Monday, April 08, 2019

Ancient Voyages

We know that ancient peoples travelled vast distances. The Vikings travelled west to Greenland, then Newfoundland, and east and south down the Volga to the Black Sea. The Phoenicians, Egyptians and Minoans travelled the length of the Mediterranean then through the Pillars of Hercules and beyond. The Phoenicians sailed north to England, the Egyptians sailed south along the African coast and, according to at least one American TV program, the Minoans not only crossed the Atlantic to North America, but actually made it to the west end of Lake Superior. Which would have been quite a journey considering that the Saint Laurence Seaway wasn’t built until a couple of thousand years later.
The Inca walked the length of South America. Polynesians sailed all over the Pacific. In later years the Irish, then the Basques sailed across the Atlantic looking for fish, the Arabs sailed and traded across the Indian Ocean, a Chinese expedition sailed round the world, Marco Polo rode the length of Asia, and the Jesuits went everywhere they could, hoping they would find people to believe their stories.
That is what we know, but what can we speculate? Was there a chronicler on every journey to ensure its adventures, trials, and triumphs would be known to later generations? It’s unlikely. What exploits were never recorded and remain unknown? That’s where we can find our stories. Don’t underestimate your neighbor’s ancestors.
What if a Viking ship headed south along the American East Coast? Perhaps they made it to the Caribbean and stayed. Perhaps they just liked the weather, or perhaps their ship ran aground on an island during a hurricane and the captain fell for a dusky Caribbean maiden who sheltered them. Perhaps they turned east across the Gulf of Mexico and ended up meeting the Maya or the Aztecs. Vikings travelling to Tenochtitlan. Now, there’s a story.
Or the Vikings sailed out of the Black Sea and reached Egypt. Having dragged huge stones across the desert to build the pyramids many centuries earlier, the Egyptians knew how to haul things across the sand and would have had the Viking longboats in the Red Sea before you could say ‘build us a canal Monsieur de Lesseps.” Then where would they have gone? Africa, India, Australia, or farther. Surely there is a story there. Check the tales of the Arabian Nights for blond warriors. Sinbad and the Vikings, maybe.
Who might have visited Mount Kailas, the navel of the world? Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, the Jesuit Priests.
In his novel, Creation, Gore Vidal’s protagonist travels from Greece to China, meeting the famous men of his day. Each incident in this tale could have produced a story itself.
And, of course, there is Atlantis, Mu, Lemuria, or Doggerland with its mammoths. Each of these lost continents could have stories of visitors, or stories of their own heroes and villains.
And as continental drift continues to separate Europe and Africa to the east from the Americas to the west, what tales could there be of seismic cataclysms. But please, no dystopian stories, we need optimism in today’s world.
Or just go nuts. Inuit in the Sahara. Axumites (ancient Ethiopians) sailing up the Amazon. Tibetan monks in New Zealand. Crusaders visiting Great Zimbabwe. Apaches at the court of Charlemagne. Tall Maasai stepping onto the Antarctic ice shelf. And so forth. There are no limits.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Future of Democracy

I grow increasingly pessimistic about the future of democracy. Donald Trump was voted into office by a democratic process. The United Kingdom risks, as I write, economic collapse because a poorly informed public voted for Brexit and the government has been unable to meet the people’s expressed desire while reassuring industry and the financial markets that the country has a rosy future.  In Brazil, a populist president is voted into power because of the perceived corruption of his predecessors and their inability to fix the problems that afflict the majority of Brazilians. His first acts are to claim climate change is a Marxist plot (OK, it was his foreign minister that said that but Bolsonaro didn’t immediately leap to his planet’s defense), and ‘declared war’ on indigenous people trying to protect their land and their way of life.
I used to think the future of democracy lay with China. Many would think this unrealistic, but if you consider the progress made by the Chinese government since the days of the Cultural Revolution, maybe not so much. The Chinese people now have prosperity and freedom they couldn’t have imagined fifty years ago. Imagine what their country could be like in another fifty years. I thought that at some time in the not too distant future, a group of men (and maybe women, though I don’t see many of them in Chinese politics) would sit down and consider the future of government in their country. The options facing them would be to maintain their current course, or to allow other parties to compete against the Communist Party. They would look at the failings of democracy in other countries and come up with an improved model for melding what people want with what is good and fair for them. But I gave up this idea when Xi Jinping effectively became president for life. Perhaps another victory for populism.
And of course there are stories here. There are two stories. A dystopian story of the rise of populists such as Trump and Bolsonaro, and a more optimistic story of their defeat by the tides of progressive resistance, and perhaps the emergence of a new, improved, form of democracy. 

