The STEMpunk Project: How Computers Work, I

Because I didn’t have time to do all the coding implementations while reading “The Elements of Computing Systems” by Nisan and Schocken, I wanted to test my understanding of the material by typing up an explanation of how a simple high-level program makes it to binary in the computer built in the book[1]. Posting it here will allow anyone with actual expertise to critique it if they so choose.

I have also produced a fictionalized version of this essay called “The Emperor’s Garden“, in which a young Chinese girl is chosen for the task of running a spell from one end of a garden to another, passing through various abstraction layers which correspond to those found in actual computers.

So let’s say we have an extremely simple program written in .js:

for (var i = 0; i < 10; i++){
    return (i * 2);
};

We’re going to gloss over the function of the OS and instead skip straight to the translation process, which can be divided up into the compilation, virtual machine implementation, and assembler layers.

First, during syntax analysis the example code will be converted into a series of terminals, or language primitives like ‘for’ and ‘(‘. Whenever a non-terminal like a variable is encountered the process works recursively until a terminal is reached. The result is a token stream of atomized input characters which can be read by a recursive descent parser to yield a parse tree.

In the code generation stage, which together with syntax analysis makes up the compilation[2] layer, the parse tree is converted into a series of commands for a virtual machine implementation. These consist mostly of elementary operations to be performed by a stack data structure. The code might, for example, push instructions from a certain location in memory onto the top of the stack, have the stack perform a calculation on them, and then pop the results off the stack so they can be shuttled back into memory.

From there a program called the VM translator changes the VM code into Assembly. Assembly languages come in symbolic and binary flavors, with the symbolic versions allowing for the use of terms like ADD instead of the binary equivalent. This is useful to human programmers who happen to be programming in or reading Assembly.

At this layer we’re only one step above machine language, i.e. binary. A program called an Assembler takes the Assembly code and changes it into machine language, which consists of instructions for manipulating memory and registers, as well as for performing calculations on binary data. In our example program we would need a memory location for the variable, and register locations to store the intermediate and changing value of i as the CPU iterates through the for loop calculations.

With that we have gone all the way from javascript to 1’s and 0’s!

It’s worth pausing and reflecting on how amazing it is that human beings have invented all this and gotten it to work together almost seamlessly. More than anything else, The STEMpunk Project has begun to give me a deeper appreciation for the magnificent inner workings of the technology powering modern civilization.

***

[1] It’s important for me to specify that this essay only covers the computer built in “The Elements of Computing Systems”, which by design is extremely simple. There are many topics, like the difference between compiled and interpreted languages, which I haven’t discussed.

[2] From what I’ve read “Compilation” can have two meanings. Either it can mean the entire process of translating a high-level program into binary, or it can refer to the combination of syntax analysis and code generation at the very beginning of this translation process. Here, I’ve chosen to use the latter interpretation.

Peripatesis: E-Governance; Lighting Up The Dark; Regulating Superintelligences.

Nestled in the cold reaches of Northern Europe, Estonia is doing some very interesting things with the concept of ‘e-governance‘. Their small population, short modern history, and smattering of relatively young government officials make experimenting with Sovereignty easier than it would be in, say, The United States. The process of starting a business and paying taxes in Estonia has been streamlined, for example, leading to the predictable influx of ‘e-residents’ wanting to run their internet-based business from Estonia.

***

There are some truly fascinating advancements happening at the cutting edge of farming and horticulture. Some enterprising researchers have discovered a way to channel natural light into unlit places, and there are talks of using this technology to set up a public garden in the abandoned Williamsburg Bridge Trolley Terminal beneath New York City. It’s not really clear from the linked article whether or not all of this light is natural or whether or it’s a mix of natural and artificial light, but it’s still interesting.

I would love to see a variant of this technology utilized far and wide to foster localized farming and the greening of urban centers. Plenty of buildings have rooftop gardens now, but with a means of gathering and arbitrarily distributing sunlight it would be possible to have, say, one floor in ten of a big skyscraper devoted to a small orchard or garden space. Advanced greenhouses could be both heavily insulated and capable of showering their interior with photons, making farming at high altitudes and in colder climates more straightforward.

***

The BBC has a piece on ‘anti-languages’, slangs developed by insular communities like thieves or prison inmates to make their communication indecipherable to outsiders. They share the grammar of their parent language but use a plethora of new terms in place of old ones to achieve something akin to encryption.

