Meep Saturday, Aug 28 2010 

Those things you see there are catfish, all scrabbling for a piece of bread. Good thing it’s only a still—were it a streaming video, I’d be hiding in the corner and gibbering by now.

[Via The Guardian.]


The Arrow of Time Thursday, Aug 26 2010 

Sean M. Carroll, physicist

Image via Wikipedia

Last year, cosmologist Prof. Sean Carroll visited Sydney and gave a free lecture on the arrow of time at Sydney University. I desperately, desperately wanted to go, not just because I subscribe to his blog Cosmic Variance and am a hopeless fanboy at the best of times, but because cosmology genuinely fascinates me, and I don’t get to hear about it all that often. Plus, hey, it was free.

Sadly, my flatmate had decided to drink his rent money again, so I couldn’t even afford the bus fare to attend the lecture. Frankly, it’s futile trying to explain why these things are important to a guy with Korsakoff’s syndrome, so I missed out completely.

Recently, however, Prof. Carroll gave a lecture to the guys at Google on the very same subject. Watch and marvel at an hour-and-a-quarter of Carroll’s deep insights into time, entropy and the anthropic principle:

Tasmir’s Reversible Bag Saturday, Oct 20 2007 

In which our intrepid hero jumps on a train of thought and somehow arrives at a new magic item for D&D.

Unless you’re heavily into philosophy, you might want to skip ahead.

As previously mentioned, I have a bunch of old emails, Facebook messages and other people’s blogs backlogged, all waiting to be read.

One of the latter is Accelerating Future, the blog of Michael Anissimov, with whom I first became acquainted via an interview at 10 Zen Monkeys.

Like Anissimov, I consider myself a transhumanist. However, unlike many other transhumanists, I’m extremely skeptical when it comes to the subject of the singularity.

In Accelerando, science-fiction author Charles Stross derisively refers to the singularity as “The Rapture of the Nerds”—a sentiment with which I’m inclined to agree. I lump it in with Marx’ workers taking control of the means of production, and the one where Jesus finally relieves us of some of the world’s most odious fundamentalists.

In short, it’s all too eschatological for my liking.

One of the problems is one of the most common definitions of the singularity is that point at which the aggregate expansion of knowledge becomes infinite.

However, if there is a finite (but really big) amount of matter in the universe, then there are a finite (but really, really big) number of connections that can be made between each particle. Unless the transfer of information between these is truly instantaneous, then the accumulation of knowledge, ipso facto, can never be actually be infinite.

The Transhumanism FAQ skirts this by defining the singularity thus:

Some thinkers conjecture that there will be a point in the future when the rate of technological development becomes so rapid that the progress-curve becomes nearly vertical. Within a very brief time (months, days, or even just hours), the world might be transformed almost beyond recognition. This hypothetical point is referred to as the singularity. The most likely cause of a singularity would be the creation of some form of rapidly self-enhancing greater-than-human intelligence.

Whilst better, I don’t find this explanation satisfactory, either—the term “near-vertical” is too open to interpretation, and the gradient of the curve is easily altered simply by changing the scale of the axes. The gradient is entirely subjective to the parameters used to interpret the progress-curve.

The FAQ goes on to state:

The singularity-hypothesis is sometimes paired with the claim that it is impossible for us to predict what comes after the singularity.

Existentially speaking, it’s impossible to predict the next moment with total certainty (barring undisprovable—and hence epistemically meaningless—concepts such as precognition), but we can make assumptions that usually pan out. For those assumptions to catastrophically fail, the perceivable universe must continually and radically change faster than an individual’s ability to correlate moment-to-moment: an eternal cognitive dissonance.

Fortunately, the mind has defences against such things, and such states don’t last long before the poor victim goes insane. Catastrophic cognitive dissonance is an unstable state. It’s also too specific to individuals to satisfy the implicitly global transcendence of the singularity.

In the end, the whole singularity argument seems like a lot of hand-waving to justify the more antisocial fantasies of a few dispossessed geeks.

Anyway, as I pondered universal finiteness, it reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend in high school regarding topology.

