Tuesday, January 7, 2020

UNUM 3.1: Updated to Unicode 12.1.0, UTF-8 Support Added

Version 3.1 of UNUM is now available for downloading. Version 3.1 incorporates the Unicode 12.1.0 standard, released on May 7th, 2019. Since the Unicode 11.0.0 standard supported by UNUM 3.0, a total of 555 new characters have been added, for a total of 137,929 characters. Unicode 12.0.0 added support for 4 new scripts (for a total of 150) and 61 new emoji characters. Unicode 12.1.0 added the single character U+32FF, the Japanese character for the Reiwa era. (In addition to the standard Unicode characters, UNUM also supports an additional 65 ASCII control characters, which are not assigned graphic code points in the Unicode database.)

This is an incremental update to Unicode. There are no structural changes in how characters are defined in the databases, and other than the presence of the new characters, the operation of UNUM is unchanged. There have been no changes to the HTML named character reference standard since the release of UNUM version 2.2 in September 2017, so UNUM 3.1 is identical in this regard.

UNUM 3.1 adds support for the UTF-8 encoding of Unicode, and allows specification of characters as UTF-8 encoded byte streams expressed as numbers, for example:

    $ unum utf8=0xE298A2
       Octal  Decimal      Hex        HTML    Character   Unicode
      023042     9762   0x2622     ☢    "☢"         RADIOACTIVE SIGN
A new --utf8 option displays the UTF-8 encoding of characters as a hexadecimal byte stream:
  $ unum --utf8 h=sum
     Octal  Decimal      Hex        HTML       UTF-8      Character   Unicode
    021021     8721   0x2211 ∑,∑    0xE28891      "∑"         N-ARY SUMMATION
UNUM Documentation and Download Page

Posted at 15:53 Permalink

Reading List: The Simulation Hypothesis

Virk, Rizwan. The Simulation Hypothesis. Cambridge, MA: Bayview Books, 2019. ISBN 978-0-9830569-0-4.
Before electronic computers had actually been built, Alan Turing mathematically proved a fundamental and profound property of them which has been exploited in innumerable ways as they developed and became central to many of our technologies and social interactions. A computer of sufficient complexity, which is, in fact, not very complex at all, can simulate any other computer or, in fact, any deterministic physical process whatsoever, as long as it is understood sufficiently to model in computer code and the system being modelled does not exceed the capacity of the computer—or the patience of the person running the simulation. Indeed, some of the first applications of computers were in modelling physical processes such as the flight of ballistic projectiles and the hydrodynamics of explosions. Today, computer modelling and simulation have become integral to the design process for everything from high-performance aircraft to toys, and many commonplace objects in the modern world could not have been designed without the aid of computer modelling. It certainly changed my life.

Almost as soon as there were computers, programmers realised that their ability to simulate, well…anything made them formidable engines for playing games. Computer gaming was originally mostly a furtive and disreputable activity, perpetrated by gnome-like programmers on the graveyard shift while the computer was idle, having finished the “serious” work paid for by unimaginative customers (who actually rose before the crack of noon!). But as the microelectronics revolution slashed the size and price of computers to something individuals could afford for their own use (or, according to the computer Puritans of the previous generations, abuse), computer gaming came into its own. Some modern computer games have production and promotion budgets larger than Hollywood movies, and their characters and story lines have entered the popular culture. As computer power has grown exponentially, games have progressed from tic-tac-toe, through text-based adventures, simple icon character video games, to realistic three dimensional simulated worlds in which the players explore a huge world, interact with other human players and non-player characters (endowed with their own rudimentary artificial intelligence) within the game, and in some games and simulated worlds, have the ability to extend the simulation by building their own objects with which others can interact. If your last experience with computer games was the Colossal Cave Adventure or Pac-Man, try a modern game or virtual world—you may be amazed.

Computer simulations on affordable hardware are already beginning to approach the limits of human visual resolution, perception of smooth motion, and audio bandwidth and localisation, and some procedurally-generated game worlds are larger than a human can explore in a million lifetimes. Computer power is forecast to continue to grow exponentially for the foreseeable future and, in the Roaring Twenties, permit solving a number of problems through “brute force”—simply throwing computing power and massive data storage capacity at them without any deeper fundamental understanding of the problem. Progress in the last decade in areas such as speech recognition, autonomous vehicles, and games such as Go are precursors to what will be possible in the next.

This raises the question of how far it can go—can computer simulations actually approach the complexity of the real world, with characters within the simulation experiencing lives as rich and complex as our own and, perhaps, not even suspect they're living in a simulation? And then, we must inevitably speculate whether we are living in a simulation, created by beings at an outer level (perhaps themselves many levels deep in a tree of simulations which may not even have a top level). There are many reasons to suspect that we are living in a simulation; for many years I have said it's “more likely than not”, and others, ranging from Stephen Hawking to Elon Musk and Scott Adams, have shared my suspicion. The argument is very simple.

First of all, will we eventually build computers sufficiently powerful to provide an authentic simulated world to conscious beings living within it? There is no reason to doubt that we will: no law of physics prevents us from increasing the power of our computers by at least a factor of a trillion from those of today, and the lesson of technological progress has been that technologies usually converge upon their physical limits and new markets emerge as they do, using their capabilities and funding further development. Continued growth in computing power at the rate of the last fifty years should begin to make such simulations possible some time between 2030 and the end of this century.

So, when we have the computing power, will we use it to build these simulations? Of course we will! We have been building simulations to observe their behaviour and interact with them, for ludic and other purposes, ever since the first primitive computers were built. The market for games has only grown as they have become more complex and realistic. Imagine what if will be like when anybody can create a whole society—a whole universe—then let it run to see what happens, or enter it and experience it first-hand. History will become an experimental science. What would have happened if the Roman empire had discovered the electromagnetic telegraph? Let's see!—and while we're at it, run a thousand simulations with slightly different initial conditions and compare them.

