Profundis: A Beautiful Planet

This past Saturday I went on a pleasant little outing to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science with my girlfriend and my younger brother. We decided to see the short, one-hour documentary “A Beautiful Planet” in 3D on IMAX, and it was fantastic.

Narrated by Jennifer Lawrence, the film follows a group of astronauts on their half-year long stay at the International Space Station. We see how they adapt to life in zero gravity, the rigorous exercise routines they must undertake each day to prevent muscle atrophy and loss of bone density, and get a first-person view as they climb along the outside of the station in iconic white spacesuits. Sprinkled throughout are breathtaking shots of thunderstorms, coastlines, cloud cover, sun rises, snowcaps, and deserts.

Three moments stood out to me as particularly awe-inspiring. In reverse order they were: the view of the Earth at night, an Italian astronaut drinking an espresso made in a special machine, and the first view of the window the crew uses to videotape and photograph home.

As one of the crew members remarks, it can be difficult to even tell that humans live on Earth during the day. But our cities shine like luminous chunks of gold at night. The spark of human intelligence has kindled bonfires of civilization so white hot that a few us have ridden its flames into space. And as if that weren’t achievement enough, we took our espresso makers with us.

This is the swaggering optimism of a being not content to take its place as just one unusually hairless primate. Instead it has had the audacity to pierce the sky with arrows of steel and leave its footprints on the moon. This same spirit is what led me to fill the walls of my house with stylized ‘space tourism‘ posters from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, and what brings me back to the work of Ayn Rand despite my reservations about her underlying philosophy.

We need more of this attitude. And we need it soon.

 

The STEMpunk Project: Second Month’s Progress

Throughout the STEMpunk Project I’m going to try to take a picture each month of the books I’ve read and projects I’ve completed, as sort of a visual metaphor for my progress.

Here’s what I got done in April (minus the little model engine, which I forgot to include this time):

second_months_progress

I’ll admit that the table is still pretty sparse, and I had hoped to have a Desktop PC to include in the photo by this point. But I did manage to make the following additions to the “object” stack on the left:

  1. Nisan and Schocken’s “The Elements of Computing Systems”
  2. Ron White’s “How Computers Work”
  3. William Stallings’ “Computer Organization and Architecture”

My focus in Stage II of the Computing module was mostly on “The Elements of Computing Systems”, so I only read sections of the works by White and Stallings which were most relevant to that book. These three volumes, when read together, are a very thorough introduction to computing and its foundations. While I never took the relevant classes in college, I imagine that if you threw in a discrete mathematics textbook and a few programming tutorials you’d have roughly the equivalent of a minor in computer science.

I also added Thomas Sterner’s “The practicing Mind” to the “meta” stack on the right. Sterner’s book read like a version of “The Art of Learning” that had been stripped of most of the biographical content. They complement one another nicely with their similar content, presentation, and style.

The rest of May is going to finishing the CompTIA A+ book and prepping for the Electronics module. I’m also toying with the idea of continuing to study my CompTIA material lightly in the background after the Computing module is done. Stay tuned!

Profundis: Two Serpents Rise

Caleb Altemoc is an associate risk manager at Red King Consolidated, a Craft firm overseen by a powerful, undead skeletal sorcerer. When a demonic infestation in Bright Mirror reservoir threatens the water supply of Dresediel Lex Caleb is sent in to investigate. There he encounters a mysterious woman named Mal, and his pursuit of her brings him face-to-face with power-mad witches, murdered deities, twisting plans laid thick through the years, and his own tortured past as the son of Temoc, known fugitive and the last Eagle Knight of the old Gods. Beneath it all things vast enough to tear the world asunder begin to stir.

The twin snakes Aquel and Achal have been asleep for generations. And they appear to be waking…

“Two Serpents Rise” is the second installment of Max Gladstone’s “The Craft Sequence”. It follows in the same enchanting mold as “Two Parts Dead”, wherein the forces of technology and economics are analogized as magical processes.

Desalinization is accomplished not with pumps and membranes but by running salt water through the body of the God Qet Sealord. Contracts are magically binding things and running water is paid for with bits of soulstuff.

Besides making for compelling fiction in the “urban fantasy” genre this transmogrification forces us to confront how little of our own world we really understand. The kind of high-finance trickery that set the global economy reeling in 2008 might as well be magic for all I understand it. But quotidian examples illustrate the point just as well: I doubt many people could give more than a cursory explanation of how an internal combustion engine, an air conditioner, and a desktop computer work.

The fact that we are privileged enough to be this ignorant is by and large a good thing as it facilitates one of the greatest drivers of material progress in the history of Earth: the division of labor. But it can also be a little unsettling. How much of our collective lives depend upon the operation of machinery completely unseen to us? How stable is the infrastructure upon which our world rests? If it breaks, how many of us could fix it, or even be able to comprehend a solution if one were given to us?

“Two Serpents Rise” is a more mature book than its predecessor, both in its literary expressiveness and in the depth to which it explores themes of alienation, the tension between tradition and progress, and what it means to live in a world filled with things far more powerful than any one individual. I highly recommend it, and have already ordered the rest of his books.

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.