Tag Archives: philosophy

Infinity – Infinite Energy

Power. Electricity. The Holy Grail of modern technology.

I say this because the information revolution completely depends on electricity, whether it’s batteries, hybrid motors, or the grid. Everything we do depends on converting some naturally occurring resource into power to drive our lives.

I was thinking about power recently while watching an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Everything they do depends on an infinite (or nearly so) source of energy. Their warp core powers the ship for a 20-year mission. Each device they have is self-powered. From what? Do they need recharging? I imagine not, but it’s been a while since I’ve read the technical manual.

In any case, much of that world (and other Sci-Fi worlds) depends on powerful, long-lasting, disconnected energy sources. For one example, think of the energy required to power a laser-based weapon. And it has to fire more than once.

The truth is that having such a power source is more than world-changing. It has the potential to completely rebuild society from the ground up. If you think about it, much of the world’s conflict is over sources of energy. Authority and power is derived from who controls the resources. If energy was infinitely available, it would be infinitely cheap (at least in some sense). I almost think it would change society from being so focused on worldly gain, to more on pursuit of knowledge, enlightenment, and improvement. We wouldn’t have to worry about how to get from one place to another, or who has more oil, or what industries to invest energy resources in. So much would come free.

When I speak of “infinite” power, don’t take it literally. What I mean is “So much to be practically unlimited.”

Of course there are different types of infinities:

  1. Infinite magnitude – Can produce any amount of power you desire. Not very likely. Something like this would be dangerous. “Ok, now I want Death Star phasers. ok. Go.” Boom.
  2. Infinite supply – There’s a maximum magnitude in the amount of power it can generate, but it can continue “forever” (or at least a reasonable approximation of forever). This is the useful one.

And there are a few other requirements we should consider:

  1. Non-destructive. Environment. Mankind, etc.
  2. Highly-efficient.
  3. Contained and controlled. Obvious.
  4. Portable. Sometimes microscopically so.

It’s nice to dream about such things…

  • Cell phones and Laptops that never need recharged
  • Tiny devices everywhere that never need an external power source (GPS, sensors, communications devices, robots, etc.)
  • Cars that do not fuel. Ever. We’d probably keep them a lot longer. They could do more, be larger, more efficient, faster, safer.
  • Vehicles that can expand the boundaries of their current form. How big can you make an airplane if you don’t have to worry about using up all its fuel? (not to mention the weight)
  • Easier to get things into orbit–space program suddenly becomes much more interesting. Maybe we can develop engines that produce enough power to escape gravity, without using propellant (a truly ancient technology).
  • Devices that can act more intelligently, and just do more than current devices. Think if your iPod that turns itself off after a few minutes of not using it. That scenario would be a thing of the past.

With such a power source the energy economy of devices that we have to pay such close attention to now goes out the window. Who cares how much energy it uses if there’s an endless amount to go around (and since we’ve already established that the energy source is non-destructive and highly-efficient, environmental factors don’t enter in). There would be no need for efficiency until you started bumping up the boundaries of how much power you needed.

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Infinity – Infinite Storage

Anybody who’s taken high school or college mathematics know how phenomenal exponential growth is. Even if the exponent is very, very small, it eventually adds up. With that in mind, look at this quick-and-dirty chart I made in Excel, plotting the growth in hard drive capacity over the years. [source: http://www.pcguide.com/ref/hdd/hist-c.html]

Hard Drive Capacity Graph

Ok. it’s ugly, but notice a few things:

  1. The pink denotes the data points from the source data or what I put in (I added 1000 GB in 2007).
  2. The scale is logarithmic, not linear. Each y-axis gridline represents a ten-fold increase in capacity.
  3. At the current rate of growth, by 2020, we’ll have 1,000,000 GB hard drives. That’s 1 petabyte (1PB). (by the way, petabyte is not in Live Writer’s spelling dictionary–get with the times Microsoft!)
  4. The formula, as calculated by Excel, says that the drive capacity should double roughly every 2 years.

Also, this doesn’t really take into account multiple-hard drive storage schemes like NAS, RAID, etc. Right now, it’s quite easy to lash individual storage units together into packages such as those for more space, redundancy, etc. I’ll ignore that ability for now.

So 2020: that’s 12 years from now. We can expect to have a petabyte in our computers. That’s a LOT of space. Imagine the amount of data that can be stored. How about every book ever written? How about all your music, high-def DVDs, ripped with no lossy compression?

Tools such as Live Desktop and Google Desktop take on a whole new level of importance when faced with the task of cataloging petabytes of information on your home PC. Because, let’s face it, you’ll never delete anything. You’ll take thousands of pictures with your digital camera and never delete any of them. You’ll take hours of high-def footage and never watch or edit them, but you’ll want to find something in them (with automated voice recognition and image analysis, of course). Every e-mail you get  over your entire lifetime can be permanently archived.

