough consistency, so characters seldom develop new abilities unless they were obviously the kind of person with hidden secrets or we got to watch them pick up a mysterious object beforehand.

The Lovers' goal is to get to the Scar of the title, an enormous rent in the world where unbridled possibility is loose, and bizarre powers are available. We get an early view of how possibility magic works when Uther Doul, the Lovers' bodyguard, unleashes his "Possible Sword", which he wields as a scattering of possible trajectories of the blade each laying waste to his opponents separately, while he dances lightly through their blades. The sword is a metaphor for quantum uncertainty made manifest. He is also an expert fighter with the sword powered down, since he doesn't know how to recharge it's ancient power source. He explains to Bellis later that the sword's special power is to unleash and make real the consequences of not only one actual outcome, but of a cloud of alternative possibilities.

Doul, already an expert and precise swordsman, taught himself a completely different art in order to make the most of it. He says

"My arm and the sword mine possibilities. For every factual attack there are a thousand possibilities, nigh-sword ghosts, and all of them strike down together.

"Fighting with a Possible Sword, you must never constrain possibilities, I must be an opportunist, not a planner—fighting from the heart, not the mind. Moving suddenly, surprising myself as well as the opponent. Sudden, labile, and formless. So that each strike could be a thousand others, and each of those nigh-swords is strong. That's how to fight with a Possible Sword."

The overall arc of the story is that Bellis escapes from her native city, is kidnapped, longs for home, and keeps taking one action after another at others' suggestion or request that seem likely to help her or her homeland. In the end, she still feels alone in a place she doesn't love. We're better for the journey, though she never frees herself from her captivity. As I said, it has a very dark feel to it. It's fantasy, but the various kinds of magic that are progressively revealed all feel like reasonable parts of this constantly shifting world.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Arctic Rising, Tobias Buckell

Tobias S. Buckell's Arctic Rising takes place in a near future where climate change has opened up the NorthWest passage, and many parties are struggling to control the economic and ecological prospects of the rapidly growing region.
The novel is a finalist for the Prometheus Award, for which voting is going on now, but the libertarian aspects of the story are not very prominent.
Government and independent agents and agencies play various parts. The protagonist works for the UN Polar Guard and her zeppelin was shot down when she inadvertantly observed a nuke being shipped through the passage. More out of duty to a comrade who was killed in that attack than loyalty, she helps chase down the eco-terrorists who were in the process of releasing a swarm of global-warming-fighting flying mirrors. The adventure, drama, and chase scenes are well told, and the characters are interesting. The science fiction is thin.
The story is not particularly anti-government; about the best I can say for its libertarian bona fides is that the government isn't the strongest force on the scene. Some of the government agents and agencies pay little attention to people's rights, but showing this in the middle of a variety of emergencies isn't a good way to make a strong case.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Actively Disengaged

I just came across a new webcomic, Actively Disengaged that I thought was hilarious. If you're a libertarian, anarchist, voluntarist, or know many people who are, you might like it too.

They apparently publish weekly, and have 70 back comics, so they've been around for a little over a year. I read through the entire set, and laughed, chortled, and grimaced. The art isn't very sophisticated, but the humor is biting.

The ad I clicked on was at Day by Day, which also knows what libertarianism is, and is often sympathetic. If you are wary of nudity, this one won't be for you.  DBD comes out daily, and often reacts to the previous day's news. I often click on the ads at DBD, though not many of the comics stick in my daily reading list.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Two Puzzles and an Event

Two good puzzles I saw recently: one based on poker hands, and the other on regular expressions. And if you're interested in this kind of thing, you might be interested in helping out at the Julia Robinson Math Festival at the Girls' Middle School in Palo Alto next Saturday.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Surface Detail: Iain M. Banks

Iain M. Banks's Surface Detail is an exploration of hell on a couple of different levels. The main conflict in the story is between civilizations that believe in using hell as a real threat to keep sinners in line, and those that are opposed to the practice. According to the story, there are enough societies with a hell in their religion to have made it a common practice, once "people" started moving into simulations, that many created "hell" simulations and sentenced people to spend time there as a judicial punishment.

Most species and societies have a creation myth. The idea of a soul is also common, even if advanced civilizations mostly outgrow belief in it. Once you add in virtual reality, and then the ability to copy minds and host them in a simulation, the idea that virtual afterlives should resemble the cultural traditions' ideas of either heaven of hell seems obvious. The problem is that as people (sophonts of whatever stripe) grow more sophisticated (see Pinker's book on violence) many stop believing that perpetual hell could be a reasonable punishment.

The Culture took a fairly active stance (unusual for them) against the hells, and after some galactic period of time, there was a relative stalemate, in which two factions had very strong opinions that the other side was wrong. "Eventually, though, a war was agreed on as the best way to settle the whole dispute". A virtual war, of course, with both sides agreeing that the outcome on the virtual battlefield would determine the victor in the real world. There's a sub-plot for the virtual battles and another for the political and logistical maneuvering that leaks into the real world.

