Monday, May 31, 2010

A Fresh View of Copyright Law in the Digital Age

Larry Lessig is a lawyer and self-proclaimed liberal leftist, but don't let those facts keep you from watching his TED talks! He sheds a bright new light on our previous discussions of L-Mind vs C-Mind issues here at The Virtual Philosophy Club. He has shaken some of my biases and awakened me to new possibilities. Perhaps he will do the same for you.

In the first [click above image to view it], recorded a couple months ago, he contrasts the traditional conservative values with modern liberal ones with logic that will twist your mind into a knot. In the second [click image below to view it], recorded a few years ago, he uses common sence to suggest a balanced view of ownership of creative content.

I'd appreciate your comments. He has clarified and corrected some of my views and, at this point, I am almost completely in agreement with him.

Ira Glickstein

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Synthetic Life Breakthrough by Craig Venter

In the above TED talk, recorded last week, Craig Venter unveils the first Synthetic Life, a reproducing, prokaryotic (single-cell life) creation that is coded in a one-million base-pair DNA string. This is a real breakthrough that will, in the near future, enable rapid synthesis of vaccines and perhaps even microbes that will rapidly eat spilled oil and even replace natural oil with oil manufactured out of atmospheric CO2. This is very important stuff!

To create their DNA string, they copied code sequences from existing life forms and they made use of yeast to grow the DNA and they implanted it into a de-nucleated cell. So, although the DNA was made from "four bottles of chemicals", the work would have been impossible without the use of existing, living life forms. Therefore, they have not created life in the laboratory, only showed they could arrange the code at the base-pair level and that it would, indeed, reproduce itself. To prove it was synthetic, they imbedded the names of a few dozen scientists, their website, and a few historical quotes. Thus, anyone who may sequence that DNA in the future will know it is synthetic.

Howard and I have, over the two past decades, gone round and round about Arificial Intelligence and Artificial Life. Now, Synthetic Life is both more and less than Artificial Life. Artificial Life would be constructed out of non-organic materials, such as copper and silicon computer parts, which would be far more of a breakthrough. Unlike Synthetic Life, it would be able to operate at higher and lower temperatures and would be less subject to atmospheric gasses, and so on. That would make Arificial Life a better candidate for spreading human-developed civilization to other planets and solar systems (of course, without the humans).

Ira Glickstein

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Tomato Gaia - Sexual Encounter with a Blossom

I just had a sexual encounter with a tomato blossom for the first time, using an electric toothbrush!


For the past few years, I've grown a few tomato plants behind our screen house (called a "bird cage" down here in Central Florida). The tomato plants took care of their own pollination with the aid of helpful bees and other insects.

This year, for the first time, I also grew a tomato plant from a "topsy-turvey" upside-down gadget hanging inside our bird cage where there are no insects to do the pollination job. So, it was either depend upon the wind - or do it myself!

The tomato blossom has both male and female parts. Normally, the buzzing of bees or other insects vibrates the blossom, causing the pollen, which is inside the male stamen (the straw-like thing hanging down from the center of the blossom in the inset photo - click image for a larger version) to loosen and shower out. Some of it drops onto the female pistil which hangs out just below the end of the stamen. Absent insects in my bird cage, I had to take matters into my own hands. That is where the electric toothbrush came in. It is the closest thing to the buzzing of the bee's wings that do the job naturally.

It turns out that tomatoes like to have sex at high noon, on sunny days that are not too humid. I was pleased to see the white powder fall out of the blossoms as I gently vibrated them. It was such a satisfying feeling that I immediately did the same for the blossoms outside the bird cage. Why let the insects have all the fun?

The Tomato Gaia

Which brings us to the mini-Goddesses who unite insects and plants in a symbiotic relationship. Some plants have their male and female parts in separate places, or on separate plants, which requires the bees (or other insects, or animals, including hummingbirds, etc.) to get the pollen on their bodies and transport it from the male to the female part. In each case, the animal polinators are drawn to the plants by olifactory and visual signals and are rewarded with food.