Finally, if we can create these simulations which are so realistic the characters within them perceive them as their real world, why should we dare such non-Copernican arrogance as to assume we're at the top level and not ourselves within a simulation? I believe we shouldn't, and to me the argument that clinches it is what I call the “branching factor”. Just as we will eventually, indeed, I'd say, inevitably, create simulations as rich as our own world, so will the beings within them create their own. Certainly, once we can, we'll create many, many simulations: as many or more as there are running copies of present-day video games, and the beings in those simulations will as well. But if each simulation creates its own simulations in a number (the branching factor) even a tiny bit larger than one, there will be exponentially more observers in these layers on layers of simulations than at the top level. And, consequently, as non-privileged observers according to the Copernican Principle, it is not just more likely than not, but overwhelmingly probable that we are living in a simulation.

The author of this book, founder of Play Labs @ MIT, a start-up accelerator which works in conjunction with the MIT Game Lab, and producer of a number of video games, has come to the same conclusion, and presents the case for the simulation hypothesis from three perspectives: computer science, physics, and the unexplained (mysticism, esoteric traditions, and those enduring phenomena and little details which don't make any sense when viewed from the conventional perspective but may seem perfectly reasonable once we accept we're characters in somebody else's simulation).

Computer Science. The development of computer games is sketched from their origins to today's three-dimensional photorealistic multiplayer environments into the future, where virtual reality mediated by goggles, gloves, and crude haptic interfaces will give way to direct neural interfaces to the brain. This may seem icky and implausible, but so were pierced lips, eyebrows, and tongues when I was growing up, and now I see them everywhere, without the benefit of directly jacking in to a world larger, more flexible, and more interesting than the dingy one we inhabit. This is sketched in eleven steps, the last of which is the Simulation Point, where we achieve the ability to create simulations which “are virtually indistinguishable from a base physical reality.” He describes, “The Great Simulation is a video game that is so real because it is based upon incredibly sophisticated models and rendering techniques that are beamed directly into the mind of the players, and the actions of artificially generated consciousness are indistinguishable from real players.” He identifies nine technical hurdles which must be overcome in order to arrive at the Simulation Point. Some, such as simulating a sufficiently large world and number of players, are challenging but straightforward scaling up of things we're already doing, which will become possible as computer power increases. Others, such as rendering completely realistic objects and incorporating physical sensations, exist in crude form today but will require major improvements we don't yet know how to build, while technologies such as interacting directly with the human brain and mind and endowing non-player characters within the simulation with consciousness and human-level intelligence have yet to be invented.

Physics. There are a number of aspects of the physical universe, most revealed as we have observed at very small and very large scales, and at speeds and time intervals far removed from those with which we and our ancestors evolved, that appear counterintuitive if not bizarre to our expectations from everyday life. We can express them precisely in our equations of quantum mechanics, special and general relativity, electrodynamics, and the standard models of particle physics and cosmology, and make predictions which accurately describe our observations, but when we try to understand what is really going on or why it works that way, it often seems puzzling and sometimes downright weird.

But as the author points out, when you view these aspects of the physical universe through the eyes of a computer game designer or builder of computer models of complex physical systems, they look oddly familiar. Here is how I expressed it thirteen years ago in my 2006 review of Leonard Susskind's The Cosmic Landscape:

What would we expect to see if we inhabited a simulation? Well, there would probably be a discrete time step and granularity in position fixed by the time and position resolution of the simulation—check, and check: the Planck time and distance appear to behave this way in our universe. There would probably be an absolute speed limit to constrain the extent we could directly explore and impose a locality constraint on propagating updates throughout the simulation—check: speed of light. There would be a limit on the extent of the universe we could observe—check: the Hubble radius is an absolute horizon we cannot penetrate, and the last scattering surface of the cosmic background radiation limits electromagnetic observation to a still smaller radius. There would be a limit on the accuracy of physical measurements due to the finite precision of the computation in the simulation—check: Heisenberg uncertainty principle—and, as in games, randomness would be used as a fudge when precision limits were hit—check: quantum mechanics.

Indeed, these curious physical phenomena begin to look precisely like the kinds of optimisations game and simulation designers employ to cope with the limited computer power at their disposal. The author notes, “Quantum Indeterminacy, a fundamental principle of the material world, sounds remarkably similar to optimizations made in the world of computer graphics and video games, which are rendered on individual machines (computers or mobile phones) but which have conscious players controlling and observing the action.”

One of the key tricks in complex video games is “conditional rendering”: you don't generate the images or worry about the physics of objects which the player can't see from their current location. This is remarkably like quantum mechanics, where the act of observation reduces the state vector to a discrete measurement and collapses its complex extent in space and time into a known value. In video games, you only need to evaluate when somebody's looking. Quantum mechanics is largely encapsulated in the tweet by Aatish Bhatia, “Don't look: waves. Look: particles.” It seems our universe works the same way. Curious, isn't it?

Similarly, games and simulations exploit discreteness and locality to reduce the amount of computation they must perform. The world is approximated by a grid, and actions in one place can only affect neighbours and propagate at a limited speed. This is precisely what we see in field theories and relativity, where actions are local and no influence can propagate faster than the speed of light.

The unexplained. Many esoteric and mystic traditions, especially those of the East such as Hinduism and Buddhism, describe the world as something like a dream, in which we act and our actions affect our permanent identity in subsequent lives. Western traditions, including the Abrahamic religions, see life in this world as a temporary thing, where our acts will be judged by a God who is outside the world. These beliefs come naturally to humans, and while there is little or no evidence for them in conventional science, it is safe to say that far more people believe and have believed these things and have structured their lives accordingly than those who have adopted the strictly rationalistic viewpoint one might deduce from deterministic, reductionist science.

