My boarding pass for Orion's Flight Test!!!

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Are we ready for the rise of the robots?

Friday, 4 March 2016
I have recently read in different journals the rise of robots, and how they can actually be our substitutes in our jobs. In a society in which we need to work in order to have money to live, this can come as a scary prospect. Robots will do the things we can do and we no longer will have the minimum income necessary to live. 

It shouldn’t be so. The initial idea behind giving the work to robots was for humans not to have to do it. For us to be freer. But our society is not ready for that. 

I have also read about some proposals for giving basic income to everyone. I completely agree with that. In the case where no work would be necessary, other than creative work, I would even go further. Not only basic income, but equal income. A world where technology could do the basic things for our survival, inequality would only make a few to be the masters and the rest just slaves. Well, it sounds familiar, doesn’t it? In Chomsky’s “Requiem for the American Dream” we can see how inequality is increasing in our modern world, in particular in US. US, a country where the health system is private. Of course, I’m talking about a first world society. The rest of the world are just slaves of the first world’s countries. But even to think that our health is a matter of profit and not of basic rights in a supposedly first world country makes you think how our society works. 

A world with only creative works is a world where each individual is free to choose their path. The structure of the society has to be in such a way that each one can achieve their maximum potential. But also it must be a society that allows laziness. It should be oneself who decides to do a meaningful job or not. But then, those who contribute more to society would feel the need to take more and create inequality. 

Our ethics towards work has to change then. Education is a key factor: how to educate people to be free? Foucault rises the problem of our education being tailored to the goal of maintaining the same structures of power. If the structure of power is based on a work-based society, we won’t be free from this vicious circle. 

My opinion is that the more the knowledge, the freer one is. Education comes in all ways, not only knowledge, but also on values and behavior. We need cultivate but also compassionate people. It is not important to contribute, but at least not to destroy others peoples opportunities. Unfortunately, that’s we always have been doing since we are known to be in this planet. 

A technological advanced society needs an ethics based on science, I think. And it is not about the scientific method, but about the values that make science advance: honesty and curiosity. First of all, being honest with yourself. And that means a great level of self-knowledge and retrospection. Being critical about what other people say or believe, so that we are not slaves of other people’s ideas, and, thus, being vulnerable against power gathering in elites. 

The existentialists, even though their lives were not exemplar, got it right. Be free, try to experience as much as possible, be responsible of your own acts, be an active part of your life, not a passive being. We have to have a more advanced society, far from sin culture, and towards individualism, but, at the same time, towards a social-communist structure. Otherwise, we would be either slaves from the rich people, or be eliminated by robots. 

Yes, being eliminated by robots could be another outcome of the rise of robots. We have to give human-like ethics to our robots, otherwise they will arrive to the right conclusion that we are the vermin of the planet. Either that, or become a better society. 

Our society is not ready for non-work society, much less for a society with robots that are conscious. We can wait but, as always, I think we will first get into it, and then adapt on the whim. There will be chaos, and possibly our own destruction. I hope we don’t go that far.

Das lied von das Universum

Sunday, 14 February 2016
I just read “The life of Galileo”, by Bertolt Brecht. Brecht, a man of his time, was worried about the ethics of the scientific work. My personal opinion is that it is not science itself that has to be under scrutiny, but its uses. Science has improved our lives in general, when used properly. And knowledge is a treasure for us all. Only us can save us from ourselves, and knowledge is the way to go. 

A sentence was highlighted by somebody else in the version I have been reading: “Unhappy the land that has no heroes!”. Galileo´s recantation has been cried. However, I would stick to another one, by Galileo later on in the play, which is not highlighted: “Unhappy the land where heroes are needed”.

1616: The Copernican theory is censored by the church. But, 400 years later, we “hear” the music of the Universe. When Galileo oriented the newly invented telescope to Jupiter, he started a journey, the scientific journey, that led us up to the historical moment we are living now. Much has been said and explained everywhere about gravitational waves. I am only echoing what has been on the news since last February 11th 2016. As all good music, the timing is perfect: 100 years after they were predicted by Einstein, another science´s giant. And, of course, everybody in the planet can have a ringtone with the “music” of two black holes dancing in space. 

