25 October 2016

Not a human move

[AlphaGo] doesn’t perceive the world or move within it, and the totality of its behaviour is manifest through the moves it makes on the Go board. Nevertheless, the intentional stance is sometimes useful to describe its behaviour.

...Commentating on the match, the European Go champion Fan Hui remarked: ‘It’s not a human move. I’ve never seen a human play this move. So beautiful.’ According to AlphaGo’s own estimate, there was a one-in-10,000 chance that a human would have used the same tactic, and it went against centuries of received wisdom. Yet this move was pivotal in giving it victory.
from What other kinds of minds might be out there? by Murray Shanahan

12 October 2016

"Dance all night on the shore of another world"

One legend of the Yurok people says that, far out in the Pacific Ocean but not farther than a canoe can paddle, the rim of the sky makes waves by beating on the surface of the water. On every twelfth upswing, the sky moves a little more slowly, so that a skilled navigator has enough time to slip beneath its rim, reach the outer ocean, and dance all night on the shore of another world.
from The Fantastic Ursula K. Le Guin

Image via California Slaughter, See also a Yurok house here

28 September 2016

First sight

When people received the digital images from the Hubble telescope, those first few eyes who are getting it on their screens   I guess it has to be something very similar to that. When I look inside our own anatomy at the time where nobody knows if we even exist it’s the same as looking at dimensions that we never imagined we would ever see because we didn’t know they existed.
Ali H. Brivanlou to Radio Lab: The Primitive Streak.

Image: Day12 human embryo in vitro. Gist Croft, Cecilia Pelligrini, Ali H. Brivanlou, The Rockefeller University.

23 August 2016

Where we got our music

After about half an hour, the wind began to funnel down from the high southern pass, gaining force with each passing moment. A Venturi effect caused the gusts passing upstream through the narrow gorge to compress into a vigorous breeze that swept past our crouched bodies, the combined temperature and windchill now making us decidedly uncomfortable. Then it happened. Sounds that seemed to come from a giant pipe organ suddenly engulfed us. The effect wasn't a chord exactly, but rather a combination of tones, sighs, and midrange groans that played off each other, sometimes setting strange beats into resonance as they nearly matched one another in pitch. At the same time they created complex harmonic overtones, augmented by reverberations coming off the lake and the surrounding mountains. At those moments the tone clusters, becoming quite loud, grew strangely dissonant and overwhelmed every other sensation... 
[Our guide Angus Wilson, a Nez Perce Indian] took us a cluster of different length reeds that had been broken off by the force of wind and weather over the course of seasons. As the air flowed past the reeds, those with open holes at the top were excited into oscillation, which created a great sound -- a cross between a church organ and colossal pan flute... 
Seeing recognition in our faces, Angus then took a knife from the sheath at his belt and...selected and cut a length of reed from the patch, bored some holes and a notch into it and began to play...[Then] he turned to us and, in a measured voice, said: "Now you know where we got our music. And that's where you got yours, too."
from The Great Animal Orchestra by Bernie Krause

Thanks, Andrew Ray, for the reminder of this.

Photo by Edward S. Curtis 1911, wikipedia

20 August 2016


So much human sacrifice and environmental devastation have gone to create a false heaven. 
— from a review of Behemoth by Zhao Liang
Once we sang in the sunshine and blithe, sweet air. But now I grieve upon the shattered Earth
 a trailer for the film

 Image: Zhao Liang

The line between night and day

The Station goes around the world in an hour and a half, which means it flies through fifty minutes of day, followed by fifty minutes of night, endlessly repeating. This means that during a seven-hour spacewalk, you may see four sunrises and sunsets. I remember holding onto a handrail on the outside of the Station, which was flying silently up the Atlantic, from south to north, and as we moved toward Europe I could see the terminator—the line between night and day—rolling up over the horizon ahead of us. The white sun sank quickly behind us in a showy flurry of orange, pink, and red horizon bands, and then we were suddenly in twilight, floating into the dark half of the world. The terminator flicked over us, and, in the deeper darkness ahead and below us, I could see a huge lit-up city, glued to the curved Earth, sliding up over the rim of the world to meet me. I could see the structure of the city, with its glowing heart, its network of roads and its halo of suburban lights fading into the dark countryside. The city was Cairo, looking beautiful and radiant. Down there, millions of people were trying to make a living, find or keep a job, provide for themselves and their families, and worrying about the future. I could cover all of them with one outstretched hand. Cairo slid under and then behind me, and more cities rolled into view over the horizon, all tacked to the outside curve of the planet surface, and all seemingly moving toward us, rather than us toward them.
— Piers Sellers

Image via APOD

28 July 2016

A roar on the other side of silence

You only have to imagine being in a desert to realise the variety of sounds a microphone on the surface of Mars could record – and how they can be interpreted. First of all, the wind, whistling across the planetary landscape – how fast is it travelling? How often does it vary in speed or direction? What does a dust devil sound like? Or a dust storm? What about the crack of thunder associated with a lightning bolt? Or the variation in pressure during an electric storm? Once the wind drops, the gentle sounds that break the silence can be heard: the settling of dust grains disturbed by the wind.
– from What does the solar system sound like? by Monica Grady.

I find the soundscapes (actually conversions of electromagnetic vibrations) in this NASA video both disturbing and beautiful. Among them, those of the rings of Uranus (the planet was named after the god of the sky) are the most serene; the upper atmosphere of the Earth the most wondrous.

In a review of Trevor Cox's delightful Sonic Wonderland, I invited meditation on: the sound from black holes (B flat 56 octaves below middle C); reverberations through loops in the Sun's outer atmosphere; and a wind shuffling rock grains through the Martian air.

Sound waves from the great storm that is the red spot on Jupiter may be the cause of heating in its upper atmosphere.

Added 30 July: The NASA recordings linked above are of 'sounds' caused by the interaction of the solar wind with the ionosphere and magnetosphere of planets and moons, but of course a much older idea is the 'music of the spheres.'  Among creative interpretations of this old idea, which I have come across thanks to Stephon Alexander's The Jazz of Physics is an interpretation of Johannes Kepler's The Harmony of the World by Willie Ruff and John Rogers.

Image via APOD