A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for July 2010

[FORUM] What are some of your more notable dreams?

One very nice thing that Inception did for me was make me think about my dreams.

You drift into the strangest dreams
Of youthful follies and changing teams
Admit you’re wrong, oh, no, not yet
Then you wake up and remember that you can’t forget

I should have a dream journal, since I know that–especially since my sleep apnea was treated, no longer choking me a dozen times a night and letting me fall into REM sleep–I can have very interesting long-form dreams. After only a few minutes, they fade. Once, I remember that I was present among the Hurons of the Gaspé Peninsula, watching schoolchildren dressed in their colourful short-sleeved silken robes leaning over their desks inscribing something in their language (alphabetic or syllabic, despite its origins). I know that Sinicized Huronia was threatened by something, I forget what, and I know that I helped save it.

Le Grand Voyage du Pays des Hurons, Gabriel Sagard (1632)

I remember only one scene from another dream sequence. I was with someone, walking on a windy fall day, buying a coffee at a stand in front of downtown Toronto’s Church of the Redeemer from a clone of Rogue, one of a precise number of clones made of her, one (I was told by someone) of many genetically gifted humans with genes dispersed via sperm and ova banks and embryonic donations into the general gene pool, part of a plan to diminish bigotry against the gifted by making them that much more frequently encountered and known to normals. (The Rogue clone was wearing gloves. A spark passed between us as we left, or a chill.)

Church of the Redeemer

This morning’s extended dream sequence featured a distressing sequences when I kept looking for Shakespeare, but found only lookalike cats notably different only in the collars he wore. (He may have got out last week, after I left the window open what I thought was just a crack overnight on a humid night, coming back safe and bringing back the gift of a small bird as proof of his noble and capable heritage. Not bad for a first time.) The genesis of that episode is clear to me, at least.

Shakespeare, dreaming (1)

And you? What are some of your more interesting dreams?

Written by Randy McDonald

July 31, 2010 at 11:33 pm

[BRIEF NOTE] On some irreducible minima

Another Charlie Stross blog post, “Insuffucient data”, picked up by Marginal Revolution and over at james-nicoll‘s blog (among other places), started up a very interesting thread. How many people would be necessary to keep our high-tech civilization running?

Around 1900, it took the effort of about 20-30% of a nation’s work-force to provide food for everybody; and another 30-50% working in factories to produce clothing, machinery, and processed materials like bricks and billets of pig iron. Today, we only need 0.5-1% of the work force to feed everyone, and another 1-4% working in industry to produce the basics — but the microspecialities have exploded, to the extent that a lot of our needs seem to require a trans-national economy to provide. There are only two vendors of wide-body airliners on any scale today, Boeing and Airbus, and both of them are effectively multinational consortia (more than half the components of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner are produced overseas, and shipped to Seattle for final assembly). There seems to only be room for one vendor of super-Jumbo airliners — if Boeing and Airbus tried to exploit that niche simultaneously, they’d both starve — so they appear to be avoiding conflict in that (and some other) area(s). And so on.

So. I ask: how many people does it take, as a minimum, to maintain our current level of technological civilization?

I’d put an upper bound of about one billion on the range, because that encompasses basically the entire population of NAFTA and the EU, with Japan, Taiwan, and the industrial enterprise zones of China thrown in for good measure. (While China is significant, more than half of its population is still agrarian, hence not providing inputs to this system).

I’d put a lower bound of 100 million on the range, too. The specialities required for a civil aviation sector alone may well run to half a million people; let’s not underestimate the needs of raw material extraction and processing (from crude oil to yttrium and lanthanum), of a higher education/research sector to keep training the people we need in order to replenish small pools of working expertise, and so on. Hypothetically, we may only need 500 people in one particular niche, but that means training 20 of them a year to keep the pool going, plus future trainers, and an allowance for wastage and drop-outs by people who made a bad career choice. Higher education accounts for 1.8-3% of gross spending in the developed world, with primary and secondary education taking a whopping chunk on top of that (if you spent 10 years in a school with a staff:pupil ratio of 1:10, then you soaked up a person-year of time; there may be more labour going into pre-university education than goes into agriculture and industry combined).

This has obvious implications since, as Charlie and the commenters note, our civilization has any number of irreducible complexities, and necessary redundancies to compensate for all manner of losses (people deciding they don’t want to follow particular careers after all, say). A hundred million people might–if everything’s well planned–be able to sustain a technologically advanced civilization, a world that’s overall much more modern than ours might be able to do what we do with less, and a world that simply has a small population would likely do a better job than a world depopulated by catastrophe, but still. For progress, you need people, all kinds of people.

