10 February 2016

Marco.org: “The Apple Watch got me hooked on mechanical watches”

Most of my work and hobbies involve technologically cutting-edge digital electronics reliant on complex, inconsistent software, with a typical lifetime of a few years at most. Almost everything else I use and make is effectively disposable.

As software creeps into ever more objects in my daily life and makes them more capable yet more disposable and less reliable than ever, it’s nice to have something that does less, always works, never needs a software update, requires no cables, doesn’t need to be charged, and whose useful life will probably be longer than mine.

Marco Arment

What can I say, Nomos makes some damn fine watches!

09 February 2016

Medium: “Banned by Tesla!”

Anyway, the end result is that you have decided that I can’t own one of your cars, and I am terribly disappointed. I had outlined in the original post how excited I was at the prospect of owning a Tesla, especially the Model X and especially the configuration I ultimately ordered — the P90D in red with black leather seats and the Ludicrous Speed option.

I must also admit that I am a little taken aback to be banned by Tesla. When I wrote a blog post about my BMW X1 called “My Car Makes Me Feel Stoopid”, the CEO of BMW didn’t take the car back. And in the many articles and posts I have written criticizing products, companies and people, I have never been banned from doing business with any of the companies!

Stewart Alsop

So this guy criticized Tesla’s Model X Launch Event and as a result the company – or rather its CEO Elon Musk – cancelled his order! Such a disgraceful behavior! If that’s how Tesla chooses to handle complaints I don’t see a bright future for it.

2015 Tesla Model S

Caltech: “Researchers Find Evidence of a Real Ninth Planet”

The researchers, Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown, discovered the planet's existence through mathematical modeling and computer simulations but have not yet observed the object directly.

This would be a real ninth planet, says Brown, the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy. There have only been two true planets discovered since ancient times, and this would be a third. It’s a pretty substantial chunk of our solar system that’s still out there to be found, which is pretty exciting.

Batygin and Brown describe their work in the current issue of the Astronomical Journal and show how Planet Nine helps explain a number of mysterious features of the field of icy objects and debris beyond Neptune known as the Kuiper Belt.

Kimm Fesenmaier

Another astronomical mystery, this time a lot closer to home: does a hidden planet orbit the Sun somewhere in the distant outer reaches of the Kuiper Belt? It certainly wouldn’t be the first time someone invoked Planet X or Nemesis, usually under much more dubious circumstances. It would be exciting to discover a new planet right in our backyard, but for now I remain skeptical (as do others): the statistical significance of the orbital alignments is not high enough – usually a 5σ significance is required for a new phenomenon to become scientifically accepted. As new distant objects are discovered, their orbital parameters could reinforce this pattern – or disprove it altogether. There could be other explanations still, like the recent passage of a nearby star, disturbing the orbits in a similar manner. In the absence of direct detection in visible or infrared light, this will remain an interesting hypothesis and nothing more.

08 February 2016

Starts With A Bang: “Have Astronomers Found Alien Megastructures After All? (No, Probably Not)”

Late last year, one of the stars that NASA’s Kepler mission was observing made headlines for having a very unusual signal around it. Rather than a standard planet-like signal, it saw something we couldn’t explain: huge quantities of blocked light in varying amounts. Immediately, the speculation ran rampant, including from Penn State astronomy professor Jason Wright, who noted that the five separate large dips in the light, which did not occur at regular intervals, might be something far better than planets, comets, dust or even an ultra-massive ringed system.

It might be evidence of aliens building gigantic structures around their own star to harness its energy, and we might be seeing evidence of a work-in-progress.

We’ve often found that — when it comes to unexpected astronomical signals — our imaginations run away with us, leading us to immediately jump to conclusions about our greatest hopes and/or fears, like the existence of sentient aliens accessible to us. But the real Universe, every time thus far, has shown itself to be more diverse, complex, and rich in phenomena than we had previously realized, including the existence of quasars, pulsars, exoplanets and more. We haven’t yet ruled out the possibility of alien megastructures, but what we’re most likely seeing is a new type of natural phenomena whose origin is yet unknown. Follow-up observations, particularly those scheduled for 2017, when another major “transit” event is scheduled to occur, should teach us a whole lot more.

Until then, keep an open mind, but don’t let your imagination run away with you!

Ethan Siegel

Over the past two decades, the detection of extrasolar planets has become almost routine, but every once in a while something really strange turns up among the large data sets. This particular star, KIC 8462852, shows irregular dips in brightness that can be poorly explained by known astronomical phenomena. Another recent study analyzing archival photographic plates at Harvard found evidence that the star dimmed over a much longer timeframe, more than a century, making the previous preferred explanation (a random swarm of mega-comets) rather unlikely. So, does this mean it’s an alien-built Dyson swarm?