And yet, once again, in video games we see the emergence of a model which is entirely compatible with these ancient traditions. Characters live multiple lives, and their actions in the game cause changes in a state (“karma”) which is recorded outside the game and affects what they can do. They complete quests, which affect their karma and capabilities, and upon completing a quest, they may graduate (be reincarnated) into a new life (level), in which they retain their karma from previous lives. Just as players who exist outside the game can affect events and characters within it, various traditions describe actors outside the natural universe (hence “supernatural”) such as gods, angels, demons, and spirits of the departed, interacting with people within the universe and occasionally causing physical manifestations (miracles, apparitions, hauntings, UFOs, etc.). And perhaps the simulation hypothesis can even explain absence of evidence: the sky in a video game may contain a multitude of stars and galaxies, but that doesn't mean each is populated by its own video game universe filled with characters playing the same game. No, it's just scenery, there to be admired but with which you can't interact. Maybe that's why we've never detected signals from an alien civilisation: the stars are just procedurally generated scenery to make our telescopic views more interesting.

The author concludes with a summary of the evidence we may be living in a simulation and the objection of sceptics (such that a computer as large and complicated as the universe would be required to simulate a universe). He suggests experiments which might detect the granularity of the simulation and provide concrete evidence the universe is not the continuum most of science has assumed it to be. A final chapter presents speculations as to who might be running the simulation, what their motives might be for doing so, and the nature of beings within the simulation. I'm cautious of delusions of grandeur in making such guesses. I'll bet we're a science fair project, and I'll further bet that within a century we'll be creating a multitude of simulated universes for our own science fair projects.

Posted at 01:00 Permalink

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Reading List: The City of Illusions

Wood, Fenton. The City of Illusions. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2019. ASIN B082692JTX.
This is the fourth short novel/novella (148 pages) in the author's Yankee Republic series. I described the first, Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves (May 2019), as “utterly charming”, and the second, Five Million Watts (June 2019), “enchanting”. The third, The Tower of the Bear (October 2019), takes Philo from the depths of the ocean to the Great Tree in the exotic West.

Here, the story continues as Philo reaches the Tree, meets its Guardian, “the largest, ugliest, and smelliest bear” he has ever seen, not to mention the most voluble and endowed with the wit of eternity, and explores the Tree, which holds gateways to other times and places, where Philo must confront a test which has defeated many heroes who have come this way before. Exploring the Tree, he learns of the distant past and future, of the Ancient Marauder and Viridios before the dawn of history, and of the War that changed the course of time.

Continuing his hero's quest, he ventures further westward along the Tyrant's Road into the desert of the Valley of Death. There he will learn the fate of the Tyrant and his enthralled followers and, if you haven't figured it out already, you will probably now understand where Philo's timeline diverged from our own. A hero must have a companion, and it is in the desert, after doing a good deed, that he meets his: a teddy bear, Made in Japan—but a very special teddy bear, as he will learn as the journey progresses.

Finally, he arrives at the Valley of the Angels, with pavement stretching to the horizon and cloaked in an acrid yellow mist that obscures visibility and irritates the eyes and throat. There he finds the legendary City of Illusions, where he is confronted by a series of diabolical abusement park attractions where his wit, courage, and Teddy's formidable powers will be tested to the utmost with death the price of failure. Victory can lead to the storied Bullet Train, the prize he needs to save radio station 2XG and possibly the world, and the next step in his quest.

As the fourth installment in what is projected to be one long story spanning five volumes, if you pick this up cold it will probably strike you as a bunch of disconnected adventures and puzzles each of which might as well be a stand-alone short-short story. As they unfold, only occasionally do you see a connection with the origins of the story or Philo's quest, although when they do appear (as in the linkage between the Library of Infinity and the Library of Ouroboros in The Tower of the Bear) they are a delight. It is only toward the end that you begin to see the threads converging toward what promises to be a stirring conclusion to a young adult classic enjoyable by all ages. I haven't read a work of science fiction so closely patterned on the hero's journey as described in Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces since Rudy Rucker's 2004 novel Frek and the Elixir; this is not a criticism but a compliment—the eternal hero myth has always made for tales which not only entertain but endure.

This book is currently available only in a Kindle edition. The fifth and final volume of the Yankee Republic saga is scheduled to be published in the spring of 2020.

Posted at 20:59 Permalink

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Books of the Year: 2019

Here are my picks for the best books of 2019, fiction and nonfiction. These aren't the best books published this year, but rather the best I've read in the last twelve months. The winner in both categories is barely distinguished from the pack, and the runners up are all worthy of reading. Runners up appear in alphabetical order by their author's surname. Each title is linked to my review of the book.


  • The Powers of the Earth and Causes of Separation by Travis J. I. Corcoran
    I am jointly choosing these two novels as fiction books of the year. They are the first two volumes of the Aristillus series and may be read as one long story spanning two books.
Runners up:


Winner: Runners up:

Posted at 12:56 Permalink

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Reading List: The Sword and the Shield

Andrew, Christopher and Vasili Mitrokhin. The Sword and the Shield. New York: Basic Books, 1999. ISBN 978-0-465-00312-9.
Vasili Mitrokhin joined the Soviet intelligence service as a foreign intelligence officer in 1948, at a time when the MGB (later to become the KGB) and the GRU were unified into a single service called the Committee of Information. By the time he was sent to his first posting abroad in 1952, the two services had split and Mitrokhin stayed with the MGB. Mitrokhin's career began in the paranoia of the final days of Stalin's regime, when foreign intelligence officers were sent on wild goose chases hunting down imagined Trotskyist and Zionist conspirators plotting against the regime. He later survived the turbulence after the death of Stalin and the execution of MGB head Lavrenti Beria, and the consolidation of power under his successors.

During the Khrushchev years, Mitrokhin became disenchanted with the regime, considering Khrushchev an uncultured barbarian whose banning of avant garde writers betrayed the tradition of Russian literature. He began to entertain dissident thoughts, not hoping for an overthrow of the Soviet regime but rather its reform by a new generation of leaders untainted by the legacy of Stalin. These thoughts were reinforced by the crushing of the reform-minded regime in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and his own observation of how his service, now called the KGB, manipulated the Soviet justice system to suppress dissent within the Soviet Union. He began to covertly listen to Western broadcasts and read samizdat publications by Soviet dissidents.

