Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Partially Clips: Doctors Office


I recently realized that while I haven't been posting here much recently, I have been posting on Google Plus. Most of what I post there would be reasonable to post here, so I'll start cross-posting more of it here. I also have a couple of reviews I'm going to try to get to before Christmas. No promises.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

xkcd on Ingress

XKCD features Ingress!  http://xkcd.com/1143/

This is the project I've been working on for a while. It's only been public for a few weeks.

The world around you is not what it seems.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Beginning of Infinity, David Deutsch

David Deutsch's The Beginning of infinity was a fun and surprising read. Deutsch is well known as a theoretical physicist (having pioneered the idea of quantum computing), and has written very readable papers and books and given good talks at TED and elsewhere. In this book, he talks about a wide variety of systems that allow unlimited expression, growth, and progress. His goal is to show how DNA is a universal language for describing how to build varieties of living things in the same way that a Turing machine can express different kinds of computation. He talks about how the discovery of the scientific method put us on a path to learning an ever-growing set of facts about how the world works.

He comes across as very libertarian, (which Wikipedia presents matter-of-factly), though he's not strident about it at all.

His explanation of explanation is that good explanations capture details about something of interest in a way that is hard to vary; if you change any of the parts of a good explanation, you get a story that doesn't stick together, or that makes predictions that don't hold up. Bad explanations can be just-so stories, or "because the gods wanted it that way". Why did the gods want it that way? What if they change their mind or disagree? And a really good explanation adds details about facets of reality other than its primary aim.

When talking about the foundations for reasoning about morality, Deutsch demolishes the old maxim that "you can't derive an ought from an is" as a basis for rejecting facts as evidence in discussions of morality. He points out that while it's literally true, it's also the case that you don't derive physical laws from single facts. Instead facts fuel intuitions that lead to proposals for theories, and can count as evidence against particular proposed theories. If a theory runs counter to an observed fact, the theory loses. Similarly, "observed facts can be useful in criticizing moral explanations." In order to persuade people of a moral theory, proponents have to offer explanations, and when those explanations are refuted by observation, the listeners will often be skeptical.

I found this passage, on the evolutionary origins of DNA as a universal language to be incisive enough that I posted it to Google+:

Initially, the genetic code and the mechanism that interpreted it were both evolving along with everything else in the organisms. But there came a moment when the code stopped evolving yet the organisms continued to do so. At that moment the system was coding for nothing more complex than primitive, single celled creatures. Yet virtually all subsequent organisms on Earth, to this day, have not only been based on DNA replicators but have used exactly the same alpahabet of bases, grouped into three-base 'words', with only small variations in the meanings of those 'words'.

That means that, considered as a language for specifying organisms, the genetic code has displayed phenomenal reach. It evolved only to specify organisms with no nervous systems, no ability to move or exert forces, no internal organs and no sense organs, whose lifestyle consisted of little more than synthesizing their own structural constituents and then dividing in two. An yet the same language today specifies the hardware and software for countless multicellular behaviours that had no close analogue in those organisms, such as running and flying and breathing and mating and recognizing predators and prey. It also specifies engineering structures such as wings and teeth, and nanotechnology such as immune systems, and even a brain that is capable of explaining quasars, designing other organisms from scratch, and wondering why it exists.

In discussing the nature of representative democracy, Deutsch reveals his libertarianism. He starts with a very clear explanation of Arrow's impossibility theorem, (which shows that there are no possible voting systems that satisfy four simple, obvious criteriaf). Deutsch shows how that applies not only to individuals voting, but also to parliaments and legislatures, how it shows that simple math makes it irrational for voting to solve our problems. He sides with Popper in saying htat we'd be better off looking for possible consistent systems that do a good job of getting rid of bad policies and bad governments without requiring violence. He doesn't hope to find a system that wouldn't occasionally make mistakes; instead he wants a system that is willing to identify errors after the fact and backtrack.

The essence of democratic decision-making is not the choice made by the system at elections, but the ideas created between elections.

What we should be looking for is ways of organizing society that keep options open, allow invention and discovery, and are willing to backtrack. What we have now is a system that institutionalizes stasis, and makes it hard to revisit choices once made. We'd be better off with a system that allowed exploration of many alternatives to compare them, and only made binding choices once it became clear that one approach produces better outcomes in a variety of situations over the long term.

