Open thread: can life be simulated?

Slashdot reports: “Researchers at the Technische Universitat Wein have created a simulation of a simple worm’s neural network, and have been able to replicate its natural behavior to completely mimic the worm’s natural reflexive behavior.”

When it comes to bodies, at least down to the level where quantum uncertainty becomes important, there seems to be no reason why sufficiently powerful computer hardware could not produce an excellent simulation. In the long term, that could allow things like the development and practicing of surgical techniques on simulated bodies; improved testing for safety in diverse applications; and research into animal physiology.

Perhaps brains are different; there may be something about consciousness that keeps it from being modelled by any conventional computer, regardless of its memory and processing capabilities. Still, it’s possible that consciousness can also be simulated, or re-created in a digital form, perhaps with the aid of quantum computers.

The Fourier transform

Richard Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow includes a great discussion of the scientific uses of the Fourier transform. Most amusingly: “The side-to-side waving of the urine trail on the road was presumably produced by the long [elephant] penis acting as a pendulum (it would be a sine wave if the penis were a perfect, Newtonian pendulum, which it is not) interacting with the more complicated periodicity of the lumbering four-legged gait of the whole animal.” (p. 73)

This video provides an accessible visual explanation of how this mathematical tool breaks down a complicated curve into its constituent sine waves, and some of the useful applications for that transformation:

Urban mesh networking

One fascinating dimension of software-defined radio is the ability to establish mesh networks: distributed data sharing systems where each computer involved is a node which can carry traffic on behalf of others. That means that as long as you have solid radio links you can establish a network that can transmit information independently from the commercial internet, run by the kind of telecom companies that provide home internet connections. If you then connect some parts of the mesh to high-quality internet connections, you can share internet access over the mesh network.

This is all part of the plans of Toronto Mesh, a group that meets at Robarts Library and is planning to set up such a network in Toronto. NYC Mesh is much father along: with Manhattan and Brooklyn ‘supernodes’ in place which provide internet access through the mesh.

There are numerous advantages to a mesh network. It can free people of all the bad behaviour from local telcos: charging monopoly prices, slowing down traffic from some sites, engaging in surveillance themselves or supporting government surveillance, etc. It also holds the promise to create more resilient networks which are better able to cope with societal disruption. Building infrastructure of that sort will be important as climate change continues to destabilize human and natural systems.

I’m collaborating with Toronto Mesh to propose a hardware and software development partnership with the Campus Co-Operative Residence. They have a large number of houses within 1.5km of each other, share many of the values of Toronto Mesh, and would likely value the ability to control and enhance their internet access in the ways mesh networking would allow. The proposal is circulating for comments and for people to start getting familiar with it now. Soon we will develop a formal version with cost estimates to go to the Co-Op board.

AI + social networks + unscrupulous actors

Charlie Stross’s talk at the 34th Chaos Communications Congress highlights risks associated with artificial intelligence technologies in combination with factors like geolocation, the engineering of content online to produce emotional responses, and people with malicious objectives from manipulating elections to harassing women seeking abortions.

It’s worth watching, and starting to think about what sort of regulatory and technological barriers might be erected to such abuse.

Google’s Advanced Protection: no support for old mobile devices

Google has warned me that: “We believe that attackers backed by certain states may be attempting to compromise your account or computer”. There’s a good chance this is because of the Stratfor hack, though it may also be for anti-pipeline/activism related reasons.

For a couple of years now, I have been using the two-factor authentication (2FA) option they offer, in which you need to enter your password as well as a rapidly-changing passcode from a smartphone app in order to access your account. I also keep a close eye on the access logs they provide under “Last account activity” and “Details” at the bottom of the GMail screen. Having 2FA turned on means someone with just your password cannot access your account. This is valuable for many reasons. If you recycle passwords between different accounts, a breach in one place might spread to another. Attackers may also use phishing (setting up a real-looking login page and tricking you into entering your login credentials) to steal a password.

Since the security of my Google account is so important, I bought two physical access tokens and joined their free Advanced Protection Program. Now to login I need my password and one of the keys. It also adds other security enhancements, like a more complex process for recovering an account which you have been locked out from. The keys aren’t Google-specific, so I may eventually be able to use them to authenticate myself to other important accounts as well.

