s.o. operator

When you’re in LA, heading into the Valley, you’d likely be following Ventura Blvd. or the 101 for some time until you find the I405, which passes right next to the Sherman Oaks Galleria. There, if at that intersection you were to turn and head south on Sepulveda, just one block down, you’d see the front door to the recording studio of Coast To Coast AM Radio, the beacon of paranoia and conspiracy theories that keep Alex Jones flush with cash, and help listeners indulge in their fantasies of fighting the New World Order or imagining the wicked sex lives of those working to advance it in great detail. Currently, the biggest thing now emanating from it is one of the most boneheaded conspiracy theories to see the light of day: Jade Helm. If you were to listen to the conspiracy’s proponents, the puppet masters secretly pulling the world’s strings are staging an exercise on imposing martial law on the United States. After announcing this exercise for public awareness and releasing maps of where the exercises will be held instead of, you know, going out there and just imposing said martial order, or even practicing in complete secrecy.

Remember the mission to kill Osama bin Laden and how no one knew it will happen until there was an announcement in the news that the mission was carried out? Even the soldiers whose days were spent practicing for it had to guess who they were going after until the last minute. If you believe the “deathers” that there was either no such as bin Laden or that he was just a CIA operative, even then the announcement seemed like it came out of nowhere. This is why huge, sensitive military operations are classified. You need an element of surprise. Why is the military broadcasting its takeover of the Southwest when it could just do it within a few days? It has just about all the assets it needs already in place. Likewise, martial law is really only necessary in a situation when you fear massive anti-government unrest, which unlike hyperventilating partisan blowhards and Chicken Littles of AM radio will tell you, isn’t exactly brewing in the U.S. So what would be the point of forcibly pacifying an already peaceful, friendly population?

But despite the complete lack of sense, logic, and reason behind the Jade Helm theory, there’s been an effort by a few token contrarians to somehow justify a kernel of legitimacy to a concern of a government takeover of a population that’s actively participating in said government with no sensible reason not borrowed from conspiracy klaxons. Instead of approaching this conspiracy for what it is, these writers are trying to weave in the specter of police militarization, which while an important and perfectly legitimate concern in its own right is totally inapplicable here. I’m not sure if they’re doing it for the hits, so the right keywords will show up during a search on Google News according to their editors, or because they’re just looking for a transition to their new best read topic, but we end up with with the following exonerations of pathological paranoia

We live at a time when the Pentagon distributes surplus military equipment to small-town police forces; when cops present themselves to the public as soldiers fighting a war; when officials respond to unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore with curfews and … illiberal, heavy-handed tactics. It’s not crazy to complain about militarization. The conspiratorial version of the complaint literalizes it: A genuine shift in how people are policed becomes a plot to impose martial rule.

Notice how the complaints are about the militarization of police and the deafness of judges and courts to local abuses. But the military is not the police. It doesn’t kill people during traffic stops, it doesn’t patrol the streets, it doesn’t handle riots, and its job is to deter and kill the enemies of the country it serves. We can argue how much of Jade Helm should be classified or the level of detail SOCOM should provide about how it spends its cash and trains its operators, but the fact of the matter is that special forces do our most classified and sensitive missions, so if there are any places in the military budget that are opaque by necessity, it has a good case for being one such spot. Talking about what it does too much can give enemy groups insights into tactics and weapons, meaning already difficult operations will become even harder to pull off. No, we don’t have to trust the government about everything it says, but we should at least think through what we distrust most and pick reasonable objections to reasonable issues, not just scream that the sky is falling when Alex Jones and his ilk need a boost in viewership and cash flow.

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sad robots

And now, how about a little classic Singularity skepticism after the short break? What’s that? It’s probably a good idea to go back in time and revisit the intellectual feud between Jaron Lanier, a virtual reality pioneer turned Luddite-lite in recent years, and Ray Kurzweil, the man who claims to see the future and generally has about the same accuracy as a psychic doing a cold reading when trying this? Specifically the One-Half of a Manifesto vs. One-Half of an Argument debate, the public scuffle now some 15 years old which is surprisingly relevant today? Very well my well read imaginary reader, whatever you want. Sure, this debate is old and nothing in the positions of the personalities involved has changed, but that’s actually what makes it so interesting, that a decade and a half of technological advancements and dead ends didn’t budge either of people who claim to be authorities on the subject matter. And all of this is in no small part because the approach from both sides was to take a distorted position and preach it past each other.