Written by Randy McDonald

July 30, 2010 at 8:07 pm

[BRIEF NOTE] On Catalonia, the bullfight, and the good sense in making nations with humane symbols

The Globe and Mail‘s Anita Elash writes how the ban by the Spanish region of Catalonia of bullfighting reflects local nationalism as much as it reflects animal rights.

Once hugely popular, bullfighting has lost much of its following in recent years. Polls show that only about a quarter of Spaniards are interested in the corrida, down from more than a third in 1999.

But nowhere is it less popular than in Catalonia, which has led the fight to do away with what many Catalans see as a pointlessly cruel pursuit. In 2003, the region passed a sweeping animal-protection law that banned towns without bullrings from building them and prohibited children under 14 from attending. The following year the capital, Barcelona, declared itself an “anti-bullfighting” city. While the only bullfighting ring left in Catalonia is in Barcelona, it stages just 15 fights a year (out of about 1,000 nationwide) and is rarely sold out.

The initiative to ban bullfighting picked up steam about 18 months ago, when the group Prou (Enough) launched a petition that attracted more than 180,000 signatures.

In the last few months, the debate has become a flashpoint in the ongoing argument about Spanish identity and how much autonomy the 7.5 million people who live in Catalonia should have.

Bullfighting, which one Spanish news website says is appreciated for its “fertility, sovereignty, pride, manhood and potency,” has been ingrained in the Spanish psyche for centuries. Right-wing dictator General Francisco Franco promoted it as a unifying spectacle and the national government still offers financial support. While Catalans fought to ban bullfighting, local governments in Madrid and other areas have declared it an integral part of the national identity.

Myself, I’m of the opinion that basing Spanish national identity on the bullfight is as fundamentally stupid as basing Newfoundland identity on the seal hunt. As in other areas of life, if you try to force people to choose between loyalty to an abstract and tangibly humane behaviour, they often opt for the latter. The opinion offered by this person interviewed in the National Post, suggesting that national identity must be eternal and unchanging and that any changes invalidate it, is just the sort of thing that makes edifices crack.

“In this case, banning the bullfight has a lot to do with Catalonia saying, ‘Look, we are not Spanish,’ ” says Carrie Douglass, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Virginia who specializes in Spain and is married to a Spaniard from Madrid. “Because if Spain is associated with or equal to the symbol of the bull and the bullfight, and the Catalans are prohibiting it then they are saying: ‘We can’t be Spanish. And we should be separate.’ ”

[. . .]

“Can you have a fiesta in Spain that claims antiquity — a patron saint festival — without a bullfight?” Ms. Douglass wonders. “In Spain, you can hate the bulls. But your fiesta — like the Fourth of July — is more than just corn on the cob and a band and some watermelon.”

You might well not be able to have such a “legitimate” fiesta in Spain. Catalonian fiestas could, though.

Written by Randy McDonald

July 30, 2010 at 10:58 am

[LINK] “Vilnius: The city as object of nostalgia”

3 Quarks Daily pointed me towards Tomas Venclova’s essay how the city of Vilnius, now the capital of independent Lithuania, has long been the object of desire for numerous competing (but potentially complimentary) nationalisms.

The text of Vilnius has been abundantly discussed on many occasions, though the term “text”, now widely exploited in cultural studies, may not always be used. The text of Vilnius is undoubtedly among the most interesting in Europe and has features we would not find in other larger and more influential texts. Vilnius is often said to be mysterious and magic, eccentric and peculiar, the inspiration of myths and poetry. A particularly strong connection between the city and its surroundings is frequently mentioned, too, allowing us to see Vilnius as a pastoral city with “wild” but idyllic nature intruding into the city centre and adorning its baroque décor. Another feature of Vilnius, which has recently become particularly fashionable for its “political correctness”, is its multicultural, polyglot nature, linking the Lithuanian capital to Czech Prague, Italian Trieste or Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Sarajevo. The text of Vilnius is composed of smaller texts, written in different languages, sometimes rich in code-switching, as for instance the seventeenth-century Jesuit dramas, where Lithuanian cues are interwoven with Polish ones.

But there is more than just linguistics involved here. Most varied stories and cultural discourses overlay one another, letting dissimilar, even competing myths sprout from the primeval mythological trunk. The national identity of many residents of Vilnius is similarly complicated: the same person can simultaneously belong to several cultures, which is why she or he sometimes stands aloof from the rest of society, suffering from an inner conflict and an urgent need to choose. According to Milosz, a resident of Vilnius is neither Lithuanian nor Polish nor Belarusian. I would suggest that he or she is in some ways reminiscent of Kekstas – Lithuanian poet, Polish soldier and Russian prisoner.

