New Caelifera

New Caelifera

modern methow cabin

Book: The Pentagon’s Brain

The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top-Secret Military Research Agency by Annie Jacobsen.

Summary DARPA nee ARPA is a U.S agency in the Department of Defense responsible for emerging technologies. If you’ve heard of it, it’s likely because you know that the internet started in part from one of ARPAs projects, a packet switching network called the ARPANET. This book details the history of DARPA, initially created after the launch of Sputnik and the realization that future technology superiority was a key military goal. The book starts with details of the connections between the JASONs, a group of elite scientists and DARPA, and then hits the highlights of much of the research that was funded by DARPA. Sadly my own DARPA funded research (from my previous life) on self-correcting quantum computer was not mentioned 😉

Rating The book shines mostly in the detailed motivations of the agency and it’s relationship with the JASONs. One the technological front I found it a bit frustrating in lack of details (OK so some of this is likely because it is still classified, but others were at a fairly superficial level), and would have likely even more color on the people who ran DARPA. But it’s a good book to get a broad understanding of the agency, where it came from, and what it’s had its hands in.

Speculation One of the most interesting concepts in the book is the idea that the type of research DARPA focused on needed to be “pre-requirements”:

“There is a kind of chicken-and-egg problem in other words, in requirements and technology,” Rechtin explained. “The difficulty is that it is hard to write formal requirements if you do not have the technology with which to solve them, but you cannot do the the technology unless you have the requirements.” The agency’s dilemma, said Rechtin, was this: if you can’t do the research before a need arises, by the time the need is there, it’s clear that the research should already have been done.

Would that it were the funders who want 3 month reports on milestones have this sentence read to them daily!

Technologies that don’t exist do have one specification, that they are not currently specified. If one wanted to work formally in this area, wouldn’t it be cool if we had a formal specification of what we know. A map of the totality of our technological knowledge. If we could then dice this into different views we could, potentially, see where our gaps are, the places where in the totality of all the formal specification, we are missing knowledge. And use this to discover technologies.

admin August 22, 2016 1 Comment Permalink

Book: The Myth of Mirror Neurons

The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition by Gregory Hickok

Summary Mirror neurons are neurons that trigger both when an action is observed and when the action is performed. These neurons were first discovered in monkeys, and their role has been subject to great debate ever since. On the one hand at first blush thee neurons appear to be useful in explaining how perceptions can be linked to actions. On further reflection one might be led to speculate how these neurons might explain empathy, help explain language, and even be useful for a theory of the mind. In this book these later ideas are put to the test.

Rating Probably the most interesting part of this book is being exposed to the methods of argument in cognitive neuroscience. These are both subtle, and of a form that contrasts significantly with the cold hard concreteness of the theoretical fields which I know best. The book has lots of long sections trying to flesh out arguments, so not for the faint of mind. Oh that is a bad pun.

Speculation Mirror neurons show external actions being reflected in a brain at the same place the action is generated. But why do external actions not trigger our own actions? Suppose that they could. Wait, why am I hungry watching the ads during the olympics?

admin August 20, 2016 Leave A Comment Permalink

admin August 19, 2016 Leave A Comment Permalink

Book: Infomocracy

Infomocracy: A Novel by Malka Older

Summary What would happen if Neal Stephenson were a policy wonk? I believe that this book is the answer to that question. The plot follows an election cycle in a world were a giant search engine runs the election of a variety of micro-democracies who collectively contribute to a global government ruled by a super majority.

Rating Worth the read, if mostly to tickle the part of your brain that can think more generally about political structures and how technology might change politics.

Speculation One thing I’ve often wondered about is scale in governance. To see what I’m getting at consider that the number of people represented per representative in the U.S. House of Representatives has grown from about 30,000 per representative at founding to 700,000 per representative today.
US_population_per_representative In a numerical sense, at a federal level, you are less well represented today because you are a smaller proportion of a representative’s flock. One thought is that we need another layer of representation, in which you have more say at this level, but which then aggregates upwards. While the end result is essentially the same in terms of representation, the impact you can have on a larger chunk of representation is greater, in that the lower layer must be more responsive to your demands. In a sense this is what state governments do, but largely because the constitution cedes orthogonal concerns to the states, the issue under federal guidance don’t directly aggregate from states. In Infomocracy democracy is practiced on a small scale, each person in an very small area votes for their local government. In the story various political parties arise which, in some sense, represent another layer of government, and then there is a final penultimate layer of who controls the supermajority of all these small democracies. Some quick back of the envelope calculations show that this jumps many levels to the highest level in a way that doesn’t have good even scales at each level. In a world where voting is easy and at such a small scale, aggregation could also be quite transparent, so that more layers of representation could be supported, and indeed a base level of the multiplicative factors could be set in stone and more or less layers adjusted as needed. Computers are good for added layers of abstraction, could this contribute to better political hierarchies?

admin August 18, 2016 Leave A Comment Permalink

Book: Bloodline (Star Wars)

Bloodline (Star Wars) by Claudia Gray

Summary There was a time when the Star Wars franchise seemed left for dead. Before the prequels, when there was no light on the horizon for any new movies, a time of no new hope for Star Wars fans. At such a time one could forgive a kid like myself for getting a Star Wars hit off of some cheap pulp Star Wars “adult” novels. Then came the prequels, which might as well have actually killed Star Wars, and then the roaring reboot of Episode 7. Those old books were soon deprecated. With a new slate of movies in the works, one would think that there was no excuse to go back to the Star Wars “adult” novels. But I have sinned, and I broke down, purchasing “Bloodline” under the premise that it is a book that is “loaded with context for The Force Awakens”. I would know more than my friends about the context of the new episodes! So well yeah, I guess the summary of the book is that you get some political back story on what must arise to become the First Order.

