Hyperpat\’s HyperDay

SF, science, and daily living

Archive for May, 2008

The Human Brain, Still Champion

Posted by hyperpat on May 30, 2008

In most people’s minds, computers can ‘think’ far faster than the human mind. But is that really true? consider just what happens in the human mind during a conversation:

1. The ears must detect the variations in air pressure, convert it to a electronic signal and send it over the nervous system to the auditory processing center of the brain.

2. The auditory processing center must decode that message and determine if the sound was a word, after filtering out random background noises cause by the wind, a bird call, nearby machinery, or what have you. This is no small trick, and computers today still have problems in this area.

3. Now the speech/language center of the brain gets involved. It must determine what that word was, link it to any prior words, and do a lookup of the meaning of the word, before delivering the result to the prefrontal lobe as something that needs to be looked at by the ‘consciousness’.

4. Now the ‘you’, the ‘thinking’ part, has to take this piece of information, link it with the database storage of your entire life experience, cross-correlate and index it with all that information to help determine what that word means to you and what associations you have with that meaning, and add the visuals: who are you talking to, what is their facial expression, their body language, the tonal quality of the word – all things which may modify the exact meaning of what has been said. And note that the visual processing involves at least as many steps as does the auditory, and is being performed simultaneously to give your consciousness that complete, real-time picture of what is happening.

5. All the words must be processed to determine the actual complete sense of what has been said to you, so now the short-term memory storage must also be accessed, bringing with it the entire gamut of information that was associated with each of the prior words that had been processed.

6. A response must be composed. Once more, both short and long term memory must be accessed, appropriate words chosen to convey the desired meaning, and signals sent to motor controls for throat , lungs, voice-box, lips, and mouth to actually deliver the response.

Given that average speech rates are 200-300 words per minute, this means average word generation is taking about 200 milliseconds. Which means, when you look at the individual actions taken by the brain and associated nervous system, that they are processing things in micro-, or perhaps even nano-, second time frames. This compares quite favorably with most computer speeds.

But you say that computers can calculate arithmetical sums far faster and far more accurately than people! While this is normally true (but just look at what some so-called ‘lightning calculator’ humans can do as a comparison stick), it ignores the fact that computers are extremely single minded – even those programmed to do multi-threaded multi-tasking. The human brain continuously processes, weighs, and forms decision trees about a tremendous amount of information from the ‘outside’ world, integrating it to a gestalt map that informs and influences everything we do or say. And it is in exactly this area that computers compare poorly to humans, and why it’s still true that we haven’t yet built anything that even approaches what most would call a true ‘artificial’ intelligence.

Now part of this gap is a deficiency in how we program computers, an item that is continuously being worked on, with improvements constantly being made, but these improvements, so far at least, have been coming at a pretty linear rate – no great ahas! that have taking computer processing up in giant leaps. Part of the reason for this is that we still don’t understand just exactly how the human brain does what it does, so making a computer mimic it is a little bit of a guessing game. Until we gain a better understanding of just how the brain functions, I don’t think anything like Asimov’s autonomous robots are going to arrive.

So we have a few years, at least, until Colossus takes over the world, and we all end up as slaves to it.


Posted in Science & Engineering, science fiction, SF | Leave a Comment »

Big Brother is Alive and Well

Posted by hyperpat on May 27, 2008

I just finished reading Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother over the weekend. As a book, I thought it was great, harkening back to some of the best YA books of the fifties (my review is posted here). But the book paints a very disturbing picture of the current political climate, most especially the concept that the government has the right to monitor everything you do or say, as empowered by the Patriot Act.