Advanced Protection has already involved some headaches. I generally prefer Firefox because of its open source community and because it seems to have the most extensions for blocking ads, controlling which scripts run on websites, and protecting privacy. With Advanced Protection, I can now only use Google services through Chrome.

Even more of a hassle is that Google Calendar no longer works on the Apple-made Calendar app on my iPhone and iPad. I can’t even use the Google Calendar app because my iPhone is too old to run a version of iOS new enough to be supported. On my iPad, I installed the Smart Lock app which is meant to log me into the GMail, Google Calendar, and YouTube apps. Unfortunately, it produces only an endless loop. A login window comes up, I enter my username and password, I authenticate using the Bluetooth token and… it kicks me right back to entering my username. It’s a fairly old iPad and not running the newest iOS either, so perhaps that’s the problem.

Calendar sharing across devices including my phone is pretty essential for me, but I also want to do everything possible to protect my GMail account. For that reason, I have switched to Apple’s iCloud calendar-sharing system, which works on both my Macs, my iPhone, and my iPad. Maybe when my ancient iPhone 4 finally dies and I replace it with something that runs a modern version of iOS I will be able to get Smart Lock to work.

Breaking loops

As an experiment in living and in an effort to protect my sleep I have set my router to disable internet access from all my devices between 2:00am and 7:00am seven days a week.

Especially when I am feeling down and wishing I could avoid things, there is a temptation to just keep clicking through YouTube videos, Wikipedia articles, or news stories.

Contrary to the pervasive idea that being well-informed is all about being apprised of the latest information, there is good reason to think that the newer information is the more likely it is to the incorrect, incomplete, or useless. Over time, we filter information by quality, put things together, and benefit from additional context. That makes the news from a weekly or monthly magazine more likely to be informative than the news from the current Google News page or a social media feed, and it means reading a book which society has determined to be important almost certainly carries more lifetime value than reading the same number of words from breaking news stories.

There are other self-harming loops I have been working to disrupt in myself and better understand in other people. Despite a lot of anguish and turmoil, the overall experience of the last couple of months suggests that improvement is possible.

Ghosts of the Ostfront

I’m surprised I have never mentioned Dan Carlin’s historical podcasts here yet. I got a lot out of “Blueprint for Armageddon“, his six-part history of WWI (source of this account). Listening to his thoroughly-researched and passionately-delivered work has led me back to a number of books by serious historians as well as primary accounts. Those include G. J. Meyer’s A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 which I have gone through more than once as an audiobook and Ryan Cornelius’ The Last Battle about the fall of Berlin in 1945.

On the Greyhound trips to Ottawa and back, Myshka and I listened to three of the four episodes in “Ghosts of the Ostfront” — a macabre but instructive account of the Nazi-Soviet war from 1941 to 1945.

There are lots of reasons to be interested in the eastern front in WWII, but the familial connections were at the forefront of my mind. The series does a good job of explaining the situation faced by those in countries between the two great powers during the war, including all those who became double victims oppressed by both the Soviet and Nazi autocracies.

Carlin and his research and production team have lots of other great stuff, from a free discussion with favourite historian and thinker James Burke to his detailed history of the life of Genghis Khan to the unbelievable story of the Anabaptist takeover of Munster in 1534. His preference for the bloody ought to be noted, but to me his work doesn’t seem to revel in violence for its own sake but more to try to discern the broad lessons of history.

STEM over-emphasized?

Even at Google collaborative skills matter more than technical ones:

In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard.

I suppose that’s unsurprising in a sprawling corporation like Google. When you’re working to advance mass interests within a bureaucracy, human interaction can often be the most important factor. Working alone on your own project technical competence and motivation may matter most, but in a web of people the way you affect the others will often be paramount.

Modern board games

Here are a couple of interesting journalistic accounts of complex modern board games:

They both emphasize games that seek to accurately model military conflicts, particularly “A Distant Plain“, which is about the post-2001 intervention in Afghanistan.

A few years ago, I tried to convince the student government (Lionel Massey Fund, or LMF) at Massey College into buying a game called “Persian Incursion” which sought to model an Israeli attack against the Iranian nuclear weapons program. They rejected the proposal as too expensive and controversial. It would be interesting to try a game like this sometime, but no board game café where I have asked yet has carried them.