Thursday, March 05, 2015

A quick-informal post on - Yudkowsky's Harry Potter!

My mid-week posting will be of NO interest to most of you! (Move along, now.  Move along.)  It has to do with Eliezer Yudkowsky’s brilliantly popular-if-weird, episodic fanFiction novel: “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.” I know some of you have enjoyed it as much as I have, all the more so, since this deliberate re-imagining of J.K. Rowling’s epic fantasy universe is logical, well-written, compelling… and Eliezer can never make one slim nickel from it!

(In this alternate world, Harry is raised by a scientist to be a math-sci prodigy before the Hogwarts letter arrives. He goes to the magical academy determined to study the underpinnings of magic and to find out what the HECK is going on!)

(Yudkowsky's Harry Potter! Sounds a bit like Jodorowsky's Dune?)

Here is the beginning of this fun riff off a beloved universe, taking it in directions very different from the original. Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

HPMoR is finally coming to a close. In fact, Eliezer went to great lengths to show - by episode 113 - a stunningly clever Lord Voldemort anticipating and neutralizing every possible gambit that might be tried by Dumbledore or (this super-smart version of) Harry to thwart him.  E.Y. sets up a graveyard confrontation in which there appears to be no way out! Harry is doomed!…

… Then Eliezer challenges his readers to come up with a solution!  One that culminates Harry’s year long efforts to understand and utilize magic… using rationality.

See that penultimate scene, followed by Eliezer’s challenge and his rules.

Okay, I couldn’t help it. After reading the dire chapter 113 and Eliezer’s challenge/dare to his readers, I took maybe half an hour and dashed off my own proposed way-out for Harry, to both save his own life and thwart the Dark Lord’s sadistic plans.

Eliezer’s rules demanded that any solution make maximum use of Harry’s rationality and that it should take into account all that we had seen, during his year at Hogwarts. And above all, take into account the fey prophecy that “Harry Potter would destroy the world.”

 Frankly, I could see no other way-out than the one that I contrived. The author had us (and himself) thoroughly boxed-in. Moreover, to be honest, I expect any of you HPMoR fans to intensely dislike my solution!  Because (1) it consists mostly of TALK (hence the “rationality” part, and (2) it sounds a bit like the oldest cliche in the business.  Hence, I can see why Eliezer chose something else...

…a MAGIC TRICK.  Indeed, one that’s hardly foreshadowed at all. One that the Dark Lord would almost certainly have detected and expected, and that we had no reason to imagine Harry capable of. One that in no way answers the problem of the “prophecy,” nor answers any questions from Harry’s year long ponderings of the roots of magic.

Ah, but the one Eliezer chose is fun! And it has action! (Precisely because it does not use much “rationality.”) I will give Eliezer all that.  While grumbling that “my version makes more sense!”— I am still reading along and enjoying the heck out of his alternative.  After all, it’s his world.  Well… no… I mean… it’s more his world than mine.

Back to working on my own worlds, now. But here, below, just for you HPMoR fans, is David Brin’s alternate solution to the dilemma of chapter 114.

====
====

Dear Eliezer.

First off. I was disappointed to learn that V's death threat to "hundreds of students" was a lame magic circle under the stadium bleachers.  Really? When it was so obvious that Voldemort was referring to the TRAIN?  Some loosened bolts on a bridge and hundreds would die under exactly the conditions V described... "if I am not here to prevent it" and “not within this castle.”  This could have led to a very cinematic race to save the train, after Harry's escape. Ah well.

===
As for the problem at hand, posed at the end of the dramatically tense chapter 113, the answer should be obvious.

1) It must make maximum use of rationality.

2) It must take into account all the weird stuff Harry has seen and learned about “magic” and the mostly-moronic nature of Magical Britain.

3) It must be consistent with the prophecy that Harry Potter can and someday would “destroy the world.”

4) Voldemort has demanded that Harry offer “new muggle wisdom.”  So then? Go to a muggle level that Voldie has not yet plumbed.  Here goes --

**********

"You are aware, of course," Harry says at the start of 114. "How absurd you are? How blatantly obvious the Truth is?"

