Saturday, January 24, 2009


Our civilization is heavily dependent on communication. Let's take you reading this blog. I had to write the content. It goes to Google's servers, which stores it. You request it. Google's server has to send it to your computer, which displays it in a form that you can read. Chances are, the connections were not direct, since Google and I are a very significant distance apart, about 2,000 miles by my estimation. You might be closer to them, or farther.
But even if you're utterly antipodal to Google, they can send you the information fairly quickly. Extensive fiber-optic lines have been installed between every continent on Earth. Fiber-optic cables send data by light beam, which of course travels at light speed. Data arrives anywhere on earth in less than a second. Data would reach the moon in 1 second. If you have older, copper-based lines, they're slightly slower, merely 80% of the speed of light, but still fast enough to reach anywhere on earth in one second.
But I bring up the moon for a good reason: Several nations now are considering building a colony on the moon. Doing so would bring them massive technological prestige, the "Hey guys, check out what I can do, huh?" factor. Communication will of course be essential to the success of the colony, since the sponsoring government will want pictures and video to wave in the faces of their rivals, and the colonists will probably want news, email, and to call their earthbound loved ones. A radio-link could be established without too much trouble, and a 1 second delay isn't too agonizing, although it will mean lots of awkward silence in phone calls due to the other person not hearing you for 2 seconds at a time.
But what if we then go on to colonize Mars? A Martian colony would be an even-greater version of a lunar colony, but would have even greater difficulties. Wikipedia's army of science nerds has already determined that the delay on Mars would be at least 3 minutes (when Earth and Mars are closest), up to 22 minutes when they are at their most distant. Double this time for anything in which a reply is expected. The delay is so great that a telephone call would be for all intents and purposes impossible. Even radio-backed Internet solution would only be possible when the two bodies are nearby, as almost all earthly computers cannot accept a 44 minute ping time. (12 minutes is the longest trip I found documentation for.)
This may be simply the hard laws of physics working against us. Any distant outpost of humankind may simply be out of touch with Earth forever for all practical purposes. I'd like to think that some faster communication means may be established, such as quantum-entanglement, but there's no room for wishful thinking in engineering.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Doom of Languages

According to many sources, including this helpful one from China, many of the world's languages are disappearing. There are mixed feelings about this, with some applauding the increased interoperability of world communications, and others lamenting the permenant loss of the history and culture that the now dead languages represent.

Almost all the dying languages are obscure village languages, dumped in favor of more business-present ones. It's easier to get a job if you can advertise your expertise in, say, Spanish over, say, Nahautl. (Nahautl is the native language of the Aztecs. It still exists, but is seriously being displaced in favor of Spanish.) Also, the internationally favored languages have greater cultural impact. America's endless supply of movies gives English an intense push worldwide. English is also preferred in India, which has an amazing 300 languages. English is preferred in India for two reasons. One being that it isn't really anybody's native language, so everyone is equally inconvinienced by learning it. The other being that the previous British domination of India gave everyone an equal chance to learn it. Many of India's 300 languages are amoung the endangered, although I definitely see Hindi, Gujarati, and Bengali surviving.

Although the Chinese source proclaimed all Chinese languages to be doomed, I must disagree. Two Chinese languages, Mandarin and Cantonese, will definitely survive. Yes, English is favored in China for the business presence, the extensive Internet presence, the movie presence, and the fact that it is the official air-traffic language by international fiat. However, those two languages have so many speakers that it would actually serve me, in America, good enough reason to learn them.

Here's my list of top twenty languages that I believe will survive at least another thousand years, making them effectively immortal, and why:

1. English
English is the native language of America, the UK, Canada, and Australia. All of these countries enjoy massive international prestige. The culture of these four nations is also highly valued worldwide, especially due to America's export of movies, music, and culture in general. Much of the Internet is also in English. In addition to all of this, English is favored in international business, and like I mentioned, English is the language of air-traffic control by international fiat.

English is quite famous for being flexible, and quite willing to absorb words from other languages.

2. Mandarin Chinese
Known as "Putonghua" internally, this Chinese language is the native language of northern China, and is the primary government language in China. It has 500 million native speakers and is well known by a number of other Chinese speakers. Anyone wanting to do business in China had better know it.

3. Cantonese Chinese
This Chinese language developed in southern coastal China. I'm classifying it as a language because it's more different from Mandarin than Spanish is from French. Yes, they use the same writing system, and quite a few phrases are quite similar. Yes, quite a bit of Chinese thought classifies it as a dialect of Mandarin. It's spoken in Hong Kong, which has an immense economy, and 105 million people speak it. Again, anyone wanting to do business in China had better know it.