Since Galileo, astronomers started to see a silent movie, in black and white. Then there came the colours, with all sorts of wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum. Now, we can hear the sound, the soundtrack of the Universe. And now, all humanity can participate in the celebration of this gigantic step towards our understanding of the Universe. 

 We are happy, and we have our heroes.

Mind the gap

Monday, 18 January 2016

An international team of researchers have demonstrated that the spectral gap problem is algorithmically undecidable. The spectral gap, or the difference between the energy of the ground state and the first excited state, is fundamental to understanding the properties of a quantum many-body system. The question posed in their paper is: given a quantum many-body system, is it gapped or gapless? And they find out that that question is undecidable in the same form encountered in Gödel’s incompleteness theorem.

An important consequence of this study is that it has been demonstrated that there exists a physical problem where the reductionist approach is not possible, that is, the macroscopic properties of a system cannot be derived from its detailed microscopic description.  Even if we can perfectly describe all the parts, the properties of the whole cannot be predicted. Nature seems to dodge our immature science.

Emergent properties belong to the realm of complex systems. As Anderson puts it, “More is different”. There seems to exist a hierarchy in the description of nature, and that there is not straightforward way of going from one to the other.

This hierarchic structure has been recently found in our brains when we process language. Apparently, we keep track of different abstract linguistic structures (words, phrases and sentences) at different timescales. The authors of the research found thus a basis for Chomsky’s ideas about how we have a grammar in our head, which underlies our processing of language.

A similar idea permeates the Schenkerian analysis of a passage of music. This analysis shows the hierarchical relationships among its pitches, drawing conclusions about the structure of the analysed passage. Music is another kind of language, with different compositional time scales. I wouldn’t be surprised if a similar kind of analysis for music would led to finding a musical grammar in our heads.

Music, the ultimate abstract language, the one that Kandinsky tried to translate into visual art. To completely disembody lines and colours from their figurative meaning. Just a feast to the eyes.

A complex work of art, created by a complex system, the painter, apprehended by a complex system, us humans. How could ever the beauty of a piece of art be deduced from something so simple as an equation?


Saturday, 5 December 2015
This recently published article has pointed out how our XXI century world if full of bullshit, and how a lot of people accept bullshit without a second thought. It is very funny, indeed, to see how randomly generated sentences (here or here) are accepted as profound and deep, and how people is so ready to believe in them. Well, it is funny, but not funny at all, on second thoughts. 

As they point out here, we should follow the rules of “The Fine Art of Baloney Detection,” to differentiate what is a sound statement from simple bullshit. It all boils down to the poor understanding of science in our society. Skepticism is the core of science, but I think skepticism is not well understood. For most of people, it strips out all the “magic” and wondrousness of the world. And people want to believe. That is the core of human nature, to believe there is a profound meaning in their lives, that everything makes sense, and that we are connected in a special way to the world. We want to feel special. 

I have many friends who believe in all sorts of this new age spiritualism. Even scientists, what I found surprising. I even agreed to perform an experiment on reiki. I did it because this friend was a scientist, and of course the scientist in me would never refuse to perform an experiment. In short, the experiment did not work. But he still believes in it. I think that is one of the things that confuses scientifically illiterate people, that even scientist believe in bullshit. Scientists should know better, right? 

As I said, it is into our human nature to yearn for a meaning, to belong to something much bigger than us. The official religions are so many centuries behind our modern society, that this yearning has created all sorts of new “religions” that aim directly to the spiritual part in us. So we are just cannon fodder for all sorts creators of bullshit. 

Just last night, a friend and me were assaulted by one of these believers, and tried to introduce us into mindfulness and all that nonsense. He was making up words on the way. So, I decided to make up another word: bullshitfulness, or the awareness of our own bullshit and the bullshit around us. 

So, from now on, I will try to perfect the art of bullshitfulness. I know I bullshit too, but I always try to warn beforehand. That is why I created the tag “ramblings”. We all should be aware of our own bullshit, and warn other people about it. We should also try to spot bullshit, and not be ashamed of pointing it out. Even if they are friends. Specially, when they are friends. 

The world is full of wonders. I do not think we need to invent it, just to discover it. Is that bullshit?