No, this isn’t a case when you can get those on opposing sides to compromise on something to arrive at the truth, which is somewhere in the middle. Both of them are very wrong about many basic facts about the economics, technology, and understanding of what makes one human for the foreseeable future and they build strawmen to assault each other with their errors, clinging to their old accomplishments to argue from authority. Lanier has developed a vision of absolute gloom and doom where algorithms and metrics have taken over for humans by engineers who place zero value on human input and interaction. Kurzweil insists that Lanier can only see all of the problems to overcome and became a pessimist solely because he can’t solve them while in the Singularitarian world, the magic of exponential advancement will eventually solve it all. With computers armed with super-smart AI. That Lanier is convinced will make humanity obsolete by not being smarter than humans but by the actions of those who believe they are.

What strikes me as bizarre is how neither of them ever looked at the current trend of making a machine perform computationally tedious, complex calculations and offloading things that we’ve all known for a long time that computers do better and more accurately than us, then having us make decisions based on this information? Computers will not replace us. We’re the ones with the creative ideas, goals, and motivation, not them. We’re the ones that tell them what to do or what to calculate and how to calculate it. Today, we’re going through a period of what we could generously call creative destruction in which some jobs are sadly becoming obsolete and we’re lacking the political spine to apply what we know are policy fixes to political problems, which is unfair and cruel to those affected. But the idea that this is a political, not a technical problem is not even considered. Computers are their hammers and all they see is nails, therefore, they will hammer away at these problems until they go away and wonder why they refuse to.

Should you fail to grasp both the promise of AI and human/machine interfaces and search only for downsides without considering solutions, as Lanier does, or overestimate what they can do based on wildly unrealistic notions from popular computer science news headlines, looking only for upsides without even acknowledging problems or limitations, as Kurzweil does, and you get optimism and pessimism recycling the same arguments against each other for a decade and a half while omitting the human dimension of the problems that manage to describe, and in which they claim said human dimension is the most important. If humans are greater than the sum of their parts, as Lanier argues, why would they be displaced solely by a fancy enough calculator, having nothing useful to offer past making more computers? And if humans are so easy to boil down to a finite list of parts and pieces, why is it that we can’t define what makes them creative and how to embody machines with the same creativity outside of a well defined problem space limited by propositional logic? Try to answer these questions and we’d have a real debate.

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crt head

Humans beware. Our would-be cybernetic overlords made a leap towards hyper-intelligence in the last few months as artificial neural networks can now be trained on specialized chips which use memristors, an electrical component that can remember the flow of electricity through it to help manage the amount of current required in a circuit. Using these specialized chips, robots, supercomputers, and sensors could solve complex real world problems faster, easier, and with far less energy. Or at least this is how I’m pretty sure a lot of devoted Singularitarians are taking the news that a team of researchers created a proof of concept chip able to house and train an artificial neural network with aluminium dioxide and titanium dioxide electrodes. Currently, it’s a fairly basic 12 by 12 grid of “synapses”, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t be scaled up into chips carrying billions of these artificial synapses that sip about the same amount of power as a cell phone imparts on your skin. Surely, the AIs of Kurzwelian lore can’t be far off, right?

By itself, the design in question is a long-proposed solution to the problem of how to scale a big artificial neural network when relying on the cloud isn’t an option. Surely if you use Chrome, you right clicked on an image and tried to have the search engine find it on the web and suggesting similar ones. This is powered by an ANN which basically carves up the image you send to it into hundreds or thousand of pieces, each of which is analyzed for information that will help it find a match or something in the same color palette, and hopefully, the same subject matter. It’s not perfect, but when you’re aware its limitations and use it accordingly, it can be quite handy. The problem is that to do its job, it requires a lot of neurons and synapses, and running them is very expensive from both a computational and a fiscal viewpoint. It has to take up server resources which don’t come cheap, even for a corporate Goliath like Google. A big part of the reason why is the lack of specialization for the servers which could just as easily execute other software.

Virtually every computer used today is based on what’s known as von Neumann architecture, a revolutionary idea back when it was proposed despite seeming obvious to us now. Instead of a specialized wiring diagram dictating how computers would run programs, von Neumann wanted programmers to just write instructions and have a machine smart enough to execute them with zero changes in their hardware. If you asked your computer whether it was running some office software, a game, or a web browser, it couldn’t tell you. To it, every program is a set of specific instructions pushed onto a stack on each CPU core, read and completed one by one, and then popped to make room for the next order. All of these instructions boil down to where to move a byte or series of bytes in memory and to what their values should be set. It’s perfect for when a computer could run anything and everything, and you’ll either have no control over what it runs, or want it to be able to run whatever software you throw its way.

