Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Time Travel: Many Worlds vs Causality

Time travel, as far as I can tell, will pretty much remain fiction.  But that's not to say it's not fun to conduct thought experiments into the "what-if" scenarios.  Rules of time travel in fiction have varied, but recently I had the fortune to read two great novels back to back that described things in their own clever way.

Neal Stephenson has an interesting talk about his book "Anathem" on youtube.  The talk surrounds his involvement with the Long Now clock. The Long Now clock is designed to have a period of ten thousand years.  His book Anathem builds a story around a similar clock in a fictional universe that is used to limit interactions of scholars for long periods of time with the outside world and each other.  I ended up buying and reading the book.  I'll avoid spoilers and just recommend it as a great read.  In it he ends up describing a Many Worlds interpretation of time travel.

At some point during the few weeks it took me to read it, I was drinking beer with a friend and ended up talking about how great Anathem was.  During our conversation he recommended an Orson Scott Card book: "Pathfinder".  A few days later he brought me his copy of the book and it sat on my shelf until I finished Anathem.  When I did finally get around to it, I was excited as the plot developed into a causal interpretation of time travel.  What an awesome transition of thought.  All the rules in Anathem were different in Pathfinder.

Reading these two books back to back ended up being interesting and useful.  It was neat to see two of my favorite authors try their hand at the notoriously difficult thematic concept of time travel.  If you have the chance to pick either one of these books up, I'd recommend the experience of reading the other one immediately afterward.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


Is blind cc ethical? Ever?

The only time I ever use this button is when I want to send an email to a lot of people who may not want to share their email addresses with the others or future recipients of the chain.

If you want to "keep somebody in the loop" go to your outbox and forward the sent letter with an additional note.  This method does not imply deceit, since you're not hiding anything.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Computer Timesharing

A video from 1961 discussing computer timesharing.  Too cool.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Living generously

Over the last few years my wife and I have met some amazing people through our professional networks and our church. A few of them were at our house recently. I wasn't there at the time but this story was relayed to me by my wife.

During the visit one of them ended up mentioning her cousin who was having trouble affording formula for her baby. Immediately one of our friends got out some cash and handed it over. It wasn't a huge amount, it was all they had with them.  The offer was sincere and was followed by an apology they couldn't give more right then. Others, including us, plan to donate some clothes, toys, and other baby stuff. That made an impression on me. Not so much just giving away stuff to a stranger, we do that all the time dropping stuff off at good will or elsewhere. What made an impression was the immediate bias for action and generosity.  I'm not certain that sitting there and listening to that story about a person in another state having hard times that I'd have immediately reached into my pocket.  But... I think that's what we should do and how we should live.  The generosity was contagious and more giving followed.  Awesome people with big hearts.

When you hear of someone in need, don't hesitate, take action. Live generously.

Update 2013-12-06: Two years of blogging and over 100 posts mostly about technology and this is the most popular post to date. I think that says something good about the people reading my blog and maybe people in general.

3D Printing ...guns

A friend, mprk, sent me this link today:

The article describes the challenges of a group trying to print the first functional gun from a 3D printer. The road blocks have ranged from the 3D printer company cancelling the lease on his printer to interviews by the ATF.  Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on your views, neither the printer company or the ATF has awareness of the Streisand effect.

That aside, I think that additive manufacturing is one of the most significant things to be happening in our world right now. The open source hardware movement, which has focused on hobbyist electronics for now, demonstrates interesting precedents for what is going to happen. As Linux, Apache, and other massive open source projects have demonstrated: community collaboration on large engineering is not only possible, it's powerful. What happens when we see that type of collaboration applied to engineering efforts that result in physical objects. We still can't comprehend the long term implications for economies in an age of abundant and mostly free material goods developed with no labor. We are on the edge of a true age of abundance. What happens when we community projects organize the information required to print more complex objects. Cell phones, clothing (of course in the latest styles), motorcycles, cars, computers, televisions, and... yes weapons. I think the ability to have insight into the implications of this remains rare in our society. We look at these events with minds from cultures rooted in the ideas of slower times, when both science and technology lacked their current strength and speed. I've cited it before on this blog and I'll cite it again. The Law of Accelerating Returns is something you must read and understand if you care to follow technological progress. A quote from Kurzweil's writing applicable here: "it is not the case that we will experience a hundred years of progress in the twenty-first century; rather we will witness on the order of twenty thousand years of progress".

When Leonardo Davinci was making his sketches of flying machines and attempting unsuccessfully to build them, he was able to point to an analog in nature as proof of the possibility of heavier than air flight (birds). As we enter this new age of additive manufacturing, we can point in even more directions. Additive manufacturing is how life is replicated. We ourselves were not mechanically reduced from a larger blob of cells like one of Michelangelo's granite statues or injection molded like the plastic keyboard I'm typing this on. Just as oak trees replicate themselves from a packet of information and nano-machines, we are going to see buildings and vehicles created in similar fashion someday. When will the Wright Brothers of replication technology show up? Probably sooner than all of us expect.

Back to the whole gun thing. The idea is a neat one. It reminds me of Neal Stephenson's concept of a h.e.a.p. gun from one of my favorite books: Cryptonomicon. US Marines fighting in WW2, Math, Cryptography, Entrepreneurship, and Programming; a better book will never exist. But in general, guns have been pretty easy to make at home for as long as they've existed. I don't think guns are a bad thing to have generally available. It's estimated that in the US alone there are 90 guns for every 100 citizens. Strangely the only areas subject to routine gun violence are the areas where legal ownership of firearms is banned. If you want to lose sleep at night; ANFO scares me ...guns not so much. The real story here is how asinine the regulation is. I'm loving watching the same arguments we had about bits a few years ago apply to real world objects. Remember cryptography export laws and the discussions about making computer viruses illegal? They all seem silly now. Objects can now be just a stream of bits. You can obfuscate them perfectly through cryptography, archive them essentially forever, and they are as tough to destroy as any idea ever was. As for how that whole restricting the export of cryptography thing went, here's a full implementation of RSA encryption in three lines of perl:

It became trendy to included it in email signatures, t-shirts, and bumper stickers. It's like closing the barn doors after all the animals are out. Except the animals travel at the speed of electromagnetic radiation and are infinitely duplicated using almost no energy for duplication and storage. In the near future we'll see the Streisand effect's influence on physical objects. It will make for interesting times.

This post is already too long. If you're really interested in the topic, check out "Engines of Creation". It was published in 1986 but remains the best book I've ever read on the topic.