"Explain yourself!"

"I don't have time to explain, but it has become clear to me that all of this is just too convenient, too pat.  Everything from the fake-Latin of our charms, that preceded the invention of the Latin language by 6000 years... to the way that there's a clear inverse ratio between magic and intelligence..."

"Is it your intent to insult me before you die?"

"That is a side benefit, of course. But not the point. You asked about muggle insights, and I can tell you one, right off the top. And thisssss isss true. That - for all your cleverness, Lord V, you'd not rise above the level of a mid level advertising agent, in the outer world, and most likely still be in your mother's basement, gorging on Cheetos and playing at video games."

"Are you enjoying a last moment of insulting defiance, Mr. Potter?  For this, I will omit the stunning curse before dismembering --"

"A man of brilliance and substance would not care, Voldie, and that is the next to last clue."

Voldemort winced at being interrupted and his wand hand twitched. But he asked, through gritted teeth. "Clue?  What clue?"

"Ah, but then there is the final clue... this _prophecy that I would ‘destroy the world.’ Are you freaking kidding me?  And you cannot see it? You truly cannot?"

"I --"

“What power could I conceivably have to ‘destroy the world’? Your habits of thought were so desperate to thwart any action on my part that it never occurred to you to ask – might Harry’s power be inherent in who he is?  What he is?”

“Well. You’re a different version of me! And therefore…”

Harry laughed.  You know I accepted that rot for far too long.  Sure, there was some imprinting – but it’s not inherent.”

“Then what is? Oh time-wasting boy. Be warned that my patience is running thin.”

“Look at how you’ve struggled to arrange so that I can take no actions that destroy the world,  and yet, what actions are YOU about to take, Lord Voldemort?”

“Why, I am about to kill…”  the dark lord blinked. "...you."

“Hm, yes. And clearly that will destroy the world. I am obliged by my recent vow to prevent it, if I can. And that issss why I am sssaying all thisss.”

Voldemort was silent, thinking hard, so Harry pressed on.

“How would killing one more Tom Riddle destroy the world? Answer. It couldn’t.  In fact, there’s only one way your killing me can do that.”

The dark lord stepped closer. “Tell me now.”

“Only if you swear in Parseltongue that my parents and all Hogwarts students are safe from you, for a year.”

“You would have me give up my one big leverage over you?”
        
“You have plenty more!... But…” he arched an eye at Voldemort.  “But I have leverage too.”

Seconds passed.  One of the Death Eaters behind Harry let out a low moan.


Very well.  I ssswear if you offer up a plaussssible explanation, your parents and all Hogwarts students are safe from me, for a year.”

“Okay then… and what I am about to sssay isss the only plausible explanation…” Harry took a breath -- "That we are living in a simulation,  A game.”

Again, the dark lord blinked, culminating in a sneer. “Truly, is that it, Potter? Such a bluff--”

"For a whole year, ever since Professor McGonnagle turned herself into a cat,  I've been pondering how ANY of this could be consistent with the physical universe I was brought up to understand and respect. A cosmos whose rules may not be fair by human standards -- making that happen is up to us -- but at least those rules are fair on the level of logic and common sense. All this "magic" is what you'd expect from a much, much cheaper Creator."

"You are making all of this up, Potter."

“Am I? You can sense that I am sincerely trying to satisfy your last command to me in parseltongue! I am telling you the exact truth of the world, as I see it from my muggle training.  I am telling you this so you'll spare my parents! Thissss isss exactly how I sssee it!"

"But... but Atlantis and Merlin... "

"Yeah, sure. The simulation could be one of two things.  The first possibility is that those long ago Atlantis guys got some super good tech, like maybe we muggles think we'll have in a century or so, and they wrote all this magic stuff into the system, and people have been using it through "incantations" and silly ass arm motions for thousands of years. In fact, I was planning to go searching for the Big Atlantean computer, during some summer break. But that’s not the theory I now see as likely.

“Not as much as the second possibility.”

“Which is?”

“That Merlin and Atlantis are just back story!  For a game that only started a little while ago.  I think I know how to tell which of these to believe, you know."