In computer science, this ability to hide nitty-gritty details of how a complex process on which a piece of functionality relies actually works, is called an abstraction. Abstractions are great, I use them every day to design database schemas and write code. But they come at a cost. Making something more abstract means you incur an overhead. In virtual space, that means more time for something to execute, and in physical space that means more electricity, more heat, and in the case of cloud based software, more money. Here’s where the memristor chip for ANNs has its time to shine. Knowing that certain computing systems like routers and robots could need to run a specialized process again and again, they’ve designed a purpose built piece of hardware which does away with abstractions, reducing overhead, and allowing them to train and run their neural nets with just a little bit of strategically directed electricity.

Sure, that’s neat, it’s also what an FPGA, or a Field Programmable Gate Array can do already. But unlike these memristor chips, FPGAs can’t be easily retrained to run neural nets with a little reverse current and a new training session, they need to be re-configured, and they can’t use less power by “remembering” the current. This is what makes this experiment so noteworthy. It created a proof of concept for a much more efficient FPGA when techies are looking for a new way to speed up resource-hungry algorithms that require probabilistic approaches. And this is also why these memristor chips won’t change computing as we know it. They’re meant for very specific problems as add-ons to existing software and hardware, much like GPUs are used for intensive parallelization while CPUs handle day to day applications without one substituting for another. The von Neumann model is just too useful and it’s not going anywhere soon.

While many an amateur tech pundit will regale you with a vision of super-AIs built with this new technology taking over the world, or becoming your sapient 24/7 butler, the reality is that you’ll never be able to build a truly useful computer out of nothing but ANNs. You will lose the flexible nature of modern computing and the ability to just run an app without worrying about training a machine how to use it. These chips are very promising and there’s a lot of demand for them to hit the market sooner than later, but they’ll just be another tool to make technology a little more awesome, secure, and reliable for you, the end user. Just like quantum computing, they’re one means to tackling the growing list of demands for our connected world without making you wait for days, if not months, for a program to finish running and a request to complete. But the fact that they’re not going to become the building blocks of an Asimovian positronic brain does not make them any less cool in this humble techie’s professional opinion.

See: Prezioso, M., et. al. (2015). Training and operation of an integrated neuromorphic network based on metal-oxide memristors Nature, 521 (7550), 61-64 DOI: 10.1038/nature14441

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tower of babel

Humans can sure take up a lot of space. Not literally mind you, if you stacked humans in pods just big enough to accommodate the average person and raise them 50 units high, the entire global population would comfortably fit within the Bronx metro area, with 23 square kilometers left over. For those curious, yes, I actually did the math. I know, I’m a nerd. But like all abstract calculations, this is technically correct but very much irrelevant since we don’t live in pods with a few inches of wiggle room in every direction, we like to have our space. This is why even a high density megacity can take up as much as 7,000 square miles. Start adding in suburbs, exhurbs and other bordering towns that seem to merge with our biggest cities, farms that feed the many millions living in this area, and you end up with vast swaths of space dedicated to perpetuating countless humans with the substantial environmental costs that entails. So what if, asked many architects over the years, we were to consolidate entire cities in massive skyscrapers?

Now the idea is sound if your first priority is efficient allocation of resources. While no huge city could be perfectly efficient, on average, any megacity could concentrate resources and shorten supply chains. This can mean less waste, more productivity, and more economic activity. But if we take it one step further and start structuring them around giant, self-contained skyscrapers, we can wring out many of the current remaining inefficiencies in resource allocation. A vertical farm in each skyscraper would double as green space and the perfect place for producing a lot of staple crops that instead of being delivered across a country are delivered to a different floor which saves a lot on infrastructure costs. From a utopian perspective, embracing growing your own crops in a vertical community garden inside a giant building that also has apartments, bars and nightclubs, movie theaters, schools, and offices could return many millions of square miles back to nature should every city in the world make that leap. But would that ever happen?