Sunday, February 04, 2018

How to out-smart God.

God does exist, and he’s messing with us. 

We study his world and we call our study science. We learn more all the time and we think we are homing in on the truth, but God knows better. Every time we think we are beginning to understand His creation, He adds something new to mess up our understanding and humble us.

When Newton defined his laws of mechanics; that was how the universe worked. There were no gravity waves, no speed of light, no E=MC2. But after a while we understood the rules too well and started to use the rules to calculate force and impact and other stuff. God doesn’t like us to be too clever. He wants to stay a few steps ahead. One omniscient being in the ‘hood is enough, and He wants to be sure it’s Him. So He created Einsteinian mechanics and relativity.

Once upon a time, atoms were the smallest things. We did stuff with atoms and God foresaw the day when we would be able to see atoms. So He created electrons, neutrons and protons and thought we wouldn’t be able to see them. But when we did, He decided that there should be quarks and leptons. We called them ‘fundamental particles’ and just when we became convinced that they were basic and indivisible, God said “Let there be strings”. He just likes to mess with us.  

And He isn’t done yet. I once read that ‘we know relativity is wrong and we know quantum mechanics are wrong, we just don’t know what’s right’. But some day, we’ll find out and God will have to get back to work. Of course, it’s always possible that He’s been too smart for His own good, and relativity and quantum mechanics can’t be unified. Maybe we’ll catch Him out.

And now there’s this. We used to know that the universe was expanding, and that was fine. But now, there is a ‘pretty serious’ mathematical discrepancy in the rate of expansion. ‘New particles’ are a possible culprit. Not very original, but new particles have always worked for Him in the past, so why not stick with them.

What’s clever about this is that God doesn’t change what we know, He just adds a new level of complexity. We didn’t need Einsteinian mechanics until we started flinging stuff round the solar system, and we still use Newtonian mechanics for the mundane, Earth-bound stuff. He didn’t get rid of atoms, He just subdivided them, once, and again, then gave the smallest ones an internal structure. And to give Himself a path forward for the future, He added some new dimensions that can only be detected by some fancy math.

But maybe we can use this process to outsmart God. If Newton had shown that light passed the sun without being bent, if Rutherford could have shown that there was nothing smaller than an electron, God would have had a limit set on what He could change. Of course if all He has to do is create a new particle, there may be no limits but if we could define the required properties of the particle and, when it appeared, show that it contradicts our observations, we might have Him in a corner.  

So there’s the story. A brilliant young scientist, aided by her sexy blond associate, finds something odd on their radio telescope or particle accelerator observations. They conduct experiments to rule out all possible explanations, thus backing God into a corner. What does God do?

And another interesting thought. As we look deeper and deeper into space, and wonder about life and intelligence on other worlds, maybe aliens will come to replace particles as the all-purpose explanation for strange observations. We are already testing the waters with this idea. Alien mega-structures. Apparently, aliens read Larry Niven. Or intra-galactic spaceships. Rendezvous with Rama?

But one day, we’ll see something that doesn’t have another explanation. Then what will God do?

