De omnibus dubitandum
16 Apr 2012
The latest edition of Wired’s UK magazine features a short article about a high tech record player designed and built by a former NASA aerospace engineer who was involved in sending spacecraft to Mars.
The record player, shown below, is superior to standard record players because it “allows only one degree of freedom, around the vertical axis. A film of oil — rather than the usual spring – suspends the bearing, eliminating unwanted resonance and distortions, and the drive equalises noise from the motor in the same way that noise-cancelling headphones work.”
So, basically, it’s a maginally better turntable. It cost’s $150,000 plus shipping. Yes, that’s one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. And at that price, the creator says, he does not expect to make a profit on these.
That, for me, encapsulated everything that is wrong with NASA: redesigning something to be only marginally better for an exponentially greater cost.
That makes me wonder if, by forcing NASA to use primarily existing technology and not re-invent the wheel at 10,000x the cost, we could build a moonbase for under $10 million. We probably could.
20 Mar 2012
This is not just the opinion of a bunch of online pundits. There is actual data out there that suggests we as a species are all about quick fixes. Even a fraction of a second’s delay can put us off an online consumption, as this infographic eloquently explains:
22 Feb 2012
For a while the FairSearch organisation has been fighting in the USA against Google’s anti-competitive behaviours. Now finally FairSearch has crossed the Atlantic and has a European presence: fairsearcheurope.org.
While many Google advocates dismiss it as a marketing tool for competitors like Microsoft, what FairSearch actually does is incredibly vital to our continued enjoyment of a free and unfiltered internet. In Europe this is an even more pressing concern than in the States, as here Google enjoys marketshares of well over 90% in most EU countries.
So an organisation with some economic and political klout behind it, fighting for search neutrality and limitations on Google’s anti-competitive practices, is a good thing. See the slideshow below about why FairSearch matters:
15 Feb 2012
The other day my eye caught an AdWords ad for a book called “The Final Theory” by Mark McCutcheon, an author previously unknown to me. This book allegedly solves all of the existing scientific conundrums and supposedly introduces ‘a new scientific perspective’ that ‘radically re-thinks’ all we know about how the universe works today.
Now, as you may know, I’m a bit of a science geek. I’m also a sceptic. De Omnibus Dubitandum, and all that. The description of this book in the ad and on its website set off all kinds of bullshit alarms in my head. The book’s marketing material focused purely on how this new final theory would overturn all established science and revolutionise our understanding of the laws of physics, casting in to doubt centuries worth of scientific advancements.
I’ve seen similar tones struck in many different promotional materials, usually those published by creationists, homeopaths, energy healers, and other similarly delusional quacks. So I did what any physics geek of sound mind would do: I went to Amazon.com and looked at the book’s reviews.
Amazon tends to be a place where works of atrocious quality are skilfully eviscerated by a horde of merciless reviewers who will destroy a work if it lacks merit. At least, that’s what I thought.
As it turns out, the vast majority of reviews for this book on Amazon are overwhelmingly positive, with no fewer than 71 five-star reviews at last count. According to the Amazon reviewers this book is at least on a par with Stephen Hawkin’s “A Brief History of Time”.
That, too, set of further bullshit alarms. I’d never heard of this Mark McCutcheon fellow before, and I try to keep myself at least moderately informed of what’s going on in the world of science. As this book was originally published in 2003, if it truly had such amazing scientific merit as is claimed by these countless Amazon reviewers, there should by all accounts have been quite a shockwave going through the scientific establishment. And there most certainly was not.
So I dug deeper. Wikipedia was, mysteriously, devoid of any mentioning of the book and its author. In fact, Wikipedia was so diligent in not mentioning Mark McCutcheon and his Final Theory, that I suspected it was a deliberate deletion. That turned out to be the case, as is evident from this administrators’ discussion page (search for ‘McCutcheon’ on that page to find the relevant passages).