In the case of the tomato, with both male and female parts close together, all it takes is vibration and that may be supplied by the wind. However, the wind may blow the pollen far and wide, wasting a lot of it. The wind is less discriminating than a bee, for example, which is why the tomato blossom holds its pollen within a straw-like structure and releases it most readily in response to the particular frequency of the bee's wings during the middle of the day when bees are most likely to be active.

Bees who specialize in tomato pollination have evolved to buzz at the most suitable range of frequencies, and, for their part, tomato blossoms have evolved to release pollen when stimulated at those frequencies. Like many mutually-beneficial relationships, individual bees and tomato plants have no idea why they grow and behave as they do, but, if we look at the situation from the species level, we can see that "trial and error" evolution and natural selection has generated an almost perfect matching.

The Gaia hypothesis (named for the Greek Goddess of the Earth) is the idea that co-evolution tends to encourage this type of inadvertent cooperation between living organisms because groups of organisms, including organisms of multiple species, who form these relationships tend to survive and reproduce more successfully than those that do not.

Thus, over the eons of life on Earth, we might say groups of organisms have learned cooperative, mutually-beneficial behaviors. Since these behaviors are not simply adaptations by a single species, they must have been learned at a higher level. (In the case of the bee/tomato relationship, had the bees vibrated at a different frequency the tomato would have evolved to that frequency, and vice-versa, so the adaptation is not simply of the bees or of the tomato blossoms, but at some higher level). I choose to call this level the mini-Gaia of the bees and tomatoes.

Extending this to, say, the ecology surrounding a semi-isolated pond or island or valley, etc., where millions or billions of individual plants, insects and animals of hundreds or thousands of different species interact in a complex food chain of cooperation and competition, the "formula" for ecological balance is clearly at a higher level than any individual organism or species.

I consider that a higher level of mini-Gaia. The island-Gaia or pond-Gaia behaves as if it had a goal of self-preservation. Indeed, if a neighboring jurisdiction has an ecological failure, the more succesful mini-Gaia(s) will send invaders that may colonize the failed area with a more balanced ecology, equivalent to the reproduction of a mini-Gaia! If the failed jurisdiction is settled by a combination of life forms from two or more neighboring jurisdictions, that is kind of like sexual reproduction, is it not?

If it turns out to be the case that the biosphere of the Earth (which can be thought of as the Congress of all the mini-Gaias of different levels) has evolved the ability to moderate climate change by controlling cloud formation and/or other natural phenomena, we might say that the Gaia is equivalent to a sentient organism intent on self-preservation and -who knows- reproduction on Earth-like planets in other galaxies, see The Hawking Plan (my free online novel).

Ira Glickstein

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Solipsism Syndrome

[from Joel] I have three data points. Can someone add more data?

I did my first sabbatical at the Imperial College of London in the chemistry and chemical engineering department. The people I interacted with were all involved in optics as a tool for combustion research. They spent a lot of time sitting around talking to one another or waiting for the "tea lady" to arrive with goodies.

My second sabbatical was at a research institute of chemistry and physics in France. There was a lot of interaction between the researchers as we walked into each other's labs and asked questions or socialized. (A perhaps interesting aside here. The head of the laboratory was English so we observed the afternoon tea break. When he retired the "habitual" tea break of many years immediately died.)

By the time of my third sabbatical, I had switched from combustion to robotics. I spent my sabbatical at a French research institute where the team of about fifteen people experimented on a robot called Hilaire. They were mostly concerned with finding algorithms which would permit Hilaire to navigate in an unstructured environment. There seemed to be absolutely no interaction between members of the staff except for a formal once-a-week meeting. Each person would sit at their computer and type lines of code. I never witnessed any social or scientific interaction at the office.