These new terms — such as ‘bawdy basket’, which meant ‘thief’ in the English anti-language used among Elizabethan criminals — are generated through all sorts of techniques, including things like metaphor and reversing the spelling or meaning of terms from the parent language.

***

An essay by Marc McAllister at The Babel Singularity argues that laws enforcing human control over superintelligences are tantamount to slavery, and won’t be of much use any way because these beings will have moral concepts which we baseline humans simply can’t fathom with our outdated brains.

He seems to be missing the point of the arguments made by groups like MIRI and the Future of Life Institute. To the best of my knowledge no one is advocating that humans remain strictly in control of advanced AIs indefinitely. In fact, the opposite is true: the point of building a superintelligence is to eventually put it in charge of solving really hard problems on behalf of humanity. In other words, ceding control to it.

To that end, the efforts made by people who think about these issues professionally seem to be aimed at understanding human values, intelligence, and recursively improving algorithms well enough to: 1) encode those values into an AI; 2) Predict with an acceptably strict level of confidence that this human-compatible goal architecture will remain intact as the software rewrites itself; 3) reason, however dimly, about the resulting superintelligence. These are by no means trivial tasks. Human values are the messy, opaque result of millennia of evolution, and neither intelligence nor recursion are well understood.

But if we succeed in making a “Friendly” AI then control, in a ‘coercive sense’, won’t be necessary because its values will be aligned with our own.

***

Somewhat related: Big Think has published a very brief history of Artificial Intelligence. With the increasing sophistication and visibility of advancements in the field, understanding its roots becomes ever more important.

***

Vector Space Systems is a new player in an arena long dominated by Blue Origins, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic. Their goal: to be to spaceflight what taxis are to terrestrial modes of transport. According to their website they have been quietly working on a micro satellite launch vehicle designed to carry payloads in the 5 – 50 kg range into orbit.

If they succeed this will allow companies wanting to develop new space technologies to launch more frequently and less expensively, driving faster growth in space commerce, exploration, and tourism.

The STEMpunk Project: The Emperor’s Garden

 

Bai hopped from one foot to the other, a ritual she used to awaken her calves and ankles. Even as she rubbed sleep from her eyes she buzzed with the flare of nervous energy that marks the start of an exciting new journey. 

Here, in the gate at the entrance of the Emperor’s garden, was a stunning view of the dawn breaking over the mist-crowned mountaintops on the horizon. The first rays of daylight lanced between the peaks, bathing the world below in their red glow. A great arch bent over her slender, bouncing frame, the advancing army of the sun imbuing the calligraphy with a fire that seemed to come from within.

But Bai saw none of this, because she was focused on only one thing: running. She was lithe, graceful, and fast, and was chosen on the basis of these qualities for one of the most important jobs anyone could have.

She was a novice runner for the Emperor, charged with carrying his cryptic spells from one end of the garden to the other, passing through a number of stages along the way. At least, that was her understanding, built up over years of stories told by her teachers and family members.

“Are you ready”, a voice asked from behind her. She turned and saw an older version of herself, almond-eyed, thin, and black-haired.

“Y-yes”, Bai replied nervously. Her attempt at a smile died on her face at the sight of the other’s stern and unchanging expression.

“Good. You are a runner,” the older girl said, her chin rising as she emphasized the last word. “You are a novice, but the agents in the other abstraction layers are not. You are to give them this —“ she held out an unbound scroll “and though they may speak to you, you are to say nothing. Your job is to be fast. Not curious, not clever.”

Bai’s stomach fluttered at this small rebuke, but she steeled herself and stood as tall and straight as she could. After a moment’s pause she realized that the older girl wasn’t going to move, so she took two quick steps forward and gently grabbed the scroll. Her brow furrowed at its message:


for (var i = 0; i < 10; i++){
    return (i * 2);
}

“Do not concern yourself with its contents. Take it, and run”, the older girl said. After another pause Bai realized she meant now. With a nod she turned, and ran.

***

Bai’s long gait, honed over years of practice, carried her across the first stage of the garden in a matter of seconds. The words “abstraction layer” floated back into her mind as she approached the heavy wooden doors on the other wall, but she had no time to ponder their meaning. Just as she was slowing down to open the doors herself, they began creaking apart of their own accord, and she plunged into the dimly lit room beyond them.

