Saturday, May 27, 2006

Why things exist.

One of the more straightforward tests of self-awareness (that the majority of net-denizens constantly fails) is the question "why things exist" or "why is there something instead of nothing".

Every self-aware being knows exactly why things exist, but in the absence of self-awareness this question has been elevated to the status of some kind of "great mystery" by generations
of self-proclaimed "philosophers".

It really isn't terribly difficult.

Let's start by talking about potential universes: Imagine a universe. Any universe. Not a real one, mind you, not one that really exists -- just a "possible" universe. A potential universe. Something that could exist, but we make no claim that it really does.

Think weird; It doesn't matter. Since we're only talking about "potential" universes, not about anything real, we can make up pretty much any physical laws that we want, any content, any processes. How about a universe in which the speed of light is infinite? Or one in which it is very low? Or a universe in which there's no light at all? Or the speed of light is different dependent on the direction? Or it is variable in time?

Obviously, there's million parameters we can tweak: how about a universe that has only two spatial dimension, but also two dimensions of time. Can one even imagine such a thing? Four dimensions of time and none of space? Lots of spatial dimension but no time at all? Neither space nor time but something yet entirely different?

A universe filled with water? Or with gold? A universe that contains absolutely nothing? Or would that even be a universe? A universe that is exactly identical to ours, except that a particular radioactive atom in a galaxy a billion lightyears away happened to decay there five minutes ago, while in our universe it will decay five minutes from now?

Think weird: a universe the size and shape of a peanut. And it contains exactly one peanut. A universe in which atoms have finite lifetime and every time life develops anywhere, it immediately decays again. A universe in which cats are the dominant species and they
populate and secretly control all planets. No, wait, that's our universe.

Obviously, we can make up any property at all and assign it to our made-up potential universes. The property to expand and the property to contract and the property to just sit there. The property to function seamlessly and the property of changing its mode of function every 7 seconds. Some of these potential universes will exist eternally, others only for a short time.

Some of these universes have the particularly peculiar property that they have a certain non-zero chance of popping into existence all by themselves. Since we can make up any property we can imagine as long as we're only talking about potential universes, there's no reason why
we shouldn't think of a universe that can become real all by itself for no particular reason at all. Some of these universes have the property that this chance is equal to 1.00, i.e. that they will come into existence with certainty.

Therefore: Given that the existence of a universe is possible at all, i.e. that there are potential universes ... then there must be one. We know that we live in one, i.e. that it is at least possible that there's a universe -- and thus we know that it must exist and we know why it must exist.


Saturday, May 20, 2006

Absolute Certainty

Not much time for anything this week, so it'll be another oldie-but-goodie:

Amongst the more frequently encountered snippets of philosophomoric nonsense on the net is the contention that "you can't know anything with certainty" or that "certainty is impossible". This text condenses my standard-answers to this contention to save on typing- and re-typing-time every time someone makes that claim.

Caution: if you hold that contention, this text is going to hurt you. You have been warned.


There are people out there, that are not human. I don't mean that in the biological sense: these people have human DNA, for example, and they were born to human mothers -- but there's something inside that they're lacking:

These people aren't self-aware. They operate entirely on the basis of mechanisms and automatisms and trained reflexes - you provide them with a certain stimulus and they're going to give you the proper response, but all the while there is "nobody at home", there's no awareness or appreciation of the stimulus and the response.

These people are simply members of a community of mutually positively re-inforcing trainers -- all of them establishing programs in each other without ever being aware of the fact that there is programming going on. Robots, if you will, or puppets. I'd be tempted to say "well-trained monkeys", but this might be unfair towards the monkeys: As it turns out, it is quite difficult to establish whether or not monkeys are self-aware or not, while it is rather easy to find out for a person. I will describe this in a moment.

Such people can very easily be members of a human society. They could comprise a large part, or even a majority of such a society. Most people spend most of their time on trained paths, so it would't be all too obvious whether a certain particular person ever has any original thoughts or not. Whether they only produce reactions or whether they also produce intrinsic actions themselves.

They all would claim, of course, that they're self-aware. But that would only be a trained response, of course, just like all other responses they'd ever give you. You give them the stimulus, and they were trained to insist that they're self-aware - just as they were trained to respond in some other way to some other stimulus.

It is my contention, that the vast majority of people, maybe 95% or so, are in fact functionally puppets.

First Certainty ...

The shortest complete sentence in the English language is "I am"[1]. This sentence asserts the existence of the speaker. Of course it doesn't need to be physically spoken: just formulating it in your head means that you assert your own existence. In other words: the notion "I am" (even if expressed without English language or without language at all) asserts the existence of the entity that formulated the notion.