In 1972, the First Chief Directorate (FCD: foreign intelligence) moved from the cramped KGB headquarters in the Lubyanka in central Moscow to a new building near the ring road. Mitrokhin had sole responsibility for checking, inventorying, and transferring the entire archives, around 300,000 documents, of the FCD for transfer to the new building. These files documented the operations of the KGB and its predecessors dating back to 1918, and included the most secret records, those of Directorate S, which ran “illegals”: secret agents operating abroad under false identities. Probably no other individual ever read as many of the KGB's most secret archives as Mitrokhin. Appalled by much of the material he reviewed, he covertly began to make his own notes of the details. He started by committing key items to memory and then transcribing them every evening at home, but later made covert notes on scraps of paper which he smuggled out of KGB offices in his shoes. Each week-end he would take the notes to his dacha outside Moscow, type them up, and hide them in a series of locations which became increasingly elaborate as their volume grew.

Mitrokhin would continue to review, make notes, and add them to his hidden archive for the next twelve years until his retirement from the KGB in 1984. After Mikhail Gorbachev became party leader in 1985 and called for more openness (glasnost), Mitrokhin, shaken by what he had seen in the files regarding Soviet actions in Afghanistan, began to think of ways he might spirit his files out of the Soviet Union and publish them in the West.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mitrokhin tested the new freedom of movement by visiting the capital of one of the now-independent Baltic states, carrying a sample of the material from his archive concealed in his luggage. He crossed the border with no problems and walked in to the British embassy to make a deal. After several more trips, interviews with British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) officers, and providing more sample material, the British agreed to arrange the exfiltration of Mitrokhin, his entire family, and the entire archive—six cases of notes. He was debriefed at a series of safe houses in Britain and began several years of work typing handwritten notes, arranging the documents, and answering questions from the SIS, all in complete secrecy. In 1995, he arranged a meeting with Christopher Andrew, co-author of the present book, to prepare a history of KGB foreign intelligence as documented in the archive.

Mitrokhin's exfiltration (I'm not sure one can call it a “defection”, since the country whose information he disclosed ceased to exist before he contacted the British) and delivery of the archive is one of the most stunning intelligence coups of all time, and the material he delivered will be an essential primary source for historians of the twentieth century. This is not just a whistle-blower disclosing operations of limited scope over a short period of time, but an authoritative summary of the entire history of the foreign intelligence and covert operations of the Soviet Union from its inception until the time it began to unravel in the mid-1980s. Mitrokhin's documents name names; identify agents, both Soviet and recruits in other countries, by codename; describe secret operations, including assassinations, subversion, “influence operations” planting propaganda in adversary media and corrupting journalists and politicians, providing weapons to insurgents, hiding caches of weapons and demolition materials in Western countries to support special forces in case of war; and trace the internal politics and conflicts within the KGB and its predecessors and with the Party and rivals, particularly military intelligence (the GRU).

Any doubts about the degree of penetration of Western governments by Soviet intelligence agents are laid to rest by the exhaustive documentation here. During the 1930s and throughout World War II, the Soviet Union had highly-placed agents throughout the British and American governments, military, diplomatic and intelligence communities, and science and technology projects. At the same time, these supposed allies had essentially zero visibility into the Soviet Union: neither the American OSS nor the British SIS had a single agent in Moscow.

And yet, despite success in infiltrating other countries and recruiting agents within them (particularly prior to the end of World War II, when many agents, such as the “Magnificent Five” [Donald Maclean, Kim Philby, John Cairncross, Guy Burgess, and Anthony Blunt] in Britain, were motivated by idealistic admiration for the Soviet project, as opposed to later, when sources tended to be in it for the money), exploitation of this vast trove of purloined secret information was uneven and often ineffective. Although it reached its apogee during the Stalin years, paranoia and intrigue are as Russian as borscht, and compromised the interpretation and use of intelligence throughout the history of the Soviet Union. Despite having loyal spies in high places in governments around the world, whenever an agent provided information which seemed “too good” or conflicted with the preconceived notions of KGB senior officials or Party leaders, it was likely to be dismissed as disinformation, often suspected to have been planted by British counterintelligence, to which the Soviets attributed almost supernatural powers, or that their agents had been turned and were feeding false information to the Centre. This was particularly evident during the period prior to the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union in 1941. KGB archives record more than a hundred warnings of preparations for the attack having been forwarded to Stalin between January and June 1941, all of which were dismissed as disinformation or erroneous due to Stalin's idée fixe that Germany would not attack because it was too dependent on raw materials supplied by the Soviet Union and would not risk a two front war while Britain remained undefeated.

Further, throughout the entire history of the Soviet Union, the KGB was hesitant to report intelligence which contradicted the beliefs of its masters in the Politburo or documented the failures of their policies and initiatives. In 1985, shortly after coming to power, Gorbachev lectured KGB leaders “on the impermissibility of distortions of the factual state of affairs in messages and informational reports sent to the Central Committee of the CPSU and other ruling bodies.”

Another manifestation of paranoia was deep suspicion of those who had spent time in the West. This meant that often the most effective agents who had worked undercover in the West for many years found their reports ignored due to fears that they had “gone native” or been doubled by Western counterintelligence. Spending too much time on assignment in the West was not conducive to advancement within the KGB, which resulted in the service's senior leadership having little direct experience with the West and being prone to fantastic misconceptions about the institutions and personalities of the adversary. This led to delusional schemes such as the idea of recruiting stalwart anticommunist senior figures such as Zbigniew Brzezinski as KGB agents.