Also there are various sceptical forum threads and blog posts dedicated to the book, specifically to how negative reviews on Amazon are mysteriously and inexplicably deleted, leaving only a vast bulk of four- and five-star positive reviews. These positive reviews are themselves rather suspect, as they seem to be posted by new Amazon users without any significant review history, and many of them use very similar phrasings and writing styles.
The last damning piece of evidence comes from a forum thread on a physics community site where the book’s ‘Final Theory’ is thoroughly slaughtered for the nonsensical quackery that it so obviously is.
What is most disturbing about this whole episode is Amazon’s complicity in the whole affair. There is, for all intents and purposes, deliberate censorship at work here in an effort to promote a book that espouses such an obviously farcical concept. Genuine criticism is being silenced in favour of a commercial message, trying to get you to buy a book that contains patent falsehoods, distortions, and lies.
I suppose when there is money to be made, truth is entirely optional.
9 Feb 2012
Peter Watts – the brilliant science fiction author and all around awesome human being – posted on his blog about a lawsuit filed by PETA to classify killer whales on display at Seaworld as ‘slaves’ and have them released.
There’s an increasing body of evidence suggesting that killer whales have intellectual and emotional intelligence levels comparable to our own. In fact there are a multitude of animal species that are, for all intents and purposes, sentient and intelligent. The BBC has even created an entire TV series exploring that premise.
The point PETA is making is that due to the level of intelligence possessed by killer whales, keeping them locked up for human entertainment is equal to slavery. The lawsuit was apparently entertained by the courts for a while before being thrown out on the grounds that slavery laws apply only to human beings, not animals.
Now that raises an interesting question, one that Watts also addresses on his blog. That question is about where we, as the dominant life form on the planet, draw the line when it comes to awarding rights? Does a sentient being have to be human for it to have appropriate rights? Is sentience – and thus the ability to suffer – in itself not enough?
It seems that our legal system requires more than mere sentience. The ability to suffer is not sufficient to award a creature any rights to protect it from harm. But here, too, humans have double standards. When common pets are abused by their owners, many countries do have laws in place that can protect the animal and punish the human.
However this all seems predicated on physical abuse only. Mental abuse – such as invonluntary incarceration and being forced to put on shows for the entertainment of your captors – does not apply to animals, or so the law is interpreted. Yet is that kind of suffering any less?
Also, it raises all kinds of questions about how humanity will deal, at some stage, with artificial intelligence. This will be yet another form of non-human sentience, so what rights will apply to AI? If we’re being consistent, slavery and mental abuse will, too, be perfectly allowable then.
And, to take the thought experiment even further, what about intelligent alien lifeforms? Do they have any protections under human law? Again, if we’re being consistent, our laws should only apply to aliens inasmuch as they apply to cats and dogs.
What this all boils down to is that our current perceptions of what is right and wrong are, understandably, entirely human-centric (and even that is a recent development – it used to be entirely rich-white-male-centric). It might be time that we continue our progression as a species, and start to expand our legal and societal frameworks to include all sentient life.
But I suppose that as long as we still treat entire swaths of our own species as lesser beings, any form of cross-species legal inclusion is just an ephemeral dream.
Addendum: as the ever keenly perceptive Andrew Nattan observed on twitter, some would draw the line at responsibility. I.e. if one sentient being such as an orca would kill another – a dolphin for example – if we’re to be truly consistent and inclusive we’d have to convict the orca for murder.
This however leads to a different but related discussion: one about free will and responsibility. Andrew’s argument presumes that all sentient beings have free will, and that they make deliberate decisions whilst fully aware of the consequences.
However this has been proven to be a fallacy. Recent research in neuroscience goes as far as to suggest even human beings don’t have free will – or if we do, it’s of limited scope and influence on our daily actions – which casts the whole debate about sentience, responsibility, and punishment in an entirely different light.
25 Jan 2012
The west is sliding towards economic disaster, our politicians are increasingly racist & homophobic, organised religion continues to force its Stone Age worldviews on the masses, the internet is being turned in to a restricted playground for corporate forces, and our continued reluctance to tackle global warming will mean your children will be truly and royally fucked by the time they’re our age.
