The fool has said...

Star in a bottle

The sun is, essentially, a four-hundred-quintillion-megawatt thermonuclear power plant, fueled by billions of years’ worth of hydrogen. Six hundred million tons of it is converted into energy every second. “If you go back, really far, you see the first caveman crawl out of his cave and be surprised every time the sun came up—that was the first time mankind encountered a fusion reactor,” Ned Sauthoff, a physicist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in Tennessee, who serves as ITER’s American project manager, told me. “It was ninety-three million miles away. But, of course, the caveman was impressed by the warmth and the light, and, being human, he said, ‘How can I have one of those?’ ”

6 months ago -

The Stupidity of Computers

With Wikipedia and its inadequate categories, one enters the realm of ontology. The word originally meant the philosophical study of the nature of being. In the context of information science, it has taken on a different meaning having to do with the modeling of reality. In essence, an ontology is an explicit, formal definition of a conceptual framework for any number of kinds of entities, as well as any number of relationships between them. In contrast to a taxonomy, which is merely a hierarchical ranking of entities using a single relation, an ontology can have any number of hierarchical and nonhierarchical relationships between its entities. The key words, however, are “explicit” and “formal.” An ontology is by definition a model of reality that is amenable to logical representation.


Because computers are incapable of creating meaningful ontological categories, and because the invention of new ontologies requires collective acceptance before they can be used, the most workable approach is to have the expected consumers of an ontology create and maintain it themselves. We could call this process the crowdsourcing of ontology.


We will increasingly see ourselves in terms of these ontologies and willingly try to conform to them. This will bring about a flattening of the self—a reversal of the expansion of the self that occurred over the last several hundred years. While in the 20th century people came to see themselves as empty existential vessels, without a commitment to any particular internal essence, they will now see themselves as contingently but definitively embodying types derived from the overriding ontologies. This is as close to a solution to the modernist problem of the self as we will get.

6 months ago -

Communication with extraterrestrial intelligence

In 1822, Franz von Gruithuisen thought he saw a giant city and evidence of agriculture on the moon, but astronomers using more powerful instruments refuted his claims. Gruithuisen also believed he saw evidence of life on Venus. Ashen light had been observed on Venus, and he postulated that it was caused by a great fire festival put on by the inhabitants to celebrate their new emperor. Later he revised his position, stating that the Venusians could be burning their rainforest to make more farmland.


Around 1900, the Guzman Prize was created; the first person to establish interplanetary communication would be awarded 100,000 francs under one stipulation: Mars was excluded because Madame Guzman thought communicating with Mars would be too easy to deserve a prize

7 months ago -


The elements of human nature:

Age-grading, athletic sports, bodily adornment, calendar, cleanliness training, community organizations, cooking, cooperative labor, cosmology, courtship, dancing, decorative art. divination, division of labor, dream interpretation, education, eschatology, ethics, ethnobotany, etiquette, faith healing. family feasting, firemaking, folklore, food taboos, funeral rites, games, gestures, gift giving, government, greetings, hairstyles, hospitality, housing, hygiene, incest taboos, inheritance rules, joking, kin groups, kinship nomenclature, language, law, luck superstitions, magic,. marriage, mealtimes, medicine, obstetrics, penal sanctions, personal names, population policy, postnatal care, pregnancy usages, property rights, propitiation of supernatural beings, puberty customs, religious rituals, residence rules, sexual restrictions, soul concepts, status differentiation, surgery, toolmaking, trade, visiting, weaving, and weather control.

The elements of an insect-like intelligence:

Age-grading, antennal rites, body licking, calendar, cannibalism, caste determinism, caste laws, colony-foundation rules, colony organization, cleanliness training, communal nurseries, cooperative labor, cosmology, courtship, division of labor, drone control, education, eschatology, ethics, etiquette, euthanasia, firemaking, food taboos, gift-giving, government, greetings, grooming rituals, hospitality, hosing, hygiene, incest taboos, language, larval care, law, medicine, metamorphosis rites, mutual regurgitation, nursing castes, nuptial flights, nutrient eggs, population policy, queen obeisance, residence rules, sex determination, solder castes, sisterhoods, status differentiation, sterile workers, surgery, symbiont care, toolmaking, trade, visiting, weather control …

