December 2006

Bova, Ben. Mercury. New York: Tor, 2005. ISBN 0-765-34314-2.
I hadn't read anything by Ben Bova in years—certainly not since 1990. I always used to think of him as a journeyman science fiction writer, cranking out enjoyable stories mostly toward the hard end of the science fiction spectrum, but not a grand master of the calibre of, say, Heinlein, Clarke, and Niven. His stint as editor of Analog was admirable, proving himself a worthy successor to John W. Campbell, who developed the authors of the golden age of science fiction. Bova is also a prolific essayist on science, writing, and other topics, and his January 1965 Analog article “It's Done with Mirrors” with William F. Dawson may have been one of the earliest proposals of a multiply-connected small universe cosmological model.

I don't read a lot of fiction these days, and tend to lose track of authors, so when I came across this book in an airport departure lounge and noticed it was published in 2005, my first reaction was, “Gosh, is he still writing?” (Bova was born in 1932, and his first novel was published in 1959.) The U.K. paperback edition was featured in a “buy one, get one free” bin, so how could I resist?

I ought to strengthen my resistance. This novel is so execrably bad that several times in the process of reading it I was tempted to rip it to bits and burn them to ensure nobody else would have to suffer the experience. There is nothing whatsoever redeeming about this book. The plot is a conventional love triangle/revenge tale. The only thing that makes it science fiction at all is that it's set in the future and involves bases on Mercury, space elevators, and asteroid mining, but these are just backdrops for a story which could take place anywhere. Notwithstanding the title, which places it within the author's “Grand Tour” series, only about half of the story takes place on Mercury, whose particulars play only a small part.

Did I mention the writing? No, I guess I was trying to forget it. Each character, even throw-away figures who appear only in a single chapter, is introduced by a little sketch which reads like something produced by filling out a form. For example,

Jacqueline Wexler was such an administrator. Gracious and charming in public, accommodating and willing to compromise at meetings, she nevertheless had the steel-hard will and sharp intellect to drive the ICU's ramshackle collection of egos toward goals that she herself selected. Widely known as ‘Attila the Honey,’ Wexler was all sweetness and smiles on the outside, and ruthless determination within.
After spending a third of page 70 on this paragraph, which makes my teeth ache just to re-read, the formidable Ms. Wexler walks off stage before the end of p. 71, never to re-appear. But fear not (or fear), there are many, many more such paragraphs in subsequent pages.

An Earth-based space elevator, a science fiction staple, is central to the plot, and here Bova bungles the elementary science of such a structure in a laugh-out-loud chapter in which the three principal characters ride the elevator to a platform located at the low Earth orbit altitude of 500 kilometres. Upon arrival there, they find themselves weightless, while in reality the force of gravity would be imperceptibly less than on the surface of the Earth! Objects in orbit are weightless because their horizontal velocity cancels Earth's gravity, but a station at 500 kilometres is travelling only at the speed of the Earth's rotation, which is less than 1/16 of orbital velocity. The only place on a space elevator where weightlessness would be experienced is the portion where orbital velocity equals Earth's rotation rate, and that is at the anchor point at geosynchronous altitude. This is not a small detail; it is central to the physics, engineering, and economics of space elevators, and it figured prominently in Arthur C. Clarke's 1979 novel The Fountains of Paradise which is alluded to here on p. 140.

Nor does Bova restrain himself from what is becoming a science fiction cliché of the first magnitude: “nano-magic”. This is my term for using the “nano” prefix the way bad fantasy authors use “magic”. For example, Lord Hacksalot draws his sword and cuts down a mighty oak tree with a single blow, smashing the wall of the evil prince's castle. The editor says, “Look, you can't cut down an oak tree with a single swing of a sword.” Author: “But it's a magic sword.” On p. 258 the principal character is traversing a tether between two parts of a ship in the asteroid belt which, for some reason, the author believes is filled with deadly radiation. “With nothing protecting him except the flimsy…suit, Bracknell felt like a turkey wrapped in a plastic bag inside a microwave oven. He knew that high-energy radiation was sleeting down on him from the pale, distant Sun and still-more-distant stars. He hoped that suit's radiation protection was as good as the manufacturer claimed.” Imaginary editor (who clearly never read this manuscript): “But the only thing which can shield you from heavy primary cosmic rays is mass, and lots of it. No ‘flimsy suit’ however it's made, can protect you against iron nuclei incoming near the speed of light.” Author: “But it's a nano suit!”