This is also the simplest possible formulation of an instance of absolutely certain knowledge. There can not be doubt about my own existence even for a moment, since any such doubt would require someone or something that holds the doubt. I am willing to entertain the notion of my own nonexistence for a moment, but entertaining it already requires someone that entertains it.

Note: this is NOT "I think, therefore I am" or similar nonsense: as soon as you have the first word of that sentence ("I ..."), you can skip the whole middle part and immediately conclude the last word: "I ... am." For if there is an "I" to be considered at all, then it must necessarily "am"[2].

There are many times in a day when you don't think -- but you don't cease being at these times.[3]

And since the only thing that can possibly "am" is "I", the two words "I" and "am" demand each other. They are not independent concepts, but really only two expressions of the same underlying concept, namely the existence of the speaker. Expressed once as a noun, "I", a thing, something that "is"; and once as a verb, "am", a process, something that "happens".

The very fact that I formulated the notion of "I am" makes it true - a claim that proves its own truth: It couldn't have been formulated without something or somebody that formulated it.

Note that I make no claims (here, yet[4]) what I am or who I am or where I am or similar things -- but that I am is known to me with absolute, 100% certainty.

This piece of absolute knowledge is also the first piece of knowledge a self-aware being can hold -- for it is this knowledge that makes someone a self-aware being: The knowledge of your own existence. Anybody who doesn't hold this piece of knowledge is not self-aware.


Whenever someone claims "absolute certainty is impossible" the obvious reply is of course "are you absolutely certain about that?"[5]. The notion of the impossibility of certainty is in such blatant, immediate self-contradiction, that it comes at no surprize that it is uttered only by puppets - by beings that string words together without any kind of appreciation for the meaning behind the words they utter.

If you went into this text holding this religious belief in the impossibility of absolute certainty then, of course, holding the knowledge of your own existence now does not make you a self-aware being -- for it is only some more data, presented to you from the outside, stored in you for later retrieval upon presentation with the appropriate stimulus. For this knowledge to make you a self-aware being, you'd have to discover the fact of your own existence for yourself - it has to be your original thought.

This is why this text hurt you: I have effectively cut off the simplest way for you to become a self-aware being. There's other ways, of course, but the most elegant is now blocked to you. I am not even going to hint at the second-simplest, since it is not in my interest to keep you a puppet forever...

[1] Together with "I do"
[2] This yields another immediate test for sentience: anybody who thinks "I think therefore I am" is meaningful, smart, deep or useful is NOT self-aware.
[3] You know exactly what I meant when I typed that sentence. You can either chose to define all terms such as to convey this meaning that you already understand or you can choose to define them such as to obscure it. In the latter case you're simply a liar, as your desire is obscuration of what you already know to be true.
[4] It is very easy to make such claims later and be absolutely certain about them. However these are more advanced steps and anybody who isn't even self-aware certainly has no chance of grasping any of these.
[5] Either you proclaim that you are, which is in self-contradiction with your claim (proving conclusively the lack of self-awareness on your part) or otherwise you admit to some doubt, i.e. admit the possiblity that certainty might be possible, thereby proving that you are a liar because you proclaimed something impossible that you do hold possible.


Friday, May 12, 2006

Fact and Fiction

(The following is an oldie that I'm re-posting here to have it available online. I will do this kind of thing occasionally in the future, as events warrant.)

Star Trek is fiction.

What I mean by the previous sentence is that Star Trek is not fact.

It doesn't really matter in this context how, exactly we define all these terms or how and where we draw the line between fact and fiction; You know exactly what I mean when I say "Star Trek is not fact" and that is all that is necessary: We can choose our terms to communicate this idea that we both understand or we can choose them to obscure it - and if you choose the latter then you're a liar.

Invariably, of course, some liar will now proclaim that they don't know what I mean. There is no point to this proclamation -- merely childish rebellion at the realization that someone pointed out something that is blazingly obvious that they yet failed to realize up to now.

It does not matter how anybody manages to contort language such as to blur the terms "fact" and "fiction": the fact that they are even attempting to do so tells us that they refuse to separate fact from fiction. That their intent is passing off the one as the other. And that is exactly what the term "liar" means: someone who is trying to obscure the line between fact and fiction.

I am not making the claim that it is always easy (or even always possible) to separate fact from fiction. It may be difficult at times, depending on the subject matter at hand. But there are those who try at least, who make a genuine effort because they acknowledge the difference between fact and fiction and value truth -- who are called "honest". And then there are those who refuse to even try, who go out of their way to impede this distinction -- who are called "liars".

Star Trek is fiction.

And it does not become fact just because there might be the one or other correct artifact in there: For all I know (or care) all the Shakespeare quotes in Star Trek are genuine, but that doesn't make Star Trek fact.

And maybe there will be a space ship in the 24th century with the name "Enterprise" and maybe the name of its captain will be "Picard" and none of this is going to change one iota about the fact that Star Trek is fiction.