What if you could get a catalog of every song ever recorded? That would probably require more than a few petabytes, even compressed, but we’re heading that way. I don’t think the amount of music in the world is increasing exponentially, is it? Applications like iTunes and Window Media Player, not to mention things like iPods, would have to have a critically-designed interface to handle the organization and searching for desired music. I think Windows Media Player 11 is incredible, but I don’t think it could handle more than about 100,000 songs without choking–has anyone approached any practical limits with it?

What about the total information in the world–that probably is increasing exponentially.  Will we eventually have enough storage so that everyone can have their own local, easily searchable copy of the vast sum of human knowledge and experience? (Ignoring the question of why we would want to)

Let’s extrapolate this growth out 100 years to the year 2100. I won’t show the graph, but it approaches 1E+20 GB by the year 2100.

How do the economics of digital goods change when you can have an infinite number of them? It’s the opposite of real estate, an ever-diminishing good.

On my home PC, for  the first time, I do have a lot of storage that isn’t being used. I have about 1 TB of storage, and about 300 GB free. I suppose I could rip all my DVDs, rip all my music at lossless compression (it’s currently all WMA / 192Kbps).

The rules of the game can change quickly when that much storage is available. It will be interesting to see what happens in the coming decades. Of course, all this discussion is completely ignoring the increasingly connected, networked world we live in.

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What would the human race look like?

On my drive into work this morning, I heard an interesting story on on WAMU (sorry, can’t find the specific story link) about a Korean-American adopted by white American parents. While initially struggling against her Korean heritage, she eventually came to appreciate and be proud of it. The commentator, himself an adopted Korean in the same situation, was very grateful for the chance to grow up in such a mixed household.

Along with these thoughts, I there’s a set of novels I recently finished: Orson Scott Card’s Shadow series. In it, he describes an Earth that starts out a lot like the one we know today (maybe a few hundred years in the future), and is eventually unified under a single ruler. The novels are very good, despite the fact that they leave quite a bit of details about how this would happen, given the nature of humanity. On the other hand, maybe it’s merely evoking the philosophy that humans are inherently good, and given the right set of circumstances, they will choose to do good for all of us. I think I could believe that, despite what we see in the world today.

But these two stories together got me thinking: what if the entire world were open to us–no borders, easy  transportation, peaceful coexistence, interdependency, leading to high intermixing, intermarriage, etc…. What would we end up looking like as a human race? I initially thought of this question in terms of physical features, but it’s interesting to think about language, culture, economics, technology–anything at all. It certainly requires a great deal of imagination and taking things for granted to see this world, but I think it’s interesting in a futuristic, sci-fi sort of way.

Excellent article on Rare Risks and Overreactions by Bruce Schneier

I recently started following Bruce Schneier’s blog about security and security technology. He makes LOTS of excellent points. Too bad the powers that be don’t educate themselves sufficiently on this type of stuff before passing bad laws or taking drastic, pointless actions.

I especially like his recent essay on over-reacting to rare events. Right on.

Deep Computing Philosophy from Steve Yegge

If you haven’t read Steve Yegge, you owe it to yourself to do so. He only writes about once a month, but every single article is worth reading, whether you agree with him on everything or not. His latest is fascinating and incites some interesting pondering about the future of software…I’m going to have to think about a lot of it…

The power of the blog to motivate corporate, societal, and government change

This is an issue that has been discussed many times previously–so many that I won’t even bother to link to those discussions. By now it’s well-understood that blogs carry a power stronger than most in the media initially assumed possible.

Not just blogs, but the entire “Web 2.0” phenomenon–MySpace, YouTube–the whole rotten bunch. 🙂 Would Patricia Dunn have stepped down as chair of HP were it not for the constant pounding brought on by the likes of Scoble? Maybe, maybe not. In some sectors, blogs are becoming as well-regarded, if not more, than traditional publishing. Maybe this is limited to the computer industry. Maybe I just read too many blogs. 🙂

Still, it seems that the nature of debate and information dissemination has changed. No longer are we fed what mainstream publishers tell us–even if it’s of better quality. We are now free to choose what and how we read–for good or bad.

We’ve already seen the effects on the corporations. Companies simply can’t get away with anything anymore. Somebody, somewhere, will jump on it.

Areas where I think it will get more interesting:

  1. entertainment – RIAA, MPAA, I’m talking about you. You have ZERO friends among bloggers. All of the bad things you’ve done in courts to innocent people, all of your extortion is shouted from the rooftops by people like those at TechDirt.  You can’t win this war. For now, the audience isn’t very general, but news spreads, and it’s spreading faster and further. Sooner or later, you will lose the PR battle completely–in the meantime, unless your companies drastically change how they do business, your business will be swept out from under you, relegated to the dustbin of irrelevance.
  2. corporations – Microsoft already can’t do anything without the blogosphere lighting up. In some ways, they’ve chosen to embrace this–witness the very high-quality set of developer blogs they host. On the other hand, they’re like any other large company–they have secrets and tactics they would rather not be public debate-fodder. Corporations will be forced to open the windows and let the light shine in on what they’re doing. 
  3. government – imagine if honest, whistle-blowing (or even dishonest whistle-blowing!) staffers ratted on all the corruption in Washington. Imagine if every backroom deal was publicized in embarrassing detail. I don’t think we’re anywhere close to that yet, but there are signs that things are beginning to emerge. Look at the hilarity on YouTube about Senator Ted Stevens’ gaffe about the Internet’s tubes. How long as CSPAN been broadcasting, again? Our elected officials say dumb things about topics they don’t understand all the time–but now we can hear about it over and over again.

