Monday, April 30, 2012

Skylon Spaceplane's New Engine Test; Old Video; Passenger Module

"Key tests for Skylon spaceplane project"
BBC News (April 27, 2012)

"UK engineers have begun critical tests on a new engine technology designed to lift a spaceplane into orbit.

(Reaction Engines, via BBC, used w/o permission)
"The pre-cooler demonstration is a major step in proving the Skylon concept"

"The proposed Skylon vehicle would operate like an airliner, taking off and landing at a conventional runway.

"Its major innovation is the Sabre engine, which can breathe air like a jet at lower speeds but switch to a rocket mode in the high atmosphere.

"Reaction Engines Limited (REL) believes the test campaign will prove the readiness of Sabre's key elements.

"This being so, the firm would then approach investors to raise the £250m needed to take the project into the final design phase.

" 'We intend to go to the Farnborough International Air Show in July with a clear message,' explained REL managing director Alan Bond.

" 'The message is that Britain has the next step beyond the jet engine; that we can reduce the world to four hours - the maximum time it would take to go anywhere. And that it also gives us aircraft that can go into space, replacing all the expendable rockets we use today.'..."

The Lemming's been following Skylon for a few years now. It's good to see another milestone approaching for the robot spaceplane.

Giving Skylon artificial intelligence should save a lot of weight, since autopilots don't need the sort of bulky environment systems that humans require. It's smart design, in the Lemming's opinion, since Skylon is designed for routine cargo runs.

On the other hand, Skylon's operators may run into legal complications. The Lemming hasn't researched this, but it seems likely that someone's going to make a fuss about a 269-foot-long robot sharing airspace and taxiways with other aircraft. There may even be laws that say an airplane has to have a human pilot.

Human Pilots: Good News, Bad News

In the Lemming's opinion, humans are pretty good at dealing with unexpected situations. Particularly if there isn't a whole lot of data available for a thorough analysis. As someone said:
  • Computers are designed to arrive at correct solutions
    • Given enormous amounts of data
      • All of which is completely accurate
  • Human brains are designed to arrive at correct solutions
    • Given very little data
      • Most of which is wrong
A wide-awake, undistracted, human pilot is nice to have around when you're 1,500 feet over a major city and the engines quit. But now and then someone falls asleep, or misses the airport: which tends to diminish the impression that a human's place is at the controls. The Lemming has posted about the ups and downs of having humans in the loop before:

Skylon: the Video

"SKYLON Spaceplane: Mission Animation"

SpaceRenaissance, YouTube (August 10, 2010)
video, 6:45
"SKYLON is the successor to Britain's HOTOL spaceplane concept, being developed by Reaction Engines Ltd (REL). It is an unpiloted fully reusable aircraft-like vehicle capable of transporting 12 tonnes of cargo into space and is intended as a replacement for expensive expendable launchers in the commerical {!] market. (Source:"

"Blue Danube," starting about 3:18 into the video, is a nod to Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968). That, or a whacking great coincidence. Either way, it's a pretty good 'this is how it works' video. Or, more accurately, how Skylon will work. Provided that technical issues are manageable, and investors keep funding it.

Of course, it's possible that Reaction Engines' investors will decide that they'd rather not be part of 21st century transportation. That would change details aerospace transport, but not the 'big picture.' In the Lemming's opnion. There are other outfits with systems to service low Earth orbit installations in the works, like:There are more: and McDonnell Douglas Aerospace/Boeing may dust off its Delta Clipper/DC X.

Skylon: Optional Passenger Module

(Reaction Engines Ltd., used w/o permission)

That passenger module could easily go through a few more design changes before Skylon actually flies. From the looks of what Reaction Engines Ltd. has now, Skylon flights could serve as a sort of commuter service to whatever replaces the ISS. Or maybe drop the module off in orbit as a sort of mini-station.

More about Skylon:
  • "SKYLON"
    Reaction Engines Ltd.
Related posts:
Still more, about:

Friday, April 27, 2012

"Fountain of Abundance" and the Psychedelic Buffalo

"Fountain in West Acres Shopping Mall, Fargo, N.D."
Digital Horizons, Photo Gallery for the North Dakota State University Institute of Regional Studies (1977-08)

(Institute for Regional Studies, NDSU, Fargo (35mm-0560.8), used w/o permission)
"View of shoppers seated around a courtyard in West Acres Shopping Center. A fountain and hanging plants decorate the area. In the background is visible the storefronts for Daytons and Flagg...."

"... The fountain is entitled 'Fountain of Abundance' and was created by P. Richard Szeitz...."

Looks like you could order a copy of that photo. A link on that page goes to Not the catchiest name in the world, maybe: but your browser should be able to find it. And that's another topic.

West Acres has been around since around 1972, and started out with that sculpture as a sort of centerpiece. They removed it for a while, but looks like it's back in public view. Along with a very strange bison.

The West Acres website,, says that the psychedelic buffalo is in Buffalo Court, which makes sense. That's the one near Herbergers, at the west end of the original Mall.

The fountain is at the 'far end' of the mall, in - what else? - Fountain Court. That's the southwest end of the mall. It's also a whole lot brighter there, than when the Lemming last visited. Which was - quite a while ago.

The color photos are from West Acres' "Regional Showcase" page, by the way. The shopping mall seems to be presenting itself as a sort of cultural center.