Today, such a transition would be politically dead on arrival and technically hard to execute. It’s not for a lack of ideas though; within the last 30 years there have been no shortage of plans to build these cities in a skyscraper including Sky City 1000, Shimizu TRY Pyramid, and just a few weeks ago, Sand Sky City. But just because there are plans doesn’t mean there’s enough raw materials to actually build these projects or money to afford them. Between buying all the land required to pour the foundations, or in the case of Sand Sky City, establish robust routes to get materials to a job site in the middle of nowhere, even getting started comes with a price tag few governments could afford, and those that could, probably have many other uses for the money, ones that will be much more popular with their constituents. Speaking of which, how do you get people to live in these skyscrapers in numbers that make them economically viable? 

One rather popular conspiracy theory here in the United States is that extreme urban planning proposals like this are really the machinations of an evil cabal trying to enslave humanity for an amazingly wide array of sinister purposes, so there go millions of potential residents. Plus, how many people would be fine with giving up their privacy, living with over a million others not just around them, but in the same building at any given time? Just like flying cars look great from a purely utilitarian, utopian point of view, the reality of actually creating them is fraught with many problems that will take a long time to address. Maybe at some point in the far future, with more globalized economies and massive changes in culture, buildings housing an entire city could be viable, and by then we’re bound to have plans for hundreds of them. But we’re not going to get them anytime soon. They simply cost too much, require too much, and unlikely to provide the kind of return on investment we’d need to make them worthwhile. At least for now…

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pluto render

New Horizons is just weeks away from finally flying by the most controversial object in our solar system and giving us a true picture of what it looks like. We suspect that Pluto is Triton’s twin, since both are large trans-Neptunian objects, icy would-be planets that never quite got enough mass to dominate their orbits, and since they both come from a similar blend of raw materials, it makes sense they would be very similar. There’s already evidence of Triton-like cryovolcanism taking place on Pluto and some proposals even argue that they were sojourners until Neptune managed to capture one of them and trap it in its orbit until in a few billion years, its new moon will fall and burn up in its vast atmosphere. But Pluto is more than a flash point for debates for what constitutes a planet. Since it was predicted to exist and successfully discovered, it was an incredibly fertile ground for conspiracy theorists and sci-fi authors, giving us the legends of the mysterious Anunaki, who supposedly built eldritch temples on the Cydonian Plains of Mars and colonized the Earth millennia ago, and the sci-fi horror genre as we know it.

Out there, in deep space, yet close enough to reach without world-ships or warp drives was an unknown planet that could be home to anything. It was Nibiru, the now desolate home of once thriving, hyper-intelligent aliens who fled to look for a more suitable home closer to the Sun and settled on Mars until it too died, forcing them to finally relocate to Earth and build Atlantis. Until we realized that it was a world much too small and far too cold to sustain any complex life we’d imagine could survive without requiring exotic chemistry by inner solar system standards, it was also Yuggoth, home of the twisted and bizarre Mi-go, and in future iterations of the mythos, all sorts of other nefarious creatures that cared little for humanity. Not knowing what Pluto really was and what it looked like gave conspiracy theorists inspiration, and writers the cover of eerie plausibility. But now we know that if anything is living on Pluto, it’s colonies of a still hypothetical bacterium that breathes hydrogen and needs liquid methane or ethane the same way life as we know it needs water, and the stories no longer work, not for planets in our solar system.

But just because Pluto is an icy desert doesn’t mean it’s any less interesting. If it’s a geologically active ice world like Triton, its eruptions provide a glimpse into planetary chemistry which helps describe a vast swath of worlds across the universe. There are bound to be countless dwarfs a lot like it since we have two of them just in one solar system. Likewise, if it has water ice in any significant quantity, it could be an extremely useful world for future explorers about to depart on a trip to interstellar space. It could become the last chance to fix up and refuel your spaceships when you venture out, and the first stop for maintenance when you return many years later, as well as a critical node in an interstellar communications network. No matter how soon the New Horizons flyby will be over, we’re not going to be done with Pluto. Now that it’s about to give up some of its secrets, this is only the beginning of our new relationship with it, this time not as the potential origin of malevolence and darkness, but as a destination for science and exploration, and a potential gateway to the rest of the galaxy. Don’t worry Pluto, we’ll see you soon…

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church interior

Not too long ago, a Christian writer took to the Washington Post to defend her thesis that new, flashy churches that go out of their way to attract younger generations with hashtags, memes, and imitating coffee shops are failing to hit their goals because those goals are misguided and simply aren’t in line with what the younger generation actually wants. Her case is a strong one, backed up with opinion polls showing that three quarters younger churchgoers really don’t care for turning places of worship into nightclubs and aren’t attending because they don’t agree with the commoditization of faith, and the homophobic and partisan invective coming from pulpits in many established congregations. Far from the entitled stereotype that most media is obsessed with affixing to them, Millennials want a humble experience with a focus on loving thy neighbor, not a laser rock show after venti soy lattes. And so, urges Evans, churches should drop the act and ban the marketing-speak, and focus on being genuine and accepting, instead of acting like businesses, then the young parishioners they so desire will flock to them all on their own.