"I believe neither! Still, despite myself, I am too fascinated to end this, Potter. Truly, you are Tom Riddle at his best."

"So you'd want to believe – that I’m a version of you. But it doesn’t work."

"Never mind that. Just get on with it, child. How can you tell _which simulation we are in?"

"Simple, look at _your behavior, Voldie.  Classic petty tyrant aiming to become feudal lord-of-all.  What propels you? Sure, fear of dying. A spectacular exaggeration of my own war against death. We shared that motive, though I never became an asshole about it."

Harry hurried on, as V raised his wand. "No, look at the rest of it, not just you but _all the dark lords, through time.  Ask yourself WHY ARE THERE STILL MUGGLES?”

“What?”

"Seriously, feudal tyrants were almost always propelled – deep down - by something fundamental that arose out of evolution – _reproductive _advantage. Animals – especially males – tend to try to dominate others in order to maximize offspring! Because that’s how the trait of will-to-dominate was passed down to them.

“Indeed, we’re all descended from the harems of guys who grabbed other mens’ women and wheat. Even when you’re sterile and couldn’t care less about procreation, that drive bubbles up in masked ways. Our recent, muggle-enlightenment society has tried – with some success – to break that old, nasty pattern. But look around you at Magical Britain!”

Careful to keep his wand hand still, Harry held up two fingers of his left hand.

“One, the will to dominate is un-attenuated in you, even exaggerated in volcanic displays of preening bluster. You are clearly an heir of the old drive. Dark lords all act like they want all the women and wheat!  And yet… do you see any increased number of offspring?  The present situation is insanely unlikely! Across 10,000 years, magic users would have had their way with muggle women right and left, till the Atlantean genes utterly dominated and there were no more muggles anymore!”

“Hah!  Now I have you!” Sneered Lord Voldemort. “ How do you know that’s not what I INTEND to do, as soon as I have power?”

Harry laughed. “Bullshit. Excuse my French, but you’ve never shown the slightest interest. You are as sexless as a ten year old. And do you forget that I saw this new body of yours?" Harry smirked but hurried on. "ALL of your efforts have been aimed at preserving one lame consciousness, never at the continuity of Nature, of Darwin, of life.”

“So now you are going all Dumbledore on us?”

“Not at all. I will always fight against death, but I am not a zero-sum fool. I may not have much sex drive, yet. Hey, I really _am ten! But I know I’ll want both sex and family, someday. Kids and a posterity.  So who’s the cranky “little child” here Voldie. Me? Or thee?”

“I have been puzzling why you seem bent on provoking –“

“Your frail ego?”

The wand aimed at Harry’s face and he felt power build. But V then lowered it.

“While I ponder why you seem bent on provoking a more hurried death, let me point out that these imbeciles behind you _do like sex.”

“Sure, perverted, stereotypical villain sex – cheap, sadistic, melodrama stuff. Now ask yourself how many _offspring they have?

“Anyway, you are evading the point of why there are still muggles. And face it, you have no answer. Moreover, you know that’s just one item on a very, very long list, Lordy V.  I could lay out forty or so clues. But shall we go straight for the biggest one?”

Harry shook his head. “Ah, I see from your face that you are putting it together. Maybe not so stupid, after all?  Yes, the only reason why I am not already dead for insulting your frail ego. Come on, Voldie. Say it. Say the reason why you are still listening to me, right now. Why you are feeling fear.”

“I feel no fear!”

“Then say it!  Say the words.”

Voldemort glared.

“Then I will. You’ve taken my reasoning in context of the PROPHECY that had you so worried, a few minutes ago.

“In fact,” Harry dared to take a step toward Voldemort. As he had expected, most of the Death Eaters were quivering, their wand arms drooping.  One of them emitted a sob. 

“In fact, now that you are putting it all together, you are starting to see how utterly useless and _stupid your imposed vow was, as a way to get Harry Potter not to destroy the world.”

“I… no… it can’t be.”