Not only is the science wrong, the fiction is equally lame. Characters simply don't behave as people do in the real world, nor are events and their consequences plausible. We are expected to believe that the causes of and blame for a technological catastrophe which killed millions would be left to be decided by a criminal trial of a single individual in Ecuador without any independent investigation. Or that a conspiracy to cause said disaster involving a Japanese mega-corporation, two mass religious movements, rogue nanotechnologists, and numerous others could be organised, executed, and subsequently kept secret for a decade. The dénouement hinges on a coincidence so fantastically improbable that the plausibility of the plot would be improved were the direct intervention of God Almighty posited instead.

Whatever became of Ben Bova, whose science was scientific and whose fiction was fun to read? It would be uncharitable to attribute this waste of ink and paper to age, as many science fictioneers with far more years on the clock have penned genuine classics. But look at this! Researching the author's biography, I discovered that in 1996, at the age of 64, he received a doctorate in education from California Coast University, a “distance learning” institution. Now, remember back when you were in engineering school struggling with thermogoddamics and fluid mechanics how you regarded the student body of the Ed school? Well, I always assumed it was a selection effect—those who can do, and those who can't…anyway, it never occurred to me that somewhere in that dark, lowering building they had a nano brain mushifier which turned the earnest students who wished to dedicate their careers to educating the next generation into the cognitively challenged classes they graduated. I used to look forward to reading anything by Ben Bova; I shall, however, forgo further works by the present Doctor of Education.

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Gershenfeld, Neil. Fab. New York: Basic Books, 2005. ISBN 0-465-02745-8.
Once, every decade or so, you encounter a book which empowers you in ways you never imagined before you opened it, and ultimately changes your life. This is one of those books. I am who I am (not to sound too much like Popeye) largely because in the fall of 1967 I happened to read Daniel McCracken's FORTRAN book and realised that there was nothing complicated at all about programming computers—it was a vocational skill that anybody could learn, much like operating a machine tool. (Of course, as you get deeper into the craft, you discover there is a great body of theory to master, but there's much you can accomplish if you're willing to work hard and learn on the job before you tackle the more abstract aspects of the art.) But this was not only something that I could do but, more importantly, I could learn by doing—and that's how I decided to spend the rest of my professional life and I've never regretted having done so. I've never met a genuinely creative person who wished to spend a nanosecond in a classroom downloading received wisdom at dial-up modem bandwidth. In fact, I suspect the absence of such people in the general population is due to the pernicious effects of the Bismarck worker-bee indoctrination to which the youth of most “developed” societies are subjected today.

We all know that, some day, society will pass through the nanotechnological singularity, after which we'll be eternally free, eternally young, immortal, and incalculably rich: hey—works for me!   But few people realise that if the age of globalised mass production is analogous to that of mainframe computers and if the desktop nano-fabricator is equivalent to today's personal supercomputer, we're already in the equivalent of the minicomputer age of personal fabrication. Remember minicomputers? Not too large, not too small, and hence difficult to classify: too expensive for most people to buy, but within the budget of groups far smaller than the governments and large businesses who could afford mainframes.

The minicomputer age of personal fabrication is as messy as the architecture of minicomputers of four decades before: there are lots of different approaches, standards, interfaces, all mutually incompatible: isn't innovation wonderful? Well, in this sense no!   But it's here, now. For a sum in the tens of thousands of U.S. dollars, it is now possible to equip a “Fab Lab” which can make “almost anything”. Such a lab can fit into a modestly sized room, and, provided with electrical power and an Internet connection, can empower whoever crosses its threshold to create whatever their imagination can conceive. In just a few minutes, their dream can become tangible hardware in the real world.