But will they really? This is not a new conversation by any means, and warning churches not to emulate the business world go back years, while efforts to woo those who lost their faith or just fed up with the church collected the numbers Evans uses to bolster her case, but overlook the impact of the increasing number of atheists as if they don’t exist, or just need a better pitch for getting their rear ends in pews. Not only are younger generations questioning whether the just and loving God they grow up hearing about will cast their friends into Hell simply for being only slightly different, they’re deciding that this whole organized faith business is more divisive than inclusive. More and more Millennials know someone gay, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, with a kid out of wedlock, or who went through a divorce. They know them as good people with different lives, which couldn’t necessarily turn out the way their pastors tell them it ought to. So when fire and brimstone loudmouths take to the pulpit to enjoy the verbal torture porn about the gory fate of the “heathens, sodomites, whores, and heretics,” they’re denigrating flesh and blood people, not just abstract things to hate and condemn for the older parishioners.

It’s that hate that often leads people to question whether their churches have strayed from their roots, from a religion that was supposed to be about helping the poor and accepting everyone, letting God cast judgment instead of taking these matters into one’s own hands. And the more a theology is questioned on the grounds of theodicy and the apparent lack of God’s interventions, the more those losing their faith tend to turn to our scientific body of knowledge, which has not just good answers, but ones that are testable in the real world. They’ll ask why they should set one’s existence into an idea abused by authoritarians to impose their will on those around them and keep them in line with threats of Hell? Churches have to stereotype atheists as amoral, it’s their only choice when they try to make the threats stick. But the reality is that atheists don’t eat babies and behave like sociopaths any more than any other group, so outside the church walls, yet another tall tale falls and another reason to doubt becomes apparent. All the church studies and surveys mentioned above talk about this exact phenomenon, but insist on ignoring it.

Even more important for Evans than the realization that atheism is not some sort of a hip fad a more liberal church would snap Millenials out of, should be the fact that despite the complaints about the “newly” business-like nature of churches, churches are a business and always have been. Religion is a tax-exempt enterprise that exists for its own perpetuation. Typical churches spend as much as 82% of their donations on salaries, buildings, and administration, leaving as little as 5% on average to do any real charity work. Megachurches designate half of all income as staff salaries and spend much of the rest on the kind of marketing techniques Evans decries in her article, giving some of their pastors $200,000+ paychecks while covering their expenses, a nearly tenfold increase of a typical pastors’ gross earnings. Unable to mandate tax collection, churches are focused on making sure they have as many members as possible tithing as much as possible to pay for their infrastructure and all the people they hire. Sure, they do “spread the word,” but they’re not doing it for free as a general rule, so of course they need new blood.

Here’s the deal. We’re living in a world where nebulous, millennia old traditions are not cutting it anymore, where people communicate with each other so easily and travel so often that many of these evil, heretical foreigners we were supposed to be afraid of and who would corrupt us into wickedness, can talk to us in real time on a daily basis, and they’ve turned out to be mostly nice and hardworking people, with a set of ethics very similar to ours. The ones that haven’t, are for the most part, vicious religious zealots, showing us the dark side of religion with vivid examples of senseless, mindless brutality for the sake of terrifying the world and getting their own way. If we can be good without going to church, without bowing before something that either does not exist, or most definitely has nothing in common with our ancestors’ fantasies, why would we just choose to do the same old, same old instead of leaving ancient ideas where they belong? The exit of the Millennials from organized religion isn’t a consequence of churches going corporate, it’s a sign that these institutions’ grip is nowhere as strong as it once used to be.

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neurons

Back in the day, I argued that if we were going to get serious about space exploration, we also had to budget for large, luxury spacecraft rather than just capsules in which we would cram the brave men and women we’d be sending to other worlds with a pat on the back for agreeing to deal with the discomfort and damage to their bodies. Among the reasons listed were the basic physiological problems of spending many months in zero gravity, and mental health hazards of boredom and cabin fever. But now there’s another very important point to add to the list. If you spend too much time out of the Earth’s magnetosphere, you will become less competent at the elementary tasks of exploration. Curiosity, focus, determination, situational awareness, the very traits that make humans such good generalists on our own world, and which robots can handle within very limited contexts, which is why we’d want to aid them when exploring new planets, all will become severely diminished after long-term bombardment by cosmic rays.