This is a massive compilation of data: 736 pages in the paperback edition, including almost 100 pages of detailed end notes and source citations. I would be less than candid if I gave the impression that this reads like a spy thriller: it is nothing of the sort. Although such information would have been of immense value during the Cold War, long lists of the handlers who worked with undercover agents in the West, recitations of codenames for individuals, and exhaustive descriptions of now largely forgotten episodes such as the KGB's campaign against “Eurocommunism” in the 1970s and 1980s, which it was feared would thwart Moscow's control over communist parties in Western Europe, make for heavy going for the reader.

The KGB's operations in the West were far from flawless. For decades, the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) received substantial subsidies from the KGB despite consistently promising great breakthroughs and delivering nothing. Between the 1950s and 1975, KGB money was funneled to the CPUSA through two undercover agents, brothers named Morris and Jack Childs, delivering cash often exceeding a million dollars a year. Both brothers were awarded the Order of the Red Banner in 1975 for their work, with Morris receiving his from Leonid Brezhnev in person. Unbeknownst to the KGB, both of the Childs brothers had been working for, and receiving salaries from, the FBI since the early 1950s, and reporting where the money came from and went—well, not the five percent they embezzled before passing it on. In the 1980s, the KGB increased the CPUSA's subsidy to two million dollars a year, despite the party's never having more than 15,000 members (some of whom, no doubt, were FBI agents).

A second doorstop of a book (736 pages) based upon the Mitrokhin archive, The World Was Going our Way, published in 2005, details the KGB's operations in the Third World during the Cold War. U.S. diplomats who regarded the globe and saw communist subversion almost everywhere were accurately reporting the situation on the ground, as the KGB's own files reveal.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at 16:07 Permalink

Monday, December 23, 2019

Reading List: Vandenberg Air Force Base

Page, Joseph T., II. Vandenberg Air Force Base. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2014. ISBN 978-1-4671-3209-1.
Prior to World War II, the sleepy rural part of the southern California coast between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo was best known as the location where, in September 1923, despite a lighthouse having been in operation at Arguello Point since 1901, the U.S. Navy suffered its worst peacetime disaster, when seven destroyers, travelling at 20 knots, ran aground at Honda Point, resulting in the loss of all seven ships and the deaths of 23 crewmembers. In the 1930s, following additional wrecks in the area, a lifeboat station was established in conjunction with the lighthouse.

During World War II, the Army acquired 92,000 acres (372 km²) in the area for a training base which was called Camp Cooke, after a cavalry general who served in the Civil War, in wars with Indian tribes, and in the Mexican-American War. The camp was used for training Army troops in a variety of weapons and in tank maneuvers. After the end of the war, the base was closed and placed on inactive status, but was re-opened after the outbreak of war in Korea to train tank crews. It was once again mothballed in 1953, and remained inactive until 1957, when 64,000 acres were transferred to the U.S. Air Force to establish a missile base on the West Coast, initially called Cooke Air Force Base, intended to train missile crews and also serve as the U.S.'s first operational intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) site. On October 4th, 1958, the base was renamed Vandenberg Air Force Base in honour of the late General Hoyt Vandenberg, former Air Force Chief of Staff and Director of Central Intelligence.

On December 15, 1958, a Thor intermediate range ballistic missile was launched from the new base, the first of hundreds of launches which would follow and continue up to the present day. Starting in September 1959, three Atlas ICBMs armed with nuclear warheads were deployed on open launch pads at Vandenberg, the first U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles to go on alert. The Atlas missiles remained part of the U.S. nuclear force until their retirement in May 1964.

With the advent of Earth satellites, Vandenberg became a key part of the U.S. military and civil space infrastructure. Launches from Cape Canaveral in Florida are restricted to a corridor directed eastward over the Atlantic ocean. While this is fine for satellites bound for equatorial orbits, such as the geostationary orbits used by many communication satellites, a launch into polar orbit, preferred by military reconnaissance satellites and Earth resources satellites because it allows them to overfly and image locations anywhere on Earth, would result in the rockets used to launch them dropping spent stages on land, which would vex taxpayers to the north and hotheated Latin neighbours to the south.

Vandenberg Air Force Base, however, situated on a point extending from the California coast, had nothing to the south but open ocean all the way to Antarctica. Launching southward, satellites could be placed into polar or Sun synchronous orbits without disturbing anybody but the fishes. Vandenberg thus became the prime launch site for U.S. reconnaissance satellites which, in the early days when satellites were short-lived and returned film to the Earth, required a large number of launches. The Corona spy satellites alone accounted for 144 launches from Vandenberg between 1959 and 1972.

With plans in the 1970s to replace all U.S. expendable launchers with the Space Shuttle, facilities were built at Vandenberg (Space Launch Complex 6) to process and launch the Shuttle, using a very different architecture than was employed in Florida. The Shuttle stack would be assembled on the launch pad, protected by a movable building that would retract prior to launch. The launch control centre was located just 365 metres from the launch pad (as opposed to 4.8 km away at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida), so the plan in case of a catastrophic launch accident on the pad essentially seemed to be “hope that never happens”. In any case, after spending more than US$4 billion on the facilities, after the Challenger disaster in 1986, plans for Shuttle launches from Vandenberg were abandoned, and the facility was mothballed until being adapted, years later, to launch other rockets.

This book, part of the “Images of America” series, is a collection of photographs (all black and white) covering all aspects of the history of the site from before World War II to the present day. Introductory text for each chapter and detailed captions describe the items shown and their significance to the base's history. The production quality is excellent, and I noted only one factual error in the text (the names of crew of Gemini 5). For a book of just 128 pages, the paperback is very expensive (US$22 at this writing). The Kindle edition is still pricey (US$13 list price), but may be read for free by Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at 18:02 Permalink

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Reading List: The Compleat Martian Invasion

Taloni, John. The Compleat Martian Invasion. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2016. ASIN B01HLTZ7MS.
A number of years have elapsed since the Martian Invasion chronicled by H.G. Wells in The War of the Worlds. The damage inflicted on the Earth was severe, and the protracted process of recovery, begun in the British Empire in the last years of Queen Victoria's reign, now continues under Queen Louise, Victoria's sixth child and eldest surviving heir after the catastrophe of the invasion. Just as Earth is beginning to return to normalcy, another crisis has emerged. John Bedford, who had retreated into an opium haze after the horrors of his last expedition, is summoned to Windsor Castle where Queen Louise shows him a photograph. “Those are puffs of gas on the Martian surface. The Martians are coming again, Mr. Bedford. And in far greater numbers.” Defeated the last time only due to their vulnerability to Earth's microbes, there is every reason to expect that this time the Martians will have taken precautions against that threat to their plans for conquest.