4. Japanese
While Japanese is only natively spoken in Japan itself, Japan's immense export of culture has taught it to nerds worldwide. Japan also has a very large economy. Very large indeed.

5. Spanish
The Hispanosphere stretches straight from the tip of south America all the way up into the Mexican border with the United States. Meaning, almost all of the South American continent's nations use Spanish as their native language, as well as the Central American region, and southern North America. In addition, a large number of Spanish speakers desire to move to the United States, so any American in the southwestern region should learn Spanish as well.

6. French
French used to be the universal language of diplomacy and trade. The term "lingua franca" literally means "French language." Then, much to the fury of the French, it fell out of favor for some reason. It is still quite well known in any region that France ever had anything to do with. This includes enormous swaths of northern Africa, southeastern Asia, eastern Canada, and the middle east. French also has a large cultural prestige worldwide.

7. German
Spoken mostly in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, it would be a wise language for an international businessperson to learn. The German economy is enormous. German also has some cutural prestige.

8. Arabic
Arabic is the official language of Islam, and anywhere that Islam goes, Arabic goes with it. Arabic is an official language in almost all of northern Africa, the middle east, and many parts of southern Asia.

8. Russian
Russia is huge. Russia also interacts with its huge neighbors. Lastly, Russian influence is found in many languages in eastern Europe, giving people wanting to learn those too a leg up. Russia also has a reasonably big economy, although it got hurt in recent years.

9. Hindi
Hindi is India's most populous language. Urdu is very similar. (Although the two are slowly further diverging. Hindi prefers to dig though the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit for further terminology, whereas Urdu prefers Arabic for this purpose.)

10. Portuguese
Portugal doesn't appear much in the news these days, but their former colony, Brazil, does.

11. Icelandic
Even if every Icelandic person abandoned this language in favor of English, historians would preserve it, as it draws from the very root language of English, German, Norweigian, Swedish, and Danish. Icelandic has literally not changed in a thousand years, which is rare for a language.

12. Esperanto
Esperanto is nobody's native language, and was invented by a Polish linguist to solve the problem of five different linguistic groups wanting to communicate, but none of them satisfied with any party having the advantage of using their own native language. It flopped there, but is favored in Asia as..well, nobody's language that draws from every European language. Therefore, if you know Esperanto, learning any European language is easy. Also, Esperanto has no irregular verbs due to it being artificial. No irregular verbs makes it that much easier to learn.

13. Norwegian/Danish/Swedish
These three languages are connected, and I'm not sure which one deserves the place. Will they combine into each other, or diverge further?

14. Finish
Finish is unrelated to the languages of any of Finland's neighbors, which is strange. Finland is starting to experiment with cultural exportation.

15. Dine
Better known as "Navajo," because it is the native language of that tribe. Quite famous from its cryptographic use in World War II.

16. Dutch
English might be ubiquitous in both the Netherlands and Belgium, but I don't see either one giving up on Dutch.

17. Hebrew
Hebrew died down to just the liturgical language of Judaism in the past, but underwent a revival from the founding of Israel.

18. Farsi
Increasing Iranian influence will increase the influence of this Iranian language.

19. Polish
Poland was conquered for much of the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. When officially restored, the Polish people were quite nationalistic about it.

20. Latin
Latin is officially dead and possibly no longer pronounced correctly, but is an official liturgical language of the Catholic church, the ancestor of many European languages, present in many legal terminologies, and lastly, "Quid quid latine dictum sit, altum videtur."

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Sokal Affair

Back in 1996, physicist Alan Sokal decided to play a practical joke. He wrote an article for Social Text, a postmodernist magazine published by a nearby university. (Nearby to him. Not to me.) He felt that postmodernist thought was insufficiently rigorous, and they would fail to notice that no part of his article was backed by any actual physics, and was one big non-sequiter. There were loads of amphiboly, half-baked references, and misleading quotes from the last hundred years of intellectuals. Surely, they would consult a physicist who would point the the infinite problems with it?

No such luck for them. They made one attempt to ask Dr. Sokal for a rewrite, and when he refused, they just published it anyway. He then announced to the world that it was just a practical joke. Social Text protested that he wasn't being fair, but the point was made: postmodernists are really really easily trolled.

His essay is still available, and I highly recommend reading it. He starts off saying things that postmodernists generally agree with, that there is no absolute truth, but truth is a matter of perspective, and claims to absolute truth are both wrong and arrogant. He then goes on to claim that science, specifically quantum physics, supports the (American) left-wing political positions, that morphic fields exist (this was a new-age idea that not even new-age believers accept anymore), and that math supports the pro-choice opinion via the axiom of choice. (The Axiom of Choice has literally nothing to do with the political position of Pro-Choice. The Axiom of Choice says that if you have sets that contain things, things can be selected from them. Duh. Pro-Choice proclaims that abortion of pregnancy should be a legal option. Please do not debate either here. The Axiom of Choice is well-proven, and abortion is so controversial in the United States that no productive debate on it can happen. The two factions literally have opposite assumptions.) He proclaims again that absolute truth is false based on the loss of Newton's beliefs in absolute space and time, since Einstein proved that both can be distorted.