10 months ago -

History Must Be Curved

HISTORY MUST BE CURVED, for there is a horizon in the affairs of mankind. Beyond this horizon, events pass out of historical consciousness and into myth. Accounts are shortened, complexities sloughed off, analogous figures fused, traditions “abraded into anecdotes.” Real people become culture heroes: archetypical beings performing iconic deeds. (Vansina 1985)

In oral societies this horizon lies typically at eighty years; but historical consciousness endures longer in literate societies, and the horizon may fall as far back as three centuries. Arthur, a late 5th cent. war leader, had become by the time of Charlemagne the subject of an elaborate story cycle. Three centuries later, troubadours had done the same to Charlemagne himself. History had slipped over the horizon and become the stuff of legend. In AD 778, a Basque war party ambushed the Carolingian rear guard (Annales regni francorum). Forty years later, Einhard, a minister of Charlemagne, mentioned “Roland, prefect of the Breton Marches” among those killed (“Hruodlandus Brittannici limitis praefectus,” Vita karoli magni). But by 1098, Roland had become a “paladin” and the central character, the Basques had become Saracens, and a magic horn and tale of treachery had been added (La chanson de Roland). Compare the parallel fate of a Hopi narrative regarding a Navajo ambush (Vansina, pp. 19-20). This suggests that 17th century history has for the bulk of the population already become myth. Jamestown is reduced to “Pocahontas,” and Massachusetts boils down to “the First Thanksgiving.” And the story of how heliocentrism replaced geocentrism has become a Genesis Myth, in which a culture-hero performs iconic deeds that affirm the rightness of Our Modern World-view.

10 months ago -

The Long Now

The Long Now Foundation, established in 1996, is a private, non-profit organization based in San Francisco that seeks to become the seed of a very long-term cultural institution. It aims to provide a counterpoint to what it views as today’s “faster/cheaper” mindset and to promote “slower/better” thinking. The Long Now Foundation hopes to “creatively foster responsibility” in the framework of the next 10,000 years, and so uses 5-digit dates to address the Year 10,000 problem[1] (e.g. by writing 02013 rather than 2013).


Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. The trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, or the distractions of personal multi-tasking. All are on the increase. Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed-some mechanism or myth which encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where ‘long-term’ is measured at least in centuries. Long Now proposes both a mechanism and a myth.

-Stewart Brand

11 months ago -

Entoptic phenomenon

Entoptic phenomena are visual effects whose source is within the eye itself.


Entoptic images have a physical basis in the image cast upon the retina. Hence, they are different from optical illusions, which are perceptual effects that arise from interpretations of the image by the brain. Because entoptic images are caused by phenomena within the observer’s own eye, they share one feature with optical illusions and hallucinations: the observer cannot share a direct and specific view of the phenomenon with others.

11 months ago -

The Normal Well-Tempered Mind

Daniel Dennett

The vision of the brain as a computer, which I still champion, is changing so fast. The brain’s a computer, but it’s so different from any computer that you’re used to. It’s not like your desktop or your laptop at all, and it’s not like your iPhone except in some ways. It’s a much more interesting phenomenon. What Turing gave us for the first time (and without Turing you just couldn’t do any of this) is a way of thinking in a disciplined way about phenomena that have, as I like to say, trillions of moving parts. Until late 20th century, nobody knew how to take seriously a machine with a trillion moving parts. It’s just mind-boggling. 

You couldn’t do it, but computer science gives us the ideas, the concepts of levels, virtual machines implemented in virtual machines implemented in virtual machines and so forth. We have these nice ideas of recursive reorganization of which your iPhone is just one example and a very structured and very rigid one at that.

We’re getting away from the rigidity of that model, which was worth trying for all it was worth. You go for the low-hanging fruit first. First, you try to make minds as simple as possible. You make them as much like digital computers, as much like von Neumann machines, as possible. It doesn’t work. Now, we know why it doesn’t work pretty well. So you’re going to have a parallel architecture because, after all, the brain is obviously massively parallel.

It’s going to be a connectionist network. Although we know many of the talents of connectionist networks, how do you knit them together into one big fabric that can do all the things minds do? Who’s in charge? What kind of control system? Control is the real key, and you begin to realize that control in brains is very different from control in computers. Control in your commercial computer is very much a carefully designed top-down thing.   

