BB #61: News Bubbles

I have a growing list of links to articles that catch my eye, things I’d like to post about (for whatever reason). But there’s a tension between posts based on lists of links or draft posts or idea files versus posts based on what I’m currently thinking about.

I seem to feel the latter isn’t enough, that I need a reserve for “lean times” — which never happen. More and more, I post when something strikes me as worth the effort. The “idea pile” seems almost like homework.

Anyway, here are some things that recently caught my eye.

I’ll start with an article I loved because it agrees with a pet peeve of mine: The lust to colonize Mars.

Gizmodo: Humans Will Never Colonize Mars

The nicest way I can put it is that, in my opinion, the idea of colonizing Mars (let alone that it’ll actually happen) is foolish in the extreme.

On the separate question of whether it will ever happen, my Magic 8 Ball says: “Very Dubious!”

The article points out many of the problems: an atmosphere 100 times thinner than Earth’s, essentially a vacuum; what atmosphere does exist is CO2; average temps of -81 F and lows of -128 F; and a gravity only 0.375 times that of Earth’s.

So, at the least, colonies need to deal with the long-term health effects of low gravity, plus habitats require shielding from solar radiation normally blocked by either a thick atmosphere or a magnetic field.

Living on Mars would be very much like living in prison. As the article says:

As Friedman pointed out earlier, we don’t see colonists living in Antarctica or under the sea, so why should we expect troves of people to want to live in a place that’s considerably more unpleasant? It seems a poor alternative to living on Earth, and certainly a major step down in terms of quality of life. A strong case could even be made that, for prospective families hoping to spawn future generations of Martian colonists, it’s borderline cruelty.

Exactly. The idea of colonizing Mars seems romantic, thanks to science fiction, but the cold hard reality is something else entirely.

§ § §

In the “Oh, Gosh!” category, this article (by the great Phil Plait) about seriously high-energy gamma ray photons from the Crab Nebula:

SyFy Wire: The Crab Nebula hulks out, sends *incredibly* high-energy gamma rays at Earth

Plait says anything I could say far better than I could, so read the article. I will just mention that “gamma rays” is the last name we have for photon energy. So gamma rays can be any photons from 100,000 eV on up (in the lower range they’re also considered hard X-rays).

Two bits especially impressed me:

The highest energy gamma ray they detected had an energy of about 400 TeV. It would take about two hundred trillion visible-light photons to equal that much energy.

And my favorite:

A common housefly has a mass of about 10 milligrams (or 1/100th of a gram). A typical flying velocity for one is about one meter per second. That gives it a kinetic energy of about 50 ergs. Doing the conversion, that means that one of those energetic photons from the Crab Nebula has an energy more than 10 times that of a housefly in flight.

Wow. Just wow.

Plait points out that, “if it were to hit you and you absorbed that energy in your skin you could actually feel it. From a single photon.”

§ § §

Turning to the field of AI, this article about how trained networks produce results we can’t understand (but which are apparently superior to anything we’ve pulled off): The first AI universe sim is fast and accurate—and its creators don’t know how it works

Researchers used “8,000 different simulations from one of the highest-accuracy models available” as training input to a new system, called the Deep Density Displacement Model (D3M).

After training D3M, the researchers ran simulations of a box-shaped universe 600 million light-years across and compared the results to those of the slow and fast models. Whereas the slow-but-accurate approach took hundreds of hours of computation time per simulation and the existing fast method took a couple of minutes, D3M could complete a simulation in just 30 milliseconds.

But they don’t know how it works.

I can’t help but wonder if the network didn’t just encode all those simulations into a holographic phase space — essentially a meta-model — and “running a simulation” amounts in some sense to spooling off a recording.

But in this case, it’s a spool based on input parameters that steer it through that phase space. It isn’t so much calculating the simulation so much as playing it back.

If true, this suggests a lack of creative ability. These networks remain little more than very sophisticated search engines. (Of course, some say that’s all we are!)

§ § §

Speaking of neural net frailties, they appear pretty easy to fool.

Gizmodo: Thousands of Reasons That We Shouldn’t Trust a Neural Network to Analyze Images

The thousands of images ultimately included in the database all failed to correctly classify an object in an image for a number of reasons, none being an intentional malicious attack. The neural nets fucked up due to weather, variations in the framing of a photo, an object being partially covered, leaning too much on texture or color in a photo, among other reasons. The researchers also found that the classifiers can overgeneralize, over-extrapolate, and incorrectly include tangential categories.

(I suppose it’s dreadfully old-fashioned of me, but I still find it weird that any serious publication feels free to use the term “fucked” in its writing. I’m not sure how I feel about the cross-over between blogging and supposedly serious journalism. But whatever.)

It goes on to say:

That’s why the neural network classified a candle as a jack-o-lantern with 99.94 percent confidence, even though there were no carved pumpkins in the image. It’s why it classified a dragonfly as a banana, in what the researchers guess is because there was a shovel nearby that was yellow. It’s also why, when the framing of an alligator swimming was slightly altered, the neural network classified it as a cliff, lynx, and a fox squirrel. And that’s also why the classifier overgeneralized tricycles to bicycles and circles, and digital clocks to keyboards and calculators.

So these things have a ways to go before they’re anywhere near trustworthy.

And it seems like we ought to know more about how they do what they do.

§ § §

On the lighter side, I completely agree with every word of:

Ars Technica: Why vinyl records survive in the digital age

The author makes what I think are some key points. In particular, it’s not about sound quality. It was never really about sound quality:

I think the real reason for vinyl’s return goes much deeper than questions of sound quality. As media analyst Marshall McLuhan famously wrote, “The medium is the message.” In other words, “the form of a medium embeds itself in any message it would transmit or convey, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.” Nowhere does this hold truer than in the world of recorded sound.