What probably marks Vilnius most strongly is the fact that the city is almost always construed as an object of nostalgia. The text of Vilnius is created by people severed from their city and thus extremely sensitive to the particulars of its everyday life: at this point one should remember Kekstas and his extraordinary letters, but also more prominent personalities, for instance, Czeslaw Milosz or Adam Mickiewicz. There is a similarity between Vilnius and Warsaw here, but in the text of Warsaw, nostalgia surfaces either during the war years as, for instance, in Julian Tuwim’s and Aleksander Wat’s texts, or marks the longing for the past, for the irrevocably destroyed pre-war city. In the text of Vilnius, such emotional complexity is also present, but nostalgia here is more frequent, more deeply rooted and more multilayered. And – this is probably the most important aspect – it affects not only individuals but entire ethnic and national groups. I suggested a long time ago that the Lithuanian capital had always been a border city with its border moving from place to place over the years: Vilnius would, for instance, find itself close to the lands of the Teutonic Order (Prussia – ed.) or, in the interwar period, some 30 kilometres from independent Lithuania; now, too, it is located 150 kilometres from Poland and a mere 30 kilometres from Alexander Lukashenka’s Belarus and thus at the eastern border of the European Union. This bordering frequently cut off the nation nostalgic about the city considered theirs: before World War II, these were the Lithuanians; now they are the Poles, Belarusians and Israel-based Jews.

Written by Randy McDonald

July 30, 2010 at 8:42 am

[LINK] “Kepler’s Early Results Suggest Earth-Like Planets Are Dime-a-Dozen”

Continuing today’s theme of “What’s out there?”, the ever-useful 80 Beats some time ago linked to the news that NASA’s Kepler planet-hunting missions is finding more than enough small Earth-sized planets to give us reason to believe that worlds like Earth are quite, quite common.

Sasselov did say that what Kepler has learned so far about extrasolar planets offers tantalizing hints that our planet may not be unusual.

Among the hundreds of candidate planets, a large percentage of them appear to be Earth-like – that is, small and rocky, rather than large and gassy, like Jupiter.

“Even before we have confirmed the planets among these hundreds of candidates, we can see statistically that the smaller-sized planets will be more common than the large-sized (Jupiter- and Saturn-like ones) in the sample,” Sasselov explained.

That’s good news for scientists who hope to one day detect life on another planet. Since life as we know it is thought to require water and Earth-like conditions, planets that look a lot like ours could be habitable.

To date, using a variety of methods, astronomers have confirmed almost 500 planets beyond our solar system, Sasselov said. So far, most of these definitive planet finds have been of the gas giant variety, but that’s because they’re easier to spot than planets like Earth.

Earth-sized isn’t Earth-like, not necessarily, but it does offer up that potential.

Written by Randy McDonald

July 29, 2010 at 6:35 pm

[BRIEF NOTE] On a new model exploring extraterrestrial civilization

Back at Charlie Stross’ “Mediocrity,” commenter Rick York pointed to an interesting new approach to the question of where extraterrestrial civilizations are, in the arXiv-hosted paper “Where is everybody? — Wait a moment … New approach to the Fermi paradox”.

[T]here is another take on the problem thanks to a new approach by Igor Bezsudnov and Andrey Snarskii at the National Technical University of Ukraine.

Their approach is to imagine that civilisations form at a certain rate, grow to fill a certain volume of space and then collapse and die. They even go as far as to suggest that civilisations have a characteristic life time, which limits how big they can become.

In certain circumstances, however, when civilisations are close enough together in time and space, they can come into contact and when this happens the cross-fertilisation of ideas and cultures allows them both to flourish in a way that increases their combined lifespan.

Bezsudnov and Snarskii point out that this process of spreading into space can be easily modelled using a cellular automaton. And they’ve gone ahead and created their own universe using a 10,000 x 10,000 cell automaton running over 320,000 steps.

The parameters that govern the evolution of this universe are simple: the probability of a civilisation forming, the usual lifespan of such a civilisation and the extra bonus time civilisations get when they meet.

The result gives a new insight into the Fermi Paradox. Bezsudnov and Snarskii say that for certain values of these parameters, the universe undergoes a phase change from one in which civilisations tend not to meet and spread into one in which the entire universe tends to become civilised as different groups meet and spread.

Bezsudnov and Snarskii even derive an inequality that a universe must satisfy to become civilised. This, they say, is analogous to the famous Drake equation which attempts to quantify the number of other contactable civilisations in the universe right now.