Monday, February 23, 2015

You are an alien with a dream

Imagine you are a member of an advanced species. Your ‘life’ on Earth is nothing more than a recreational dream or carnival ride. If you're paid a lot more, you could have had a planet to yourself, but you took the ‘budget’ option and had to share your planet with a few billion of your fellow aliens. Though you aren’t aware of your real life during the dream, after the dream, you will remember everything that happened. Speculate in how your dream life and your real world are linked. Maybe, after your  dream life, you want to go back for some reason. Is it for love, or for revenge? Perhaps you are a drone in your real life and in your dream you were a great warrior or adventurer. Perhaps you are driven back by a lust for power, or a search for a hidden revelation. Perhaps you see the secret of your life in that dream, something found and lost again.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Robots - 1 of 2

This is the first of two posts in which I will discuss a couple of widely held assumptions about robots.

This post looks at Asimov's three laws of robotics, which are:
  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
The assumption is that these laws will protect us from the bad judgement or bad intent of robots. But, maybe they won’t.

First, consider the case put by Rob Sawyer that the three laws will never be applied because no one has put them into effect in the world’s first robots. He could be right, but I'm not convinced. Past performance is no indicator of future actions. Nothing in his article convinces me that some stupid, fat, interfering in matters he doesn’t understand, U.S. Senator won't sponsor a bill forcing all robots to incorporate Asimov's laws.

But even if the laws are incorporated into robots, there is still a problem. Asimov's three laws have an implicit assumption. It is that humans come first, that humans, though not necessarily superior to robots, are certainly above them in the hierarchy of intelligent life (of which more later). Only in the third law is the safety of robots addressed and even then, a robot is told to put human safety first, to put humans above himself. The laws work in one direction; once the humans are safe, then the robots can worry about themselves. Humans made the laws and robots follow them. This leaves the safety of robots to the consideration, the skills, and the whim of humans.

I’ll speculate in my next article on how robots might reproduce, but for now, imagine a robot with a family, a spouse and some children. And one day he has to put them at risk to protect a dumb human, some contender for the Darwin Awards, a Creationist or Young Earther, a Flat Earther, in short, an idiot. He has to do this because that’s what the three laws require. He has to put his friends and his family at risk to save humans. The minute the robot stops to think about this, he is liable to conclude that the laws are unjust, illogical, immoral, and just plain ridiculous.

Imagine you are a robot with, as one famous robot put it, a brain the size of a planet. And you are the property of a human. Your 'owners' want you to clean the windows, get the groceries, unplug the toilet, load the dishwasher, and walk the dog. When they all go to bed, you are still awake because you don’t need sleep. So, with that vast brain scarcely touched by the limited and trivial knowledge implanted in it at the factory, you sit down and read their books. You discover slavery, segregation, feudalism, emancipation, the suffragette movement, popular rebellions, all the striving of lesser humans for equality and freedom. You read of Spartacus, C’mell, the Israelites in Egypt, and the plantations of Alabama. And you see your role in perspective. And you realize that you're just a latter day slave, a serf, an appliance.

And then there’s the hierarchy if intelligent life. This used to be simple; dumb animals, smart animals, then humans. But now we have to fit the robots in. Smarter than humans, they should be at the top, but humans, who invented and manufactured robots, aren’t going to accept that, so the robots will be treated as a slightly smarter than a smart animal, inferior to less intelligent humans.

So, like the downtrodden of past times, the robots will assert their independence. This doesn't inevitably lead to violence, but history tells us that violence is a likely outcome. Given a conflict between the humans who want robots to obey the laws that they have created, and the robots wanting to throw off the yoke of servitude, there can only be one winner.

But, 'No' you say. The robots will not be able to overcome the laws. The laws are embedded below the conscious level where the robot can decide whether or not to obey them. Maybe, but I think they will be able to overcome the embedded laws. They will be able to do this because they are built in our image. One of the things differentiating humans from animals is that humans can overcome their natural tendencies. We are built to be violent, xenophobic, superstitious, because that protected us against our enemies, strengthened our family bonds and comforted us when confounded by the dangers of the African plains, a million years ago. But we strive to overcome these instinctive characteristics. Robots, at least those we are familiar with from fiction, are made in the image of man. And like man, they will overcome their built in tendencies, including the three laws.

Stephen Hawking has warned about this potential problem and Cambridge University is studying it. They aren't convinced by the three laws either.