Anyone who understands McLuhan is probably okay with me. (That scene in Annie Hall is one of my favorite cinema scenes. Oh, if only life worked that way.)

The author goes on to point out there is both a ritual and a physicality associated with vinyl that doesn’t exist in other music forms.

I’ve posted about (more than once) how cool it is that there is a direct force transfer of analog information from musical instrument to ear with vinyl (or tape) that doesn’t exist with digital.

There’s a reality to analog music that just makes it cooler.

§ § §

Well, that’s five less links lurking in my list. It’s always possible I’ll end up posting about one of these, but right now it seems unlikely.

I’ve got a bunch more to unload next time. These are just a start.

Stay newsworthy, my friends!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

6 responses to “BB #61: News Bubbles

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    The Martian article was stark, and right. Not that I expect it to dissuade people from continuing to fantasize about it. The only way Mars will be colonized en mass is if someone finds some kind of unobtainium on it.

    On the difficulty of neural networks recognizing things, when I read those accounts, I always remember the times as a kid that I failed to recognize basic things. That and the occasions that animals fail to recognize things, or do so in a very foggy manner.

    I’m not convinced the vinyl revival is anything other then sentimentality. But then I’m a music moron so my opinion should be taken with grain of salt.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “Not that I expect it to dissuade people from continuing to fantasize about it.”

      Yeah, people got Mars fever! (Can we blame Elon Musk?)

      “On the difficulty of neural networks recognizing things, when I read those accounts, I always remember the times as a kid that I failed to recognize basic things.”

      Certainly, although I think the reasons for it are different. I have a link to a Quanta Magazine article about how AI recognizes images more through textures whereas we process shapes more. That’s big part of why AI is so easy to fool.

      I have some concerns about self-driving cars being subject to explicit attacks against the image recognition systems. I’ve read some articles about researchers finding it all too easy.

      (I also wonder what will happen when all the cars have LIDAR. I assume they have some way for them not to interfere with each other, but I haven’t heard of any tests involving a fleet of self-driving cars.)

      “I’m not convinced the vinyl revival is anything other then sentimentality.”

      Sentiment and other emotions, as the article mentions (and which I can attest to). It’s very much about the physicality and implications. It’s definitely not about sound quality or ease of use.

      I mean, there isn’t even a “Shuffle” button… 😮

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Musk, through force of will, might eventually get some kind of token colony set up on Mars. I have a horrible suspicion it might be a Jamestown type scenario.

        More likely is that there will be scientific stations set up, but like Antarctica, with rotating populations and without permanent residents. Although maybe the long travel times will lead to something more.

        Or AI will progress to the point that we’ll just leave it all to them, making do with whatever virtual recordings and rock samples they send back.

        I’ve wondered the same things with LIDAR. It seems like active sensing has the potential to interfere with each other in a major way. Although if you work out the protocols, maybe the cars could agree to zone things out and use each other’s sensory data. Although that also could be exploited as a security vulnerability.

        “I mean, there isn’t even a “Shuffle” button…”

        And you can’t take it with you on a walk, and a collection takes up a lot of space.

        But as someone who grew up using them, I get the attachment to the old scratching and popping sounds before something good started. A friend of mine complained when movies went digital, missing the familiar pre-movie startup anomalies (which Quentin Tarantino sometimes puts in on purpose). But that definitely is sentimentality.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I have a horrible suspicion it might be a Jamestown type scenario.”

        I have similar fears.

        “It seems like active sensing has the potential to interfere with each other in a major way.”

        I have no idea if identity information is encoded in the LIDAR such that a vehicle can recognize its own signal. I believe the process requires knowing exactly where the transmitter is (because you’re timing the return light), so I’m not sure if sharing is an option anyway.

        But they have to have this in mind, don’t they? They can’t have overlooked something so simple…

        “And you can’t take it with you on a walk, and a collection takes up a lot of space.”

        Heh, yeah! Although there is something kinda cool about those huge racks of records serious collectors (or radio stations) used to have. And I do miss album art and the info they used to include. Often all the lyrics.

        Speaking of analog movies, did you read that James Cameron (I think?) did a release of 2001 (I think?) that featured all the scratches and junk we used to see all the time in the movie theatre. It was suppose to be a more true movie experience or something.

        I think that might be taking it a bit too far. 🙂

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I hadn’t heard of that Cameron release of 2001. I’m surprised he’d do that. I don’t really think of that as his shtick. He’s usually on the cutting edge of technology.

        But I do know Quentin Tarantino did it in Grindhouse, which was made to evoke a very 1970s feel, right down to fake trailers. It seems like maybe he also did it in other movies, but I might be wrong.

        It was a nice added touch, an homage to a past era, but I definitely don’t need to see it in every movie.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I tried (not too hard) to find a reference, but all I found was Cameron commenting on the film (which he loves) and that there was a screening of an unrestored 70mm print in Cannes. Not clear if Cameron was instrumental in that screening or not.

        I’m a Tarantino fan (Rodriguez, too), so I really enjoyed the Grindhouse films. I can’t recall him using explicit film artifact effects elsewhere, but I wouldn’t put it past him.

        Definitely a special sauce for special occasions. I’m annoyed (even more now that I’ve started noticing it) by the modern tendency to randomly switch “filters” during (usually) interviews. They’ll cut randomly between color and black-and-white and sometimes to a grainy or scratched effect even.

        FOR NO REASON other, I suppose, than “it looks cool.” I find it distracting.

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