You really don’t have to worry about one part of your laptop going rogue and trying out something on its own that the rest of the system doesn’t want to do. No, they’re all slaves. If they’re agents, they’re slaves. They are prisoners. They have very clear job descriptions. They get fed every day. They don’t have to worry about where the energy’s coming from, and they’re not ambitious. They just do what they’re asked to do and do it brilliantly with only the slightest tint of comprehension. You get all the power of computers out of these mindless little robotic slave prisoners, but that’s not the way your brain is organized.             

Each neuron is imprisoned in your brain. I now think of these as cells within cells, as cells within prison cells. Realize that every neuron in your brain, every human cell in your body (leaving aside all the symbionts), is a direct descendent of eukaryotic cells that lived and fended for themselves for about a billion years as free-swimming, free-living little agents. They fended for themselves, and they survived.

11 months ago -

How to deconstruct anything

A treatise on postmodern literary criticism by Chip Morninstar:

You get maximum style points for being French. Since most of us aren’t French, we don’t qualify for this one, but we can still score almost as much by writing in French or citing French sources. However, it is difficult for even the most intense and unprincipled American academician writing in French to match the zen obliqueness of a native French literary critic. Least credit is given for a clear, rational argument which makes its case directly, though of course that is what I will do with our example since, being gainfully employed, I don’t have to worry about graduation or tenure. And besides, I’m actually trying to communicate here.

11 months ago -

Better Days

Why Are Some People So Smart?


John Bohannon on Zhao Bowen, a 21-year-old leading genetic researcher on what makes some humans — like him — geniuses:

Zhao’s goal is to use those machines to examine the genetic underpinnings of genius like his own. He wants nothing less than to crack the code for intelligence by studying the genomes of thousands of prodigies, not just from China but around the world. He and his collaborators, a transnational group of intelligence researchers, fully expect they will succeed in identifying a genetic basis for IQ. They also expect that within a decade their research will be used to screen embryos during in vitro fertilization, boosting the IQ of unborn children by up to 20 points. In theory, that’s the difference between a kid who struggles through high school and one who sails into college.

Getting awfully close to Gattaca.


If parents use IVF to conceive, then a genetic test—an extension of the screening tests for genetic diseases that are already routinely done on embryos—could let them pick the smartest genome from a batch of, say, 20 embryos. “It’s almost like there are 20 parallel universes,” Hsu says. “These are all really your kids.” You’re just choosing the ones with the greatest genetic potential for intelligence. But effectively, you could be giving an unborn child a boost in IQ above their parents. As Hsu sees it, this is no Faustian bargain. “Aren’t we doing them a great service?” Over the long term, he proclaims, this would “improve the average IQ of the species by quite a bit.” He hopes governments will even provide it for free; Singapore, he predicts, would be the first to sign up.

Did I say “awfully close”? Nevermind. 

1 year ago - 113 -

The Humble Programmer

Edsger W. Dijkstra in 1972:

I observe a cultural tradition, which in all probability has its roots in the Renaissance, to ignore this influence, to regard the human mind as the supreme and autonomous master of its artefacts. But if I start to analyse the thinking habits of myself and of my fellow human beings, I come, whether I like it or not, to a completely different conclusion, viz. that the tools we are trying to use and the language or notation we are using to express or record our thoughts, are the major factors determining what we can think or express at all! The analysis of the influence that programming languages have on the thinking habits of its users, and the recognition that, by now, brainpower is by far our scarcest resource, they together give us a new collection of yardsticks for comparing the relative merits of various programming languages.

1 year ago -

Creatures of the night: Chronotypes and the Dark Triad traits


“…researchers have shown that people with a preference for the evening and night-time tend to score highly on the “Dark Triad” of personality traits - ‪‬Machiavellianism, psychopathy and narcissism.

Original paper [pdf].

Peter Jonason’s other publications are generally related to the Dark Triad and/or mating:

"Playing hard-to-get: Manipulating one’s perceived availability as a mate."

"Avoiding entangling commitments: Tactics for implementing a short-term mating strategy."

"The “booty call”: A compromise between men and women’s ideal mating strategies."

"It’s not all about the Benjamins: Understanding preferences for mates with resources."


1 year ago - 1031 -