One of my theories is that a sort of solipsism develops when working as a computer programmer or program designer. Physics or chemistry experiments require interaction with other people. Also, anyone can pop in and see what you're up to. In fact, one is seeking stimulation from others. In software experimentation people would have to be pretty nervy to look over your shoulder at the screen and start asking for explanations of code. I wonder what experiences you may have had in this vein either pro or con. Do you think programming breeds solipsism?

[added by Ira for people (like me) who need the definition. sol·ip·sism   /ˈsɒlɪpˌsɪzəm/ –noun 1. Philosophy . the theory that only the self exists, or can be proved to exist. 2. extreme preoccupation with and indulgence of one's feelings, desires, etc.; egoistic self-absorption. Origin: 1880–85; sol(i)-1 + L ips ( e ) self + -ism.]

Friday, May 7, 2010

Ancient Physics - Plato and Aristotle

Does ancient physics, dating from ~400 bc, have anything to tell modern science?

All we have from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are writings, but they must have used diagrams of some sort. What would they have done given access to modern computer graphics?

The images [click on them for larger versions] are from a presentation I gave at the Philosophy Club here in The Villages, FL today. You can download the narrated PowerPoint slide show, click on: Part 1 and Part 2.

Here is a brief summary:

Plato's Analogy of the Divided Line

In The Republic, Book VI, Plato divides a line unequally. The first section is analogized to the Physical World and the second to the Intelligible World. Then, by the same proportions, he sub-divides each section. He analogizes the first segment, AB, to Shadows and Reflections of physical things; BC to the Physical Things themselves, CD to Mathematical Resoning, and DE to Philosophical Reasoning. Although Plato does not mention it, later commentators noticed that, by the given construction, it turns out that segment BC (Physical Things) is exactly the same length as CD (Mathematical Reasoning). What could that imply? I go into greater detail in the PowerPoint presentation.

Plato's Allegory of the Cave

Plato, in The Republic, Book VII, see first image above, imagines prisoners who spend their entire lives in a cave, looking at two-dimensional shadows on a wall. The prisoners give names to the shadows, learn to predict sequences, and speculate on their origin and meanings. They come up with the equivalent of religions, sciences and philosophies. Then, one prisoner is released into the real three-dimensional world and learns about physical reality. She returns to the cave but is unable to convince the prisoners of the reality she knows as truth. They make fun of her as a crazy philosopher.

Putting the Analogy of the Divided Line and the Allegory of the Cave together, the prisoners represent a low level of knowledge and understanding, represented as line segment AB. The prisoner released from the cave is at level BC, like ourselves. Those of us who have learned mathematical reasoning are not only out of the cave, but are at a higher level, CD. Finally, the philosophers among us, who understand the Idea of Forms and the Good and so on, are at level DE.

My question is, "Are WE really out of the cave yet?" Perhaps, if, as string theory postulates, there are actually 10 or 11 dimensions, those of us who perceive 3D + time are only about 10% better off than the prisoners in the cave, limited to 2D + time! In the PowerPoint presentation, I speculate on the possible equivalence of time and space.

Aristotle's Five Elements

Aristotle, like most of the ancients, believed there were only five elements: Aether, Fire, Air, Water, and Earth. Indeed, according to him, (see his Meteorology, Book I and his Physics, Book I) there is really only the Aether, the quintessence, the All. Fire, Air, Earth, and Water exist potentially in each other, and all can be resolved into the Aether. This is not far from Spinoza's belief that there is only the Universal Substance, and all things that seem as different as material and spirit are merely different aspects of that Universal.

How ridiculous is this? Well, not so ridiculous as the PowerPoint Show explains.

The names of Fire, Air, Water, and Earth in the image are ambigrams, which read the same right-side-up and upside-down. They are featured in the famous book and movie, Angels and Demons.

Read more detail about Aristotle's Five Elements at my Google Knol.

Ira Glickstein

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Deep Water Horizon Oil Rig Disaster

The photo on the left shows the ill-fated Deep Water Horizon oil rig prior to the recent disaster. On the right, you can see what the lower part of a deep water rig looks like. In this case is it a sister rig, the Nautilus, being transported by a heavy-lift ship. [Click on photo for larger image.]

