News Briefs 26-06-2017

Monday reality check...

Quote of the Day:

Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.

H.L. Mencken

Recreating the Antikythera Mechanism

Last month I posted a documentary on 'decoding' of the Antikythera Mechanism, the 2000-year-old 'computer' found in a shipwreck off the Greek coast. For those who found that interesting - or even if you're just a 'Maker' - you might like to check out a new series of YouTube videos being posted by Chris of Clickspring Projects, in which he is attempting to make a version of the Antikythera Mechanism faithful to the original construction (though using modern machinery.

Episode 1 is above, and episode 2 and 3 are below - though the project is still to be completed, so you might like to subscribe to his channel to be notified when the next episode drops.

As he makes each part, Chris discusses how the original pieces were likely made - including the techniques that were probably used, and also the tools they might have employed. He explores those topics in even more depth in a couple of 'on-the-side' videos, one on making a small parts vise, and the other one, below on the tiny teeth used in the gear wheels:

When you see the skill involved in what Chris does - and how he does parts of it with modern machinery - we can only stand in awe of the talents of whomever originally conceived of, and built, the Antikythera Mechanism in ancient times.

If you found the videos interesting and educational, note that Chris has a Patreon page for ClickSpring where you can support his brilliant work.

(via Make)

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News Briefs 23-06-2017

Bloviating bigots...

Quote of the Day:

Somehow, the universe has engineered not only its own self-awareness, but its own self-comprehension. It is hard to see this astonishing property of (at least some) living organisms as an accidental and incidental by-product of physics, a lucky fluke of biological evolution.

Paul Davies

Elon Musk is Accumulating Assets Purely to Fund His Dream of Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species

Martian city

Last year we reported on Elon Musk's grand dream of making humans a multiplanetary species, which he detailed in a speech to the space industry at the 67th International Astronautical Congress in September 2016.

Musk's speech - in which he laid out a plan to create a city on Mars - has now been published as a white paper, "Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species", available freely online (until July 5). In it, the SpaceX and Tesla billionaire makes clear that colonizing Mars truly is his grand dream, stating that...

...the main reason I am personally accumulating assets is in order to fund this. I really do not have any other motivation for personally accumulating assets except to be able to make the biggest contribution I can to making life multi-planetary.

As I mentioned in last year's story, it certainly is a case of 'dreaming big', and will surely be criticized by more pragmatic and skeptical space industry experts. But I also see echoes in it of JFK's statement in the early 1960s about landing on the Moon before the decade was out, and is perhaps a necessary tonic for breaking out of the limited, 'safe' thinking that has crept into space exploration since the 1970s.

Musk's vision is based on what he sees as a likely 'bifurcation' in the future path of humanity, depending on the decision we make on space colonization - one of which (staying on Earth) will likely end in our extinction.

One path is we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event. I do not have an immediate doomsday prophecy, but eventually, history suggests, there will be some doomsday event. The alternative is to become a space-bearing civilization and a multi-planetary species, which I hope you would agree is the right way to go.

His choice of Mars as the destination is based on a number of reasons:

To give some comparison between the two planets, they are remarkably close in many ways. In fact, we now believe that early Mars was a lot like Earth. In effect, if we could warm Mars up, we would once again have a thick atmosphere and liquid oceans.

Mars is about half as far again from the sun as Earth is, so it still has decent sunlight. It is a little cold, but we can warm it up. It has a very helpful atmosphere, which, being primarily CO2 with some nitrogen and argon and a few other trace elements, means that we can grow plants on Mars just by compressing the atmosphere.

It would be quite fun to be on Mars because you would have gravity that is about 37% of that of Earth, so you would be able to lift heavy things and bound around. Furthermore, the day is remarkably close to that of Earth. We just need to change the populations because currently we have seven billion people on Earth and none on Mars.

There may be a bit of glossing over of details, or perhaps simply naivety, in saying "it would be quite fun to be on Mars because you would have gravity that is about 37% of that of Earth". Along with the ability to leap a long way comes a bunch of other complications in the way the human body - optimised for living in very specific conditions on Earth - would function (or more correctly, struggle to function).

Another rather large issue in colonizing Mars in any sort of numbers is the price. Up till now, Musk figures, the cost of putting people on Mars would be around $10 billion per person. To achieve his dream, the cost needs to be closer to $200,000 per person:

Not everyone would want to go. In fact, probably a relatively small number of people from Earth would want to go, but enough would want to go who could afford it for it to happen. [But] it's a bit tricky because we have to figure out how to improve the cost of trips to Mars by five million percent. This translates to an improvement of approximately four-and-a-half orders of magnitude. This is not easy. It sounds virtually impossible, but there are ways to do it

The threshold for a self-sustaining city on Mars or a civilization would be a million people. If you can only go every 2 years and if you have 100 people per ship, that is 10,000 trips. Therefore, at least 100 people per trip is the right order of magnitude, and we may end up expanding the crew section and ultimately taking more like 200 or more people per flight in order to reduce the cost per person.

However, 10,000 flights is a lot of flights, so ultimately you would really want in the order of 1,000 ships. It would take a while to build up to 1,000 ships. How long it would take to reach that million-person threshold, from the point at which the first ship goes to Mars would probably be somewhere between 20 and 50 total Mars rendezvous—so it would take 40–100 years to achieve a fully self-sustaining civilization on Mars.