This is the result of a recent study which exposed mice genetically engineered to have neurons that glow under the right conditions, to lab-generated cosmic rays. After the equivalent of a few months worth of exposure to particles like ionized titanium and oxygen, the mice became a lot less curious, mentally sluggish, and learned slower. The results were comparable to dementia patients, and under the microscope, the reason was readily apparent. Cosmic rays attacked an inordinate number of dendrites, which are the parts of a neuron exchanging neurotransmitters with its neighbors. Fewer connections meant less efficiency and accuracy in communication, so it resulted in what amounts to reduced competency across the board. This is another reason to hold off on planning grand Mars missions. Damaging the minds of astronauts, perhaps for the rest of their lives, is too high of a price to pay just to get a flag-panting moment…

See: Parihar, V. et. al. (2015). What happens to your brain on the way to Mars Science Adv, 1 (4) : 10.1126/sciadv.1400256

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black hole eating planet

Black holes are, needless to say, strange places, and over the years, I’ve written much about all the bizarre paradoxes and extreme questions they pose. All this weirdness is what makes them fun to study because solving some of these paradoxes and questions ultimately gets us closer and closer to figuring out how time and space works. Consider the science this way. When you build an airplane wing, you want to flex it as hard as you can until it snaps because that will tell you the limits of the materials you used and the soundness of your design. Much the same way as destructive testing helps engineers hone their craft, so does studying a place where physics seems, well, broken, helps scientists test the outer limits of their discipline. Of course when you have the broken fabric of space-time to piece together, some problems will be much harder to solve than others and one of the most persistent ones is whether black holes have firewalls.

What exactly is a black hole firewall? We don’t really know because it’s not supposed to be one of the defining features of its anatomy. Instead, it’s what happens when spontaneous quantum particles litter the cosmos in the wrong place. These particles constantly blink into existence as particle and anti-particle pairs which instantly annihilate each other, and where this won’t pose any problem anywhere else in the cosmos, when they appear too close to an event horizon of a black hole, one particle will get drawn in while the other is repelled into space, with a small flash of energy from the maw of the black hole which it must give up to keep with the laws of physics. It’s a fraction of a fraction of a nanowatt, but over the eons a black hole will exist, this adds up and the black hole would eventually be unable to hold itself together and explode. At least this is the theory behind what we call Hawking radiation, which will balance out the escaping particle’s energy and returns the swallowed matter back to the universe. So what’s the problem?

Well, the problem lays in a technicality that’s actually quite a big deal because it breaks a very fundamental principle of how quantum systems work. Entangled quantum particles are said to have a monogamy of entanglement, meaning that once you entangle one particle in a system, you can’t entangle it with another. To paraphrase a great explanation the source of which I just can’t recall, imagine quantum entanglement as rolling some dice and no matter what numbers come up for each individual dice, the sum of those numbers is the same with every roll. This is important because it lets us know that if we entangle a pair of dice and get 12 in our first throw, when we throw them again and one comes up as a 7, we understand that the other is 5 without even looking at it. Understanding how this works allows us to do some amazing experiments on the very nature of causality itself. But to make this balance out, we would have to know for sure that our 5 isn’t also being used to change the sum of another roll, elsewhere.

And this is exactly what a black hole’s event horizon allows. When one of our virtual particles is swallowed and the black hole gives off the teeny Hawking emission, the remaining particle and the emission are entangled. But the infalling anti-particle is still there, and the outgoing one is still entangled with it. Two independent quantum systems have created a mass-energy surplus, which is a very blatant violation of the laws of thermodynamics, and most solutions to this weird state of affairs involve even further violations of the laws of physics. Enter the firewall. Not really an ongoing phenomenon just beyond the event horizon, it’s instead a line crossing which would permanently sever the entanglement between the outgoing and infalling particles, leaving just a Hawking emission and the outgoing particle as a quantum system. This would release massive amounts of energy proportional to the event, and trap the particle in the black hole forever. It’s not a tidy solution, but it sort of works if you try not to think about it too hard.