The east end of the mall " where you'll find West Acres' 1,000-gallon freshwater aquarium filled with African cichlids. Pipedream, a spiral-like, soaring interactive sculpture made of 100 brushed and beveled steel pipes, engages young and old alike. In concert with Pipedream is a similar glass sculpture within the aquarium...."

The Lemming thinks it's okay for a shopping mall to attract shoppers with sculptures, aquariums, and other 'cultural stuff.' Your experience may vary. This photo shows where the "abundance" sculpture started out:

"....Center Court near Macy's is a great place to relax for a bit. Browse through our great collection of books that either feature our region or are penned by local authors (or both), and peruse photographs taken throughout the region...."

If you're still reading this post: thanks for your patience. The Lemming grew up across the river from West Acres, and enjoyed sharing a virtual visit to the place. It's still a lively regional shopping area: with no empty store fronts, the Lemming's been told.

Allegedly-related posts:

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What do a wedding dress, an opera house, some purses, and a torch have in common?

"Olympic Torch Voted Design of Year Before London’s Games"
Farah Nayeri, Bloomberg (April 24, 2012)

"The Olympic torch was voted Design of the Year in a U.K. contest, as judges chose to reward the sporting emblem in the year of the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Designed by London-based Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, the tapered rod has 8,000 holes representing the 8,000 bearers who will carry it over 8,000 miles (12,874 kilometers). Runners-up in the 'Design of the Year 2012' announced today included Catherine Middleton's wedding gown, a Zaha Hadid opera house in China, and Vivienne Westwood handbags made in Kenya....

The Bloomberg article doesn't say how folks judged the relative merits of a ventilated torch, a wedding dress, an opera house, and some handbags. Sure, they were looking at 'design' in each case: but design criteria for an opera house and a wedding gown aren't all that similar. Come to think of it, though, the torch and the handbags may be roughly the same size: and both are designed to be carried.

Maybe that odd lot of entrants isn't so unrelated, after all. Still: a wedding dress and an opera house?

Here's a photo of the opera house in question. Looks pretty cool, in the Lemming's opinion.

(Iwan Baan/Design Museum, via Bloomberg, used w/o permission)
"The Guangzhou Opera House, designed by Pritzker Prize winner Zaha Hadid. The building is nominated for the Design of the Year award, organized by the Design Museum in London. Photographer: Iwan Baan/Design Museum via Bloomberg"

The Guangzhou Opera House looks very impressive from this angle, but the photo raises some questions. Is the camera at eye level? If so, why aren't there any handrails on the left side of that - is it a walkway? And if that's a reflecting pool to the right, what does it look like when there's a breeze?

Oh, well: It's still a cool photo.

Related posts:

Monday, April 23, 2012

There's Nickle in Them There Asteroids

"Google and James Cameron to hunt for natural resources on asteroids"
The Wall Street Journal, via (April 21, 2012)

"A new company backed by two Google Inc. billionaires, film director James Cameron and other space exploration proponents is aiming high in the hunt for natural resources—with mining asteroids the possible target.

"The venture, called Planetary Resources Inc., revealed little in a press release this week except to say that it would 'overlay two critical sectors—space exploration and natural resources—to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP' and 'help ensure humanity's prosperity.' The company is formally unveiling its plans at an event Tuesday in Seattle.

"While the announcement may cause some people to snicker at what could be a page out of a sci-fi novel or a Hollywood movie scene, Planetary Resources is making its debut just as scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and other groups are embracing the notion of mining 'near-Earth asteroids' and providing blueprints for how such a feat would be accomplished.

"The possibility of extracting raw materials such as iron and nickel from asteroids has been discussed for decades, but the cost, scientific expertise and technical prowess of fulfilling such as feat have remained an obstacle. NASA experts have projected it could cost tens of billions of dollars and take well over a decade to land astronauts on an asteroid...."

Those snickers won't come from the Lemming. A NASA study, published in the mid-70s, outlined how building orbital power stations, mostly with material mined on the Moon, could start showing a profit in several years. Nobody got around to using that design study, but recently someone got the go-ahead to start building orbiting power stations. (December 2, 2009)

One reason the Lemming takes asteroid mining seriously is that robots turned out to be pretty good at getting jobs done more-or-less on their own. The Mars rover Spirit, for example, wound up in the Columbia Hills of Mars: almost five miles from its landing point. Along the way, Spirit collected and analyzed soil samples. (May 26, 2011)

What Spirit did was more like prospecting, than mining. But the Lemming doesn't see why a robot miner couldn't do pretty much the same thing, on a larger scale, and bring 'samples' back.

Maybe artificial intelligence isn't up to the task of finding some specific mineral, picking it out of an asteroid, storing it, and repeating that task until there's enough to justify hauling the stuff back to Earth. But even if humans have to tell the robots what to do, the Lemming's guess is that it'll be easier, less expensive, and safer, to send robots to an asteroid. Humans are pretty good at solving problems, and fairly good at moving rocks around: but humans also need big, heavy, complicated, life support systems. And they get bored easily.

No offense: but there's no point in sending a human, when a robot can get the job done. And do the job at lower cost. There's the 'safety' angle, too: from the human point of view. And that's another topic. Topics.

Related posts:

Friday, April 20, 2012

Time, the Universe, and Space Aliens

Friday is when the Lemming writes a post about 'whatever.' This time, the topic is space aliens, the universe, and all that. Not to be confused with the book with a different title.

Before getting started on opinion polls, assumptions, and Elvis, the Lemming had better make one thing very clear. In the Lemming's considered opinion, space aliens exist; or, they don't.