Overall, I think blogging will lead to more accountability of traditional structures of society. However, even with these possibilities, there are potential pitfalls:

  1. Overcrowded Medium — occurs when there are WAYYYYYYY too many people broadcasting that not enough people are listening. If everybody in the world blogged, who would read them?
  2. Loss of accountability – if there is accountability for things that are written online, than anything goes. The Internet is already the source of much bad information–it can become much worse if most of it is partisan, subjective, opinionated blather. Still, I’m not convinced it will really be worse than the status quo. The media now is far from infallible. Maybe part of me just wants to keep faith in people’s ability to reason. 🙂
  3. Undercrowded Debates – Broadcast media is a finite resource therefore it maintains its quality mostly by the fact that it has  to judge some things more worthy of discussion than others. Those topics are what people hear about. The Internet, on the other hand, is an unlimited resource. Anybody can have a blog on anything and most do. 🙂 This means that people themselves must choose what they follow, leading to some topics having far fewer meaningful discussions than others. For example, blogs about software and computers comprise a fairly large and active community. Politics has a large community. But what about small-interest, high-importance communities and topics? Where are the scientist blogs about global warming? I’m sure there are some, but is that kind of community ever going to gain a large enough population to affect societal opinion?
  4. Lack of participation – related to Undercrowded Debates, this means people don’t participate in all the areas that are pertinent to their lives. For example, how many of the US Internet users follow blogs discussing network neutrality? This is certainly an issue that could affect all of us, but from what I can tell it’s mostly debated on tech blogs, while the rest of the country misrepresents the entire issue. It works the other way around–I don’t read any political blogs at the moment. What issues am I missing out on? It’s too easy to become part of a niche community on the Internet and ignore the community as a whole.

Some of these problems stem from the anonymity of the Internet, others from the exponential increases in information available to us. Perhaps there are technologies in the pipeline that will solve these issues for us someday. They certainly aren’t going away.

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Worse than Y2K–what if gravity changes?

Though the danger to life, civilization, and future of all that is good and beautiful was greatly oversold, Y2K was still a pretty big deal. It required the detailed analysis and updated of millions of lines of legacy code in all sectors, levels, nooks, and crannies of computer civilization.

We survived, somehow. Planes didn’t fall out of the air. Elevators did not plummet to the basement. Satellites did not launch lasers and nukes at random targets. Cats and Dogs did not start living together.

But what if something even more fundamental than our calendaring system changed?

What if a fundamental assumption about the way Earth functions changed?

Take, for example, gravity. The force of gravity is defined by the following equation:


Constants are:

  • G – universal gravity constant. 6.6742×10-11Nm2/kg2
  • M – mass of first object. Earth = 5.9724 x 1024 kg
  • m – mass of second object.
  • r – radius from center to center of objects. Earth = 6,378,100 m

This can be simplified for use on earth to:


  • m – mass of object on earth’s surface
  • g – earth gravity constant.

We can compute g by setting both equations equal to each other, canceling the common term of m, we get:

If we substitute the values above, we get  g = 9.801585

That’s the value that is a hard-coded into all the missile launchers, satellite control software, airplane flight control logic, embedded physics math processors, and Scorched Earth games in the world.

So what if it changed? It’s not likely, but it could happen. If a significant amount of mass were added or taken from the earth due to, say, a catastrophic asteroid hit, gravity could be affected. 

But how much would it have to change?

Given the current values, F = mg for 50 kg yields 490.08 N of force on the earth. If earth’s mass increased by 1%, g would be equal to 9.899601, and F would be 494.98 N. Would we feel heavier?

It would certainly destroy precision instrumentation.

However, 1% is a LOT: 5.9742 x 1022 kg. By comparison, the moon is 7.36 x 1022  and the mass of all known asteroids is less than that. On the other hand, if you think gravity can’t be affected by a reasonable event, read this.

So just to be safe for future modifications, make sure all your software takes as parameters G, M, m, and r, and calculates g as needed. You can never be too careful.


Rhythmic Programming

Has anyone else ever had the experience of typing code in such a way that you build up an actual rhythm, patterns, a definable velocity punctuated by occasional flourishes? 

I found that happening today. I’m coding up a well-understood pattern in this application and so I can type quite a bit in long spurts. I find that I’m almost typing in “sentences” as I go…it’s very interesting…kind of odd…

Sleep and the length of days

Is it just a coincidence that humans require roughly the same amount of sleep as there are hours during the night?

In other words, is the amount of sleep that is “healthy” for us the result of long centuries of nurturing and tradition or is it biological?

In other words, if the day were 30 hours long, would we sleep more or work more?

This might keep me up at night…