Now perhaps the scenario painted in this book goes a little too far, but it points out a very real danger that the US might fall into becoming a police state as bad as that of the Stalinist regime merely because people are frightening by the possibility of a terrorist attack, and want something done about it. The trouble is, the methods used to fight this terrorist possibility are effectively exactly what the terrorists want: a nation so in fear that it will give up the item that so distinguishes the US from other government models, as embodied most directly and plainly in the 1st Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The Patriot Act give specific powers to various agencies to monitor things like email, phone calls, credit card charges, and even what library books you’ve checked out, merely by presenting a ‘National Security Letter’ to the holder of the information, without recourse to a warrant. Now at the very least, this violates the 4th Amendment provision against ‘unreasonable search and seizure’, and at least one judge has ruled against this practice on 1st Amendment grounds (7 Sept 2007):

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero in New York said the FBI’s use of secret “national security letters” to demand such data violates the First Amendment and constitutional provisions on the separation of powers, because the FBI can impose indefinite gag orders on the companies and the courts have little opportunity to review the letters.

Freedom of speech has also been curtailed by the Digital Millennium Act of 1998, which specifically criminalizes publishing information that might lead to ways to ‘unlock’ DRM codes on copyrighted materials. This provision is highly relevant to whether or not John Q. Public can do anything to prevent the government from snooping on his emails or other net postings, as it attempts to suffocate publication of research work on truly secure cryptography. With the Patriot Act authorizing such snooping, and this act attempting to limit the average person’s access to technology that would prevent such snooping, effectively your entire on-line history becomes available to the government whenever they decide they want to look at it.

Now Americans are used to having a certain amount of privacy in their lives, and take it as a given that this is a right that is protected from government abuses. However, the Constitution itself does not enumerate this as a ‘right’, and can only be inferred from the 4th Amendment’s provision against unreasonable search and seizure. Unless our courts remain vigilant, this ‘right’ will disappear, all in the name of providing better security against a threat that has to date killed fewer Americans than lightning strikes. You may say that you have nothing to hide, and government monitoring won’t bother you, but think about just how much information about you might be derived just from from your net activities, and think about whether you really want Big Brother knowing all of it.

It’s time to really dismantle the Patriot Act, and not just by the mild reforms that were passed in 2006. In its place perhaps we need to pass a new Amendment to the Constitution, one that specifically enumerates the right to privacy and just when and under what justifications and oversights the government can invade it.

Posted in Books, Politics, science fiction, SF | Leave a Comment »

Was Chicken Little Right?

Posted by hyperpat on May 19, 2008

The doom-and-gloom crowd has been predicting that we’ll run out of oil real soon now for a long time. I can remember articles in the sixties that predicted this would happen by 1990, more articles in seventies that pushed this out another ten years, and current articles that peg the date at 2040. Obviously, at least so far, this hasn’t happened. And I doubt that the 2040 date will be any more accurate that the prior predictions. But what has happened is that the price of oil has now reached the point that alternative energy generation methods are beginning to become cost competitive. Never mind that the current price is probably artificially inflated by speculators and cartels that are only looking to get theirs while the getting is good, in real terms it has become more expensive to find, drill, extract, and refine oil. There truly is less readily available (read: cheap) oil to be found out there, so the current price is unlikely to decline very much.

As our current high-tech society is very much dependent on this energy source, is it perhaps time to really start worrying? The answer to that depends on what the alternatives are, and how diligently we investigate these alternatives. So far, the considered alternatives are wind, solar, hydro-electric, fuel cell, nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, biomass, and tidal. Let’s look at each of these and see just how far they’ll go towards providing the world with both cheap and reliable power.

Wind power: Lot’s of energy available here. Winds are basically generated by two major factors, the solar influx and the Earth’s spin, neither of which are going away anytime soon. Capturing this energy in significant amounts is another story. There are few places in the world that have steady winds high enough to justify the cost of the high tech windmills that can efficiently turn that wind power into electricity. Currently, wind power provides less than 1% of electricity production in the U.S. If all possible sites for wind power were developed, it could provide perhaps 20% of the electricity demand, but there are two problems with this. First is that these wind farms would then occupy something like 300,000 square miles of land area. As the U.S. has only 3.7 million square miles of land, this represents something like 8% of all the land, most of which is used for other purposes right now. Second is the problem that the energy produced is a) highly variable b) not easily stored, meaning it has to used when it is produced.

Hydro-Electric, currently providing about 11% of the electricity demand, has similar problems, along with the fact that most of the available hydro-power sites are already in use, and to add more would cause significant changes to the ecologies of the areas around them.