The Lemming also thinks that, at this point, either possibility might be true. Either way, "it's a sobering thought."

Do You Believe in Space Aliens?

Never mind space aliens for the moment. Let's look at what "believe in" can mean.

Do you "believe in" Poughkeepsie, New York? If you believe that the county seat of Dutchess County is real: you 'believe in' Poughkeepsie. In a way.

The Lemming believes that Poughkeepsie exists: mostly because there's a great deal of evidence supporting the idea that the city of 32,000 or so is real.

That's not the sort of 'belief' that most folks mean when they say that they 'believe in' space aliens.

Back when sightings of space aliens and Elvis were staple fare in American tabloids, quite a few folks 'believed in' space aliens.' And many folks may have been sincerely convinced that they saw Elvis.

What About Atlantis?

But sincerity isn't the same as evidence. Apart from fuzzy photos and blurred video, there's precious little evidence that people from another planet have been on Earth. It'd be easier, in the Lemming's opinion, to build a plausible case for the existence of Atlantis.

Does the Lemming 'believe in' Atlantis?

Yes: Plato's story might be 'based on actual events,' the way Coleridge's Xanadu is based on Kublai Khan's summer capital.

No: Plato's story might be a roaring great story that's echoed down the ages, and no more real than a history of Coruscant.

The key phrase in both opinions is "might be." The difference is how much plausibility the Lemming demands.

For what it's worth, the Lemming thinks that Plato's story might be a creative retelling of what folks remembered from the 'real' Atlantis.

It's possible that Plato's Atlantis is a (very) fictionalized version of something that happened during the Bronze Age. Θήρα, or Santorini, is a cluster of islands now. About three dozen centuries back, give or take, it was one, larger, island.

Then it exploded.

That was a very bad day for folks living in the area, and might be why the Minoan civilization went out of business so abruptly. Maybe - just maybe - that's what inspired Plato to write about "earthquakes and floods, and one grievous day and night" that destroyed a great civilization.

Or, not.

Space Aliens and the 2012 Election

Here's what got the Lemming thinking about space aliens:

"Asking Candidates Tougher Questions About Faith"
Bill Keller, Magazine, The New York Times (August 25, 2011)

"If a candidate for president said he believed that space aliens dwell among us, would that affect your willingness to vote for him? Personally, I might not disqualify him out of hand; one out of three Americans believe we have had Visitors and, hey, who knows? But I would certainly want to ask a few questions. Like, where does he get his information? Does he talk to the aliens? Do they have an economic plan?..."
That "one out of three" link takes you to an interesting article:

"Poll probes Americans' belief in UFOs, life on other planets" (July 15, 2008)

"Most Americans say it is very likely or somewhat likely that humans are not alone in the universe and that intelligent life exists on other planets.

"Only a third of adults, however, believe it's either very likely or somewhat likely that intelligent aliens from space have visited our planet, according to a survey of 1,003 adults conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University. ..."

Depending on how the poll questions were worded, the Lemming might be in the "third of adults" that thinks it's "very likely or somewhat likely" that someone from another planet has landed on Earth. But that doesn't mean that the Lemming thinks space aliens have been mutilating cattle, buzzing cars, and performing interstellar pregnancy tests in wholesale lots over the last half-century.

Space Aliens and the Universe

The Lemming doesn't know whether or not there's life anywhere in this universe, except for what's on Earth. But the Lemming does know that cosmologists, physicists, and astronomers have good reason to estimate the age of the universe at about 13,730,000,000 years: and that Earth has been around for roughly 4,000,000,000 years.

That's a lot of zeroes.

The Lemming relates a little better to pictures, maybe you do too. On the timeline below this paragraph, a pixel in the left column represents 10,000,000 years; a pixel in the right column represents 1,000,000 years.

That's a lot of time. Then there's the physical scale of the universe. There are about 300,000,000,000 stars just in this galaxy, give or take a hundred billion: and a whole lot more galaxies besides this one.

All that space and time is part of why the Lemming thinks humanity may 'not be alone.'

Then again, maybe Earth is the only place in all the universe that harbors life.

A Million Years? Blink, and You'll Miss It

Over the last 1,000,000 years, humans have gone from scorching fingers on campfires to plugging leaks in reactors. That's 1/13,030 of the age of the universe, and 1/4,000 the age of Earth.

A million years on that timeline is half the thickness of the gray line at the top on the right side; 1/20th the thickness of the gray line on the left side.

'A long time' depends on your perspective. Waiting for a red light to turn green, a minute is a long time for the Lemming. Compared to the age of the universe, a million years is in the 'blink and you'll miss it' category.

'What If'

If there is life somewhere else in the universe, if it's 'close on a cosmic scale, and if that life includes someone with the sort of itchy curiosity some of us have - - - That's a lot of "ifs."

Adding two more: if those folks got started just a little sooner than we did, say 1/13,030th of the age of the universe; and if they'd decided to go to other worlds; they'd have been traveling in space for 1,000,000 years.

Remember the scale of the universe, though. Folks who got a 1,000,000 year head start on humanity would still be 'roughly contemporary' on a cosmic timescale.

From Theoretical Physics to Working Spaceships

Over the last 100 years, we've gone from having some interesting math that said interplanetary travel might be possible, to robot explorers mapping the outer Solar system.