“You know, at first I wondered.  Could _I be less important in this simulation than I appear to be? After all, characters in a truly advanced simulation would each be programmed to see themselves as vital dramatic players. And so I wondered –“  Harry glanced at the Death Eaters. “Your servants are looking really haggard, Voldie.  One of them may get an itchy trigger finger. I suggest--”

“Lower your wands!  But be ready to raise them at my command!”  All of the Death Eaters obeyed, though three of them sagged to the ground.

“I wondered,” Harry continued, “if the core protagonist might be you, Voldie.”

“Of course…” Voldemort swallowed, then lifted his head, greeting Harry’s gaze fiercely.  “It would have to be me!”

“Hm… normally I’d agree.  In real life, you may be a syphilitic, crotchety 90 year old Thomas Riddle, who dropped some quarters into a holodeck in the year 2050, in order to live the vicarious fantasy of a Dark Lord, before… or maybe after… senility claims him…”

Again, the fell wand aimed and Harry’s scar throbbed.

“Thisss isss real!  I remember everything!”

“Yeah, that Parseltongue thing. Can you really evade realizing what a clue that is?”

He went on, driven partly by anger but mostly by the joy of rationality.

“Anyway, I just said, characters remember what the simulation tells them to remember. Or are you saying that all the powers of Atlantis could not implant false memories in one such as you?”

A low gurgle escaped the mouth of the dark lord, each liquidy pop causing nearby stones to shake. Harry’s scar felt like it would burn through his skull, but he concentrated and managed to meet V’s gaze. Behind him, Death Eaters either collapsed or popped out of existence, fleeing.

“Well?  What’s staying your hand, Lordy V?  Could it be that prophecy, again?  It’s got you trapped, doesn’t it. If you kill me, there’s a chance that I am the protagonist! That you’ll stand crowing over the body of the Boy Who Lived, shouting victory… till you see great big letters spelling GAME OVER, shining across the sky. And if THAT is how ‘Harry Potter destroys the world,’ well then, the vow you made me take ain’t worth a bucket of spit. ."

Harry grinned. “I’ll still be the one who wakes up.”

Hate filled Voldemort’s eyes.

“It… would … sssseem… worth … the rissssk.”

Harry shrugged. “So much for the defeater of death. You realize that your horcuxes won’t mean a thing, then?

“And there’s this -- if I decide to play the game again, I’ll beware of all the tricks that worked for you this round! That is, if I don’t decide to move on, to another game. Something with better logic.”

“You are just guessing!”

“Yessssss… but sssincere.  This is a conclusion I was arriving at across the entire year.”

“I don’t have to kill you! I can put you in the worst torment imaginable, in a cell filled with boiling--”

“Really? You think the prophecy can't work its way around that? Do imagine think death is the only way to interrupt a simulation? True, you made me take a vow, or I’d right now be shouting “RESET!” at the top of my lungs. You fixed it so I can’t do that. But are you willing to bet it won’t end anyway, if I suffer enough? Or – even worse – if I ever get bored?”

He took another step toward the tall figure, and their height difference did not seem to matter.

“Frankly, Voldie, now that I’m seeing it all clearly, my boredom with your clich├ęd… silliness… would seem to be the worst danger you have ever faced.”

Harry knew then that it was time to stop talking. Seconds dripped past.

Finally, the Dark Lord said: “If not for the prophecy, I would have laughed at your blatant bluff, no matter how sincerely you have woven 'clues!'  The only effect would have been to get you dismembered more slowly.”

Harry responded with a shrug.  He backed away three paces, then looked around.  Five Death Eaters were left standing, though all of them swayed, as if barely holding on.  He turned and walked over to look at Hermione.

Lifting his wand took some effort, overcoming a leaden feeling from V’s threat. But he managed to brandish it properly and murmur: “Ennervate!”

Voldemort did not stop him.  Instead, the Dark Lord asked: “What is it that you want?”


====

====
Okay, there you have it. And since writing this, I thought of several more reasons why Voldie would reluctantly conclude the GAME OVER scenario is how HP would "destroy the world."

Drawbacks to my approach: there’s no action at all.  As a novelist, I accept that Eliezer’s published chapter 114 is likely far more satisfying.  There’s violence and tension and trickery and mayhem and loads and loads of magic!

… that seems contrived and does not follow the rules the author himself laid down.  But never mind all that.