Imagine that you have a tissue box. “Inside” and “outside” are pretty arbitrary concepts; if you turn the tissue box inside-out, then everything that was formally inside the box—adjacent to the inner surface—could be said to exchange with everything that was outside. You therefore have a tissue box that contains the entire universe.

Except, of course, for a small volume which is now adjacent to the inside-out outer surface. That bit has now been, supposedly, excised from the continuum of the universe itself.

It’s pretty easy to disprove, though. For a start, you can see through the plastic at the top of the box to the internal “outside” which means that photons—at the very least— interpenetrate the tissue box. It isn’t a closed system.

But what if you could create something like it? As I thought about this, I dozed off, and an idea for a magic item for D&D was born.

Little is known of Tasmir’s personal life, but his legacy as a theorist lives on, nearly sixty years after his mysterious disappearance. His acumen both as a conjurer and a psionic nomad brought him unique insights into the structure of the multiverse, and to this day, wizards and psionicists alike puzzle over copies of his notebooks, striving to unravel the secrets of reality itself.

Despite his noble motives in his quest for knowledge, one of the less abstruse fruits of Tasmir’s researches has become especially prized by thieves and smugglers: his reversible bag.

All materials within the shaded box (excluding the name “Tasmir”) are designated Open Game Content:

Tasmir’s reversible bag functions in all respects as a type I bag of holding (see DMG v3.5, p248).

However, when turned inside out, it shifts the contents into a pocket demiplane of identical size to the now-interior of the bag—generally an area 2 feet by 4 feet in size. Whilst closed, the interior of the reversed bag operates under a nondetection effect.

Moderate abjuration, moderate conjuration; CL 9th; Craft Wondrous Item, rope trick, secret chest; Price 37,500 gp; Weight 15 lb.

Admittedly, it’s not too impressive an item. I had a pretty cool backstory worked out for it, but the system kind of let me down.

I initially had an idea that something like genesis would be a good base for the secondary effect, but it was too powerful (and expensive). There wasn’t anything like a genesis lite in the SRD; the closest I could come to it was secret chest, which is already the prerequisite for the bag of holding.

That said, the secondary effect is probably closer in spirit to secret chest than the holding property is. But the bag of holding does little to prevent divination, so I whacked the nondetection effect on.

I’m a bit curious about combined magic/psionic items and how well they’d work together; it seems a shame to have two parallel systems with no crossover items to utilise them both. I think Bruce Cordell did a pretty good job of differentiating them in flavour, but there should be somewhere where they meet in the middle.

I’d hoped that Tasmir’s reversible bag would be an example of this. Apparently not.

    Cephalopoddy Goodness Wednesday, May 16 2007 

    In which our intrepid hero buys a new stuffed toy.

    I went on a bit of a shopping binge on the weekend. Tin Soldier, my FLGS, had their annual sale on, and I went in on two consecutive days to buy Secrets of Kenya for Call of Cthulhu (finally! yay!), Corwyl: Village of the Wood Elves, Trojan War and Eternal Rome for D&D, and the Future Player’s Companion for d20 Future. I also grabbed a few miniatures.

    On the way out, I wandered past an old-style toy shop in the Queen Victoria Building to buy something I’d seen earlier in the week: a Wild Republic plush blue-ringed octopus.

    When he’s not posing for glamour shots on my dining-room table, he sits on top of my display cabinet, hungrily eyeing anyone who comes in the front door.

    I have two quibbles about the labelling, though. Firstly, he’s actually a blue-lined octopus—whilst it’s in the same genus as the better-known ringed varieties, it doesn’t sport the profusion of rings which give its relatives their name.

    Secondly, the little booklet that comes with Wild Republic toys says that octopuses come from the Atlantic Ocean. Given that most of the better-known and stranger species—such as the blue-ringed—actually come from the Pacific, I think that this is pretty lax on their part. This doubly miffs me, as the blue-ringed octopus is pretty much identified with Australia, although one species can range as far as Japan.

    In one of those strange examples of serendipity that seem to plague my life, this week, I also noticed that John Shirley (author of the awesome Eclipse trilogy) has posted a very short story featuring a squid on his blog.

