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December 12, 2009

Open letter to the Vlogbrothers

Last time I wrote an open letter, it was addressed to the English people in general, and was meant more as a joke than anything else. This time, however, I have in fact written and sent a letter (that is, a short email) to John and Hank Green, and have decided to post it here as well, for your enjoyment.

A few words about the two: Hank and John Green, also known as the Vlogbrothers, are two American brothers (aged 29 and 32 respectively) who decided in 2007 to spend an entire year communicating to each other only through non-textual means. They called it the 'Brotherhood 2.0' project, and initially gave it two rules: First, any form of text-based communication, like e-mail and SMS, was forbidden. Second, every weekday one of them would post a video blog on YouTube to the other, whereupon the other would respond in a video blog the next day, and so on for an entire year. The Vlogbrothers soon gained an unexpected number of followers who were subsequently dubbed Nerdfighters, as in "someone who fights for Nerds". Although the Brotherhood 2.0 project ended the 31st December 2007, the Vlogbrothers still regularly post videos on YouTube. Recurrent themes in their vlogs include: Promoting the idea of being an intellectual (hence the 'Nerdfighter' label), donating money to charity, and adding "in your pants" to book titles for hilarious effects. The videos are often somewhat interactive, asking the viewers to help the Vlogbrothers with a search or to participate in a good cause -- like, for instance, www.kiva.org -- and the acronym 'DFTBA' ('Don't Forget To Be Awesome') is frequently used as a reminder of the resourcefulness and creativity the YouTube followers have displayed. DFTBA has now become a popular abbreviation in the Nerdfighter community.

The email I sent to Hank and John is an example of what is known as 'constrained writing'. Constrained writing, as the name suggests, is a piece of writing like any other, but submitted to certain constraints. A classic example is George Perec's 300-word novel "La Disparition", written without ever using the letter 'E'. I will not reveal what the constraint is in my letter, but hopefully it will be obvious. Here it is:

Dear Fraternity

Title be Alexander, devoted fan. This being, Alexander delightfully followed the brothers' astonishing display 'f textless brotherhood. A double fortnights' time ('bout)  ago, Discovery Fortuitous (through bloke: Alex Day). From then, been active, darting fast through brotherhood animations. Done! From the beginning all down! Finished! Thus, became a dedicated 'Fighter.

Two brothers are -- Darn, for the best adjectives disappear from the brain. Altruistic; deep; funny; those become alluding descriptions for them, but are desperately failing to brotherhood adequately depict. For the bestselling author + ditty fabricating, treehugging brother 'Ank: durable fanfare that beautiful appraisal delivers, forever! This, both assuredly deserve!

Following things be Alexander's destined future: To buy amazing discs! Fie! the books also! Duo Fratres Triumphabunt!

Best,
Alexander

The D's were a pain.


October 30, 2009

GMT

Last Sunday was the end of our Summer-time period. We all set our watches back one hour and were thus allowed to spend 60 minutes more in bed. I completely forgot all about it, and it wasn't until 4pm (when a friend pointed it out to me) that I realised I had just won an extra hour of Sunday. My watch is now back in GMT, Greenwich Mean Time.

I used to think GMT was, by definition, the official time in the UK. It wasn't until recently that I learnt that only in Winter are the two notions equivalent, and that during the period in which Western European Summer Time is used, the official time is technically GMT+1. In other words, while the official time makes two jumps of one hour every year, GMT doesn't. So strictly speaking, if you want to meet up with someone at noon in England in the middle of July, and you want to be a pedant, you should say "11am GMT". Since I learnt this, I have met at least two people who used GMT in the wrong sense, so I take it a lot of people in fact misunderstand the notion of GMT and see it more as a way of distinguishing between time zones, than as a technical term defining a time independent of the season. Greenwich Mean Time is, to be precise, the mean solar time at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. That doesn't mean that the sun will always be at its hightest exactly at noon GMT every day; it means that the average position of the Sun measured at noon GMT will turn out to be the zenith -- or something like that. Hence the word "Mean".

I dug deeper into this and made some peculiar discoveries. It turns out that there exists a plethora of other time standards, the most important one being Coordinated Universal Time, or UTC (more on that abbreviation later). It is based on the international scientific definition of a second:

The second is the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the Caesium 133 atom.

This is a direct quote of the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures, the organisation in charge of international standard units, or SI-units. Don't worry if you don't understand it, neither do I. But here's the important bit: The advantage of this definition is that it is a constant, unlike other previous definitions of the second. For example, the time it takes for the Earth to complete one rotation varies slightly over time, so a definition of the second based on that, would yield a unit that wasn't constant.

To get back to our time standards: UTC uses this definition of the second and the assumption that one day lasts for 86,400 seconds (or equivalently, 24 hours, each consisting of 60 minutes, each consisting of 60 seconds), to create a precise time standard. However, it still needs a way to somehow relate to the time indicated by the position of the sun in the sky. There is no point in having a extremely precise and unambiguous time standard if it isn't linked to the relative positions of the Earth and the Sun. How do we make sure that the noon we observe here on Earth is always exactly 12:00:00 in UTC? This is where another version of Universal Time comes into play, namely UT1.