The Drake equation is a famous equation developed by physicist Frank Drake to define the parameters governing the possibility of communicative extraterrestrial civilizations. See below for the cut and paste from Wikipedia.

The Drake equation states that:

N = R* * fp * ne * fl * fi * fc * L


N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible;


R* = the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fℓ = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space

Bezsudnov and Snarskii present their modification to the Drake equation in this way.

Civilizations are born with the probability n and have the initial life time (time of expansion) T0 set in advance after which they die (disappear or cease to show itself). Contact of developing Civilizations increases actual life time for everyone contacted on a certain extra time, named further a time bonus Tb . We will refer to this model as a Bonus Stimulated model (BS-model).

Further we will use terminology adapted for discussion of Fermi paradox even though the offered model can describe and another phenomena. It is possible to offer the analogy to economy, and in this instance the initial lifetime 0 T is a seed capital of the new formed company. Also this capital defines time of company’s independent life, while association process of this company with other companies stimulate the further development, increasing stability of existence of association by b T value etc.

Arguably, the Bezsudnov-Snarskii thesis is hopeful: we might just have to wait. (Definitions of “we” have to vary.)

Modern, certainly, not indisputable, estimations for N are the values of an order of 1, (more precisely (10) from 0.05 to 5000). The same estimation is also true for any other Civilization in our Universe, hence, Intellect should extend on all of the Universe. While this fact did not happened yet, unfortunately, or to be more precise we are not included yet in this global process which, probably, already going on!

[. . .]

Fermi paradox: proposed and investigated BS-model is moderately optimistic. It is shown that there exists a scenario when at the given moment almost all Civilizations are lonely– «there is nothing», however after some, sufficiently prolong time Civilizations will get into a contact and the Universe as a whole becomes civilized. Conclusion is that it is necessary to wait!

This thesis appeals to my liking for non-zero sum solutions.

Written by Randy McDonald

July 29, 2010 at 5:34 pm

[BRIEF NOTE] Where is everyone? (Maybe we didn’t install the new memory card yet.)

80 Beats’ Andrew Moseman linked to a recent suggestion by physicist and science fiction writer Gregory Benford

Assuming that aliens would strive to optimize costs, limit waste and make their signaling technology more efficient, Benford and his twin, James — a fellow physicist who specializes in high-powered microwave technology — suggest the signals would not be steadily blasted out in all directions. Extraterrestrials would be more likely to send narrow “searchlight” beams delivered in pulses.

“This approach is more like Twitter and less like ‘War and Peace,'” said James Benford, founder and president of Microwave Sciences Inc., in Lafayette, Calif. The Benford twins, along with James’ son Dominic, a NASA scientist, detailed their findings in two studies appearing in the June issue of the journal Astrobiology.

The Benfords suggest a continuous signal blared at thousands of stars would simply cost too much energy. They say aliens might use short bursts — say, anywhere from a second to an hour long — and point these signals in narrow beams at one star and then another in a cycle involving up to thousands of stars that repeats over days or years.

For civilizations that constantly watch the skies, the bursts would convey enough data to be recognized as undeniably artificial. As observant civilizations concentrated on this simple beacon, other beacons could broadcast more complex data at lower power (assuming the aliens were still pursuing a frugal strategy).

It would be reasonably simple to build such a beacon–for various only moderately eccentric definitions of “reasonably simple”–but then, where is everyone else. Fermi’s paradox comes into play, as Charlie Stross noted in a blog posting of his own titled “Mediocrity”: “There are plenty of stars old enough that, if intelligent space-going life has a non-zero probability of emerging, our galaxy should long since have been overrun. And if not, why do we detect no signs of extraterrestrial intelligence?” After discussing the possibility that interstellar expansion might be impossible because aspiring colonists simply have to take too much too far from home to build a functioning society, Stross brings up last night’s simulation argument again.

Loosely stated, the simulation argument runs thuswise (pace wikipedia): it is taken as axiomatic that consciousness is an emergent property of physics (i.e. there’s no ghost in the machine), and that we can simulate physical systems. Thus, it is possible in principle to construct a software simulation of a world inhabited by intelligent beings who will perceive that world as real. It then follows that either no civilization will ever reach a technological level capable of constructing such simulations, or that every civilization capable of doing so will choose not to do so for some reason, or … we’re probably living in a simulation (because any civilization capable of running a civ-sim is liable to do so many, many times; so the number of sim-civilizations will vastly outnumber the number of authentic ones, and by the principle of mediocrity we are not exceptional).

heteromeles’ suggestions is somewhat disturbing.