The personal computer revolution empowered almost anybody (at least in the developed world) to create whatever information processing technology their minds could imagine, on their own, or in collaboration with others. The Internet expanded the scope of this collaboration and connectivity around the globe: people who have never met one another are now working together to create software which will be used by people who have never met the authors to everybody's mutual benefit. Well, software is cool, but imagine if this extended to stuff. That's what Fab is about. SourceForge currently hosts more than 135,500 software development projects—imagine what will happen when StuffForge.net (the name is still available, as I type this sentence!) hosts millions of OpenStuff things you can download to your local Fab Lab, make, and incorporate into inventions of your own imagination. This is the grand roll-back of the industrial revolution, the negation of globalisation: individuals, all around the world, creating for themselves products tailored to their own personal needs and those of their communities, drawing upon the freely shared wisdom and experience of their peers around the globe. What a beautiful world it will be!

Cynics will say, “Sure, it can work at MIT—you have one of the most talented student bodies on the planet, supported by a faculty which excels in almost every discipline, and an industrial plant with bleeding edge fabrication technologies of all kinds.” Well, yes, it works there. But the most inspirational thing about this book is that it seems to work everywhere: not just at MIT but also in South Boston, rural India, Norway far north of the Arctic Circle, Ghana, and Costa Rica—build it and they will make. At times the author seems unduly amazed that folks without formal education and the advantages of a student at MIT can imagine, design, fabricate, and apply a solution to a problem in their own lives. But we're human beings—tool-making primates who've prospered by figuring things out and finding ways to make our lives easier by building tools. Is it so surprising that putting the most modern tools into the hands of people who daily confront the most fundamental problems of existence (access to clean water, food, energy, and information) will yield innovations which surprise even professors at MIT?

This book is so great, and so inspiring, that I will give the author a pass on his clueless attack on AutoCAD's (never attributed) DXF file format on pp. 46–47, noting simply that the answer to why it's called “DXF” is that Lotus had already used “DIF” for their spreadsheet interchange files and we didn't want to create confusion with their file format, and that the reason there's more than one code for an X co-ordinate is that many geometrical objects require more than one X co-ordinate to define them (well, duh).

The author also totally gets what I've been talking about since Unicard and even before that as “Gizmos”, that every single device in the world, and every button on every device will eventually have its own (IPv6) Internet address and be able to interact with every other such object in every way that makes sense. I envisioned MIDI networks as the cheapest way to implement this bottom-feeder light-switch to light-bulb network; the author, a decade later, opts for a PCM “Internet 0”—works for me. The medium doesn't matter; it's that the message makes it end to end so cheaply that you can ignore the cost of the interconnection that ultimately matters.

The author closes the book with the invitation:

Finally, demand for fab labs as a research project, as a collection of capabilities, as a network of facilities, and even as a technological empowerment movement is growing beyond what can be handled by the initial collection of people and institutional partners that were involved in launching them. I/we welcome your thoughts on, and participation in, shaping their future operational, organizational, and technological form.
Well, I am but a humble programmer, but here's how I'd go about it. First of all, I'd create a “Fabrication Trailer“ which could visit every community in the United States, Canada, and Mexico; I'd send it out on the road in every MIT vacation season to preach the evangel of “make” to every community it visited. In, say, one of eighty of such communities, one would find a person who dreamed of this happening in his or her lifetime who was empowered by seeing it happen; provide them a template which, by writing a cheque, can replicate the fab and watch it spread. And as it spreads, and creates wealth, it will spawn other Fab Labs.

Then, after it's perfected in a couple of hundred North American copies, design a Fab Lab that fits into an ocean cargo container and can be shipped anywhere. If there isn't electricity and Internet connectivity, also deliver the diesel generator or solar panels and satellite dish. Drop these into places where they're most needed, along with a wonk who can bootstrap the locals into doing things with these tools which astound even those who created them. Humans are clever, tool-making primates; give us the tools to realise what we imagine and then stand back and watch what happens!

The legacy media bombard us with conflict, murder, and mayhem. But the future is about creation and construction. What does An Army of Davids do when they turn their creativity and ingenuity toward creating solutions to problems perceived and addressed by individuals? Why, they'll call it a renaissance! And that's exactly what it will be.

For more information, visit the Web site of The Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT, which the author directs. Fab Central provides links to Fab Labs around the world, the machines they use, and the open source software tools you can download and start using today.