Today, we've got off-the-shelf hardware that could get to nearby stars a million years. Much less, actually:

"...The Voyager spacecraft left the solar system at 37,000 miles per hour. At that speed, it would take Voyager 80,000 years to reach Proxima Centauri...."
("A Look at the Scaling," NASA)

Not that Voyager is going to Alpha Centauri: it's headed in another direction, and the ship's radio wouldn't still be working in the year 82012, anyway.

Propulsion technologies that could substantially reduce travel time to other stars are in development. Others are still strictly theoretical: Alcubierre's equations may or may not lead to a practical 'warp drive.'

Give humanity another million years, though, and it's the Lemming's guess that someone will have sent probes to other stars. And, more than likely, made the trip in person.

Possible, but Probable?

Like the Lemming said, under "'What If',"

It's possible, in the Lemming's opinion, that someone else did what humanity is doing now, kept developing new technologies: and might have visited Earth: at some point in the last 4,000,000,000 years. But in the last 40? With nobody noticing? That, in the Lemming's opinion, is very unlikely. Right now, there doesn't seem to be reliable evidence either for or against the idea that travelers found Earth.

But the Lemming thinks it's possible that someone else is out there. It's even possible that someone visited Earth. Maybe recently: like in the last 1,000,000 years. More likely, humanity missed the visitors by roughly 10,000,000 years. Or 100,000,000. Or more. Assuming that someone did stop by, of course.

What are the odds that humanity has company in the universe: folks more-or-less like the featherless bipeds of Earth? Where 'more-or-less like' includes chaps like the imagined alien over there, from "Alien Contact."

That's a good question: and until there's a lot more data available, there doesn't seem to be a definite answer.

Related posts:
Somewhat-related posts:
Still more related posts:

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Google's New Bike is Green: and Yellow; and Red; and Blue; and- - -

"Google rolls out a new design for its campus bike"
Jay Greene, CNET News (April 17, 2012)
"The Web giant picked its new GBike, created by a team of Google engineers, from among nearly three dozen submissions in a company-wide design competition. It debuts later this month."

(Google, via CNET, used w/o permission)
"The new GBike, designed by Google engineers, will debut at the company's Mountain View, Calif., campus by the end of April."

"When it came time to redesign the colorful bikes scattered about Google's massive Mountain View, Calif., campus, the company knew exactly who to turn to for next generation of its GBikes: Googlers themselves.

"Last fall, the company launched a competition among employees to replace the 2-year-old fleet of bikes available to workers at the Googleplex to pedal from one building to another. The idea was to come up with a user-friendly, low-maintenance bike.

" 'We've got an entrepreneurial and innovative culture,' said Brendon Harrington, Google's transportation operations manager. 'We said, "You tell us what you think is a cool design." '

"The company listed four design criteria. The bike had to be easy to produce. It needed to be affordable. The bike had to be both comfortable and secure. And, in a nod to its culture, the bike had to be Googley, using novel components, structure, and appearance...."

This, in the Lemming's opinion, is part of what makes Google successful. It's a 'big business' that says it values the skills and opinions of its employees. And then acts as if that's true.

It's a radical idea: but seems to work for Google. Maybe other big companies could learn from Google's example.

Or, not.

As for why the Lemming isn't ranting about how everybody, everywhere, should ride bicycles all the time? For starters, the Lemming lives in central Minnesota. The climate here isn't quite the same as Mountain View's. And that's another topic.

Sort-of-not-entirely-unrelated posts:

Monday, April 16, 2012

Another 17,000,000 Years on the Coelacanth Timeline

"Skull Confirms Older Origin for 'Living Fossil' Fish"
Wynne Parry, LiveScience (April 10, 2012)

"A group of ancient fish, called coelacanths, have changed so little over time they are known as "living fossils." Now, the remains of a skull found in the Yunnan Province of China, confirms these creatures have been around, largely unchanged, for more than 400 million years.

"Once thought to have died out at roughly the time the dinosaurs disappeared, the first living coelacanth was discovered in a fishing net in 1938 off the eastern coast of South Africa. Since then, others have turned up elsewhere along the coasts of the Indian Ocean. [Image Gallery: Freaky Fish]

"While it's clear their history goes way back, the fossils they left behind have been scarce so far. A lower jawbone, more than 400 million years old and discovered in Australia, hinted at the earliest known emergence of coelacanths whose appearance matched the two species alive today. This small fossil has been described as the oldest coelacanth, but the authors of the recent research write that it offers so little information that it cannot be reliably placed within the fishes' family tree...."

Fascinating as they are, coelacanths are not particularly pretty fish. But, although some folks say they're an "endangered species," these critters were around before those dragonflies with two-and-a-half-foot wingspans flitted around. And they're still here.

(Alberto Fernandez Fernandez, via Wikipedia, used w/o permission)
"Preserved specimen of chalumnae (Also known as Coelacanth [1]) in the Natural History Museum, Vienna, Austria."

Ancient, and Apparently Durable

"...The discovery reinforces what was already suspected about coelacanths: After a period of rapid diversification long ago, these fish have remained pretty much the same over hundreds of millions of years, according to Matt Friedman, a lecturer in paleobiology at the University of Oxford, who was not involved in the research.

" 'It makes their sort of anatomical conservation, this lack of major change over geological time, much more impressive,' Friedman said.

"In fact, the discovery extends the record for coelacanths with modern-looking bodies back by about 17 million years, according to the researchers, led by Min Zhu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences...."