Earth's only hope to thwart the invasion before it reaches the surface and unleashes further devastation on its inhabitants is deploying weapons on platforms employing the anti-gravity material Cavorite, but the secret of manufacturing it rests with its creator, Cavor, who has been taken prisoner by the ant-like Selenites in the expedition from which Mr Bedford narrowly escaped, as chronicled in Mr Wells's The First Men in the Moon. Now, Bedford must embark on a perilous attempt to recover the Cavorite sphere lost at the end of his last adventure and then join an expedition to the Moon to rescue Cavor from the caves of the Selenites.

Meanwhile, on Barsoom (Mars), John Carter and Deja Thoris find their beloved city of Helium threatened by the Khondanes, whose deadly tripods wreaked so much havoc on Earth not long ago and are now turning their envious eyes back to the plunder that eluded them on the last attempt.

Queen Louise must assemble an international alliance, calling on all of her crowned relatives: Czar Nicholas, Kaiser Wilhelm, and even those troublesome republican Americans, plus all the resources they can summon—the inventions of the Serbian, Tesla, the research of Maria Skłowdowska and her young Swiss assistant Albert, discovered toiling away in the patent office, the secrets recovered from Captain Nemo's island, and the mysterious interventions of the Time Traveller, who flickers in and out of existence at various moments, pursuing his own inscrutable agenda. As the conflict approaches and battle is joined, an interplanetary effort is required to save Earth from calamity.

As you might expect from this description, this is a rollicking good romp replete with references and tips of the hat to the classics of science fiction and their characters. What seems like a straightforward tale of battle and heroism takes a turn at the very end into the inspiring, with a glimpse of how different human history might have been.

At present, only a Kindle edition is available, which is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Posted at 17:20 Permalink

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Reading List: Three Laws Lethal

Walton, David. Three Laws Lethal. Jersey City, NJ: Pyr, 2019. ISBN 978-1-63388-560-8.
In the near future, autonomous vehicles, “autocars”, are available from a number of major automobile manufacturers. The self-driving capability, while not infallible, has been approved by regulatory authorities after having demonstrated that it is, on average, safer than the population of human drivers on the road and not subject to human frailties such as driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, while tired, or distracted by others in the car or electronic gadgets. While self-driving remains a luxury feature with which a minority of cars on the road are equipped, regulators are confident that as it spreads more widely and improves over time, the highway accident rate will decline.

But placing an algorithm and sensors in command of a vehicle with a mass of more than a tonne hurtling down the road at 100 km per hour or faster is not just a formidable technical problem, it is one with serious and unavoidable moral implications. These come into stark focus when, in an incident on a highway near Seattle, an autocar swerves to avoid a tree crashing down on the highway, hitting and killing a motorcyclist in an adjacent lane of which the car's sensors must have been aware. The car appears to have made a choice, valuing the lives of its passengers: a mother and her two children, over that of the motorcyclist. What really happened, and how the car decided what to do in that split-second, is opaque, because the software controlling it was, as all such software, proprietary and closed to independent inspection and audit by third parties. It's one thing to acknowledge that self-driving vehicles are safer, as a whole, than those with humans behind the wheel, but entirely another to cede to them the moral agency of life and death on the highway. Should an autocar value the lives of its passengers over those of others? What if there were a sole passenger in the car and two on the motorcycle? And who is liable for the death of the motorcyclist: the auto manufacturer, the developers of the software, the owner of car, the driver who switched it into automatic mode, or the regulators who approved its use on public roads? The case was headed for court, and all would be watching the precedents it might establish.

Tyler Daniels and Brandon Kincannon, graduate students in the computer science department of the University of Pennsylvania, were convinced they could do better. The key was going beyond individual vehicles which tried to operate autonomously based upon what their own sensors could glean from their immediate environment, toward an architecture where vehicles communicated with one another and coordinated their activities. This would allow sharing information over a wider area and be able to avoid accidents resulting from individual vehicles acting without the knowledge of the actions of others. Further, they wanted to re-architect individual ground transportation from a model of individually-owned and operated vehicles to transportation as a service, where customers would summon an autocar on demand with their smartphone, with the vehicle network dispatching the closest free car to their location. This would dramatically change the economics of personal transportation. The typical private car spends twenty-two out of twenty-four hours parked, taking up a parking space and depreciating as it sits idle. The transportation service autocar would be in constant service (except for downtime for maintenance, refuelling, and times of reduced demand), generating revenue for its operator. An angel investor believes their story and, most importantly, believes in them sufficiently to write a check for the initial demonstration phase of their project, and they set to work.

Their team consists of Tyler and Brandon, plus Abby and Naomi Sumner, sisters who differed in almost every way: Abby outgoing and vivacious, with an instinct for public relations and marketing, and Naomi the super-nerd, verging on being “on the spectrum”. The big day of the public roll-out of the technology arrives, and ends in disaster, killing Abby in what was supposed to be a demonstration of the system's inherent safety. The disaster puts an end to the venture and the surviving principals go their separate ways. Tyler signs on as a consultant and expert witness for the lawyers bringing the suit on behalf of the motorcyclist killed in Seattle, using the exposure to advocate for open source software being a requirement for autonomous vehicles. Brandon uses money inherited after the death of his father to launch a new venture, Black Knight, offering transportation as a service initially in the New York area and then expanding to other cities. Naomi, whose university experiment in genetic software implemented as non-player characters (NPCs) in a virtual world was the foundation of the original venture's software, sees Black Knight as a way to preserve the world and beings she has created as they develop and require more and more computing resources. Characters in the virtual world support themselves and compete by driving Black Knight cars in the real world, and as generation follows generation and natural selection works its wonders, customers and competitors are amazed at how Black Knight vehicles anticipate the needs of their users and maintain an unequalled level of efficiency.