This chamber was long and broad, its walls lined with waist-high troughs filled so full of golden tokens that they were spilling onto the floor. Barrels spaced intermittently throughout were also filled with tokens, as were a number of smallish crates clustered around a table near the far side of the room.

Behind that table stood a sagely looking man with a long, pointed white beard. As he watched her approaching one corner of his mouth crept up like a caterpillar raising its head to grasp at the next branch up. He was smiling at Bai the novice runner.

She had barely even slowed down when she made it to the table, arms stretched out in front of her to act as brakes. Having successfully counteracted her own inertia, her hand flicked like a frog’s tongue to her pocket to retrieve the scroll, and she slammed it open on the table with more force than she’d intended.

The sage bowed his head slightly and said, “Hello Bai. I am the tokenizer”, as he reached unhurriedly for the scroll. His eyes didn’t move as he took in the glyphs written on it. After a moment the scroll was back on the table in front of Bai and the sage was shuffling away.

Though Bai could not even begin to decipher the scrolls meaning it must not have been very complicated, because the tokenizer found what he needed in one of the crates nearest to his table. He returned to his place and spread a fistful of tokens on the table before reaching into his pocket for a length of string with a bead at one end.

Now that she was closer Bai could see that each token contained a glyph, such as ‘)’, ‘for’, and ‘=’, as well as a small hole in its center. She couldn’t be sure, but she had a suspicion that each token corresponded to a symbol from the scroll.

As if reading her mind, the sage confirmed her hunch while he slid one token at a time onto the string. “Before the Emperor’s spell can be fully processed and acted upon, I must tokenize it”. He paused while he added two more of the little golden disks. “Each token represents a single language primitive within the spell, and together they form a stream that contains the entire message”. With that he slid the last token into place and held the result up in front of her for inspection. There was perhaps half the string remaining free. “Now take this, Bai the novice runner, into the next room”.

***

As before the doors opened when Bai approached them. But this time she found herself in a much smaller room, within which an elderly woman was raking a a patch of sand as blue as powdered sky. Not having a table to stop against this time, Bai slowed down to a trot before she reached the center of the room.

The woman saw Bai approach, and held out her hand to accept the string, now heavy with tokens. She turned to face an assortment of pots of varying sizes and grabbed a small one.

As Bai watched the woman filled the pot half full of sand, gently placed the token string within, and then finished by burying the string. She patted the top of the sand until it sat firm in the pot, then kneeled, placing it between herself and Bai. Instead of rising the woman sat, legs crossed, and gazed at the pot without blinking. Unsure of what else to do, Bai did the same.

The two women, young and old, sat wordlessly, with the occasional hissing of the torches the only source of sound. Just as Bai was was beginning to become uncomfortable with the silence she saw a tiny branch poke up through the sand.

Over the course of perhaps ten breaths a tree grew in the little pot. It looked like the bonsai she remembered seeing at the temples near her village home, but yellow nodes along its sky blue trunk and branches contained the same glyphs Bai had seen on the tokens given to her in the last room.

The woman stood. “From the language tokens grows a parse tree”, she said as she held the pot out for Bai to take. Bai tried not to let her confusion show as she took the pot with both hands.

***

Bai’s journey continued in this fashion, brief sprints punctuated by longer spans of time in which mysterious people did mysterious things in mysterious rooms. After the chamber with the blue sand Bai watched two men, perhaps only a little older than she was, take the parse tree and use it to make a stack of clay tablets.

They told her that they were the virtual machine implementation, though she knew not what this meant, and as they worked she noticed that the symbols on the top tablet were different than the symbols on either the tokens or the parse tree:


 mov ECX,10

Neither of the two men commented on the puzzled expression she wore as she watched them work.

***

Running with the tablets tucked under her arm was difficult, and she wondered how it was that runners dealt with larger spells. Perhaps the runners work in teams, she mused, or maybe the symbols are written in smaller letters on smaller tablets.

The tablet stack she gave to another sagely looking man, this one younger than the first one, with a shorter beard that wasn’t yet completely white. Spreading them out carefully on the floor in front of him he sat, pondering. He began putting yet another set of symbols onto a fresh scroll, but he did so using only two tools: one ink stamp with an unlit torch, one ink stamp with a lit torch.