It is not Fact.

Now none of this has anything to with any kind of "proof": there's simply nothing to prove here anywhere.

We, humans, know that Star Trek is fiction because ... we, humans, invented it. It is OUR fiction. We made it up. We created it.

All it takes is for all involved people to be honest for a second and then there is no issue here anywhere. Star Trek is fiction, and that is all there is to it. There's no discussion anywhere about this because there's nothing to discuss.

Not only do we know that Star Trek is fiction, we know how we know that. The entire process is entirely transparent and obvious. We invented it, therefore it is fiction. No matter how, exactly, we end up defining the term "fiction": if we choose the term such as to express the thought on which we already agree then it'll be the equivalent to something we made up. Or if someone chooses a term that deliberately attempts to mislead about the fact/fiction distinction then we know that person is a liar.

Anybody who claims that Star Trek is fact is a liar. Anybody who claims that Star Trek "might be" fact or "could be" fact is a liar. Anybody who claims that there's even an open question here
anywhere about any of this is a liar.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Electric vehicles are economically viable -- right now

One of the magic incantations you will find the less intellectually equipped chant whenever you're presenting something they don't like is the notion that something is "not economically viable". It's as if they expect the concept in question to go away if only they can pretend that it isn't "economically viable". Try it: pick something you don't like and start telling people "immigration laws are not economically viable" or "the death penalty is not economically viable" or "chocolate ice cream is not economically viable". See how easy it is?

1) Up-front costs.

The item in question is an old Toyota Corolla (1988), lovingly converted into an electric vehicle by a couple guys with too much time on their hands. The batteries are twenty old 12V batteries form an old emergency power generator starter from a hospital. The electric motor was purchased at McMaster. Most of the control-electronics were hand-soldered (It isn't really as hard as it first looks like, but in hindsight the investment of a couple hundred extra bucks could have saved a lot of time).

Obviously it is kinda difficult to put a price tag on something a bunch of home mechanics worked on for an extended period of time. Assuming all-new parts and a group of well-practiced converters, I suppose the whole thing could be done for $5-6k, probably more like $10k is someone actually wants to make a living at it.

Of course there's a lot of leftover pieces now - including a whole engine. In reality an electric vehicle is vastly simpler than a gas-engine -- no fuel injection, no valves, no cylinders, no fuel tanks or lines. So if a car was built from the ground up to be electric, it would probably be *cheaper* to produce than a car that runs on gasoline: fewer parts, simpler assembly. It would also last longer, as there's many, many fewer parts that can possibly break or get misaligned or any such things that happen to cars.

Economic viability: looking good so far.

2) Fuel costs.

Now our batteries were free - they were simply discarded starter batteries. This means that they aren't exactly representative of the performance that one might get from a brand new set of gel-cells and they probably won't last particularly long (since starter batteries are made to deliver a lot of power for a short time, while we're using them to deliver moderate power for quite a while). But hey, they were free.

If the car is hooked to the main for charging, it draws about 1000W (it is designed not to draw more) and we can get the batteries filled after about 8 hours. With fully charged batteries, the car has a range of just a little under 25 miles. Let me call it 24miles for round numbers.

This means that we're going 24 miles with 8kWh of input which just comes to three miles per kWh. Around here, the kWh costs about 7.5c, but let me round that up to 10c/kWh to be conservative.

3 miles for ten cents makes 30 miles per dollar.

This means if your car gets 30 miles to the gallon, electric is economically viable if you're paying more than $1 per gallon of gas. You do the math.

The reason this can be this way in the first place is because electric power (like just about everything else in the world) can be produced much more cheaply (i.e. efficiently) if you produce it in large quantities. Even if our power plants ran 100% on oil, the electric output would still be an order of magnitude cheaper than if we were to produce electricity from the same oil in a hundred million little energy-converters. Not only are we harvesting economy of scale, but we're eliminating a large number of processing steps to refine oil into the extremely clean gasoline that cars require and we're circumventing a hundred million gas station attendants to parcel out the fuel into gallon sized packets.

And not only can centralized production be much cheaper, it is also several orders of magnitude cleaner: since all the emissions happen at one place (ideally carefully chosen to be away from people and other animals) there's only one set of filters, one set of catalytic converters, one overall equipment infrastructure, which can thus be much better, much better maintained and much better controlled.

Now imagine this equation with a set of state-of-the-art batteries. Imagine the increase one could get out of regenerative breaks alone. Or out of an engine that was actually designed to be used this way, instead of an electric motor hooked to some random old car chassis...

3) Future proofing.

In reality, of course, only 2% of the US electricity comes from oil in the first place.

10% come from hydro power.