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Milosz, Czeslaw. The Captive Mind. New York: Vintage, [1951, 1953, 1981] 1990. ISBN 0-679-72856-2.
This book is an illuminating exploration of life in a totalitarian society, written by a poet and acute observer of humanity who lived under two of the tyrannies of the twentieth century and briefly served one of them. The author was born in Lithuania in 1911 and studied at the university in Vilnius, a city he describes (p. 135) as “ruled in turn by the Russians, Germans, Lithuanians, Poles, again the Lithuanians, again the Germans, and again the Russians”—and now again the Lithuanians. An ethnic Pole, he settled in Warsaw after graduation, and witnessed the partition of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union at the outbreak of World War II, conquest and occupation by Germany, “liberation” by the Red Army, and the imposition of Stalinist rule under the tutelage of Moscow. After working with the underground press during the war, the author initially supported the “people's government”, even serving as a cultural attaché at the Polish embassies in Washington and Paris. As Stalinist terror descended upon Poland and the rigid dialectical “Method” was imposed upon intellectual life, he saw tyranny ascendant once again and chose exile in the West, initially in Paris and finally the U.S., where he became a professor at the University of California at Berkeley in 1961—imagine, an anti-communist at Berkeley!

In this book, he explores the various ways in which the human soul comes to terms with a regime which denies its very existence. Four long chapters explore the careers of four Polish writers he denotes as “Alpha” through “Delta” and the choices they made when faced with a system which offered them substantial material rewards in return for conformity with a rigid system which put them at the service of the State, working toward ends prescribed by the “Center” (Moscow). He likens acceptance of this bargain to swallowing a mythical happiness pill, which, by eliminating the irritations of creativity, scepticism, and morality, guarantees those who take it a tranquil place in a well-ordered society. In a powerful chapter titled “Ketman”—a Persian word denoting fervent protestations of faith by nonbelievers, not only in the interest of self-preservation, but of feeling superior to those they so easily deceive—Milosz describes how an entire population can become actors who feign belief in an ideology and pretend to believe the earnest affirmations of orthodoxy on the part of others while sharing scorn for the few true believers.

The author received the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature.

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Hawkins, Jeff with Sandra Blakeslee. On Intelligence. New York: Times Books, 2004. ISBN 0-8050-7456-2.
Ever since the early days of research into the sub-topic of computer science which styles itself “artificial intelligence”, such work has been criticised by philosophers, biologists, and neuroscientists who argue that while symbolic manipulation, database retrieval, and logical computation may be able to mimic, to some limited extent, the behaviour of an intelligent being, in no case does the computer understand the problem it is solving in the sense a human does. John R. Searle's “Chinese Room” thought experiment is one of the best known and extensively debated of these criticisms, but there are many others just as cogent and difficult to refute.

These days, criticising artificial intelligence verges on hunting cows with a bazooka—unlike the early days in the 1950s when everybody expected the world chess championship to be held by a computer within five or ten years and mathematicians were fretting over what they'd do with their lives once computers learnt to discover and prove theorems thousands of times faster than they, decades of hype, fads, disappointment, and broken promises have instilled some sense of reality into the expectations most technical people have for “AI”, if not into those working in the field and those they bamboozle with the sixth (or is it the sixteenth) generation of AI bafflegab.

AI researchers sometimes defend their field by saying “If it works, it isn't AI”, by which they mean that as soon as a difficult problem once considered within the domain of artificial intelligence—optical character recognition, playing chess at the grandmaster level, recognising faces in a crowd—is solved, it's no longer considered AI but simply another computer application, leaving AI with the remaining unsolved problems. There is certainly some truth in this, but a closer look gives lie to the claim that these problems, solved with enormous effort on the part of numerous researchers, and with the application, in most cases, of computing power undreamed of in the early days of AI, actually represents “intelligence”, or at least what one regards as intelligent behaviour on the part of a living brain.