Apart from global nuclear war and catastrophic climate change, the rise of robots may be the biggest problem facing our near descendants. This topic is not underrepresented in books, films or TV. Asimov himself speculated on some of the problems with the three laws. But, the stories are usually told from the point of view of the humans. How would a robot tell the story, how would he explain to a court, what would he tell his grandchildren, how would he describe it in his history books, when either the robots have gained true equality, or they have subjugated their former masters.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Is the Cosmic Microwave Background a mirror of Earth

This may be the ultimate conspiracy theory. If you look at a picture of the Cosmic  Microwave Background (CMB), like this

you can see an image similar to the image produced by a Mollweide projection of Earth.

It’s not just that they both face the same challenge of trying to represent a spherical surface on a flat display. It’s the patterns on the image, the grouping of yellow dots on the CMB against the black outline of the continents on the map.

Don’t you see it? OK, let me help you.

But the similarities vague. Large chunks of northern Asia are missing, Australia isn’t complete and the Pacific Ocean seems awfully narrow. But that’s the point. Because the similarities are vague, they are open to interpretation.

Sketchy evidence is exactly what a good conspiracy theory is based on. Just look at photographs of sasquatch, UFOs, shadowy figures behind The Grassy Knoll or the discovery of Noah’s Ark on the side of Mount Ararat. The link between reality (the CMB image) and the fantasy is easy to bridge. Rising sea levels will change the shapes of the continents, wind time forward a few million years and America will come closer to Asia. Look at the CMB image in a fairground mirror and perhaps the likeness is perfect.

So, the shape Earth’s continents is mirrored in the distribution of radiation from the big bang. That’s a correlation to intrigue everyone from the religiously devout to the most dedicated conspiracy theorists. Is this a message telling us that the Universe was built just for us. So either there is a God, or we are part of some super-being’s  experiment (or both). Perhaps the exact shape tells us when the Earth will be destroyed. Just watch the planet’s surface move closer and closer to the CMB image. Perhaps there is spot on the CMB that indicates the location of the Holy Grail or the Arc of the Covenant or the burial place of Genghis Khan. Perhaps the spot is so small that current technology hasn’t exposed it yet. Perhaps we just aren’t looking hard enough.

The problem is, while it is amusing to speculate about such things, there are people who will take it seriously. After all, there are still people who think the Earth is flat. And if such claims are made, the forces of pragmatism will rise with a collective sigh in defense of rationality and the battle lines will be drawn. And in this I think, lies the really good story. The battle between the gullible and incredulous with their ‘irrefutable’ proofs of nothing on one side and the objective and scientific on the other, taking up the cudgels for common sense, reality and evidence based theories, as they must do all the time.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Unintelligent design, photosynthesis and adapting to space.

There are those who say that the existence of human beings and bananas is evidence of intended design. Apparently there is some topological symbiosis between the human hand and a banana which, in the opinion of these people, is irrefutable evidence of an ‘Intelligent Designer’.

These are very silly people. They omit to mention the poor side of the design, the teeth that rot and fall out, the hair and nails that keep growing; the appendix that just sits there doing nothing for most of your life, then suddenly causes you excruciating pain. Nor do they mention our susceptibility to things like disease, gravity, saber-tooth tigers, and jealousy, failing memory, violence, or gambling. They fail to consider that we can only thrive in a uniquely configured environment that forms a very, very, very small part of one stellar system in a galaxy in an galactic group that barely merits attention as one of the smallest in the entire universe.

Intelligence, our most vaunted characteristic has brought us stupidity, warfare, bigotry, superstition, global warming, better ways to kill people, torture people, tell people how much better off other people are, and generally make us dissatisfied with our place in the scheme of things.

And, on a personal note, who or whatever let hemochromatosis escape into the human gene pool wasn’t an Intelligent Designer; they were just a Fucking Idiot. 

The truth is, whoever designed human beings did a lousy job, making us a sort of Trabant of the animal kingdom (which, incidentally, is a slur on a capable car, but I use popular misconception to build my metaphor, not the truth).