There's another sub-plot that takes place in one of the simulated hells. Banks does a really good job of envisioning what it would take to make a truly scary hell. In a civilizations that does have hell simulations, but which tries to keep their existence from being generally known [I think hells are like Dr. Strangelove's Doomsday device: "the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost, if you *keep* it a *secret*!"] there are some muckraking journalists who want to convince everyone that the stories are true, so they volunteer to infiltrate. Things don't turn out well for them, and this gives Banks the opportunity to really turn the screws and come up with more and more unbearable tortures.

The major plot involves an evil industrialist who kept a defeated rival's daughter as a slave, and eventually killed her. She gets a chance to come back and try to take revenge. The "coming back" requires a trip across the galaxy with a culture Abominator class ship the "Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints". FOTNMC is a real personality, and seems pretty unstoppable in a battle of wits or an actual battle.

I really like Banks' Culture stories, and even though this one is filled with plausible and explicit hells and some truly evil and some powerful and amoral characters, I thought it was both fun and had philosophical depth. The proprietor of hell has to deal with someone who can't be satisfactorily tortured because she has really given up all hope, so he comes up with a way to give her just enough hope to allow her to suffer again. Truly nasty.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Thinking Fast and Slow: Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow was much better than I expected it to be. Not that I wasn't expecting it to be well written or interesting, just that I expected that since Kahneman's results and views have been covered in great depth in a lot of other works I've read, I didn't expect much to be new. Even if you're fairly familiar with Kahneman's results and ideas, the book presents them well, and gives good advice on how to take advantage of your brain's predilections and work around its shortcomings.

Kahneman is well known as the progenitor (with Amos Tversky) of the Heuristics and Biases literature. You will find references to their research and results in lots of popular presentations on how people think, and the various ways in which people are prone to mistaken beliefs and sub-optimal actions. In Thinking Fast and Slow, he presents a unified discussion of this work, along with some solid suggestions for integrating the conclusions into your approach to life so that you can get more of what you want and be happier.

The basic theory is that we have two main approaches to problem solving with divergent benefits. The fast thinking part ("System One") is ready to make snap judgements on any subject at any time. It is fast, but it takes lots of shortcuts, and doesn't even bother to choose an optimal shortcut. Whatever answer first presents itself to this part of our minds is latched onto, because the evolutionary benefit was in having some answer quickly in case our ancestors needed to react immediately. The other approach is slow and deliberate, and involves evaluating lots of alternatives and consciously weighing benefits as well as the appropriateness of each approach to the current problem. The problem with System Two is that it's expensive, and for good evolutionary reasons your instincts always offer a quick and dirty response before there's time to consider more carefully.

Kahneman spends the bulk of the book giving lots of examples of particular, named, classes of mistakes we make ("Availability Heuristic", "Illusion of Validity", "Endowment effect", etc). It's probably useful to be aware of these classes if you want to reason more clearly, but I see the main value of Kahneman's approach to be in making us aware that our snap judgements are suspect. There are good reasons for each bias, which explains why evolution selected for that particular outcome, but whenever you're not in a life-and-death race to escape a lion, it pays to be attentive to your innate biases and consider your options more carefully. Having names for a catalog of short-sighted trade-offs you are likely to have gravitated to makes it easier to see which first guesses to re-think.

The final section of the book follows another perspective, also first identified by Kahneman and Tversky. This is the idea that our "Experiencing Self" and our "Remembering Self" have different evaluations when comparing things we do, which can lead to strange trade-offs when choosing what to do. The author argues that our memories systematically underweight pain we experience and consistently get some things wrong about enjoyable times, leading us to guess incorrectly about what kinds of situations we'd prefer in the future.

Experimental evidence shows that peoples' memories of painful episodes (dentist visits, for example) are dominated by the experience of the final moments of the experience, neglecting how painful earlier parts were. This means that adding 5 minutes of sligtly painful procedures to the end of a very-painful 15 minute procedure actually makes people remember the whole incident as having been less painful. Many people argue that it's clearly wrong to choose 20 minutes of pain over 15 minutes of pain, but this is not obvious to me. The 15 minute session should also carry the burden of all the subsequent time when the patient had to remember the more painful portions more clearly. The 20 minute session may have included more pain while in the chair, but the experiments show that the patients were less upset long afterward, partly because they had less gripping memories subsequently. So, as I see it, it's less of a contradiction than Kahneman believes.