Musk says that, at the moment, "we are just trying to make as much progress as we can with the resources that we have available and to keep the ball moving forward". If they can do so, he says, their efforts will "show that this is possible and that this dream is real—it is not just a dream, it is something that can be made real—the support will snowball over time."

It's a big dream, but one I'm fully behind - and who knows, if Musk can do it, Wernher von Braun's 1949 prophecy of a Martian leader named Elon might just come true...

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News Briefs 22-06-2017

Todos somos huérfanos…

Thanks to Melchor Ocampo

Quote of the Day

“Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves. I am convinced that humans need to leave Earth.”

˜Stephen Hawking

Sponsor Shout-Out: New Dawn (Special Issue Vol.11 No.3)

The Daily Grail would not be able to continue without support from all our wonderful Patreon backers, readers who purchase some of the books from Daily Grail Publishing, and also the occasional advertiser. So here's a quick shout-out to New Dawn Magazine, who have been a supporter of this site for some time (see the current banner at the top right of the page) and provide some cool reading material to boot - the latest being New Dawn Special Issue Vol. 11, No. 3, "Visions of the Future, Messages from the Past".

If you're in Australia or New Zealand you can grab a copy of New Dawn from your local newsagency, or you can grab the digital edition regardless of your location direct from the New Dawn website:

New Dawn Special issue Vol 11 No 3

Thanks to New Dawn for their ongoing support!

Link: New Dawn Special Issue Vol. 11 No. 3

News Briefs 21-06-2017


Quote of the Day:

Our agents of culture are abdicating their responsibility to create more elevated tastes and capitulating to catering.

Maria Popova

Are Savants Actually Just Using Simple Tricks to Perform Their Calculations?

Powers of the Mind

Anybody that has studied 'savant syndrome' - where individuals are born with, or acquire, seemingly superhuman mental abilities to memorise, calculate, and/or display astonishing artistic or musical ability. But have we been fooled all this time by the equivalent of some cheap parlour tricks?

A new paper published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience - titled Dazzled by the Mystery of Mentalism: The Cognitive Neuroscience of Mental Athletes" - suggests that is the case, and that studies of these individuals may have presumed too much about how they do what they do:

Neural processing by mental athletes (MAs) has received attention from Neuroscience community, with several publications examining superior memorizers, lighting calculators, and savants. In this opinion, we contend that the presumption of extraordinary abilities in MAs is fundamentally flawed because their demonstrations involve tricks that regular individuals can learn. Since, these tricks easily escape the scrutiny of investigators, a high standard of rigor should be applied to research on MAs.

MAs seem to demonstrate abilities—for example, short-term memory and mental calculations—that by far exceed those of an average person. MAs' performance is indeed impressive: for instance, some of them multiply two 20-digits numbers without annotating and the other memorize thousands of digits of π.

Yet, such demonstrations utilize tricks that are not apparent to the public but well-known to magicians. Using these tricks, virtually any person can reach the level of MA performance with some practice; no extraordinary brain is required.

Personally, I found the paper to be suspiciously keen on debunking the abilities of savants, with its exhortation that "scientists should be highly skeptical about the tempting assumption that extraordinary performance of MAs stems from a natural and unique gift". And that suspicion was only strengthened at the end of the paper, when an odd non sequitur about Uri Geller is thrown in to the mix, followed by the statement that this paper, and others like it, represent "a step forward toward a more rigorous, mysticism-free cognitive neuroscience of prodigies". Between the 'magicians know how this is done' through to the Geller mention and 'mysticism-free', it all smells rather James Randi-influenced...

There is no doubt that there are mathematical tricks to accomplishing some mental feats exhibited by savants (e.g. calendar calculation). The paper picks a few out as examples and shows how they could be done mathematically. But cherry-picking things that suit your theory, and ignoring plenty else, isn't overly convincing.

Similarly, they pick out two savant examples and try to show how mundane their abilities are basically by throwing shade at them. As far as I can see, they basically accuse Daniel Tammet of making up his claims of how he calculates). And in response to Stephen Wiltshire's drawing from memory, they simply say the accuracy of his illustrations have "not been confirmed or quantified by any real study".

This superficial and rather shoddy 'debunking' of savant abilities seems to overlook many other cases that don't fit their model. For instance, I cannot think of any cheap memory tricks that would allow Derek Paravicini to immediately recall, and replicate, any piece of music he hears.

And beyond that, it seems to completely disregard the fact that many savants are born with learning difficulties that would seem to preclude the idea that they studied a bunch of strategies and then consciously memorised them - especially when some of those individuals have difficulty with simple mathematics, which seems at odds with things like applying the formula for calendar calculation.

Instead, the assumptions in the paper could just as easily be covered by a theory that these strategies, and ability to memorise, are 'hard-coded' into the brain, and that savants have access to this, with the mental processing being done 'in the background'. We don't need to assume anything 'mystical', but I do think there's still plenty that is astonishing about the abilities of savants that suggests our minds have hidden depths.

In the end, I do agree with the authors that the point of investigating prodigies "is to decipher the cognitive mechanisms by which they perform their feats", and skepticism is certainly a part of that. But this paper seems a little too keen to portray these abilities as simply mundane magic tricks.

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News Briefs 20-06-2017

Seems I was a bit cock-eyed when gathering the news briefs today...

Quote of the Day:

Mark my words, when a society has to resort to the lavatory for its humour, the writing is on the wall.

Alan Bennett