There are 77000 dams of some kind in the US, and less than 3% have some kind of hydro-electric generator attached to them. These 3% produce about 10% of the total US electricity consumption. Outfitting 50% of the already existing dams in the US (no new valleys to flood etc) with hydro-generators could cover the entire US electricity budget right there. Yes, hydro power generators do cost maintenance, there's silting to contend with, there's things that break and people who have to be around and run things. But they certainly do not incur any more upkeep and maintenance costs than oil or coal fired plants. And they produce no emissions while running without any fuel costs.

No fuel costs. All we'd need is a couple hundred (what the heck, call it an even 1000) hydro-generators attached to already existing dams and we could replace the total contributions of oil into the US electric grid with hydro power.

But of course once we're talking future, who knows what we're going to use to generate electricity tomorrow. Since electric power plants do not have to carry their fuel around (contrary to cars) they can truly and honestly produce power in the most economically viable way available at any time. Who knows what will be the cheapest way to generate electricity in 20 years. But whatever it is: the electric car will already use it. What does it cost to outfit a hundred million vehicles with a "Mr. Fusion"? The battery-car doesn't need one, because it'll run on fusion power as soon as it becomes available.

Economic viability: looking better by the minute.

4) Economic independence.

This section is a little trickier: what is the value of independence? What kind of investment is still "economically viable" if it gives you the knowledge of future freedom?

The question is about PV of course: photovoltaics. Once you have a battery-operated car, you can elect to put a couple solar panels on your roof and generate your mobility-juice by yourself from here on in.

Solar panels cost money. There are places in the world where they may or may not pay off, ever. On the other hand, some of the most heavily trafficked areas in the US (Like LA or Atlanta or Huston) have way more sunshine than you could shake a stick at: if I covered only the south-facing part of only my garage-roof, I'd be talking about 2kW of peak power (this is in AZ). That is 2kWh every single hour at peak production – and let's say half as much during most of the daytime hours. Since I only need 8kWh per day, this would give me a decent safety margin right there.

And if I merely use that electricity to power my car and never attempt to feed it into the grid or power my household equipment with it, I won't have to mess with inverters or even with a "certified electrician" to hook up my stuff at some exorbitant price. The price of the system would go in the direction of just the cells alone.

I'd need a second set of batteries and the setup would have to be more modular than it is right now: I'd want to come home in the evening, slide out the half-empty batteries, slide in the ones that have been charging all day, hook up the used ones to the charger for tomorrow and I'll be set to go.

Of course the roof and hood of this Toyota have enough area to put another ~300W peak capacity on there. Let's say I get 50% of that on average during daylight hours, say 12 hours (all of these are very conservative here in AZ), that would be 1.8kWh per day of just sitting there. Imagine a car that runs out of fuel on Friday so you just let it sit wherever it ran out over the weekend and for every day of sitting you collect 5 miles worth of fuel. What's that gonna be worth when oil runs out - or even just short. Or even just expensive?

5) Range

My commute is about 7.5 miles, so I have enough range to spare for the occasional detour to the store. As of now, I haven't really used the car for my normal commute and I won't for a while until we have fully clarified the whole street-legal situation. But I wanted to market this kind of system, what kind of range would be necessary to be useful? Obviously very few people will buy a car that can go 25 miles - but how about 50? 100? 200? Is there a "pain threshold" below which such a vehicle would be unmarketable?

Quite frankly I doubt it: people haven't exactly been expressing a lot of concern for range with gasoline-driven cars. If todays cars had half the range they have people would just refill their gas tanks twice as often. Which means there'd be a couple more gas stations. And people would fiercely defend their right to have a 90 mile range and resist any efforts to increase the gasoline efficiency of their cars -- just as they have been resisting the same thing in the past.

The last year I checked (2003) the Ford model with the best gas mileage got 36mpg. The original model-T got 37mpg. Meanwhile, it would be completely unproblematic to get twice that mileage: it would come at the cost of not having 200 horsepowers. One might have to make do with driving the speed limit. Such utterly reasonable things as gentle acceleration and appropriate speed alone would do wonders for the average mileage even without actually changing any technology. But does anybody out there really want to claim that all the technological progress of the last 100 years was unable to raise gas mileage by even a single lousy mile?

A car with a range of 100 or 150 miles will be just as suitable as a car that has a range of 200 or 300 miles for just about any task. Yes, for a cross-country trip, you may have to pull over a couple more times. Five or six times a day instead of twice or three times. But it is not as if the one number is any more problematic than the other one. Slide your battery tray out, slide in a freshly charged one. The highways are already dotted with gas stations every 50 miles. What difference would it make if they handled electrical cars?

6) So why isn't all this in place?

There's a lot of advantages here and at most slight inconveniences as a drawback. Why aren't we all driving electricals at least for our second cars as commute vehicles? Why isn't there a huge market for this? Why isn't this already all over the place? The obvious answer is left as an exercise to the reader.