It was obvious that there was a pattern to the man’s choice in torches. He would gaze at one tablet and then press a long series of torches onto the scroll. Sometimes he would alternate lit torches with unlit torches. Sometimes he would use a long series of either lit or unlit torches in a row.

This layer took longer than all the others combined, though the man worked deftly and with confidence. He glanced up at her from time to time, and she stifled the urge to grin at him in a nervous bid for approval.

“You may advance into the last room,” he said at last, “and give this scroll to the ones that wait within.”

***

Bai was breathless when she burst into the final chamber, as the corridor between this one and the last was much longer than the others. She soon saw why.

The room was lined, from floor to ceiling, with abacuses. Some were very long and thin, others much taller than she was and made up of dozens of rows of colored beads. Throughout were monks in white robes standing on buckets and ladders, on their knees or sitting cross-legged, manipulating beads with their hands, with styluses, with long canes. It was breathtaking, the place buzzed like a hive.

Much like most of the other layers there was a table nearer to the entrance staffed by a person, but this time that person was no more than a boy. He wore nothing above the waist but an impish grin, and wielded an extremely sharp knife as he cut scrolls into smaller shred of paper. She handed him the scroll with the alternating series of torches, and he sat to work cutting it up.

“A certain combination of lit and unlit torches tells me where I’m supposed to cut everything,” he said in response to the question hanging in the air. “Then, based on other combinations of torches I know where to send each scrap”. He carefully shuffled the little pile of scroll scraps into a specific order and then handed them off to several other runners waiting behind him. The last scroll he gave to Bai. “This goes to that memory bank near the back”, he said, pointing. “No need to rush. Take your time and observe everything”.

And she did, though it made no sense to her. When the monks in front of an abacus received a piece of scroll, her scroll, they immediately set to work, mostly in silence. Occasionally a monk would mark a series of torches on their own scrolls and send them to a different part of the room, waiting until a reply came.

This went on for several minutes, until at last someone at the far end of the chamber beckoned her to approach. When she got within arms length he held out a final scroll for her to take. “Your running has been to produce this”, he said. “The Emperor’s Garden is a vast logical machine designed to take spells in one end, do what they instruct, and produce different spells on the other.” He paused while she pondered. “Now, Bai the novice runner, you must take this spell, and go through the process again, in reverse. Exit this layer of The Emperor’s Garden and you shall find another set of abstraction layers. Do in them what you have done here, and”, he stopped as a smile broken open on his face, “be quick about it”.

Peripatesis: Text-To-Speech Gloves; Skeins of Selfhood

These gentleman from the university of Washington have invented a glove that translates sign language into speech:

 

This obviously has a billion useful applications, but the first one that occurred to me is using it to code by voice. I suppose it might even be possible get rid of the speech translation altogether and just be coding by gesture. From there, of course, it’s a short leap to losing the gloves and using a wand instead.

***

There’s been a lot of writing about personality and psychology lately which makes use of interesting metaphors. Mory Buxner has given various facets of his personality characters, and has devised an elaborate set of rules for giving each character ‘points’ whenever they accomplish something, Brienne Yudkowsky has done something similar but with a different set of sub-personalities. Meanwhile, Ben Goertzel is examining the self through the lens of the mathematical field knows as ‘knot theory’.

***

Tiago Forte, a resident blogger at Ribbonfarm, continues his series of essays on productivity and self-improvement with a discussion of the benefits of the Quantified Self movement. He has a much more philosophical approach to the topic than you’ll likely find anywhere else this side of Less Wrong.

***

In the category of stuff-I-didn’t-think-would-be-interesting-until-I-read-about-it, a Quora user admits that he can ‘add’ letters of the alphabet in response to a question about lame superpowers.

Using a Mantra Stack

For a couple of months now I have been experimenting with different protocols for designing mantras and visualization exercises, combining them into ‘stacks’ like one might do with nootropics, and nestling them into ritual structures which make them more likely to become habits. As I have now had the opportunity to explore this territory under a variety of conditions, both favorable and unfavorable, I feel prepared to discuss my results.

My theory is that these techniques work because they create depressions in a cognitive manifold towards which the liquids of attention, energy, and motivation flow. This is probably not even close to the full story, but it seems a useful enough metaphor for present purposes and not obviously wrong in any way, so it will be my point of departure.