On the other side, our recollections of enjoyable situations are also skewed. We tend to neglect long periods of time spent in pleasurable avocations (Kahneman calls it "duration neglect"), and when asked to choose how to spend our time or money, people often opt for the choice with a more easily recalled high point, regardless of the duration or enjoyability of the entire experience. Kahneman recommends that when planning vacations, or choosing other ways to spend our time, we focus more on the ongoing experience rather than the extremes. He's pretty convinced that we'll get more out of life that way. The counter is that when recalling our lives we'll be subject to just these biases, and regardless of how much joy there was in the small moments, we'll focus on the highs and lows when remembering our story or telling it to other people. It's food for thought in either case.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Steven Pinker: The Better Angels of Our Nature

Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of our Nature argues that violence has been declining over the last several centuries, and continues to decline, even though the common wisdom seems to say the opposite. Pinker marshalls an enormous quantity of data to buttress his story, and fills in with enough explanation to make a very convincing case. At the end, he tries to explain this long term trend, and comes up with several mechanisms, but since this section is less data driven, it's less convincing than the fact that the change is broad, pervasive, and has continued for a very long time.

Pinker starts out with wars, genocide, and other large scale killings. He amasses a dataset of all known mass killings before the modern age. The data is spotty, so it's hard to draw many conclusions, but it is clear that the distant past included its share of conflicts resulting in lots of deaths, and the twentieth century's war are memorable more for their recency than their scale. In addition, there's a pretty clear trend that the great power conflicts of the early twentieth have disappeared. At the end of his chapter on the Long Peace, Pinker points out that since the end of WWII there have been zero:

  1. nuclear weapons used
  2. battlefield fights between great powers
  3. armies crossing the Rhine (longest interval since 200 BCE)
  4. wars between european states
  5. wars between developed countries anywhere in the world
  6. territorial expansions by conquest for a developed country
As we're getting close to 50 or 60 years without a conflict between major powers, it becomes more plausible that it's a trend rather than an aberration.

From large-scale conflicts, Pinker moves on to socially-approved violence, and then to individual violence. Socially-approved violence includes things like slavery and wide-spread repression as of jews and gays as well as public execution and public torture and punishment. All these have gone from common to unacceptable over the long term. Pinker shows that, in parallel with granting rights to more and more groups the statistics on personal violence in a very broad range of contexts have been declining. Historic attitudes toward blacks, women, gays, ethnic groups, children, and animals have all changed dramatically.

Finally, Pinker tries to figure out what's been driving this change. He starts out by describing some broad trends: The Long Peace, and The Rights Revolution, but he admits they're just names, not a description of causes. From there he looks for factors that could have caused these trends. Empathy may have been increased because of the spread of literacy and mass entertainment that give us more access to other points of view. Self control, likewise may have been improved by the promulgation of personal habits that enable people to make their short-term desires subservient to their longer-range goals. He considers biological evolution, but concludes that while it would have been capable of producing a change, we don't have any evidence for the hypothesis. Next Pinker discusses whether humanity's moral sense or rationality has improved in some way to produce the improvement. He accepts that people are getting smarter (i.e. "the Flynn effect") and argues that once we reach a certain level, we can use reason to see that cooperation is more in our interest than violence, first at the personal level, and gradually at broader levels on interaction.

Finally, Pinker presents a framework for thinking about how various changes have impacted people's incentive structures, and what consequences they have for interactions. It's all based on the basic prisoner's dilemma payoff matrix, showing the options two parties face when they can make independent choices as they interact. The first version is called the Pacifist's dilemma, and shows that wars and fights are costly, but it's better to be the aggressor than the defeated. A second shows that "Leviathan" (a government) can change everyone's incentives by penalizing agression. Next is a chart showing that trade ("Gentle Commerce") improves things for everyone by improving the payoffs as long as agression is avoided. His final chart assumes that empathy and reason are added in, and everyone feels not only their own gains and losses, but those of the other party as well. At that point only positive sum outcomes make sense, since each player gains no advantage by imposing costs that are felt by both sides.

This model is plausible, but not compelling. Something like this might be going on, but it's hard to say that he's actually found the mechanism driving things. An interesting postscript is provided by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who argues that Pinker doesn't understand the statistics of the fat tail that Taleb has been writing about for a while. If the proper curve is not a normal distribution, but instead a fat-tailed curve with most of the weight in the extremes, then the stats demonstrating that there is an effect to be explained are worthless. Taleb gives a bunch of (not well-explained) possible mechanisms for supposing that Pinker might have missed something, but he doesn't analyze whether the historical data looks more like a normal distribution or a fat-tail distribution. I suspect that the near-constant level of violence in the past makes Pinker's position more believable that violence has in fact gone down. It's possible that large-scale conflicts will occasionally arise with enormous body counts, but the drop in violence on all lesser scales doesn't seem likely to be reversed, and that doesn't seem consistent with Taleb's models of financial system variability.

Overall, the book provides good news, and more fodder I can use to try to convince people that what appears in the news is exceptions rather than trends.