Rating Re-read the last sentence of the summary. Maybe I’m older, but the novel felt very young adult and the characters thinly drawn. Is this what it feels to outgrow Star Wars?

admin August 18, 2016 Leave A Comment Permalink

Book: Distress

Distress by Greg Egan

Summary Andrew Worth is a science journalist who has just finished a documentary about frakenscience and whose next assignment is to cover a meeting of physicists attending a conference about “theories of everything” on a biologically manufactured island of anarchists. Distress is the name of a new disease mysteriously breaking out around the world. Put this together in a not so distant future and you’ve got the makings of a good bio/cyber sci fi thriller.

Rating Written in 1996, this book does not show its age. Egan throws us all sort of goodness, biological and technological, but also philosophical, political, and scientific. Fans of Neal Stephenson will dig.

Book: Armada

Armada by Ernest Cline

Summary: A flying saucer appears in front of Zack Lightman. Not just any flying saucer, but one from the video game he has been religiously playing. Is he going crazy? Or is he becoming like his deceased dad, who journaled crazy stories of video game conspiracies? Think of this as Last Starfighter meets a mature video game industry.

Rating: This book is pure young adult. In particular, young adult male nerd. Yep, a nerdy dude who plays video games finds that his skills there translate over to a grand adventure, including a fairly painful set of scenes in which, yes, he gets the girl. On the other hand, it’s a rather fun romp through some nostalgic computer and science fiction history, so I’d definitely recommend this to my 13 year old self. Maybe this is what it would have been like to read Ender’s game as an adult when it came out? Not nearly as good as the author’s previous “Ready Player One”.

Book: Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space

Black Hole Blues and Other Songs from Outer Space by Janna Levin

Summary: As an undergraduate physics major at Caltech one of the constant backgrounds of the physics department was its involvement in the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). Many of my friends did undergraduate research (SURFs) with LIGO, others went on to become professors who were part of LIGOs scientific collaboration. I took a single quarter of General Relativity from Kip Thorne, my god those homework sets were challenging, and remember learning the basics of how gravitational waves work along with the challenge of convincing ourselves that the waves were an actual prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity (even Einstein oscillated on this point.) I also remember quite distinctly hearing about chaos in the project itself, mumblings about its large size, and criticisms in the larger physics (and astronomy) community about whether LIGO would succeed. In 2016 the LIGO collaboration reported the first direct detection of gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes.

Janna Levin has written a wonderfully human story about the challenges behind conceiving, funding, and then eventually building LIGO. This is a story less about the science itself (though the descriptions of this are excellent) but more about the journey and the people. With access to many of the main players the book is made up of a a series of chapters focusing on different key players and events. Kip Thorne, Rainer Weiss, and Ron Drever are the three physicists at the heart of the story, but there are other equally important characters like Robert Vogt (early director) and Joseph Webber (early controversial pioneer of gravitational wave detection). Dr. Levin does a wonderful job weaving together this history with her own personal interviews of these larger than life characters.

Rating: (taken from my amazon review). I adored this book, mostly because it gives you a different perspective into the world of big physics experiments and how they are originally conceived and then carried to completion. This book isn’t the kind of pop science whose main goal is trying to convey the challenging science of theoretical physics (not saying that these bad, just that this is no that book!), instead this the story of the personal journeys that occur along the way to an amazing achievement like LIGO. With direct access to many of the main players in the collaboration, the book spends different chapters on their different perspectives of the history and controversies (and oh there were a lot) behind LIGO. The closest comparison for the style of this book is “The Soul of a New Machine”, Tracy Kidder’s description of the race to build a new microcomputer. Similar to that book by the time you finish this one you come away even more amazed at the successes of large engineering and science projects, and also see them as the result of an at times messy and chaotic process, not just the result of a “we had an idea” and “then we built it” process. If you dig getting perspective on scientists and their journeys to discovery, this book is perfect for you

Book: Aurora

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson

Summary: An ark story of a journey to a nearby star, told by an interesting narrator. Like all good hard science fiction, proposes a variant on one of the solutions to the Fermi paradox. Lots of exploration of the social and biological challenges of survival on a journey to the stars. The later especially noteworthy as often overlooked in hard science fiction.

Rating: The plot, such as it is, is not particularly gripping. But the ideas and thoughts put in to the hard science part of the novel make this one worth the read.