See more photos and information at WattsUpWithThat.

There has been lots of information and quite a bit of mis-information about the April 20th explosion and the release of millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Prior to reading the linked source above, I had the impression these rigs are tethered to the bottom and that the Horizon had safety features that were inferior to more modern offshore rigs. Both of these impressions appear to be false.

"The rig represents the cutting edge of drilling technology. It is a floating rig, capable of working in up to 10,000 ft water depth. The rig is not moored; It does not use anchors because it would be too costly and too heavy to suspend this mooring load from the floating structure. Rather, a triply-redundant computer system uses satellite positioning to control powerful thrusters that keep the rig on station within a few feet of its intended location, at all times. This is called Dynamic Positioning."

Someone told me this rig did not have an automatic shut-off in case of an accident. That is also incorrect.

"With a floating drilling rig setup, because it moves with the waves, currents, and winds, all of the main pressure control equipment sits on the seabed – the uppermost unmoving point in the well. This pressure control equipment – the Blowout Preventers, or ‘BOP’s' as they’re called, are controlled with redundant systems from the rig. In the event of a serious emergency, there are multiple Panic Buttons to hit, and even fail-safe Deadman systems that should be automatically engaged when something of this proportion breaks out. None of them were aparently activated, suggesting that the blowout was especially swift to escalate at the surface."

Far from reassuring me that this accident was preventable with better safety equipment -or at least that the resultant large spill could have been avoided- , it now seems to me that even the best offshore drilling technology is likely to result in occasional disasters. When human beings are involved there will always be mistakes and accidents that overwhelm any supposed fail-safe system.

If I lived along the shorelines of Lousiana or Mississippi or Texas where many rigs currently operate, or along the Florida coast where President Obama recently authorized drilling (since suspended), I would be very, very worried. If I was invested in the commercial fishing industry or in beach-related tourism, or employed there, I would try to get out.

I have been on the "drill baby drill" bandwagon for some time but this disaster has me thinking about getting off.

Baring a loss of pressure or the sudden self-sealing of the leak, it will be weeks or months before the oil stops leaking.

"In the coming weeks they will move in at least one other rig to drill a fresh well that will intersect the blowing one at its pay zone. They will use technology that is capable of drilling from a floating rig, over 3 miles deep to an exact specific point in the earth – with a target radius of just a few feet plus or minus. Once they intersect their target, a heavy fluid will be pumped that exceeds the formation’s pressure, thus causing the flow to cease and rendering the well safe at last. It will take at least a couple of months to get this done, bringing all available technology to bear."

So, here I sit in Central Florida, an hour from either the Gulf or the Atlantic coastline, trying to balance higher fuel bills for myself if we don't drill vs authorizing more domestic drilling and endangering the livelihoods and investments of coastal employees and investors. An alternative would be continued dependence on foreign oil but that comes with a cost in American blood to protect that access.

Then there is nuclear power with attendant risks of terrorist attack or accidental release of radiation, plus the problem of nuclear waste. France has done quite well, so far, with nuclear, but, even if we go whole hog down that road, it will be decades before nuclear can impact our need for traditional energy sources.

Wind, solar, water, tides and other alternative clean energy sources are -at least now- inadequate to make much of an impact on our appetite for energy. Conservation is also good I tell myself as I do 40-50 miles per week on my bicycle and ride around in my electric golf cart and hybrid Prius, but it too is inadequate to save much energy.

Finally, there is coal, and the possibility of what President Obama calls "clean coal technology". The US has lots of coal. The problem is continued release of CO2 and worries about continuing global warming due to the "greenhouse" effect. Let us hope that we skeptics and lukewarmers are correct that the dangers of CO2 have been overblown and that the recent stabilization in global temperatures, and perhaps a bit of global cooling, will hang on for a while.

Ira Glickstein