Fuel cells are not net energy producers. It takes more energy to produce the hydrogen used than the fuel cell will deliver. They are a partial answer to the problem of storing energy, and at least can be considered partially mobile if placed in cars. If we can generate enough energy via other means, then these items would be a possible replacement for all the oil we gobble up as gasoline. However, the distribution channels for hydrogen are not in place, and building up the infrastructure necessary represents a large investment in both time and money.

Bio-mass generation has similar problems as those of fuel cells, as it takes more energy to grow and process the plant material needed than will be generated by the final product. It has an advantage in that it won’t require a whole new infrastructure to distribute the end product, but once again the total land area required to grow the necessary material is a significant fraction of our total land area, and would force out farmland currently used to grow edible crops – something we are already seeing in the price of basic foodstuffs in the grocery store. However, this type of technology also provides us with a way to make the oils we need for things other than power generation: lubricants, ingredients in plastics, and other such uses. If crude oil really does run out or becomes prohibitively expensive to get, this avenue is available, and additional research and technological improvements need to be actively pursued.

Tidal power is a non-starter with today’s technology. While there’s a lot of energy in the tides, in most places of the world this energy is very diffuse. Only in few bays is there enough of a water height differential to make energy generation efficient or possible.

Nuclear fission power is an option. It is possible for us to generated a much larger fraction of our energy needs this way than we currently do, but once again there are significant costs and risks associated with going down this route, not the least of which is the spent material disposal problem, along with the terrorist/crazy factor. Nuclear fusion, on the other hand, just isn’t possible today. We really haven’t solved the technological issues with this one yet, and probably won’t for some time, even though they’ve been predicting it’s advent as 15 years from the present for the last forty years. If it ever does become a reality that can actually produce more power than what it takes to generate the reaction, it might become the ultimate savior of our high-tech civilization, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Which leaves solar power as a possible solution. Solar comes in couple of different flavors: direct electricity generation, and as a heat source to drive conventional generators. The heating method is fairly simple, and can be of great use in relatively undeveloped nations, but it is not terribly efficient. Direct conversion shows more promise, though current solar cell efficiency is really not high enough to make it cost competitive with other generation methods. But calculations of the potential energy available show that, yes, it can provide enough power, assuming we wish to the cover the state of Arizona with solar panels, along with every housetop in America. There is still the problem of variable generation (no power produced at night!), the same problem that plagues some of the other potential generation methods. Some better means of storing energy must be found – battery technology is right now not anywhere near to being able to handle this.

Or there is one other alternative: put your solar generation plant in space, where the sun shines all the time, where there is plenty of room not needed for other purposes, and microwave the resultant power down to the ground. This is the option I’d like to put my money on and into, but so far at least it doesn’t seem as if there is any real work being done to make this happen, even though it’s within our technological capability. It would just take an astronomical (pun intended) amount to build it. Our average citizen complains about the amount of money being used for space exploration, as they see no direct benefit from it (we’re just throwing dollars into space!). Science fiction stories have been touting the benefits available from space for a long time, but those who read the stuff represent a very tiny fraction of the entire populace, and it’s still “Buck Rogers stuff” for most. Perhaps if they could be shown how it would directly affect their pocketbook via their power bill they might be more willing to spend more to make true space industry an economically feasible  reality.

The world’s energy demand is not going down. If we don’t wish to see our way of life collapse into wars over a declining resource, or subside into just making-do, with a lower standard of living for all, real work must be done to find appropriate energy sources, all the while keeping in mind just what is ultimately possible with any particular technology and what its total costs are.

Posted in Economics, Science & Engineering, science fiction, SF | Leave a Comment »

West Virginia – Almost Heaven?

Posted by hyperpat on May 15, 2008

The West Virginia primary results have evoked quite a bit of commentary. Many were somewhat surprised at Hillary’s large majority, which was even more pronounced in places like Mingo County (about 88% voted for her). As Mingo County was where I was born, this has influenced me to do a little web research on what the area is currently like.