So far, coelacanths have survived assorted ice ages, asteroid impacts, and mobs of volcanoes that make the Mount St. Helens eruption look like a kitchen spill. Maybe they're not quite as delicate as they're supposed to be.

Pushing "coelacanths with modern-looking bodies back by about 17 million years" probably won't help American taxpayers who are struggling with tax forms while hoping that their request for an extension got processed. But the Lemming is fascinated by ugly fish that haven't changed much in 400,000,000 or so years.

Coelacanths, you see, are lobe-finned fish: which apparently led to tetrapods, critters with four limbs they use for moving around. Also lungfish, some of which 'walk' underwater, which suggests that walking started in the water.

Still awake?

The Lemming's noticed that peoples' eyes tend to glaze over pretty fast during these verbal meanders. And that's another topic.

Intermittent Ice Ages, Asteroid Impacts, and the Occasional Massive Volcanic Event

There may be planets where not much happens. Earth isn't one of them.

Some critters, like the koala, panda, and Bee Creek Cave Harvestman spider, require very special conditions. Change the environment, and they die.

Other critters, like rats, cockroaches, and - apparently - coelacanths, aren't quite as easy to kill off. Which is just as well, under the circumstances:
  • 225,000,000 years BP (before present)
    • Asteroid hits Earth
  • 200,000,000 years BP
    • Heavy volcanic activity starts
    • Pangea breaks in two
      • The gap got called "The Atlantic" recently
  • 199,400,000 years BP
    • Heavy volcanic ends
      • Elapsed time: 600,000 years
      • Crurotarsans are extinct
        • Leaving room for dinosaurs
  • 65,000,000 years BP
    • Asteroid hits Earth
      • Dinosaurs are extinct
      • Leaving room for mammals
        • And, eventually, humans
    (Adapted from March 24, 2010)
One of the critters that didn't make the cut, about a half-billion years back, was opabinia regalis: the thing shown in that sketch. It had five eyes, and isn't quite like anything that's alive today.

Recent Events: The Last 700,000,000 Years

The observable universe and been around for 13,730,000,000 years, give or take 120,000,000. That's a recent estimate by astronomers, cosmologists, astronomers, and physicists, anyway.

This timeline covers part of Earth's history, picking up the story around the time that glaciers reached the equator. By that time, single-celled critters (and maybe bigger) were leaving tiny (and rare) fossils.
  • -700,000,000 - 799,999,999 years BP
  • -600,000,000 - 699,999,999 years BP
  • -500,000,000 - 599,999,999 years BP
  • -400,000,000 - 499,999,999 years BP
    • -445,000,000: Lots of volcanoes; about 60% of marine invertebrates become extinct
    • -400,000,000 or so: Coelacanths show up
  • -300,000,000 - 399,999,999 years BP
  • -200,000,000 - 299,999,999 years BP
  • -100,000,000 - 199,999,999 years BP
    • -199,999,999 or so: lots of volcanoes for 600,000 years; Pangea cracks
    • Coelacanths still around
  • -0 - 99,999,999 years BP
  • Now
    • Coelacanths still around
These days, delicate critters teetering on the brink of extinction get a lot of attention. As important as that might be, the Lemming is also interested in why distinctly indelicate critters don't die out: and keep on not dying out. Sometimes for hundreds of millions of years.

Like coelacanths.

Related posts:
More related posts:

Friday, April 13, 2012

Turing Tests, Subcognitive Low-Level Association, and Perambulators

Today is Friday the 13th, which has very little to do with artificial intelligence, Turing tests, or the number 11:

Computers That Think: Just Around the Corner (Again)

"Artificial Intelligence Could Be on Brink of Passing Turing Test"
Brandon Keim, Wired Science (April 12, 2012)

"One hundred years after Alan Turing was born, his eponymous test remains an elusive benchmark for artificial intelligence. Now, for the first time in decades, it's possible to imagine a machine making the grade.

"Turing was one of the 20th century's great mathematicians, a conceptual architect of modern computing whose codebreaking played a decisive part in World War II. His test, described in a seminal dawn-of-the-computer-age paper, was deceptively simple: If a machine could pass for human in conversation, the machine could be considered intelligent.

"Artificial intelligences are now ubiquitous, from GPS navigation systems and Google algorithms to automated customer service and Apple's Siri, to say nothing of Deep Blue and Watson - but no machine has met Turing's standard. The quest to do so, however, and the lines of research inspired by the general challenge of modeling human thought, have profoundly influenced both computer and cognitive science.

"There is reason to believe that code kernels for the first Turing-intelligent machine have already been written...."

Artificial intelligence, the sort exhibited by C3PO and HAL 9000, has been 'just around the corner' for decades. So far, what's been achieved is the release of several movies; and some robots. The robots are, sometimes, useful. But "intelligent?" Not so much.Part of that may have to do with how computers and the human brain are designed. Not the hardware: the functional parameters of the systems.
  • Computers
    • Get correct answers
      • Based on vast quantities of data
        • All of which is precisely correct
  • Human brains
    • Get correct answers
      • Based on very little data
        • Most of which is wrong
There's a bit of Murphy's Law in that joke. Besides, human beings process large amounts of data on the fly, without being aware of the process: as folks who started designing robots that can sense their environment discovered.

The point is that so far, artificial intelligence has been very good at doing rapid calculations that involve accurate data. Humans have survived because they're pretty good at sorting out relevant information from the deluge of data fragments pouring into the brain.

Back to that Wired article.