Earthquakes in music

Monday, 16 November 2015
I already have written about earthquake records transformed into music (here and here). However, I did not realized that earthquakes could also have inspired music compositions. As I was reading The Melodies of Monsoons: Weather in Indian Classical Music, I was wondering if earthquakes also inspired classical music. 

And, certainly, a few works have been composed after these natural disasters. Among them, the beginning of Handel’s Messiah and Telemann’s Die Donnerode. The later particularly interests me because it was inspired by the 1755 Lisbon earthquake

The Lisbon earthquake struck in the height of the Age of Enlightenment. Two opposing ideas, the orthodox religiousness, and the prevalence of the reason, tried to explain such a natural disaster. It inspired Voltaire’s Candide, which would be later transformed into a Bernstein’s operetta, and a strong debate about the existence or not of a benevolent deity. Rousseau found in this earthquake grounds for returning to the natural life, far from the cities. The Lisbon earthquake inspired the creation of the Portuguese fados (fate), so embedded now into their culture. And here I leave you, with Amália Rodrigues:

Ig-Nobel prizes 2015

Friday, 18 September 2015
Yes… it is that time of the year again, when science and humour collide. I secretly dream of winning the Ig-Nobel prize some day. But it is very unlikely. I’m afraid I’m a very boring researcher. Anyways, here you have the winners of the prizes this year: 

CHEMISTRY PRIZE — to the invention of a chemical recipe to partially un-boil an egg. 

Very useful for people who can’t decide between hard-boiled egg or omelette for breakfast. Also for the ones that back off from revolution… Truth, Justice, Freedom, Reasonably Priced Love, and a Hard-Boiled Egg! 

PHYSICS PRIZE — to the testing of the biological principle that nearly all mammals empty their bladders in about 21 seconds (plus or minus 13 seconds). 

The authors, in the abstract of their paper, wonder why this issue was given not much attention by researchers. I am really surprised too. I always find very long queues for the toilet, while men don’t queue at all… so if the time we spend “ejecting fluids” is the same, I wonder what takes us so much time in the toilet… perhaps because we usually go in pairs, and we just go to have a chat? Of course, that’s what most men think. It is clearly the best place to have a chat… 

LITERATURE PRIZE — to the discovering that the word "huh?" (or its equivalent) seems to exist in every human language — and for not being quite sure why. 

This is too easy to comment… huh? 

MANAGEMENT PRIZE — to the discovering that many business leaders developed in childhood a fondness for risk-taking, when they experienced natural disasters (such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and wildfires) that — for them — had no dire personal consequences. 

I really don’t care about this… I’m immortal… 

ECONOMICS PRIZE — The Bangkok Metropolitan Police [THAILAND], for offering to pay policemen extra cash if the policemen refuse to take bribes. 

I am really not paid to write this blog… if you get my drift… 

MEDICINE PRIZE — Awarded jointly to two groups, for experiments to study the biomedical benefits or biomedical consequences of intense kissing (and other intimate, interpersonal activities). 

This is the kind of study where the researcher can get too involved into. I can imagine a PhD on Kissing and its benefits. There would never be enough data according to the PhD student… 

MATHEMATICS PRIZE — to try to use mathematical techniques to determine whether and how Moulay Ismael the Bloodthirsty, the Sharifian Emperor of Morocco, managed, during the years from 1697 through 1727, to father 888 children. 

This guy really was healthy, according to the MEDICINE PRIZE above… 

BIOLOGY PRIZE — to the observation that when you attach a weighted stick to the rear end of a chicken, the chicken then walks in a manner similar to that in which dinosaurs are thought to have walked. 

This is, in my humble opinion, the best of them all. I can’t help showing the supporting material of this study… 

DIAGNOSTIC MEDICINE PRIZE — to the determination that acute appendicitis can be accurately diagnosed by the amount of pain evident when the patient is driven over speed bumps. 

Don’t ever go to La Cañada in Almería with appendicitis then… 

PHYSIOLOGY and ENTOMOLOGY PRIZE — Awarded jointly to two individuals, for carefully arranging for honey bees to sting him repeatedly on 25 different locations on his body, to learn which locations are the least painful (the skull, middle toe tip, and upper arm). and which are the most painful (the nostril, upper lip, and penis shaft). 

Should we investigate if the word “Ouch!” is universal too????