Of course thinking too hard about things is what scientists do and they quickly pointed out that breaking quantum entanglement on a whim just doesn’t work, no matter how much energy you release to compensate for the inequality in the resulting equations. And that means, the firewall isn’t really the answer to what happens to the energy and information when black holes devour something. A new solution proposes that black holes actually spawn wormholes when they eat entangled particles. Those aren’t the conventional kind of wormholes we think of, they couldn’t be used to cross space and time on a whim, but they’re essentially a connection which keeps both the escaping and the infalling particle entangled. Recall our dice-based quantum system, and imagine that you roll a dice in NYC while someone else in Hong Kong rolls the other. Both will still amount to 12, and if your dice shows a 6, the one in Hong Kong will as well. But should you be unable to see what you rolled, you can count on a call telling you what the other dice is showing at the moment. That phone call? That’s more or less the wormhole in question.

Yes, this does basically jettison Hawking radiation and leads to its own weird conclusions about the fabric of the universe being composed of a constantly entangled quantum mesh, but that’s how science works. Slowly and carefully, we chip away at complex problems and flesh out all of the toy models until we can simulate real systems, and try and observe them and their behavior out in the wild. What happens to matter that falls into a black hole and if it’s still connected to a quantum system on the outside is still a wide open question. But the fact that it’s just so difficult to even try to answer what seems like a simple question at first glance, shows just how bizarre, complex, and self-contradictory the universe can be. Far from a steady, ordered system, it’s an incredibly wild mess that seems to barely be governed by its own rules should we look just a bit too close, and nowhere is this more evident than with black holes. They’re places where all we know about time and space is broken. But they’re also the places that could teach us the most about these laws, especially because that’s where they’re being tested at their extremes…

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coffee owl

Mornings are awful. Always have been, always will be, rousing you out of bed, interrupting your sleep in unhealthy ways, rushing you to work at ungodly hours during which you must navigate e-mails and other minutia while your mind shakes itself awake to do real tasks. Unless, you do what most people around you do and reach for the nearest legal stimulant to brush off all those early morning cobwebs. I’m talking about coffee, one of the most frequently consumed drugs in the world, bringing in over $30 billion in revenues from the 2.25 billion cups of coffee drank by people around the world each day, and supporting a network employing over 25 million. And as with every drug, there’s a natural dependency. Forgoing it means anxiety, shakes, cold sweats, headaches, irritability, fatigue, and a general foggy haze in which you struggle to operate. It’s a much less intense version of pretty much any other kind of “dope sick” addicts get when they’re unable to secure their fix. Yet, it’s sold openly, to anyone and everyone, at a profit.

What does that have to do with mornings though? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. Think for just a moment why you have to go to work so early, especially when you’re not in the logistics, travel, or maintenance business where one could make the case for early mornings or working through the night. Why do you have to be in the office by 8 am or 9 am along with everyone? If you need your coffee fix to no longer feel like a zombie, that’s why. Mornings were invented for one, simple reason. To get you addicted to coffee. Industry shills known as “morning people,” a code obviously denoting the fiction of someone actually enjoying being forcibly woken up at the separation of the gluteal muscles of dawn, have convinced much of the developed world to set work schedules in a way that will maximize their boss’ ability to get you hooked on coffee, then encourage you to be stuck in a never-ending cycle of sleep deprivation to keep you coming for another fix, day in, day out, even when you can sleep in and don’t have to work.

And Big Coffee and its members like Starbucks, Petes, and Coffee Bean, are not the only ones making a profit off your addiction. They’ve allied themselves with Big Ag’s breakfast industry to sell you cereals, granola bars, yogurt, and other “breakfast food” as it’s denoted. Of course it’s not all there is to it. You see, many fast food chains and coffee stores sell breakfast foods that are highly caloric, containing significant amounts of saturated fat and sugar, which coupled with the sedentary lifestyle enforced by many workplaces often leads to weight gain, and that weight gain interferes with sleeping patterns that make people less tired. Basically, we’re looking at an elaborate, vicious cycle of addiction for corporate profit. We need to wake up to the injustice of mornings and petition Big Coffee to stop pushing companies to open early, as well as removing the addictive chemical caffeine from the vast majority of their offerings still containing it in doses as high as 436 grams. I will be putting together an official letter writing campaign and a petition calling for the end of our forced caffeine addiction on Change.org in the next few days.