Subcognitive Low-Level Association, Dental Hygiene, and Perambulators

"...'Two revolutionary advances in information technology may bring the Turing test out of retirement,' wrote Robert French, a cognitive scientist at the French National Center for Scientific Research, in an Apr. 12 Science essay. 'The first is the ready availability of vast amounts of raw data - from video feeds to complete sound environments, and from casual conversations to technical documents on every conceivable subject. The second is the advent of sophisticated techniques for collecting, organizing, and processing this rich collection of data.'

" 'Is it possible to recreate something similar to the subcognitive low-level association network that we have? That's experiencing largely what we're experiencing? Would that be so impossible?' French said...."

"...The human mind was thought to be logical. Computers run logical commands. Therefore our brains should be computable. Computer scientists thought that within a decade, maybe two, a person engaged in dialogue with two hidden conversants, one computer and one human, would be unable to reliably tell them apart.

"That simplistic idea proved ill-founded. Cognition is far more complicated than mid-20th century computer scientists or psychologists had imagined, and logic was woefully insufficient in describing our thoughts. Appearing human turned out to be an insurmountably difficult task, drawing on previously unappreciated human abilities to integrate disparate pieces of information in a fast-changing environment...."
(Brandon Keim, Wired)

The Lemming isn't sure that it's accurate to say that the human brain isn't "logical" because it doesn't operate the way that an Intel chip does. It sounds like saying that calculus isn't mathematics because it works differently from high school algebra. But the Lemming also thinks that parameter sounds like perambulator, and some calculus has more to do with dental hygiene than integrating functions. And that's another topic. Topics.

Good Question

"...He [Robert French] continued, 'Assume also that the software exists to catalog, analyze, correlate, and cross-link everything in this sea of data. These data and the capacity to analyze them appropriately could allow a machine to answer heretofore computer-unanswerable questions' and even pass a Turing test...."
(Brandon Keim, Wired)

Okay, let's assume that. An ideal set of software, loaded into an ideal computer, run by an ideal operating system, could - ideally - slice and dice a whole bunch of data. Really fast.

And, ideally, after lots and lots of data-crunching, this system could pass a Turing Test.

Maybe French is right, and real-world equivalents of C3PO are just around the corner. That would be - very impressive.

And, from the Lemming's point of view, very surprising. Making the jump from writing a sentence that human brains will process and put in the 'this might work' category is one thing.

Getting real software and hardware to process data, and successfully imitate what human brains do? That, so far, has been a fascinating and rewarding occupation.

But we still haven't seen an AI that can pass a Turing test. Some chatbots get pretty close to emulating the responses of a sleep-deprived, hung-over, heavily-caffeinated college student: and that's yet another topic.

Impossible! Or, Not

Does the Lemming think that AI will become intelligent? Briefly:
  • Yes
  • No
  • It depends
A lot depends on what's meant by "intelligent." For quite a while, at least some folks figured that being "intelligent" meant being able to memorize enormous amounts of information, and recite it accurately. Which would make the Lemming's camcorder very intelligent.

A somewhat more sophisticated version of that assumption was that being "intelligent" meant being able to memorize lots of information, and use bits and pieces of it in appropriate ways. That's probably why authors often used playing chess as a way to say 'this character is really smart.'

Then Deep Blue turned out to be a better chess player than some human. The Wired article mentions that AI.

The point is that definitions of "intelligence" have shifted, as folks have realized that an overclocked abacus can out-memorize any human being.

What we don't have, yet, is an AI that can successfully handle large amounts of fuzzy facts; find patterns that are vaguely similar to previous experiences; reject the patterns that are silly; and come up with a shifting short list of patterns that might - or might not - apply in the current situation.

The Lemming thinks that an AI that's able to pass a Turning test might be possible: but it may require a new sort of logic. We've had this sort of thing happen before, sort of. Newton (or Leibniz, or Madhava of Sangamagrama, or somebody else) pulled calculus out of his head, when he needed a mathematical tool that didn't exist yet.

We know that it's possible for a data-processing system to act the way human beings do. Human brains do it all the time. The trick, in the Lemming's opinion, will be learning just how human brains pass Turing tests; developing a system to represent the process in an abstract way; and then developing languages and hardware to process data using that system.

That's a whole lot of developing.

Along the way, though, folks are likely to learn quite a lot about how human beings think, and how the human brain works. And, occasionally, doesn't work.

And those are - what else? more topics.

Related (sort of) posts:

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Multimedia at the Symphony, and Skateboarding Meets Opera

"Six new spots for architecture lovers"
Katia Hetter, CNN (April 10, 2012)

"The Eiffel Tower. The Colosseum. The Taj Majal. The Pyramids.

"Massive architectural marvels from times past, they are often stopping points on a tourist's journey.

(, used w/o permission)
"The New World Symphony performs the premiere of 'Polaris' in January at the symphony's New World Center home in Miami Beach, Florida."

"Although these grand sites aren't always why globe-trotters say they're going on vacation, some of history's great works of architecture star in the returning traveler's photos. Did you get that smiling shot in front of Buckingham Palace or the photo 'pushing' the Leaning Tower of Pisa upright?

"Despite a tight economy, a new generation of architects is giving the traveler reasons to jump on a plane to see modern masterpieces. Many of the new structures are public projects, designed to welcome the resident and tourist alike...."

There's an echo or two of the 'let's make buildings look like packing crates' era, but what impressed the Lemming about this set of structures is that they don't all look alike.