Suppose he had chosen my version, then what would be the aftermath, starting in 115?

Well, there’d be more talk. Harry’s leverage – while strong – is very narrow!  He would have to negotiate very carefully. There'd be four parties to any deal.  Magical Britain, Muggle Humanity, Voldemort and Harry... and all four want/need different things.

Is there a positive sum?

Voldemort wants (1) to be absolutely guaranteed continued life and freedom of action. (2) for there to be no GAME OVER destruction of the world. (3) Excitement that comes from real challenge. (4) Other desires that HP sees as symptomatic of illness... lust for power and some sadism. (5) He will not willingly give up the Philosopher Stone. What Eliezer call’s Voldemort’s Utility Function.

Magical Britain wants (1) Dumbledore back, (2) Security from any more murder rampages by dark lords and their meddling with imperious spells. (3) A cleaning out, at last, of all Death Eaters. 

Muggle humanity wants (1) to continue developing safe from magical interference... though maybe (2) with some very carefully chosen interventions to help a bit.

Harry wants (1) goodness and joy and life and (2) some commitment to a reduction in death. (3) destruction of Azkaban and (4) rubbing Magical Britain's noses in how awful that was and how awful they have been. (5) Hermione.

In addition, Harry's vow now makes him as determined as Voldie is, not to get the GAME OVER destruction of the world.  Unless he can mentally envision that the bigger outer world is the one not to be destroyed, in which case the game won’t matter.  A project for another time and he keeps that possibility secret from V.

What he really wants is some challenges that will distract V long enough for the lunatic to be at least somewhat healed.  There are major possibilities, like searching together for the Atlanean Big Computer.  Or setting up a new academy to compete with Hogwarts.  Potter House versus Riddle House?

The overlap of all those desires should be possible, in a positive sum way.  There is a clever way to do it... if you ask!
It connects many earlier threads.

Hey, I do this for a living.

But enough of that.  It’s not my party, it’s Eliezer’s.  And a fine one it is. Indeed, that prompted me to fiddle with it for – well – more than an hour now. I am astonished by what He’s accomplished in this series.  And he’s a terrific writer.

Back to the real novel now.


Monday, March 02, 2015

What elites DO to us is more important than what they know

Again and again we see what works... and what almost-never works.  So why is the utterly futile prescription almost always the one promoted by security and privacy "experts," by pundits of all stripes and by supposed defenders of freedom and privacy?

Two Philadelphia cops accused of savagely beating a man without provocation and then lying about it have been indicted following a thorough investigation — by the victim's girlfriend. “After Najee Rivera was given a beating that left him with a fractured bone in his face and one eye swollen shut, girlfriend Dina Scannapieco canvassed businesses in the area and found security footage that led to Rivera's exoneration on charges of assault and resisting arrest and to the arrest of the two officers involved.”

The lesson? Again and again, twits declare that the only way to save freedom and privacy is to pass laws restricting information flows, and then trusting elites to enforce or obey those laws. 

“Brin is naive!” they declare “to imagine that *increased* information flow can ever hold elites accountable or benefit common folk.” Then they call for laws without the light that can enforce them.

What stunning drivel. Any information flow restriction will be far easier for elites to evade, while we are rendered blind by those very same laws. Every attempt to use ciphers etc to “secure” databases eventually fails, with the Anthem leak only the latest in a relentless chain of spills that now come almost weekly.  

In contrast, the only good news in our info wars is happening on our streets, where the spread of cameras is now steadily (if unevenly) making power more equal, not less. 

In both EARTH and The Transparent Society, I portrayed citizens empowered with cams, learning to apply reciprocal accountability (RA)… the once, and past, and present, and only methodology of freedom.

Oh, here's another -- “Brin thinks citizens can be equal to elites in the use of info-tech.”  

No I do not think that and have never said that.  

But the last 200 years… and especially the period since Rodney King and DNA testing… have shown that we don’t have to be equal to elites, in vision or in might, to start applying RA.  If we can see just well enough then our greater numbers will have leverage. 

So what if they can see us better than we see them! If we can see them well enough, then we can deter them from doing stuff to us. 