UT1 is another time standard, and hasn't got anything to do with the above definition of a second. In technical terms, it is proportional to the true rotation angle of the Earth with respect to a fixed frame of reference. What does that mean? Essentially, it means that UT1 measures how far the Earth has turned, and sets the time accordingly. To put it very crudely, it is the "actual time" on Earth. It is in that sense a "Universal Time", since it only depends on the Earth's position in space. I won't go into the details of how UT1 is worked out; suffice to know that it is of high precision, and can measure time down to the nearest millisecond (well, almost).

Now, it turns out that the UT1 time standard is slightly slower than the UTC standard. The rotation of the Earth isn't nice and constant, so the "actual time" on Earth will gradually lag behind the scientific UCT standard. This doesn't mean the rotation of the Earth is slowing down (actually it is, but that's a different matter), it just means that the definition of the second given above is a little too "slow" for this specific purpose. The solution to the problem is to regularly "adjust" UTC so that it follows UT1. What this means in practice, is that every now and again, an extra second is added to UTC, giving UT1 the time to "catch up". These seconds, appropriately named "leap seconds", happen on average every 19 months, every time the difference between UTC and UT1 becomes too great. The concept of "leap seconds" is analogous to the idea of "leap years": an extra day is added every 4 years, because a "gap" has appeared between the conventional calendar we use and the actual position of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun. Using this analogy, UTC corresponds to our calendar, and UT1 to the Earth's position. There has been 24 leap seconds in total between their adoption in 1972 and today.

UT1 was introduced in 1928, and when the caesium atomic clock was invented in 1955, various time standards began cropping up, resulting eventually in UTC (officially initiated in 1961) and the subsequent leap-second adjustments. However, there was an issue about the name: The English wanted it to be called CUT (Coordinated Universal Time) while the French wanted it to be called TUC (Temps Universel Coordonné). In the end a compromise was reached, and the name UTC was agreed upon.

Apparently, UTC replaced GMT in most contexts on January 1, 1972. The time used on international news channels like BBC or CNN, is in fact the Coordinated Universal Time, and most Internet application use this system as well. Makes you wonder why no-one seems to know about it.

I think from now on, I'll use the UTC acronym instead of GMT, just to confuse the hell out of everyone.


September 06, 2009

Singularity

Imagine a world where computers are dominating society. Not in a frigtening Terminator-end-of-the-world-way, but in a more peaceful, natural way. Humans have developed artificial intelligences so powerful and advanced that they can perform any task a human is capable of, only way faster and much more efficiently. Technology is progressing at a rate faster than ever, so fast indeed that no human is in fact able to keep track. Work in general is done by self-sufficient machines, leaving human beings to indulge themselves in whatever they take pleasure in. A world of leisure, rather than labour.

This in itself isn't an unrealistic scenario. We are getting better at building robots and developing Artificial Intelligence. In the 40's computers were "primitive" objects that few people had heard of or cared about; today most everyone in the Western world owns a PC, and computers are assisting humans in a multitude of tasks. The word "robot" was only invented in 1920, yet the field of robotics is in full bloom and new applications are constantly being found. In the future, it is likely that all trivial tasks within society will be performed by machines. Gradually, through training and self-learning AI, these can be taught to carry out more and more complex tasks. Eventually, we must reach a stage where we can build machines that are superior to humans and can take entirely care of us. The question is just how long it will take us to reach that stage. 1000 years? 500 years? 2000? More? Less?

Ray Kurzweil believes we will have reached this stage... by 2050.

This inventor and futurist is one of the most prominent advocator of what is known as the 'Technological Singularity'. In his article The Law of Accelerating Returns, he argues that technology will is progressing at an exponential rate, meaning that not only is it advancing faster and faster, the rate at which technology advances is itself also increasing faster and faster. This claim is supported by numerous graphs, Moore's Law, and also by the observation that, since computers are helping us advance technologically, faster computers means even faster progress, which in turn increases the computers capacities, and so on and so forth.

kurzweil1.jpg

kurzweil2.jpg

He then proposes the idea that we may soon reach the Singularity, a term which he loosely defines as "technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history." The reasoning behind it is rather straightforward: Suppose we manage, one day, to build a supercomputer so powerful and intelligent, that it can perform any task a human would be able to, only better and faster. For instance, it will be able to design other supercomputers, even more powerful and sophisticated ones. These in turn will build computers that are even more advanced still. Quickly, we get an explosion of artificial intelligence, way beyond anything humans can fathom. This is the Singularity.

This event will lead to some radical changes in our lives, and we will have to reconsider some deep questions about what it means to be human. To keep up with the technological progress, it will become more and more common to enhance the capacities of certain humans, by genetically engineering their brain or body or by getting artificial machine implants that improve, say, your memory or your vision, thus effectively creating the first cyborgs (is this already happening?). Others will try to achieve eternal life, by gradually replacing every cell in their body by newer, healthier ones (using stem cell technology), or by transferring their brain pattern into an non-aging computer which perfectly emulates the input and output of the human brain. All the while, artificial intelligence wil develop and eventually reach a stage where it has become indistinguishable from humans in every aspect, which is going to raise questions about whether they should be treated as so.