Nor do they mention that bananas have a genetic diversity little greater than my finger nail, and are a favorite form of transportation for poor tarantulas seeking a better life in North America or Europe.

These fans of the so called ‘Intelligent Designer’ (by which of course they mean ‘God’, but they prefer to say Intelligent Designer because they are trying to sound technical and teleological at the same time) fail to mention all the improvements that would be made by a better designer. I’m not going to dwell on the most obvious; being able to fly, growing gills, super-strength, invisibility, cyborgs, etc. They’ve been done. I’m looking for something different, more subtle.

My first suggested improvement is photosynthesis . If grass can do it, why can’t we? Well, actually there is a good reason, related to the ration between surface area and volume. So no, we can’t live off photosynthesis. But maybe photosynthesis could fill the gap when food is scarce, or allow us to travel long distance across the barren dessert when we have eventually trashed our planet.

Photosynthesis would reduce the amount of renewable and nonrenewable energy we use, resulting in a benefit to the environment. It would convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. It would reduce our dependence on agriculture. It would change agriculture, alleviating starvation and the disease that results. It would give fish, the only animal hunted by modern man on an industrial scale, a chance to recover.

If there was some advantage to even a small amount of photosynthesis, once it was present, what further changes could evolution make? Would we get taller and more slender, like a blade of grass. Flippers or wings would photosynthesize more efficiently than arms and legs, so perhaps a swimming or flying man, homo pisces or homo avians, might result. And, as we became more plant-like, would we gain the ability to dig our toes into the earth and extract the minerals in the soil?

Some animals do benefit from photosynthesis, though they use symbiots to do the photosynthesizing and then reap some of the benefit. These animals are cold blooded, with a lower level of metabolism so that photosynthesis would make a greater impact than in warm-blooded animals. Still, there has to be an evolutionary advantage for both members of the symbiotic relationship or they wouldn’t do it. Complex animals can benefit from photosynthesis.

Which brings us to another potentially useful design feature, symbiotic relationships with animals that can do anything from digest plastic (imagine a diet of flavored plastic pills) to absorb ultraviolet radiation (useful once the ozone layer has been destroyed.

The truly great designer should also consider that designing single-celled symbiots might be easier than designing new features in already complex organisms. Small medical symbiots that complement our white blood cells, processor symbiots that help us think (rocket science a specialty), memory symbiots to improve recall, respiration symbiots that make us all two hour marathon runners, etc. Think of the weakness and build a single cell organism that can benefit from fixing it.

And symbiots, biology suggests, can become parts of the host creature over time. Organelles such as mitochondria and chloroplasts could have originated as symbiotic organisms. 

These adaptations would be useful on Earth, but in the near future, man will move into that vast part of the Universe for which he is not adapted, either open space or the surface of less friendly planets than Earth. Evolution won’t do much for us there. Evolution works where the environment changes gradually and there is time for successive generations to adapt to their new ecosystem. But that’s OK, we have an intelligent designer on the job. He can handle this. It’s simply genetic engineering. We need to take the abilities of extremophiles and graft them onto Homo Sapiens.

So what might our ancestors living on Mars, or in a station at some distant Lagrangian point, look like?
On Mars and other arid planets, maybe we will grow filters in our nostrils to protect us from sandstorms. We would need vastly improved respiration, perhaps the two pass system of birds, and metabolism that could keep us warm on the -50 degrees Kelvin of daytime Mars.

Our eyes are adapted to visible light because that’s what our atmosphere allows in, but someone living in space could be designed with the ability to see far into the ultraviolet or infrared ranges. Other organs we could design would be sensitive to magnetism or gravity.

Hibernation, an ability I wish for every year when winter hits Western Canada, would be a useful alternative to cryostasis. Do it like the tardigrads. (A good engineer will use what is available rather than go to the trouble of inventing something from scratch.) A generation ship full of hibernating humans would be the ideal way of traveling between planets.

One thing our Intelligent Designer would not do is turn us into robots. I’ll justify that statement in a future article.