07 February 2016

Robert Jackson Bennett – City of Stairs

in Bucharest, Romania
Robert Jackson Bennett City of Stairs

În inima Continentului, orașul Bulikov își duce zilele în sărăcie, deplângând în tăcere secolele trecute de gloriei. În urmă cu doar un secol acesta era Orașul Divin, centrul puterii celor șase Divinități, un loc al vieții îmbelșugate și al minunilor nenumărate, dominând mările și subjugând națiile lipsite de protecția propriei Divinități. Dar un popor s‑a răzvrătit, și sub conducerea Kaj‑ului, Saypur a răpus Divinitățile protectoare ale Țărilor Sfinte și și‑a impus dominația asupra unui Continent rămas fără apărare. Acum istoria de secole a Orașului e un tabu păzit cu strășnicie de ocupația Saypur. Resentimentele foștilor stăpâni ai lumii reduși la stadiul de țară din lumea a treia ating un punct culminant atunci când un profesor din Saypur sosește cu mandatul de a cerceta tocmai această istorie interzisă lor. Câteva luni mai târziu, profesorul Efrem Pangyui este găsit mort în cabinetul lui, spre consternarea oficialilor Saypur și satisfacția grupărilor conservatoare. Nu mai târziu de a doua zi sosește în Bulikov diplomatul Shara Thivani (o vorace consumatoare de ceai, în special atunci când lucrurile nu merg conform planului), însoțită de secretarul ei dreyling, cu misiunea de a investiga acest omor, dar în ascuns unul dintre cei mai competenți agenți secreți ai noii hegemonii Saypur cu propriile motive de a păși în Orașul Scărilor.

La prima vedere un roman fantasy, Orașul Scărilor îmbină multe alte curente și elemente într‑un rezultat destul de original. Fundalul cultural se inspiră (destul de superficial) din surse slave pentru Continent și indiene pentru Saypur. Aș zice că în esență este o poveste de investigație, care se desfășoară pe mai multe nivele, de la cel care pune povestea în mișcare, moartea lui Pangyui, la intrigile politice și religioase dintre zidurile Bulikov și din Saypur, la evenimentele de acum câteva decenii care au dus la căderea Divinităților și originea misterioasă a Kaj‑ului. Autorul reușește să dezlege aceste ițe aproape în totalitate până în final, lăsând doar un mister – destul de crucial ce‑i drept – încă deschis: cum au apărut pe lume Divinitățile? De vreme ce seria va mai continua, avem toate șansele să primim totuși un răspuns în romanele următoare.

There were six of them, originally, says Shara quietly. Her face flickers with the light of the gas flames. Or at least six that made themselves known. Olvos, the light-bearer. Kolkan, the judge. Voortya, the warrior. Ahanas, the seed-sower. Jukov, the trickster, the starling shepherd. And Taalhavras, the builder.

28 January 2016

Google Research Blog: “AlphaGo: Mastering the ancient game of Go with Machine Learning”

But as simple as the rules are, Go is a game of profound complexity. The search space in Go is vast – more than a googol times larger than chess (a number greater than there are atoms in the universe!). As a result, traditional “brute force” AI methods – which construct a search tree over all possible sequences of moves – don’t have a chance in Go. To date, computers have played Go only as well as amateurs. Experts predicted it would be at least another 10 years until a computer could beat one of the world’s elite group of Go professionals.

We saw this as an irresistible challenge! We started building a system, AlphaGo, described in a paper in Nature this week, that would overcome these barriers. The key to AlphaGo is reducing the enormous search space to something more manageable. To do this, it combines a state-of-the-art tree search with two deep neural networks, each of which contains many layers with millions of neuron-like connections. One neural network, the “policy network”, predicts the next move, and is used to narrow the search to consider only the moves most likely to lead to a win. The other neural network, the “value network”, is then used to reduce the depth of the search tree – estimating the winner in each position in place of searching all the way to the end of the game.

David Silver and Demis Hassabis

Fascinating – and rather unexpected – development in the field of artificial intelligence: an algorithm that can consistently best human players at Go, the only remaining deterministic game where humans have (had?) the upper hand. I must admit, I am starting to understand why important people are getting worried that AI research is moving too fast and that the world is ill prepared for the rapid changes it will bring…

27 January 2016

Boing Boing: “Our Generation Ships Will Sink”

They will have to tightly control their population; both maximum and minimum human numbers will be necessary, and whatever system they devise to achieve this stability, it will not include individual unconstrained choice. Also, there will be quite a few jobs that will simply have to be filled in order for their life support systems to be maintained. Again, however they manage this issue, people will not be free to do what they want, or to do nothing. So in these areas of reproduction and work, generally regarded as basic to human meaning and political freedom, the society in the starship will have to rigidly control themselves. No matter their methods for achieving this control, they will end up living in some version of a totalitarian state. The spaceship will be their state, and to keep the spaceship functioning, the state will rule.

The psychological effects of all these constraints and problems, including the knowledge that Earth exists light years away, with a population millions of times bigger than the ship’s, and a land surface a trillion times larger, cannot be known for sure. It might very well feel like exile; it might feel like being born and living one’s entire life in prison.

Kim Stanley Robinson

Many interesting points in this piece by Kim Stanley Robinson, meant to clarify his approach to the ‘generational starship’ theme in his latest novel, Aurora. This particular section reminds me of the short series Ascension I recently watched (hooray for global Netflix!), which does a good job of capturing these harsh restrictions of multi-generational interstellar travel and the side-effects on the lives of the characters.