I cannot fathom why it is so hard to grasp this simple point: What elites see and know will matter a whole lot less than what they cannot do. And while it is logically impossible to police what others know, we are capable of deterring open, physical actions.

Only, in order to accomplish that, light must flow, so we can see.

== False Dichotomies == 

Simply tragic. This “renowned security expert” is simultaneously extremely knowledgable… and disastrously clueless. In this brief video he proclaims that we face a “stark choice” — a dichotomy that’s black and white. Either or.  Either empower state and corporate powers to spy on all of us (and yes, I agree such one-way surveillance could lead to Big Brother)…

… or else provide “security” for all communications so that no one can spy on anyone’s data streams. 

How stirring and romantic. And stunning hogwash. 

I would love to see Bruce’s plan (and I have been asking, for 20 years) for how option #2 is possible. with technology advancing and cameras getting smaller, faster, cheaper, more mobile and numerous faster than Moore’s Law. When your ceiling can contain a hidden gnat-cam or your walls an EM key-logger, tracking everything you type or say… 

...when face reading will not only ID you anywhere but track your mood and (soon) whether or not you are lying? Will hiding somehow equalize the disparity of power between elites (state, corporate, criminal, foreign, technological) and common folk?

Worse than drivel, such talk is actively and deliberately harmful distraction. Again and again, I defy anyone to show me how you can reliably blind all elites! Show us one example of that every having happened, across all of history. How any such “solution” would be robust, across decades of rapid technological change, including the arrival of quantum computers. 

There is another option. A “door number three.” And yes, I understand that zero-sum thinkers have a hard time comprehending positive-sum solutions that extend out of the plane of simple, black and white dichotomies. Still, I made it plain enough in The Transparent Society  — were Bruce Schneier ever — even once — to crack open a copy.

Again and again, until it sinks in: we can stop Big Brother by worrying less about what elites know and more about what they can DO.  And we can curb what they do to us with only one tool. Reciprocal accountability. Stripping them naked so that they can be held accountable. 

That is where I am militant.  And even though few in the punditocracy seem able to wrap their minds around the possibility, it is happening anyway.

As constabularies all across the U.S. reverse a decade of resistance and instead are embracing cop-cams… 

...and ghetto youths start using live-feed cams of their own (exactly as portrayed in both EARTH and The Transparent Society), reciprocal accountability is spreading. We’ll gain accountability and justice and peace on our streets. It is the only way power can ever be curbed and watchdogs reminded that they are dogs, not wolves.

And so it matters little that bright fools peddle addictively silly dichotomies.

== And yet... it has a cool title! ==

Nevertheless, I will tout Bruce's new book... "Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World."  See it reviewed in Slate: How to Mess with Surveillance. Though obstinately zero-sum, he certainly knows and relates an awful lot of facts.  You'll learn plenty!  Just know that the either-or dichotomies that he presents are no "solutions." They bear no resemblance to actual, pragmatic and sensible paths to emerge from the problems that he lays down, so well.

Evade surveillance?  Avoid surveillance? There are hundreds - it appears - born every minute.

Look-back.


Friday, February 27, 2015

From near to far, amazing things are everywhere...

What a year! So far, we've had a landing on a comet, great results from Mars, many more exoplanets zeroing in on "goldilocks" zones... and now, across the next few months, NASA spacecraft close in on the two most wondrous and fabled dwarf planets...

First up -- Ceres: NASA's Dawn spacecraft - after probing the giant asteroid Vesta - is getting super close to its planned orbit of the dwarf planet Ceres -- due to arrive March 6. The "white dot" mystery grows. But I am especially interested in whether our probe finds evidence of a liquid sea under the thick, icy crust.  If so, it will prove the "roofed water worlds" don't need the tug of a nearby planet, in order to heat and melt subsurface water.  It will change our notions of the abundance of liquid water in the universe.

And...the New Horizon spacecraft is closing in on Pluto. Nine years after its launch, New Horizons will achieve closest approach on July 14, 2015, collecting data on the surface and atmosphere of the dwarf planet, its large moon Charon and four smaller moons, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx.  