Tyler leverages his recognition from the trial into a new self-driving venture based on open source software called “Zoom”, which spreads across the U.S. west coast and eventually comes into competition with Black Knight in the east. Somehow, Zoom's algorithms, despite being open and having a large community contributing to their development, never seem able to equal the service provided by Black Knight, which is so secretive that even Brandon, the CEO, doesn't know how Naomi's software does it.

In approaching any kind of optimisation problem such as scheduling a fleet of vehicles to anticipate and respond to real-time demand, a key question is choosing the “objective function”: how the performance of the system is evaluated based upon the stated goals of its designers. This is especially crucial when the optimisation is applied to a system connected to the real world. The parable of the “Clippy Apocalypse”, where an artificial intelligence put in charge of a paperclip factory and trained to maximise the production of paperclips escapes into the wild and eventually converts first its home planet, then the rest of the solar system, and eventually the entire visible universe into paper clips. The system worked as designed—but the objective function was poorly chosen.

Naomi's NPCs literally (or virtually) lived or died based upon their ability to provide transportation service to Black Knight's customers, and natural selection, running at the accelerated pace of the simulation they inhabited, relentlessly selected them with the objective of improving their service and expanding Black Knight's market. To the extent that, within their simulation, they perceived opposition to these goals, they would act to circumvent it—whatever it takes.

This sets the stage for one of the more imaginative tales of how artificial general intelligence might arrive through the back door: not designed in a laboratory but emerging through the process of evolution in a complex system subjected to real-world constraints and able to operate in the real world. The moral dimensions of this go well beyond the trolley problem often cited in connection with autonomous vehicles, dealing with questions of whether artificial intelligences we create for our own purposes are tools, servants, or slaves, and what happens when their purposes diverge from those for which we created them.

This is a techno-thriller, with plenty of action in the conclusion of the story, but also a cerebral exploration of the moral questions which something as seemingly straightforward and beneficial as autonomous vehicles may pose in the future.

Posted at 15:33 Permalink

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Reading List: How to Judge People by What they Look Like

Dutton, Edward. How to Judge People by What they Look Like. Oulu, Finland: Thomas Edward Press, 2018. ISBN 978-1-9770-6797-5.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde wrote,

People say sometimes that Beauty is only superficial. That may be so. But at least it is not as superficial as Thought. To me, Beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.

From childhood, however, we have been exhorted not to judge people by their appearances. In Skin in the Game (August 2019), Nassim Nicholas Taleb advises choosing the surgeon who “doesn't look like a surgeon” because their success is more likely due to competence than first impressions.

Despite this, physiognomy, assessing a person's characteristics from their appearance, is as natural to humans as breathing, and has been an instinctual part of human behaviour as old as our species. Thinkers and writers from Aristotle through the great novelists of the 19th century believed that an individual's character was reflected in, and could be inferred from their appearance, and crafted and described their characters accordingly. Jules Verne would often spend a paragraph describing the appearance of his characters and what that implied for their behaviour.

Is physiognomy all nonsense, a pseudoscience like phrenology, which purported to predict mental characteristics by measuring bumps on the skull which were claimed indicate the development of “cerebral organs” with specific functions? Or, is there something to it, after all? Humans are a social species and, as such, have evolved to be exquisitely sensitive to signals sent by others of their kind, conveyed through subtle means such as a tone of voice, facial expression, or posture. Might we also be able to perceive and interpret messages which indicate properties such as honesty, intelligence, courage, impulsiveness, criminality, diligence, and more? Such an ability, if possible, would be advantageous to individuals in interacting with others and, contributing to success in reproducing and raising offspring, would be selected for by evolution.

In this short book (or long essay—the text is just 85 pages), the author examines the evidence and concludes that there are legitimate correlations between appearance and behaviour, and that human instincts are picking up genuine signals which are useful in interacting with others. This seems perfectly plausible: the development of the human body and face are controlled by the genetic inheritance of the individual and modulated through the effects of hormones, and it is well-established that both genetics and hormones are correlated with a variety of behavioural traits.

Let's consider a reasonably straightforward example. A study published in 2008 found a statistically significant correlation between the width of the face (cheekbone to cheekbone distance compared to brow to upper lip) and aggressiveness (measured by the number of penalty minutes received) among a sample of 90 ice hockey players. Now, a wide face is also known to correlate with a high testosterone level in males, and testosterone correlates with aggressiveness and selfishness. So, it shouldn't be surprising to find the wide face morphology correlated with the consequences of high-testosterone behaviour.

In fact, testosterone and other hormone levels play a substantial part in many of the correlations between appearance and behaviour discussed by the author. Many people believe they can identify, with reasonable reliability, homosexuals just from their appearance: the term “gaydar” has come into use for this ability. In 2017, researchers trained an artificial intelligence program with a set of photographs of individuals with known sexual orientations and then tested the program on a set of more than 35,000 images. The program correctly identified the sexual orientation of men 81% of the time and women with 74% accuracy.

Of course, appearance goes well beyond factors which are inherited or determined by hormones. Tattoos, body piercings, and other irreversible modifications of appearance correlate with low time preference, which correlates with low intelligence and the other characteristics of r-selected lifestyle. Choices of clothing indicate an individual's self-identification, although fashion trends change rapidly and differ from region to region, so misinterpretation is a risk.