Just a suggestion, but check out the picture captioned "People take in the warm weather at the High Line, Manhattan's newest park constructed on a former elevated railroad track." The photographer and editors get points for keeping the camera at eye level - giving readers a look at the place as seen by folks actually using it.

Skateboarding and Opera

(, used w/o permission)
"Part of a development project to connect the waterfront to the rest of the Norwegian city, the Oslo Opera House's design encourages visitors to walk up the building to a public space on the roof."

About the Oslo Opera House roof/ramp:

"...For the architecture geek: If you think the outside of the Oslo Opera House would be an excellent skate park, it's no accident. Skateboarders were consulted about the exterior design and surfaces and have enjoyed the results, according to Wired magazine..."
(Katia Hetter/CNN)

That's an impressive-looking structure. From a distance. It's not likely that the Lemming would ever be in a position to test this: but dark glasses might help cut the glare from that vast white surface. Or maybe it isn't quite as dazzling-bright as it looks in this photo.

Still - that's an impressive-looking structure. And the Lemming's repeating himself.

Related posts:

Monday, April 9, 2012

Lemming Tracks: Fire; 1,000,000 Years of Sizzling Steaks and Burned Fingers

"Humans used fire 1 million years ago, scientists say"
Charles Choi, LiveScience, (April 2, 2012)

(M. Chazan, via LiveScience and, used w/o permission)
"Researchers found evidence of human fire use in South Africa's Wonderwerk Cave (shown here), a massive cavern located near the edge of the Kalahari Desert. (M. Chazan)"

"Ash and charred bone, the earliest known evidence of controlled use of fire, reveal that human ancestors may have used fire a million years ago, a discovery that researchers say will shed light on this major turning point in human evolution.

"Scientists analyzed material from Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa, a massive cavern located near the edge of the Kalahari Desert. Previous excavations there had uncovered an extensive record of human occupation.

"Microscopic analysis revealed clear evidence of burning, such as plant ash and charred bone fragments. These materials were apparently burned in the cave, as opposed to being carried in there by wind or water, and were found alongside stone tools in a layer dating back about 1 million years. Surface fracturing of ironstone, the kind expected from fires, was also seen...."

There's an old gag that goes "countless ages ago, man learned to make fire. Generations later, man learned to put out fires." And that's almost another topic.

This discovery is a big deal. Along with string, fire is one of those basic technologies people use. And now it looks like people have been using it for about 1,000,000 years. At least.

Not that the fires in Wonderwerk Cave were the sort of thing you'd find in a Bessemer converter.

1,900,000 Years and Counting

"...Although modern humans are the only human species alive today, originating about 200,000 years ago, other human species once roamed the Earth, such as Homo erectus, which arose about 1.9 million years ago. [10 Things That Make Humans Special]

" 'The analysis pushes the timing for the human use of fire back by 300,000 years, suggesting that human ancestors as early as Homo erectus may have begun using fire as part of their way of life,' said researcher Michael Chazan, a paleolithic archaeologist at the University of Toronto and director of the university's archaeology center.

"The research team's analysis suggests that materials in the cave were not heated above about 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit (700 degrees Celsius)...."

Granted, even with a shave, haircut, and new clothes, someone from 1,900,000 years back would have had trouble blending into a crowd today. But folks seem to have been using kitchens for upwards of 800,000 years: and what scientists found in Wonderwerk Cave says that cooking fires go back 200,000 years before that.

I'm not terribly surprised at this latest finding. Over the last century or so, folks have been learning that the universe is bigger, and older, with fascinating structures at increasingly large and small scales.

I've been fascinated by the unfolding story: and by what we've been learning about my remote ancestors. Not everybody has the 'oh wow' response I have, and I'll get back to that.

Gathering 'Round the Campfire

"...Fire would have helped early humans stay warm and keep nighttime predators at bay, and enabled cooking, which would have made food more digestible. In addition, 'socializing around a campfire might actually be an essential aspect of what makes us human,' Chazan said. 'The control of fire would have been a major turning point in human evolution.'

"Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham has speculated that controlled fires and cooked meat even influenced human brain evolution. He suggests that humans were cooking their prey as far back as the first appearance of Homo erectus 1.9 million years ago, just when humans were experiencing major brain expansion, and proposes that cooking allowed our ancestors to evolve larger, more calorie-hungry brains and bodies, and smaller guts suited for more easily digested cooked food.

" 'It's possible we may find evidence of fire use as early as Wrangham has suggested,' Chazan told LiveScience...."

Human beings are, from one point of view, opportunistic omnivores. We can get by without meat. But for the last 2,500,000 years, it's been part of the diet for most of us. Richard Wrangham says we've been cooking our meat for the last 1,600,000 years - which wouldn't surprise me a bit.

Besides tasting better, cooked meat is easier to digest - which meant that our distant ancestors needed smaller digestive systems when the said goodby to steak tartare. For the most part.

Meat, Muscle, Brains, and Burned Fingers

Good thing, too, since a given unit of our brain burns energy about 22 times as much as the same unit of muscle. (Aiello, 1997) Not that someone decided, about 1,600,000 years back, 'we'd better start growing bigger brains - so those big guts have got to go.' The last I heard, scientists hadn't nailed down just how and why critters change over time.

Still, switching from munching berries and fruit to a diet that included cooked meat gave our bodies room to grow these outsize brains we have. And occasionally use.