First of all, in no case did a computer “learn” how to solve these problems in the way a human or other organism does; in every case experts analysed the specific problem domain in great detail, developed special-purpose solutions tailored to the problem, and then implemented them on computing hardware which in no way resembles the human brain. Further, each of these “successes” of AI is useless outside its narrow scope of application: a chess-playing computer cannot read handwriting, a speech recognition program cannot identify faces, and a natural language query program cannot solve mathematical “word problems” which pose no difficulty to fourth graders. And while many of these programs are said to be “trained” by presenting them with collections of stimuli and desired responses, no amount of such training will permit, say, an optical character recognition program to learn to write limericks. Such programs can certainly be useful, but nothing other than the fact that they solve problems which were once considered difficult in an age when computers were much slower and had limited memory resources justifies calling them “intelligent”, and outside the marketing department, few people would remotely consider them so.

The subject of this ambitious book is not “artificial intelligence” but intelligence: the real thing, as manifested in the higher cognitive processes of the mammalian brain, embodied, by all the evidence, in the neocortex. One of the most fascinating things about the neocortex is how much a creature can do without one, for only mammals have them. Reptiles, birds, amphibians, fish, and even insects (which barely have a brain at all) exhibit complex behaviour, perception of and interaction with their environment, and adaptation to an extent which puts to shame the much-vaunted products of “artificial intelligence”, and yet they all do so without a neocortex at all. In this book, the author hypothesises that the neocortex evolved in mammals as an add-on to the old brain (essentially, what computer architects would call a “bag hanging on the side of the old machine”) which implements a multi-level hierarchical associative memory for patterns and a complementary decoder from patterns to detailed low-level behaviour which, wired through the old brain to the sensory inputs and motor controls, dynamically learns spatial and temporal patterns and uses them to make predictions which are fed back to the lower levels of the hierarchy, which in turns signals whether further inputs confirm or deny them. The ability of the high-level cortex to correctly predict inputs is what we call “understanding” and it is something which no computer program is presently capable of doing in the general case.

Much of the recent and present-day work in neuroscience has been devoted to imaging where the brain processes various kinds of information. While fascinating and useful, these investigations may overlook one of the most striking things about the neocortex: that almost every part of it, whether devoted to vision, hearing, touch, speech, or motion appears to have more or less the same structure. This observation, by Vernon B. Mountcastle in 1978, suggests there may be a common cortical algorithm by which all of these seemingly disparate forms of processing are done. Consider: by the time sensory inputs reach the brain, they are all in the form of spikes transmitted by neurons, and all outputs are sent in the same form, regardless of their ultimate effect. Further, evidence of plasticity in the cortex is abundant: in cases of damage, the brain seems to be able to re-wire itself to transfer a function to a different region of the cortex. In a long (70 page) chapter, the author presents a sketchy model of what such a common cortical algorithm might be, and how it may be implemented within the known physiological structure of the cortex.

The author is a founder of Palm Computing and Handspring (which was subsequently acquired by Palm). He subsequently founded the Redwood Neuroscience Institute, which has now become part of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, and in March of 2005 founded Numenta, Inc. with the goal of developing computer memory systems based on the model of the neocortex presented in this book.

Some academic scientists may sniff at the pretensions of a (very successful) entrepreneur diving into their speciality and trying to figure out how the brain works at a high level. But, hey, nobody else seems to be doing it—the computer scientists are hacking away at their monster programs and parallel machines, the brain community seems stuck on functional imaging (like trying to reverse-engineer a microprocessor in the nineteenth century by looking at its gross chemical and electrical properties), and the neuron experts are off dissecting squid: none of these seem likely to lead to an understanding (there's that word again!) of what's actually going on inside their own tenured, taxpayer-funded skulls. There is undoubtedly much that is wrong in the author's speculations, but then he admits that from the outset and, admirably, presents an appendix containing eleven testable predictions, each of which can falsify all or part of his theory. I've long suspected that intelligence has more to do with memory than computation, so I'll confess to being predisposed toward the arguments presented here, but I'd be surprised if any reader didn't find themselves thinking about their own thought processes in a different way after reading this book. You won't find the answers to the mysteries of the brain here, but at least you'll discover many of the questions worth pondering, and perhaps an idea or two worth exploring with the vast computing power at the disposal of individuals today and the boundless resources of data in all forms available on the Internet.

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