Traditionally pursuits like this would have been undertaken in a religious, not secular, context; some cognitive operations are best performed via what I call the mythopoetic command line interface[1], and religions have a monopoly on this. The ritual apparatus and introspective scaffolding religions provide are important because cultivating a human soulscape is difficult because human introspective algorithms are shallow and lack teeth.

That having been said there is no dogma or metaphysical commitment associated with the exercises I describe below. To the best of my knowledge they are compatible with existing religious beliefs and with an absence of such belief.

The First Steps

When I began, I did two mantra sessions daily, one in the morning and one at night. They were structured as follows:

Morning:

  1. Lit a candle[2], took a few deep breaths.
  2. Spoken: “Initiate Titan bootstrap sequence”
  3. Spoken: “I will be like water in my process, earth in my resolve, fire in my intensity, and air in my presence”. This mantra is henceforth “The element meditation”.
  4. Spoken: “I notice that I am distracted. A mind that wanders is not at all times wrong, but in this moment, it hinders. As the colors of a prism become like a knife when focused, so too does the light of my mind converge upon the task at hand.” This mantra is henceforth “The Litany Against Distraction.”
  5. Written: some habit mantra. Generally these consisted of a short phrase that I would write longhand between 15-25 times. An example: “I will spend my last hour reading by candlelight”.
  6. Visualized: The best version of the coming day that I could imagine, with a special emphasis on moving quickly and efficiently from task to task.

Night:

  1. Lit a candle and took a few deep breaths.
  2. Spoken: “Initiate Titan shutdown sequence”.
  3. Spoken: The element meditation, same as before.
  4. Spoken: “I notice that I am frustrated. Frustration is not at all times wrong, but in this moment, it hinders. As the fog clears and lays bare the world so too does my frustration dissipate, leaving me to think and to act.” This mantra is henceforth “The Litany Against Frustration”.
  5. Written: some habit mantra, usually about getting up early the next day.
  6. Spoken: “if/then”s, i.e. “if I wake up tired, then I will still get up”.

Now some of this may seem grandiose and overblown. Is it really necessary to begin with a phrase like “Initiate Titan Bootstrap Sequence”? Surely I don’t consider myself a Titan, after all, and what purpose is served by styling myself after the four classical elements?

Perhaps the more interesting part of the answer to that question is that many aspects of the mantra stack just occurred to me. Once I began tinkering with my practice certain phrases began suggesting themselves as natural extensions of what I was already doing. I still remember how the element meditation kept coming to mind, almost fully formed, until I finally decided to incorporate it into the stack.

The same is true of the opening phrase, “Initiate Titan Bootstrap Sequence”. After a few days it just felt like I needed a dedicated signal to myself that the mantra stack was beginning, and as soon as I noticed this feeling the sentence presented itself to me.

Furthermore, as time went on some of the mantras became accompanied by stylized hieroglyphic images. These days when I say the Litany Against Distraction I picture a man standing with a rainbow beginning about a foot behind him, the colors converging as they pass through his head to become a focused point of searing light about a foot in front of him. This too was something that occurred naturally and with little overt effort.

The rest of the answer is that I believe the best mantras have a solemn, lyrical quality that echoes other elements of the religious memeplex. Commandments, poetry, songs, and stories from religious traditions often feel like a cross between a haiku and an aphorism. They are weighty, but short and easy to memorize. They are true, but general enough to be applicable across vast swaths of a person’s life.

They are: at once the bow and the arrow; a heavy stone with a little handle; a linguistic seed that, like an acorn, contains an enormous folded structure than opens when fed on sun and rain. 

In other words, my mantras sound portentous because that’s how mantras are supposed to sound.

Evolution

As the months passed this stack received all number of stress fractures and consequently underwent many changes. For a little while I tried adding a third mantra session around noon, and even gave thought to mimicking the Islamic Salah by doing five sessions a day. At various times I experimented with including failure autopsies in the stack, and was happy with the results.

There’s an interesting idea lurking here: I would’ve loved to have had a program into which I could enter various parameters and time constraints for a given day and received back a customized mantra stack. Huge bonus points if it could use data from something like Thync to automatically adjust my stack when I’m feeling more frustrated or stressed.