This first item that really struck me is the decline in population of some of the old mining towns. Delbarton, where I spent the first couple years of my life, has gone from a population of about 1,300 in 1948 to today’s 474. The reason for this is pretty obvious, namely the decline in coal mining jobs available, although this occupation is still one of the largest in the county.

Delbarton is located about 50 miles southeast of Huntington, about six miles from the Kentucky border, and about five miles from Matewan. Matewan is famous as the area where the Hatfield-McCoy feud was waged, though the actual events were scattered more generally over the entire area, from South Williamson  and Pikeville in Kentucky through what is now Matewan to points north. As a side note, I may be distantly related to some of the participants in this feud via the Mounts family line. This entire area is quite mountainous and not really well suited for farming except in some of the valley bottoms.

The demographics of this area are telling: average income of about $21,000, 30% with incomes below the poverty line, 40% without a high school diploma, an unemployment rate around 7% (this last has been improving lately), with exactly one black person currently residing in Delbarton, and only about 400 in the entire county. This last item I think is significant in terms of the political landscape; West Virginia in general and this area of state in particular has always been very heavily white in composition, with most of its inhabitants originally hailing from Ireland or Germany. While the portrait is not quite the bare-footed hillbilly of the stereotype, the general picture is uncomfortably close, and Hillary’s message of aid for the poor must resonate much more with this population than when contrasted with a black candidate whose very articulateness may be a point against him.

No matter how you cut it, or how much we might wish it to not be true, race is playing a part in this presidential campaign.

Now Hillary’s victory in West Virginia will not materially affect the final results at the Democratic Convention, unless she pulls off some kind of miracle coupled with some back-room deals. But it should be a reminder that the racial problems and prejudicial attitudes of some in this country have not gone away and still need to be addressed. Obama will almost certainly end up as the Democratic candidate, and if he should win the general election, perhaps he will be able to really do something about a thorn that has festered in the American way of life for far too long. If instead McCain should win, I think he also will be driven to pay some real attention to the race problem, as Obama obviously has too many supporters to ignore.

Posted in Economics, Politics | Leave a Comment »

The Hidden SF Treasure Box

Posted by hyperpat on May 14, 2008

There’s been a fair amount of discussion lately about a trend in science fiction that has become quite pronounced in the last few years, namely, the near moribund adult sf market and the strong surge in YA sf, as practiced by the likes of Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbalestier, Garth Nix, and recent entries by the likes of Cory Doctorow.  At least some of this has been driven by the fantastic success of the Harry Potter books and movies, which phenomenon has certainly had an influence on young people looking for more of the same. Which at least helps explain why the YA field has enjoyed good sales numbers, but does nothing to explain why adult SF has not enjoyed similar growth – after all, the young teens who cut their teeth on the first Harry Potter book are now in their twenties, and could reasonably be expected to have graduated to more ‘adult’ fare.

But what makes this dichotomy even more puzzling is the fact that YA today is not the YA over-the-hill types like myself grew up with, the Heinleins, Nortons, Asimovs (Paul French), etc. The most obvious difference is that during the day these writers were publishing their ‘YA’ material, any reference to sex was an absolute no-no. Heinlein’s run-ins with his editor at Scribners about this subject are now legendary, and his methods of getting around her very puritanical attitudes are somewhat hilarious – “Raising John Thomases” in The Star Beast, the title of Tunnel in the Sky  (TITS),  as well as being ingenious. Even back then, the authors writing material for teens were well aware that teens knew what sex was and had very normal concerns and issues about the subject that they wanted to see addressed, but the rules of the day were that sex was an off-limits subject, not ‘appropriate’ material for teens to be reading about, which certainly frustrated the writers.

Nowadays, the subject is not off-limits, though there are still concerns about being too graphic. Most of the better writers in this field today do inject something about it in their works, as after all, teens do think about sex, and presenting characters where this is not even a little part of their lives is highly unrealistic. In some cases, they do much more than indicate that sex exists, but explore in detail the concerns and problems teens face in this area.