    And one of my favourite bands of all time, The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets, has put up a song from their forthcoming album, The Shadow Out of Tim, on their MySpace site. It’s called “A Marine Biologist”. And you can download it in MP3. For free. Go get it! Now!

    All in all, I’d say, it’s been a good week for cephalopods.

    Subversion Revealed: An Interview With David M Jacobs Saturday, Jan 6 2007 

    In which our intrepid hero answers the big questions.

    In early August 2005, I emailed a bunch of relatives and friends, asking them to submit five interview questions about me that they’d always wanted answers to. And now, as a monument to my slackness, they finally appear!

    Thanks to Mim F, Kathryn, Rosina, Tom P, Matt W, Liz, Craig, Patrick, Kylie, James F and Vikki for their questions. I found most of your questions quite challenging, and no doubt, you’ll see that the answers are the product of a challenged mind.

    And now, for the questions. I’ve broken them up into several chunks, each with their own blog entry, as the whole thing is really quite long.

      The Importance of Being Dave

    1. What philosophy do you apply to your day-to-day living?
    2. In which century would you like to have lived and why?
    3. What puts you in a great mood?
    4. What makes your blood boil?
    5. Who is your role model and why? What part of them influences you?
    6. What would you be like to be remembered as being or doing in your lifetime?
    7. Do you want a life with a wife and kids?
    8. Where would you like to be living and what would you like to be doing in five years time?
    9. If the world was going to end tomorrow, what is the one thing you would regret never doing?
    10. If you could create your own job what would it involve?
    11. Describe your ideal puddy-tat.
    12. Why are so damned determined to be employed by DIMA? Is this your true life quest?
    13. If you could travel back in time and change anything in your life, would you really go back and change much (accepting that you need to make mistakes to learn)?
    14. Is the glass half-empty or half-full?

    15. Power is Poison

    16. Who would you name as the most frustrating political identity you’ve ever had to tolerate?
    17. If you were ever to write your memoirs of your time in the NSW Young Liberals, what would be the title of the book?
    18. How do you handle the fact that you are in a political party in which the majority are evil, selfish arseholes?

    19. Other People’s Problems

    20. What do you value in a friend and are those traits held by them or do you put up with them because they kill time?
    21. What do you look for in people in general and friends in particular?

    22. Vice is Nice

    23. If you were locked up in prison would you be dominant or submissive?
    24. Do you think a period of forced solitary confinement in jail would be sort of interesting?
    25. What’s your most shocking example of substance abuse, and/or have you participated in this practise?
    26. What is your favourite drinking spot in Sydney, and why?
    27. Have you ever danced?
    28. Who is the last person you know that you would have sex with?
    29. What is the craziest thing you have ever done?
    30. What’s the most outrageous “food” you have consumed?

    31. Material Things are Butterfly Wings

    32. What’s your favourite movie (and do you own it on DVD)? How many DVDs do you own now?
    33. What is the one thing that you love most in the world that you could not live without?
    34. Before your current employment, how did you finance your life (and we want the truth!)?

    35. Nitpicking

    36. Why don’t you get around to seeing a dentist?
    37. Do you ever intend to replace your glasses (the frames of which at least were bought when you were 16, from memory)?
    38. You really don’t have enough to occupy your mind do you?

    39. The Wide Blue Yonder

    40. What travel destination most scares you?
    41. Any comments on the Rwanda Hutu-Tutsi Genocide of 1994?
    42. What are your most impressive travel stories?

    43. Lord High Everything Else

    44. How many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb?
    45. How old are you? (and/or what epoch did the aliens first jettison you to Earth?)
    46. What will become of us if there really are no more habitable planets?
    47. What do you think of sponges?
    48. NSW’s knife laws vs natural selection?
    49. If a mime fell in a forest, would you care?
    50. Ham or bacon?
    51. Since black is not a colour, what is your favorite colour?
    52. Is all your wardrobe black fabrics?
    53. Are you host to parasites?
    54. What level is your D&D character on?
    55. Is there a character in D&D that best describes you and what are its powers?
    56. If Thomas Kenneally was to write a short prose about you, what do you think it would say?

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