That’s the problem with the simulation paradox: the system crashes when there are too many entities within it interacting. This would make a great disaster for a novel: the heroes are in a world which will crash, say in 2012, because the simulation will break down. At that point, most of the population will be destroyed by the system tools who are trying to do a new build to get reality up and running again. Our heavenly sysop may have to declare an apocalypse, and once things are working again, he may have to monitor it for quite a while to make sure it doesn’t crash again…..


Written by Randy McDonald

July 29, 2010 at 4:28 pm

[BLOG] Some Thursday links

  • At Beyond the Beyond, Bruce Sterling blogs about Russian spy Anna Chapman’s surprisingly high post-arrest profile. Cheesecake photos and spies mix!
  • Eastern approaches examines the need to modernize Poland’s railways.
  • Joe. My. God. writes about the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, who responded to that city’s impending gay pride march by promising to organize a donkey pride march. (No, he’s not queer-friendly. You needed to ask?)
  • Language Hat blogs about one American student’s encounter with language chauvinism in Central Asia, here, on an Uzbek promoter’s hostility to a supposedly impoverished Persian.
  • Language Log explores the Mad Men writers’ commitment to using period-appropriate language in their scripts, and examines the use of English script to write Taiwanese morphemes.
  • At Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen makes an argument that private space exploration could receive heavy funding based on precedents of private funding of astronomical observatories.
  • Strange Maps’ Frank Jacobs blogs the several proposals for a greater Switzerland, expanding from its Alpine base regardless of Qadaffi’s hostility.

[BLOG-LIKE POSTING] Are we living in a simulated reality?

The question of the reality or unreality of our universe can be traced back at least as far as the famous quote from Zhuangzi (“Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man”), but in our post-Matrix/Inception world the argument has been given its keenest form by the philosopher Nick Bostrom. Bostrom has devoted an entire website, Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?, to his argument in its various iterations and the responses that the argument has gotten and his replies, but I’ll borrow from Wikipedia’s description for time’s sake.

A simplified version of his argument proceeds as such:

i. It is possible that an advanced civilization could create a computer simulation which contains individuals with artificial intelligence (AI).
ii. Such a civilization would likely run many, billions for example, of these simulations (just for fun, for research or any other permutation of possible reasons.)
iii. A simulated individual inside the simulation wouldn’t necessarily know that it is inside a simulation — it is just going about its daily business in what it considers to be the “real world.”

Then the ultimate question is — if one accepts that the above premises are at least possible— which of the following is more likely?

a. We are the one civilization which develops AI simulations and happens not to be in one itself?
b. We are one of the many (billions) of simulations that has run? (Remember point iii.)

In greater detail, his argument attempts to prove the trichotomy, either that:

intelligent races will never reach a level of technology where they can run simulations of reality so detailed they can be mistaken for reality (assuming that this is possible in principle); or
races who do reach such a sophisticated level do not tend to run such simulations; or
we are almost certainly living in such a simulation.

I find this rather worrisome since I’m a devotee of the mediocrity principle, the idea that there is nothing special about Earth or humans. If this is the case, then it might be unlikely that our universe isn’t a simulation.

Bostrom’s argument is practically impossible to prove–even areas of the universe that turned out to be uncomputable might well be within the capabilities of a higher-realm simulator–and so, as the Wikipedia authors conclude, “there is no evidence that can conceivably be produced to show that the universe is not any kind of computer, making the simulation hypothesis unfalsifiable and therefore scientifically unacceptable, at least by Popperian standards.”

But who says that Popperian standards are necessarily relevant here? There may not be invisible pink elephants hovering around me, but there is nigh-undetectable dark matter about us all … Multiple commentators give the Bostrom we-are-in-a-simulation theory a 20% likelihood of actually describing reality.

The interesting thing about the theory that we live in a simulated reality is that it doesn’t seem to require that we change our behaviour in any way to accommodate this fact. If our reality is a simulation, it’s a good one.

You’ll forgive me if I now twitch quietly over there, right?

Written by Randy McDonald

July 28, 2010 at 11:59 pm

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[REVIEW] Inception

I saw Inception yesterday afternoon with lemurbouy and David at the former’s suggestion, and I liked it. Christopher Nolen’s direction was visually interesting, it was great to see Ellen Page again and Tom Hardy in a non-Shinzon capacity, and the story made me think

My Google Reader accounted pointed me to an interesting analysis of the film, “The Neuroscience of Inception, by Jonah Lehrer. I’m not sure if this–obviously, spoilers-filled–analysis doesn’t aim for too meta/high-level an analysis of the film’s import, but it’s worth reading.

Finally, here’s some very relevant music.

Written by Randy McDonald

July 26, 2010 at 11:59 pm

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