 Want your name and message to go onto the New Horizons probe? Uploaded into memory after it finishes its main mission and heads out of the Solar System?  See (and join!) the New Horizons Message Initiative, headed by my friend the great space artist Jon Lomberg and his wife Sharona.


Want more wonders? Could there be life in the seas of Saturn's moons? Cornell researchers have modeled methane-based lifeforms that could live in the liquid methane seas of Titan.  Many have I got a great story on the back burner!

Meanwhile, we're still receiving wonderful views of Comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko from the Rosetta orbiter, and these should get even better, during coming weeks. A dream come true for this comet guy!

(Alas, they hope that the little Philae lander, which should have been nuclear, not solar powered) will get enough power in a few months, as 67/P streaks sunward. But that's the same point when the rising push of escaping-subliming gas from below will likely shove the little guy out into space.)

== Visualizing Andromeda ==

For stunning new imagery of our neighboring galaxy, see the high-definition Gigapixels of Andromeda, assembled by Cory Poole. 

If there are a trillion stars in the Andromeda Galaxy, that means there are 100 stars for every Human Being! Manifest destiny!  Let's go get em!  

Ooops, that just went out over the web... so the natives know we're coming...

... in peace!  Yeah, that's the ticket.  We come in peace. ;-)

Seriously, read Phil Plait’s lyrical essay about how fortunate we are to witness such splendor. He writes of "the awe of the raw Universe laid out right in front of me."  Now revealed.  By our own hands.

== Peering downward...and outward == 

Four newly launched Earth-observing satellites are now collecting data on global atmospheric conditions, carbon dioxide levels and aerosols, allowing us to better understand our own planet. 

A Kepler-discovered solar system with rocky planets is 11.2 billion years old and was born near the dawn of the galaxy. An amazing discovery with profound impact on our "Drake Equation" calculations of when both worlds and life might have first emerged. At a distance of 117 light-years from Earth, Kepler-444 is two and a half times older than our solar system, which is 4.5 billion years old. "Which could provide scope for the existence of ancient life in the galaxy."

A proposed space telescope, the Aragoscope, could potentially image at a far higher resolution than Hubble. See an interesting write-up on one of the exciting projects we’ve been seed-funding at NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concept (NIAC) program, designed to turn science fiction into reality through pioneering technology development. This one is a spectacular space telescope that might also be very cheap to build… and closely related to one I described in Existence.

In fact, see my earlier posting about a wide range of skyward wonders that are astronomically-good...

== And more! ==


Astronomers have discovered the largest and most luminous black hole ever seen — an ancient monster with a mass about 12 billion times that of the sun — that dates back to when the universe was less than 1 billion years old. This monster quasar shines (or shone 429 trillion times brighter than the sun.

After decades... a historical curiosity comes to light: Neil Armstrong’s Widow Finds His Moon Purse Stashed in a Closet. 

Closest known flyby: An international group of astronomers has determined that 70,000 years ago a dim star is likely to have passed within our solar systems Oort Cloud — 52,000 astronomical units (AU) or 0.8 light years from the Earth. That is five times closer than Proxima Centauri.

To answer your next question: “98% of the simulations showed Scholz’s star passing through the Oort cloud, only one brought the star within the inner Oort cloud which would have triggered “comet showers”.  Still, one is tempted to look for impact fluxes having gone up, 60-70,000 years ago.

An interesting thought that came up, at the AAAS discussions.  That a top-ranked motion picture like Avatar can now cost about the same as an astronomical mission to discover thousands of real-life planets, like Kepler. Not suggesting a zero-sum tradeoff.  

We need both.  Now if only one could help the other….

== Mister Spock -- the final farewell ==


Yes, it was good to have Leonard Nimoy among us.  I won't say Rest in Peace, because frankly, although I am a scientific dubious agnostic, I do hope he is not "resting," but off on his next cool adventure.  Maybe even where no one has been, before.


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Addenda:  My wife had a crush on Spock, as a child. Phew, that was tough competition!

Oh, what a tricky guy -- getting all the world's nerds to hold up a rabbinical hand sign.... probably well into the future.