Deutsch also comes out strongly against compromise. He doesn't like proportional representation and parliamentary systems, since they enforce compromise. This has the consequence that no one's ideas are tried out in the way they intended, so everyone can continue to maintain that things would have worked out better if they hadn't had to compromise. In the long term, world was able to learn something from the failed socialist experiments in the Soviet Union, China, and several smaller countries. While some people continue to promote those ideas, most others can see that when they are tried on a large scale, they lead to bad outcomes.

Overall, I found it an engrossing, enjoyable read. Deutsch had some great explanations for some important phenomena, and pulled together commonalities between some widely disparate ideas.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Mark Twain

Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court was a joyous discovery for me. I have long been aware of the story, but didn't have any expectations about it beyond what's obvious from the title. When I started reading it, I discovered that Twain used a simple scenario to explore problems of government and to illustrate freedom's benefits over coercion. Twain's penchant for stories celebrating individual endeavor drives this story.

The Connecticut Yankee is Hank Morgan, a blacksmith and horse doctor, who gets knocked out in a fight and awakens in King Arthur's England. Morgan quickly realizes that with his "modern" knowledge, he can do things the people around him won't understand, and he can use this to gain power that he can use to accelerate progress and bring about an early renaissance. Morgan's concerns are education, sanitation, and preparing the people for democracy. It doesn't take him long to figure out that they aren't ready, but he maintains his confidence that it's only a matter of time and education. He is convinced that once they come to see that the nobles are people, too that they'll be willing and able to govern themselves. In the end, he decides that it isn't the people who are the obstacle, but the hereditary aristocracy who can't learn that they aren't different. I suspect Twain was insinuating that the government of his day was composed of people who thought they were naturally suited to manage other people's lives.

Morgan starts out by gaining King Arthur's trust by recognizing the date of his scheduled execution at the court of King Arthur as the day of a lunar eclipse, and pretending to be a mighty wizard (in competition with Merlin) who can control the Sun. Once he has access to Arthur, he uses his understanding of modern science and manufacturing techniques to develop tools and processes that give him real powers to do things none around him know how to do. He then sets about reforming the country by vanquishing individual knights and setting them to tasks like promoting the use of soap that will completely remake society.

Along the way Morgan has to battle superstition, lack of critical thinking, learned helplessness, and many other obstacles. He builds a corps of youngsters who attend his secret schools and man his secret factories to turn out a long list of products that will improve people's lives.

The story is by modern standards closer to fantasy than science fiction, but Twain clearly intended to make the technology development plausible. There are times when his hero takes shortcuts that modern understanding makes obvious, but were probably less clear in Twain's time. For instance, Morgan's first miracle after calling the eclipse is to blow up Merlin's tower, for which he needs dynamite and wire. Twain assumes that making some wire could be done in a couple of weeks starting from scratch, but it without the infrastructure of a manufacturing economy even something so simple would be a lot more work.

I found this a remarkably enjoyable read, and was surprised that Twain covered so much territory. If you can get past the dated prose and Twain's conceit that a single person could manage such a vast enterprise with help only from people who have no concept of the idea of individual initiative, you'll probably enjoy it, too.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Ready Player One: Ernest Cline

Ernest Cline's Ready Player One takes place mostly inside a virtual reality/MMORPG, though as usual with the recent spate of books in this genre, the action bleeds back and forth with physical reality. The setting is pretty familiar: it's 2044, and the economy has bifurcated into haves and have-nots, and most people seem to spend the bulk of their time in the OASIS. James Halliday, the billionaire founder of the company that runs the OASIS has died, and has set up a contest inside the system that will determine who gets his company shares, his wealth, and control of the OASIS itself. It turns out Halliday was hugely into eighties trivia, and most of the story involves the main character, Parzival, and his on-line friends finding and devouring movie, music, video game, and science fiction trivia from that decade. If you're not averse to geeking out on this stuff, it's a fun romp.