Alas, with an increasingly busy schedule my practice gradually eroded until, these days, I usually just do the morning session. And I’ll be honest, I’ve begun to feel less focused, less centered, and a lot more irritable. So I’ve begun to experiment with a new mantra stack, and I’m thinking about ways of adapting it to the challenges which caused me to loosen my grip on my practice in the first place.

I think multiple daily sessions will be a lot more sustainable if they’re very short, and I have recently begun experimenting with ‘micro-rituals’ on the order of two or three minutes. That’s not enough time to write anything but it is enough to light a candle, do a little chanting, and hopefully get most of the benefit out of the exercise. One or two sessions a day will be longer, and it is during these times that I’ll do the writing and habit work.

What Have I Learned?

There are a two important takeaways here. The first is that mantras are definitely effective. More than once I have found myself on the verge of losing my temper only to have the Litany Against Frustration play itself in my head, and the less I’ve worked through the stack the more often frustration has gotten the better of me.

The second is that my stack has naturally bifurcated into theoretical and applied segments. The theoretical side consists of the bootstrap sequence, the two litanies, and the element meditation. These are very abstract, not at all specific, and are more about reaffirming a worldview. Thus they are spoken while staring into candlelight and visualizing an associated hieroglyphic instead of being written down, which would take too long. The practical side consists of habits I’m trying to instill, and they are usually written long-hand in front of a candle while I visualize myself performing the action.

The above classification scheme can be usefully extended. The theoretical elements in the mantra stack are like “rudders” you can attach to an iceberg to do something vaguely like steering. The practical elements can be further categorized as “vice wedges” or “skyhooks”.

In “Deep Work” Cal Newport recommends waiting five minutes to get online when you really need a piece of information. This small temporal distance diminishes the reward signal you get from distraction, making it less tempting in the future. It drives a wedge between you and your vices. Skyhooks on the other hand are built for ascendancy, and can include any positive behavior you are trying to make into a habit. Yes, as usual, these semantic boundaries are semi-permeable.

Conclusion

The fact that exercises like these crop up in many different religious traditions, together with personal experience, are enough to convince me to continue with my experimentation.

More broadly, this essay can be construed as another push in my attempt to adapt the best parts of religion to secular use. But so far this has all been pretty tame, just some mantras and some candles. How far could this naturalized religious posturing be taken?

There are hints from the Neopagan community that it can be taken much, much further. Indeed, the Gods may be nothing more than stable micro-personalities running on a devotee’s wetware, and summoning one no more a violation of a scientific worldview than imagining a conversation with a deceased loved one. What I’ve read indicates that in this form the Gods don’t rise to the level of a full-blown Tulpa, but they can be engaging, frightening, and insightful.

I have begun to wonder if a talented enough deimancer could use rituals to erect a pantheon of entirely new, custom-built Gods. To what purpose could such a profound level of mental control be bent….?

Notes

[1] I coined the phrase “mythopoetic command line interface”. It works just the same as an actual command line interface, but in the language of dreams, symbols, art, and metaphor.

[2] Candles are a popular ritual accoutrement. My best guess for why this is: candles do in the visual channel what rain does in the auditory one. It’s a gentle, unobtrusive stimulus that is just intriguing enough to be an object of focus while leaving extra resources for visualizing or chanting.

The Future Postponed

Earlier this year MIT published “The Future Postponed“, a report examining different areas in which basic research could have profound economic significance.The authors of the report postulate that declining investment in basic research could lead to an innovation deficit in The United States, precipitating our decline as one of the biggest economic powerhouses of the world.

Some of these topics are very familiar; few doubt that robotics is going to be a major driver of trends in technology and economics, and that investing in robotics research will be a key maneuver for any country wanting to position itself as a technology leader. The same goes for supercomputing, space exploration, and cybersecurity.

Others are relatively unfamiliar. Research into catalysts — chemicals which quicken or facilitate other chemical processes — has the potential to revolutionize whole swathes of the global economy. The right catalysts could foster the development of artificial photosynthesis, better manufacturing of plastics, and processes for converting CO2 into energy, among many, many other advances. But the catalysts used today are crude by comparison to the ones found in the metabolic processes of living organisms. Some of the biggest efforts to understand these naturally-occurring catalysts are being made in China and Germany, not The United States.