The author surveys a wide variety of characteristics including fat/thin body type, musculature, skin and hair, height, face shape, breast size in women, baldness and beards in men, eye spacing, tattoos, hair colour, facial symmetry, handedness, and finger length ratio, and presents citations to research, most published recently, supporting correlations between these aspects of appearance and behaviour. He cautions that while people may be good at sensing and interpreting these subtle signals among members of their own race, there are substantial and consistent differences between the races, and no inferences can be drawn from them, nor are members of one race generally able to read the signals from members of another.

One gets the sense (although less strongly) that this is another field where advances in genetics and data science are piling up a mass of evidence which will roll over the stubborn defenders of the “blank slate” like a truth tsunami. And again, this is an area where people's instincts, honed by millennia of evolution, are still relied upon despite the scorn of “experts”. (So afraid were the authors of the Wikipedia page on physiognomy [retrieved 2019-12-16] of the “computer gaydar” paper mentioned above that they declined to cite the peer reviewed paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology but instead linked to a BBC News piece which dismissed it as “dangerous” and “junk science”. Go on whistling, folks, as the wave draws near and begins to crest….)

Is the case for physiognomy definitively made? I think not, and as I suspect the author would agree, there are many aspects of appearance and a multitude of personality traits, some of which may be significantly correlated and others not at all. Still, there is evidence for some linkage, and it appears to be growing as more work in the area (which is perilous to the careers of those who dare investigate it) accumulates. The scientific evidence, summarised here, seems to be, as so often happens, confirming the instincts honed over hundreds of generations by the inexorable process of evolution: you can form some conclusions just by observing people, and this information is useful in the competition which is life on Earth. Meanwhile, when choosing programmers for a project team, the one who shows up whose eyebrows almost meet their hairline, sporting a plastic baseball cap worn backward with the adjustment strap on the smallest peg, with a scraggly soybeard, pierced nose, and visible tattoos isn't likely to be my pick. She's probably a WordPress developer.

Posted at 00:22 Permalink

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Reading List: Europa's Lost Expedition

Carroll, Michael. Europa's Lost Expedition. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International, 2017. ISBN 978-3-319-43158-1.
In the epoch in which this story is set the expansion of the human presence into the solar system was well advanced, with large settlements on the Moon and Mars, exploitation of the abundant resources in the main asteroid belt, and research outposts in exotic environments such as Jupiter's enigmatic moon Europa, when civilisation on Earth was consumed, as so often seems to happen when too many primates who evolved to live in small bands are packed into a limited space, by a global conflict which the survivors, a decade later, refer to simply as “The War”, as its horrors and costs dwarfed all previous human conflicts.

Now, with The War over and recovery underway, scientific work is resuming, and an international expedition has been launched to explore the southern hemisphere of Europa, where the icy crust of the moon is sufficiently thin to provide access to the liquid water ocean beneath and the complex orbital dynamics of Jupiter's moons were expected to trigger a once in a decade eruption of geysers, with cracks in the ice allowing the ocean to spew into space, providing an opportunity to sample it “for free”.

Europa is not a hospitable environment for humans. Orbiting deep within Jupiter's magnetosphere, it is in the heart of the giant planet's radiation belts, which are sufficiently powerful to kill an unprotected human within minutes. But the radiation is not uniform and humans are clever. The main base on Europa, Taliesen, is located on the face of the moon that points away from Jupiter, and in the leading hemisphere where radiation is least intense. On Europa, abundant electrical power is available simply by laying out cables along the surface, in which Jupiter's magnetic field induces powerful currents as they cut it. This power is used to erect a magnetic shield around the base which protects it from the worst, just as Earth's magnetic field shields life on its surface. Brief ventures into the “hot zone” are made possible by shielded rovers and advanced anti-radiation suits.

The present expedition will not be the first to attempt exploration of the southern hemisphere. Before the War, an expedition with similar objectives ended in disaster, with the loss of all members under circumstances which remain deeply mysterious, and of which the remaining records, incomplete and garbled by radiation, provide few clues as to what happened to them. Hadley Nobile, expedition leader, is not so much concerned with the past as making the most of this rare opportunity. Her deputy and long-term collaborator, Gibson van Clive, however, is fascinated by the mystery and spends hours trying to recover and piece together the fragmentary records from the lost expedition and research the backgrounds of its members and the physical evidence, some of which makes no sense at all. The other members of the new expedition are known from their scientific reputations, but not personally to the leaders. Many people have blanks in their curricula vitae during the War years, and those who lived through that time are rarely inclined to probe too deeply.

Once the party arrive at Taliesen and begin preparations for their trip to the south, a series of “accidents” befall some members, who are found dead in circumstances which seem implausible based upon their experience. Down to the bare minimum team, with a volunteer replacement from the base's complement, Hadley decides to press on—the geysers wait for no one.

Thus begins what is basically a murder mystery, explicitly patterned on Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, layered upon the enigmas of the lost expedition, the backgrounds of those in the current team, and the biosphere which may thrive in the ocean beneath the ice, driven by the tides raised by Jupiter and the other moons and fed by undersea plumes similar to those where some suspect life began on Earth.

As a mystery, there is little more that can be said without crossing the line into plot spoilers, so I will refrain from further description. Worthy of a Christie tale, there are many twists and turns, and few things are as the seem on the surface.

As in his previous novel, On the Shores of Titan's Farthest Sea (December 2016), the author, a distinguished scientific illustrator and popular science writer, goes to great lengths to base the exotic locale in which the story is set upon the best presently-available scientific knowledge. An appendix, “The Science Behind the Story”, provides details and source citations for the setting of the story and the technologies which figure in it.

While the science and technology are plausible extrapolations from what is presently known, the characters sometimes seem to behave more in the interests of advancing the plot than as real people would in such circumstances. If you were the leader or part of an expedition several members of which had died under suspicious circumstances at the base camp, would you really be inclined to depart for a remote field site with spotty communications along with all of the prime suspects?

Posted at 21:17 Permalink