Parzival is the first to find the Copper key, the first step on the quest that Halliday built. Others soon figure out how to backtrack on Parzival's location which gives them the clues they need to follow on his trail. This starts a race to complete the quest and beat Innovative Online Industries, a company that wants to win the contest in order to exploit OASIS's business possibilities. The action is fast-paced, the settings are widely varied, and I enjoyed the references to familiar games, movies, and bands. The character development is fairly shallow, with Parzival maintaining a close friendship with one fellow gamer and a crush on a female-named character that lasts throughout the story. He's convinced he knows that it's someone he could love in real life, and never takes seriously the idea that people can have very different personalities and appearance than their avatars.

Ready Player One is a finalist for this year's Prometheus Award, but I don't think it's a very strong contender. The major element of libertarianism is that the central struggle is over whether the game's virtual world will be under the control of the main character and his friends or the bad guys. If you think the OASIS will be all the reality that matters to most of its denizens, you might want to cast that as a struggle over governance. But the choice isn't between any kind of freedom and some kind of authoritarianism, it's between a faction that has one particular corporatist view of how things should be run, and another that has no explicit goals other than keeping the VR out of their control. No mechanism is suggested for preventing the games' owner from doing whatever he wants. Maybe that's a libertarian outcome, in that it's private property, but that's not what the story's struggle is about.

The science fiction element in this story, like a lot of this genre, is thin. The particular capabilities of the VR software are beyond what we can do today, but not very far. The economy and society depicted outside the OASIS aren't a straight-line extrapolation from today, but they bear a strong resemblance to what some mild pessimists seem to expect. It fits the criterion mostly by being the kind of story that members of the LFS would be likely to read and appreciate.

If you like that kind of thing, it's fairly well done, and worth the read.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Snuff, Terry Pratchett

I expected the usual fluffy, tongue-in-cheek material from Terry Pratchett's Snuff, but what I got instead was a serious story with profound insights about the nature of humanity, and the dangers of stereotyping. Of course, it has the usual fluff and tongue-in-cheek as well. Snuff is likely to be a finalist for the Prometheus award this year, because of its strong message of self-reliance and Sam Vimes' matter-of-fact acceptance of every person for their strengths regardless of others' prejudices. Vimes treats everyone as an individual and is incensed when he realizes that Goblins are being enslaved and that the laws don't protect them. (Maybe as a life-long cop he should have noticed earlier, but never mind that.)

The story follows Commander Sam Vines, Police Chief of Ankh-Morpork, as he attempts to take a vacation with his wife at her ancestral country home. He enjoys himself immensely, but that's because he enjoys his work. His vacation, counter to his best intentions, turns into a working vacation when he comes across evidence that a young goblin girl has been murdered in an attempt to frame Vimes himself. When he detects indications that the locals are conspiring to hide something, he goes into full detective mode.

In this case, he gets involved in unravelling a case of willful blindness, and a gap in the law's coverage. Goblins, it turns out have never been respected by the law, so it's not a crime to mistreat them them. But Vimes learns that they are thinking creatures with feelings, and their own culture. When he then learns that they are being killed, mistreated, and enslaved, he does something about it.

It turns into a rollicking adventure, with Vimes, his taciturn but well-armed manservant, and the various oddities that constitute Vimes' police department all playing parts. As Vimes has done in previous Discworld installments, he hires anyone who seems like they could be a competent cop, and turns them into a respectable member of the constabulary, regardless of their apparent handicaps social, ethnic, or species. (He has hired vampires, gargoyles, golems, and zombies. All turned into find police, with their racial predilictions exhibited as strengths.)

There's a good sub-plot woven throgh, in which Vimes attempts to teach his son, Sam, Jr., some of the wisdom he considers essential. Young Sam is oblivious and hilarious, and learns whatever he wants to learn, while uncovering embarrassing nuggets for the local ne'er-do-wells. This book, like the other Novels in Pratchett's Discworld that have been nominated for the Prometheus, hide a strong pro-freedom and pro-individualism message behind a light-hearted and fun surface story.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Restoration Game: Ken MacLeod

Ken MacLeod's The Restoration Game is yet another entry in this year's bounty of books dominated by MMORPGs and set in a near-future real world. I've read at least three and I think I have another three in progress or at the top of my stack. MacLeod's stands out for having some actual science fiction, which (though it has significant implications for the characters' interpretation of reality) doesn't actually effect the story much. Any other Macguffin would have served as well; it is only revealed at the end of the story, and other than searching for it, its exact nature didn't affect the characters' motivations.