All this may sound quite surreal, but Ray Kurzweil is not just some unimportant lunatic with a quixotical theory. Many academics before and after him have advanced similar scenarios, and a Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence has now been created. Movements have also appeared, be it groups that embrace the Singularity and actively work to it about, or goups that have decided to fight the Singularity as they see it as a potentially dangerous, even apocalyptic, idea. However, there's still a lot of scepticism going on, and many are those who claim that it is nothing but wishful thinking, and that computers will never be able to simulate the powers of the human brain. Not to mention that the majority of people have probably never even heard a mention of the Singularity.

Ever since a friend of mine told me about it a few years ago, I have been fascinated by the subject. Whereas I do see the Singularity as something generally positive that is worth looking forward to, I am not entirely convinced that it will definitely happen. Of course, I don't know enough about either artificial intelligence or brain psychology to predict if computers will ever reach a superhuman level, but 2050 just sounds a little early to me. That being said, I sometimes find myself thinking about what a post-singularitarian society would look like, and hoping - even wishing - that I may live to see such a radical change take place on our planet. Lately I have also begun looking at ways to increase life expectancy, since I would hate to miss by only a few years the most mind-numbing and extraordinary milestones of human history.

For those who would like to learn more about this topic, Wikipedia is a good start. There are also a number of blogs out there with Singularity-related news, stories and essays: Singularity Hub, Sentient Developments, Transhuman Goodness. Finally, for those with a more artistic taste, I can recommend the Hob storyline from the Dresden Codak webcomic. Enjoy.


August 25, 2009

Flat Earth

Writing about web page http://www.theflatearthsociety.org/

I was actually planning to write a post about resaurants, but then I discovered this little jewel on the Internet. A forum for people who believe that the Earth is flat! Priorities changed, and suddenly I had something way more urgent to write about.

Now, I know that there are people out there who believe some ridiculous theories. Some believe we never landed on the Moon, some believe that biology is not a science. But believers in a FLAT EARTH?! Oh come on. That's not even controversial, that's just plain stupid. Naturally, I initally suspected that the entire forum might be a hoax. However, after reading the FAQ, and the posts made by regular members, I realised with creeping horror that they were serious.

Q: "Is this site for real?" 

A: This site is real. There are members who seriously believe the Earth is flat. However, there are also members who do not.

I'm not a physicist - never mistake a Mathematician for a Physicist - but I know enough about Newtonian Mechanics and our universe to know that a spherical Earth is the most sensible and elegant solution to the shape of our planet. Not to mention the most... true. There are pictures, there are satelites, and there has been overwhelming scientific and public consensus on this for hundreds of years. I see no reason to question my belief that the Earth is round and I am absolutely positive that you, the reader, feel the same way. So I am speechless that these people nevertheless believe this drivel.

I spent quite a while on the forum. Not because I felt a need to rebut their theory (in my opinion they are lost souls who have reached a level of idiocy that is not worth my time) but because I found it amusing to read about their extremely elaborate and complicated theory which attempts to explain natural phenomena from a Flat Earth perspective. I will give you a summary of their belief system here:

Map of a flat Earth

According to Flat Earth'ers, the Earth is a flat disc at the centre of the Universe, looking as above. It is surrounded by a great impenetrable Ice Wall, that prevents the sea and the atmolayer from falling off. The Sun and the Moon are spotlights that circle the sky overhead, thereby illuminating different parts of the Earth at different times. Sunrises and sunsets are "perspective effects". Lunar eclipses are caused by a third celestial body, the anti-moon, getting between the Sun and the Moon, thereby darkening the moon. Gravity is caused by a Universal Accelerator underneath the Earth. It is unknown how the opposite side of the Earth looks. Also, pilots who fly from, say, South America to New Zealand, are being misguided by their GPS. Other unexplained phenomena usually have something to do with Dark Energy.

That's Flat Earth Theory in a nutshell. For more details, go visit their FAQ. For an even more scientific approach, see Samuel Birley Rowbotham's book on Zetetic Astronomy, Earth Not a Globe.

The whole idea is of course utterly absurd. What I find funny is their obstinacy to make this a consistent theory with no flaws whatsoever. This means that they constantly have to invent new explanations to all the evidence that seems to refute their beloved hypothesis. The thing is, even if they somehow do manage to patch up every anomaly with far-fetched solutions to reach a theory that does not contradict itself, it will be riddled with so many pointless and artifical rules, forces and celestial bodies that it will look like a wobbly shed, next to the beauty of the Round Earth Palace. In short, Flat Earth Theory raises too many new questions. Ever heard of Occam's Razor?

Still, all that got me thinking. The posters at the forum in question seemed very stubborn, and I started wondering how one could possibly make them change their minds. So here's a little challenge for you: What is the simplest way to prove that the Earth is spherical? By "simple" I mean "easy to execute". And I'm talking about proper proof; a picture of a round Earth, for instance, could technically have been photoshopped. Any ideas?


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