But given this new freedom to present teens as more complete, real people, it starts to beggar the question of just what the difference is between YA and adult sf. And for the life of me, I can’t see any difference except YA books have young protagonists, and most often the problems they face involve some aspect of growing up to be mature adults. Vocabulary, situations, scientific detail, concepts, and portrayed societies are seemingly identical between many YA and adult sf books. Except, perhaps, that most YA sf is more accessible and/or relevant to the average reader than a lot of current ‘hard’ sf.

But for whatever reason, YA material is selling better than adult sf, and it is attracting some very competent writers. Those adult sf readers who turn up their noses at such books are, IMO, missing a lot of decent reading, and need to develop the habit of browsing the YA shelves in the bookstores, as most bookstores do not double-shelve in both the YA and SF areas. Perhaps it is just this separation in shelving that might be part of the reason for the disparity in sales and why those reading YA don’t seem to be graduating to the adult section later in life, as they’ve never formed the habit of looking in the SF section, just as the adults quit browsing the YA section a long time ago.

Good writing is good writing, and there’s a lot of it in the YA section. Go give it a look.

Posted in Books, science fiction, Science fiction and fantasy, SF, Writing | 3 Comments »

Literary Markers

Posted by hyperpat on May 8, 2008

Just how is a consensus opinion about the quality of any particular book formed? And what impact does that opinion have on the book’s sales?

First I think we should look at the intended audience. Most books are not written to try and appeal to everyone. This is obviously true in terms of ‘genre’ books, but it is also true of those written as ‘mainstream literary’ works – the audience for this type of book is just as limited. Often there is very little crossover between books that appeal to, say, an SF fan, and one that targets potential Pulitzer prizes. ‘Best Sellers’, by definition, appeal to a larger proportion of readers than other books, but they still won’t appeal to everyone.

But within its target audience, each book eventually gathers some form of opinion about just how good (or bad) it is. How? It used to be that the word about new books was disseminated via a very limited communication method, reviews in newspapers, magazines, and journals by professional reviewers. Often libraries would base their purchase decisions on those reviews. Only after the book had been out for some time would there be any feedback from Mr. Average Reader by way of word of mouth to their friends and co-workers, and which books Mr. Average Reader looked at was at least partially influenced by those same professional reviews or by the book’s availability at the library. This made it quite difficult for new authors who didn’t immediately wow the professional reviewers to get much notice (or sales), unless their publisher really pushed to market the book (not something most publishers did with unknowns). On this basis, it’s quite probable that books were published in years gone by that deserved a wide audience, but never got a chance. Of those that did get noticed, it would often take years for a book that only received initial lukewarm reviews to start to gather a reputation for being something that should be put on everyone’s reading list. Within all of this, literary awards played a significant role. Books that won Pulitizers or Booker awards were almost guaranteed best-seller status, and a lot of attention from literary scholars. Winning one those awards, though, was then (and is now) something of a crapshoot, as the judges for these awards are a small number of people, each of whom has their own biases, likes, and dislikes. What appeals to this limited group of people may or may not appeal to a larger audience, giving these awards a somewhat limited utility as a guide to Mr. Average Reader – but because they are award winners, that reader is much more likely to give the book a try. More significant, though, is winning such an award gives the book a ‘marker’ about its quality. And it is the accumulation of such markers that eventually define its literary reputation.

Today there is something called an internet, and it is changing just how books accumulate such markers. First is the fact that critical reviews are no longer the property of professional reviewers only. Amateurs can not only write their own reviews, from their perspective, but have them prominently displayed for all the world to see on sites like Amazon. While many people still rely on professional reviews for determining what they’ll read next, these on-line reviews are gathering more and more credence as viable ‘markers’ of a book’s quality. And, while some of these amateur reviews are truly amateurish and provide little help to Mr. Average Reader, a great many of them are at least equal to the quality of those written by professionals, with the added benefits of having viewpoints different from those of the professional critic and not even potentially influenced by the effect of cash payments for the review.