The MMORPG in question is being developed by Lucy Stone during the course of events (which is also not unusual in this year's crop of books.) In this case, Lucy is working for a game design company building a more prosaic MMORPG, and they are contracted to build a special purpose variant that will be used to promulgate certain destabilizing ideas among the population of Krassnia, an ex-soviet bloc region that is ripe for a revolution. Lucy's mother was a spy, so Lucy is used to working undercover and making her way unnoticed in the real world. She also has a few friends who seem to be connected to shady and unscrupulous characters.

The action is exciting and the characters' need to travel around Europe and visit the ex-Soviet bloc give MacLeod plenty of opportunities to compare places and the kinds of activities going on there. Krassnia is a dingy place, but the young people there are vibrant and exploring new business ideas and ignoring their elders who have habits developed and honed behind the Iron Curtain. Lucy herself had some scary run-ins with high officials while she was growing up there. That and her mother's book on the history and folk tales of the country give her a leg up when she has to sneak in and look for the MacGuffin.

Restoration Game is, of course, nominated for the Prometheus Award. It's very well written, and has at least a modicum of science fiction (which gives it an edge over Stephenson's Reamde). The libertarian elements are subtle—There's a popular revolution going on in the background, and government agents are trying to stop Lucy's progress. Lucy isn't explicitly libertarian, but libertarians will like her; she's a strong, responsible individual, trying to make her own way. There isn't a prominent struggle with important libertarian themes, though those seem to be generally lacking in this year's nominees. It's definitely worth a read if you haven't overdone the MMORPG-influenced genre yet.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Vernor Vinge: The Children of the Sky

Vernor Vinge's The Children of the Sky is a sequel to his wonderful A Fire Upon the Deep. In this novel, we visit the home world of the Tines, a dog-like species who only achieve sentience when melded into packs of 3 to about 6. The main human characters are the children of a group of scientists who found a way to engender a widespread Slow Zone, where higher technology and FTL isn't possible, in order to slow the advance of the Blight, a malignant entity bent on a civilization-wide attack. The humans have been revived from cold sleep by various tine factions, and are trying to understand the galactic context that left them abandoned and possibly vulnerable in the Slow Zone. A few of them remember what life was like on a research station, and there is much recrimination and internecine battling among the maturing adolescents. At the same time, the Tines have their own politics and factions, some of whom are ruthless. They also only have second hand knowledge of the higher technology that was lost, and are jealous to be the first to invent useful tools and weapons.

Vinge is a master a depicting truly alien characters, and keeping them true to the characteristics he assigns them. The Tines are individually quite incapable, and don't function well when in close proximity to Tines other than their their own small pack. In this story, we also get to see that the Tropical Choir, which is a super-pack of millions of Tines, somehow manages to operate somewhat cohesively, to the surprise of the northern Tines. Individual packs of Tines have distinct personalities, and can plan and make and keep agreements. When they lose members, it's a lot like aphasic people, with distinct skills and knowledge getting lost. Some Tines and humans explore various approaches to sidestep these problems, but the alternatives have drawbacks that are often worse.

Children of the Sky is a nominee for this year's Prometheus award, and it may be the best written of this year's novels, but the libertarian elements are hard to spot. The Tines don't have an organized government, and no one seems to collect taxes. It's hard to say that they have a well-functioning spontaneous order, since there's little commerce to be seen, even though Tycoon is portrayed as a successful and innovative businessman. (Also, he/they seems to operate sweatshop-style factories, and imprisons and tortures rivals.)

Since the story takes place entirely on one backwoods planet in the slow zone in Vinge's enormous universe, the scope is necessarily narrow, so the implications for galactic civilization that we're used to in Vinge's stories in this universe are missing. The story is still one of adventure, intrigue, invention, progress and loyalty. The way that Tine packs can change attitude, knowledge, and alliance when they gain or lose members gives Vinge unusual opportunities for plot twists. It's definitely a fun read. Whether you like Vinge, or haven't yet seen how he can bring an alien civilization to life, you'll enjoy this.