I've played with the idea that dangerous new technologies like fire and flint knapping may have put 'evolutionary pressure' on folks whose neighbors were early adapters. I'm not very serious about the notion - but it takes a little extra intellectual work to:
  • Remember to keep the fire going
  • Make sure the fire doesn't spread
  • Do something when the fire does spread
Then there's the tricky matter of cooking meat without burning your fingers. Sure, it's simple for us: but we're folks whose ancestors have been dealing with fire for about a million years.

These days, some folks who eat cooked food without a qualm seem convinced that today's 'dangerous new technologies' will kill us all. That reminds me of the cartoon where one caveman was grumbling to another about what that crazy kid was doing: "Just wait, someday it'll get out of control, and destroy the entire village."

He was right: but I think there's a reason why most of us cook food, and steak tartare is a specialty food.

Related posts:
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Friday, April 6, 2012

April 6, 1912: Manitoba; the Titanic; Atlantis; a Painting; and a Car

The town of Transcona, Manitoba was incorporated on this date in 1912. This is also the day in 1912 when the territory of Manitoba grew to its present size.

You'll find a whole lot more about what happened on April 6 in Canada, at "April 6," This Day in Canadian History.

The same year, April 6 was the day when the RMS Titanic was four days from starting its first voyage, and nine days from ending its last trip. ("RMS Titanic," Wikipedia)

Elsewhere in 1912:
  • Leo Frobenius was in the last year of an expedition
    • In Africa
    • Where he thought he'd found Atlantis
  • Gustav Klimt painted a picture of Mäda Primavesi
    • Neither of whom are particularly famous today
  • Gaylords were still being built
    • It's a kind of car
None of which is likely to help you fill out your income tax forms. Which, if you're an American, are due April 15. Which, oddly enough, is the same date on which the Titanic sank.

Sort-of-related posts:

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Lawyer Who Became an Architect

"NZ architect of the year is elevated by emotion"
Claire McCall, (April 4, 2012)

"There's a scene in the classic Coen Brothers' film The Big Lebowski when Walter Sobchak spits out that: 'life does not stop and start at your own convenience'. Architect Lance Herbst can relate to this line from his favourite movie. Herbst Architects has just been named winner in NZ Home magazine's 2012 Home of the Year awards. But architecture was not a calling.

"Herbst may be at the top of his game now but he cannot recount stories of drawing buildings as a youngster or rearranging the spaces of his childhood home in the Constantia Valley, Cape Town.

" 'At school, I took an aptitude test and they said I should be a lawyer.'

"But he left South African College School determined not to be a lawyer, and with very few plans in mind. Herbst was lucky, then, to have a number of good friends who lived in houses that captured his imagination. Built in the 70s, they were examples of LA-style modernism, all low-slung and white.

"When he was invited to architect Ernest Ford's home..."

That's when Lance Herbst discovered that architecture doesn't have to be an exercise in sensory deprivation, or a paean to blank walls and straight lines.

There's more in the article: about Lance Herbst; concentric circles; and a beach with trees. Fascinating stuff. Also, somewhat frustratingly, a photo of Mr. Herbst. But not of any buildings he's designed.

And Now, For Something Completely Different: Aptitude Tests and the Lemming

A sentence in that article took the Lemming back a few dozen years: "At school, I took an aptitude test and they said I should be a lawyer." Aptitude tests are wonderful things, the Lemming's been told, for revealing what course an eager young student should take.

The Lemming took quite a few. One said that the Lemming would make a really good Air Force officer: or hairdresser. No kidding.

So, the Lemming set forth and got jobs as a beet chopper, radio disk jockey, computer operator, historian, and writer. Among other things. Not at the same time, of course.

'And the moral of this story is - - -'

Aptitude tests are, in the Lemming's opinion, useful guides. But if the aptitude test says 'sheepskin pickler,' and someone really wants to be a floral designer? The Lemming thinks it wouldn't hurt to get a job at some florist's, and give that option a shot.

Same goes for someone who's pegged as a floral designer (DOT 142.081-010), and really wants to be a sheepskin pickler (DOT 582.685-126).

Allegedly-related posts:

Monday, April 2, 2012

Robot Cheetah: No Head, but Really Fast

"Robotic cheetah 'breaks speed record for legged robots' "
(March 6, 2012)

(from Darpa, via BBC News, used w/o permission)
"Footage of the robot in action - courtesy Darpa"

"A headless robot dubbed 'Cheetah' has set a new world speed record, according to its owners.

"The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency said the four-legged machine achieved 18mph (29km/h) on a laboratory treadmill.

"The agency said the previous land speed record by a legged robot was 13.1mph.

"Darpa said that the project was part of efforts to develop robots designed to 'more effectively assist war fighters across a greater range of missions'.

"Darpa - which is run by the Pentagon - funded the Massachusetts robotics company Boston Dynamics to build the machine.

" 'We plan to get off the treadmill and into the field as soon as possible,' said the firm's chief robotics scientist, Alfred Rizzi, in a statement.

" 'We really want to understand what is possible for fast-moving robots.'..."

There's quite a range of options for how to react to this news from DARPA. We have the occasionally-technophobic thing we see in the movies and novels:Real robots turned out to be - well, let's be honest here. They're useful, but incredibly stupid:On the other hand, quite a few folks are trying to develop robots that can interact smoothly with humans:"ASIMO Serves First FCX Clarity Customers"

Honda, YouTube (June 27, 2008)
video, 3:11

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