Likewise, yours truly isn’t sitting back and just counting on these corrupt corporate behemoths, many with the same market caps and annual profits as Monsanto to roll over, and is in the final stages of a partnership with several vendors to offer a new, natural energy drink alternative for those who must start their day early. If we can’t hit Big Coffee in the media, we need to hit it in the only place it really cares about: the wallet. You wouldn’t be just buying an energy drink that helps you stay alert and awake, you’d be giving these corporate drug pushers the finger to say loudly and proudly that you don’t need their damn coffee and “breakfast food,” you can see all their tricks from a mile away, and you’re smarter than to just let them ensnare you. Even better, should you have any of those “reward cards” that encourage you to be a good little addict and come back for a discount on your next fix, why not make a video of you cutting such a card, or creatively destroying it in some pother way, upload it, then link to it in your entry in the petition when it will be up and running? I’m ready to take on mornings. Who’s with me?

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future highway

As I said before, we really want the Musks and Gates of the world to keep investing exactly the way they’re investing now and we want to keep on encouraging their choices through every tax credit, rebate, and whatever other enticement we can think of. Then we need to take that cash and start pouring it into the sciences and education. Why? Because the biggest reasons those knocked out of the job market by machines and outsourcing will not be able to find new, steady work are a) one-way globalization by nations happily trading goods and services, but severely restricting the flow of labor, and b) lack of skills for new careers and the prohibitively high price tag of acquiring relevant credentials. The former is very, very hard to solve because it’s asking certain countries to put the good of the world above their self-interest, which is political suicide for their leaders. The latter, on the other hand, is something we can take on quickly.

Right now, the typical new degree requires about $18,000 not including books, fees, and living expenses for the next three to four years. And by the time you graduate, your job may already be made obsolete by a new app or maxed out by existing candidates. You’ll also have trouble with getting enough experience in your new chosen field for employers and end up having to work an unpaid internship position just to put something on your resume. Oh and your student debt could only be dismissed by an act of Congress or an alien invasion, and given the current political climate, I would bet cash money on the aliens. Although I’m sure Sally May would keep their employees hounding debtors even while buildings around them are being mowed down by the invaders’ lasers until the bitter end, knowing how they typically operate…

This is an asinine state of affairs. We need something closer to formally accredited certification programs and really, really consider making the college degree optional again for fields which honestly don’t involve specialized knowledge requiring years of theoretical study. If we sponsor enough universities to offer them for affordable sums and actually do job training programs with major companies, we’d be giving millions of people displaced by machines new chances in life. There are trade schools and community college programs that try to fulfill this function already, but there aren’t enough, too many are just predatory scams, and too many HR departments will scoff at these credentials when they see them on a candidate’s resume. We need to tackle this as directly as possible because even management experts consider the way companies hire to be often broken and completely illogical, often indicating a management problem.

We also need to take our education system seriously, easing up on standardized testing across the board and setting our sights on helping students discover what they really want to do in life as they’re getting their general education, providing chances for real world experiences in their fields of choice. When they can see what their lives would actually entail if they choose to follow their dreams, they’ll make better choices about how to peruse them rather than play education poker with a college which views them as customers receiving a product for which they borrow many to pay and expect a bang for their buck, not students to be educated so they can acquire a career by employing the theoretical framework their professors give them.

The common thread in all this is of course lowering the financial and time commitment bars for getting to work and learning new skills as they are needed by the marketplace by getting rid of nonsensical requirements that don’t actually help students or adults looking to make a change. Not only would it help them immeasurably, but they could give them a chance to explore their potential, try more new things in life, and live up to their aspirations without sticker shock. Yes, we could try to create some sort of minimum national income for all citizens as some suggest, but other than the many social questions this idea raises, questions we’re obviously not ready and willing to answer, passively reacting to a decline in jobs and income growth for the 99% by widening the social safety net and hoping that we can change things by doing exactly what got us into this mess in the first place, this approach would kill the potential of millions.

Today we’re snuffing out engineers, writers, doctors, and designers by under-educating them the first 12 years of their schooling, bilking them the next four, and subjecting their resumes to death by a thousand keywords and buzzwords. Just giving them some money while placing all their goals even further out of reach isn’t going to do any good whatsoever. What we need is a lot more moon shots, crazy inventions, and government aided competitions for solutions to our big problems; big picture thinking that asks “what about tomorrow?” rather than “how do I make a buck today?” We got into this mess by taking the easy way, by assuming things won’t change. More of the same solutions to our problems, like Piketty’s wealth tax, or standardized testing, or more lopsided free trade deals, or pouring our money into another bubble, won’t get us out. We need to rethink our priorities and focus on investing in a new post-industrial world where basics like education, wealth, and jobs, aren’t just zero-sum games.

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