So let’s indulge in some worthwhile escapism. Here are a few recommendations for fantasy novels that I’ve recently read:
Patrick Rothfuss: The Name of the Wind / The Wise Man’s Fear
A newcomer to the fantasy genre, Patrick Rothfuss’s debut novel The Name of the Wind and its sequel The Wise Man’s Fear are great wee tales. The protagonist is called Kvothe Kingkiller, a sorcerer of considerable reputation, and the books are basically the story of his life as told by Kvothe himself.
There are a lot of elements in these novels that have great promise, from the way magic works to the fae realm and its denizens. There are hints aplenty to the world’s long and chequered past as well as Kvothe’s own infamous deeds, but somehow the books never manage to convey a grand sense of scale. It all feels a bit confined and not quite as epic as I’d hoped.
Still, they’re very good books featuring a great leading character – though the supporting cast is very one-dimensional and needs work – and I’ll be buying the third instalment when it’s published.
Joe Abercrombie: Best Served Cold / The Heroes
Best Served Cold is the story of a female mercenary commander out to exact revenge on those who betrayed her, leaving nations destroyed in her wake. It is epic, gritty, and sometimes downright vicious, and I loved every single word of it.
The Heroes is about a single battle between armies of the Northmen and the Empire. While much more limited in time and geographical location, it somehow manages to feel every bit as epic – as if you are watching history being made. It’s even more violent than Best Served Cold (which is quite an accomplishment in itself) and is probably the finest fantasy (anti-)war novel you’ll ever read.
Richard Morgan: The Steel Remains / The Cold Commands
After a very successful string of science fiction novels, Richard Morgan decided to try his hand at writing fantasy. But Morgan being Morgan, it’s not just any fantasy. It’s fantasy as you’ve never read it before. I guarantee it.
For starters, a significant portion of his three main protagonists are gay – Ringil Eskiath is a homosexual warrior with a formidable reputation, and Archeth Indamaninarmal is a near-immortal lesbian descendant from a race of technologically advanced demi-gods. The third protagonist Egar Dragonsbane, a restless barbarian from the steppes, is positively mundane by comparison.
Not only is Morgan very good at characterisation, his world-building is also without equal. From the very first chapter you realise this is an old world – or, intriguingly, a potential young version of many different possible old worlds (you’ll need to read the novels for that to make sense, but trust me it’s a fascinating concept). Morgan also seems to have embraced Arthur C. Clarke’s edict that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, as much of the esoteric sorcery in these novels is probably – though not definitely – technology wielded by ancient post-human species.
Richard Morgan also manages to capture that ‘ageing warrior’ essence David Gemmell so adeptly channelled, and there are many more fascinating ingredients to these two novels that ensure he’ll continue to have a host of very loyal readers, myself among them. I can’t wait to read what comes next, and that is the highest praise I can give any author.
5 Jan 2012
I will unfollow you on Twitter without hesitation if you…:
1. Send me an automated DM after I follow you.
Seriously, cut it out.
2. Tweet a series of +K announcements.
If you care about your Klout score enough to tweet about it and what you’re doing with your +K’s, you’re not the type of person whose insights I value.
3. Use a URL shortener that hijacks the page with a piece of shit toolbar at the top.
Avoid craptastic URL shorteners with this lame ‘feature’. There’s plenty of shorteners that don’t do this, and you can always create your own.
4. Call yourself a ‘expert’, ‘guru’, or any of the other hypewords that indicate you’re just another lame-ass bandwagon jumper.
The latest buzz in SEO land is ‘inbound marketer’. Don’t use it – unless you’re OK with looking like a douche. If you’re so intent on expanding your SEO job title to be more inclusive there’s a perfectly good one already available: digital/internet/online marketer. By inventing new job titles you’re just showing yourself to be all about vacuous crap instead of actual substance.
5. Take yourself too fucking seriously.
You should never forget that your entire existence, in the grand scheme of things, is as close to meaningless as makes no difference.