Now most of these amateur reviewers are inspired to write reviews mainly for those things they read and liked (and the self-choice factor means they probably pick more books of the type they will probably like in the first place). But there are also a significant number who are just as inspired by books they hated, and the reviews they write about these books are often of great value to the prospective buyer/reader of same, giving very cogent and specific reasons for what they felt was wrong with the book. If there are enough of these negative reviews, it will eventually push the book into the trashbin of literary history, even if the literary academic world thinks it’s great. Literary greatness is not measured solely by its credit ‘markers’: its awards, the in-depth analyses it gets, its acceptance by the academic world, etc, but must also, somewhere along the line, impress enough ‘average readers’ that it has special qualities, that it is worth the time to read, understand, and enjoy, before it can really join the pantheon of ‘classic literature’.

Clearly, today’s publishing market has changed. While aggressive advertising campaigns can still push a book onto the best-seller lists, at least temporarily, the long-term sales outlook for a book is much more likely to be dependent on feedback from the readers than was true in earlier times. And its reputation for being a solid, worthwhile book, rather than a forgettable piece of fluff, is also getting more than a little of its assessment from those same everyday readers. The chances of a really good book that is not aggressively marketed (or marketed at all) getting noticed and achieving decent sales have improved as word-of-mouth via these on-line reviews travels faster and to a far larger potential audience than what was achievable via local reading groups and letters to editors.

Publishers are just beginning to realize the power of these ‘amateur’ reviews. Literary academics have so far ignored them, but they may not be able to much longer. It’s a more democratic world out there, with more freedom to publish via print-on-demand and other such vehicles, and more and more a book’s reputation is being established by a consensus of all of its readers, not just those who make a living critiquing books.

Posted in Book Reviews, Books, Writing | Leave a Comment »

Venturing into the Big, Wide World

Posted by hyperpat on May 7, 2008

My son, as part of a school project for his class in government, had to attend a city council meeting last night. His comment about this three hour meeting: “I don’t speak politic”. He found much of the discussion totally opaque, and about as interesting as watching mud drying. This is not too surprising for a couple of reasons: local politics, even in a large city, most often deals with minuscule issues, normally of interest only to those directly affected, and discussions about same are almost necessarily couched in bureaucratese, a totally mind-numbing language seemingly designed expressly to obfuscate just what is being discussed and confuse any normal person. Heated interesting arguments and world-changing consequences are just not part of this picture.

Of more interest is the fact that the school course has such projects at all. And the city council is only one part of what my son has to do – he also is required to put some time in actually working for a political party office (of his choice – anywhere from Democrats to GreenPeace). And of course do a write up of his experiences and what he learned from them. These outings into the real world will at least provide him with a much better picture of what government is all about and how it really works than I got from school.

Back when I was his age (an incredibly long time ago), the classes I took in U. S. government and civics were pure lectures, and almost totally divorced from any current events or the practicalities of the political world. Now these classes gave me a good grounding in the Constitution and my civil rights and responsibilities, but they did not provide any type of picture of why or how I should get involved in politics. The high schools of my day pretty much left this up to the colleges and real-life experience after graduation, when suddenly the effect of a change in, say, zoning laws could have a real and very visible impact on your daily life, and made you realize that all these talking heads spouting esoteric mumble-mumble were important.

This is one change in modern education that I think is worthwhile. More practical, real-life things are very helpful in making the kids realize that what the teachers are trying to instill in them is useful – especially as far too many schools have discontinued the classes in shop, home economics, auto mechanics, and other such classes that used to provide at least a small taste of reality. Robert Heinlein, in Tunnel in the Sky, proposed a much harsher taste of reality, a school course in survival, where the final exam was to be dropped into some unknown land and forced to really survive for some time period. It’s doubtful this would ever become a reality, with its real risk of fatalities, and parents simply wouldn’t be willing to take that risk. Though in today’s world, their kids sometimes enlist in the military very shortly after graduation and are really placed in harm’s way – but most people wouldn’t be able to see the equivalency of these risks.

The real world is neither safe nor comfortable, and young people do need to learn how to navigate its reefs and shoals. Schools that don’t provide at least a small taste of what the big, wide world is all about are doing their students no favors.

Posted in Books, Daily Happenings, Politics | 2 Comments »