Postmodernists got the last laugh in this, ultimately, as Schon and the Bogdanov brothers released physics papers with glaring errors that weren't noticed until long after publication, with the Bogdanov brothers escaping the notice that they had no qualifications either. A further lesson: Peer review only works when the peer is actually paying attention. The Bogdanov affair was particularly embarrassing because many of their claims were outright impossible, and no one noticed.

Confirmation biases also appear in Dr. Rosenhan's experiment in which he has actors pretend to be insane until admitted to a mental hospital, and then return to sanity. Doctors in these hospitals continued to find their normal behavior to be also crazy, since these people were admitted as insane. This also happened in the opposite direction as a mental hospital that heard about the experiment found suspect "patients" that were, in fact, legitimate. Dr. Rosenhan hadn't even sent actors to that hospital.

Lesson had: Check carefully, fraud is easy.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Many philosophers think that a Utopia, a perfect society that everyone would clearly benefit from, is impossible. Even the name comes from the Greek words for "No Place."

Novels have been written on the idea, and yesterday I read a series of articles proclaiming that all of them were inherently drab, dull, and crappy. Part of this is because happy, pleased characters aren't interesting to read about -- interesting stories are about conflict, drama, pain, and anguish.

However, the other side is that it's hard to make people really, truly happy. Most previous attempts at describing Utopias mostly described the absence of what annoyed the writer the most. Medieval descriptions of heaven revolved around opulence and leisure, the precise opposite of most people's existences that consisted of drudgery and poverty. So people angry about unfair conditions in employment have Utopias of every single human being independently wealthy. People angry about social injustice have Utopias about resolutions of these problems. George Orwell said that if there was a writer with a chronic toothache, his Utopia would be entirely about free dentistry. And this is not the whole picture, of course.

Utopia would clearly be a place of varied experience, since we as humans are very homeostatic -- we rebound to any condition we are thrust upon, and experience whatever the status quo is as normal. Discomfort would still exist, but it would be brief, and the escape from it joyous. Coercion hurts people, so every action that occurred would be voluntary. This is starting to sound very familiar....

In fact, this is utterly reminding me of a story I read on Kuro5hin, "The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect," in which humankind has this situation abruptly thrust upon them by a strong AI who, through a speculative loophole in physics, achieves apotheosis for the explicit purpose of achieving Asimov's three laws.

For reference:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

The AI in that story interprets the first law as meaning that no human can ever be allowed to die, experience pain without their definite consent, or be imperiled in any fashion. The ending of that story really truly pissed me off.

I also recall a second incident in which people reacted poorly to Utopian results. There is an online game that I play regularly, and in the past, two devastating bugs were discovered at once. In one, currency could be underflowed. (This means that losing money while possessing none would wrap around to having the maximum possible amount of money.) This was compounded by the creator's choice of a very large variable for currency values, a quadword (4 bytes), so this maximum was about 15 quintillion. The second one allowed arbitrary item duplication. The net result of this was a brief period in which nearly every player was mind-bogglingly rich and in-game items were as common as dirt. In short, the techno-communism similar to "Star Trek" and other science fiction works.

Now if this could somehow happen in reality, I'd hang up this blog, call it a day, and sit back to enjoy the opulence. Alas, in the game people complained endlessly about not being able to make more money, about the loss of status, and endlessly complained that the newly wealthy's new wealth was fundamentally unfair, even though they failed to hold onto this wealth when the bugs were fixed about a month later. The game maker's response was to provide in-game actions to reduce the amount of currency, which is now almost back to normal. A few large pools of wealth remain, but the wealthiest people are some of the least active participants in the game's economy.

So if somehow every human became wealthy, but rather than leading to inflation, goods still got produced in record numbers, would people complain about this situation? In a word where everyone is wealthy, Veblen goods are useless. (Veblen goods are things that are bought more when the price is raised, on the sort of snob-appeal that the "riff-raff" cannot afford them. Things like expensive perfume, top-end luxury cars, and the like. Decreasing the price actually ruins the snob appeal.) You do not have the right to Veblen goods, you never did, and you never will. What makes them Veblen is the exclusion, and what makes their existence tolerable is their non-essential-ness.

In short, if Utopia can't happen, it's because people are greedy, spiteful, whining jerks.
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