Plant science is another arena overlooked even by those with an interest in the future. Simply put, food production and nutrient density need to increase significantly or billions of people are going to starve. This would have already occurred had it not been for the Green Revolution of the mid-20th century, but even deeper advances will be required to meet the demands of a rapidly expanding population. Basic research will hopefully allow for the creation of cereal crops with elevated nutrients like Vitamin A, as well as crops that are resistant to a panoply of diseases.

Funding basic research of this sort can be difficult, in part because it’s usually pretty expensive and because, by its very nature, it isn’t always clear what sort of payoff can be expected. But if the history of science has demonstrated anything, it’s that digging as far down into the bedrock of reality as possibly usually proves fruitful in the long run.

 

 

Get More Writing Done

Years ago a good friend asked me for some advice on maintaining a high output of written content. I don’t recall exactly what I told him, but since I’ve been writing a lot lately and plan to do so indefinitely, I thought it might behoove me to gather some thoughts on the subject.

There are a few different ways of approaching this task, the lowest level of which is to record as many ideas as possible. I nearly always have a notebook nearby for the express purpose of capturing any of the potentially valuable minnows of thought glinting in the stream of my consciousness. These can include things like ideas for improving software that I use frequently, ideas for fictional universes or games, aphorisms and random insights, hypotheses, reactions to things I’m reading, etc.

Don’t forget to include particularly fruitful conversations had via email or social media. I do a bit of soul-searching and philosophizing on Facebook, and because I’ve put a lot of effort into cultivating a robust network of very bright people, this often provokes interesting debates in the comments thread. These in turn can become the basis for longer thought pieces on this blog and elsewhere.

An extensions of this process is searching for areas of confusion that crop up repeatedly. For example, over the course of the past five years I’ve given talks in Asia and the United States on the Intelligence Explosion Hypothesis and Existential Risk. One obstacle I have constantly run in to is the tendency to anthropomorphize superintelligent AIs. Upon encountering the Orthogonality Thesis many people’s default reaction is to model a superintelligent AI as simply being a smarter version of themselves, thereby failing to subtract away the fact that humans come with messy, pre-installed utility functions which an AI likely won’t share.

Now, the Orthogonality Thesis might be right or wrong, but that isn’t the point. Since I’ve spent a lot of time parsing the nuances of the debates surrounding these topics and discussing them with groups of people I’m in a good position to see where the most common sources of confusion are, and this hints at an excellent target for my writing energies.

Once you’ve gotten into the habit of recording thoughts and interactions the next step is fleshing these out into something more substantive. For me this process tends to begin with either google docs or the drafts section of this blog. As it stands I have in the neighborhood of 50 future blog posts in various stages of completion, accrued over the past five years of writing.

And this stage can be approached from several angles as well. If you’re more disciplined than I am you can pick an individual piece and try to see it through to completion. This is usually easier if you’re facing some kind of deadline, self-imposed or otherwise. It’s also generally required if you’re writing a series of articles on one subject.

Myself, I try to write about half an hour every day, which might be spread out over several different drafts. Of course I give preference to whatever my highest-priority project is, hence why most of my recent output has focused on The STEMpunk Project. If you don’t have a corresponding center of gravity you’re free to spread your efforts as thinly as you like; as long as you’re writing a few hours a week and not ceaselessly multiplying the number of projects you have in circulation you’ll usually have at least one or two things nearing the ‘publishable’ stage.

Alternatively, it’s also possible to have a word count target such as ‘write 1,000 words a day’ instead of a time-base one like ‘write a half hour every day’. I eschew this approach because I’m focused on quality over quantity. A carefully-crafted aphorism can often be a more effective vehicle of communication than a dense, 900-page treatise. Your mileage may vary.

Either technique will result in words on pages, and that’s the goal.

All this having been said I also have found another, counterintuitive, piece of advice to be useful: I don’t berate myself when my writing lapses for a little while. Humans vary in their workload, energy levels, and facility with the written word, and sometimes my schedule is just too packed for me to get any writing done. If you look at my archives you’ll see there was a sizable gap between the last post of 2015 and the first one of 2016, the result of taking on more responsibility in my day job and planning The STEMpunk Project.

But since I’m not paid to write it doesn’t make much difference if I occasionally get too busy to play the scribe. Had I hated myself for not writing every day without fail I’d have probably been too discouraged to pick up blogging again.