On the Origin of Technological Civilisation.

This morning a friend posted an image of a supernova on Facebook and wondered just home many civilisations died as a result. Now, if you take the standard Drake equation and use that as a basis of your estimation of technological life and hence civilisation then you may get the idea that at least one did, given the massive gamma ray bust associated with such an event. However, I don’t believe this at all, and here’s why:

The parameters usually plugged into the Drake Equation assume that eventually that the development of technological lifeforms is almost inevitable once you get life going, as is even the equivalent of multi-cellular and complex lifeforms before this. Given my perspective as an Earth Scientist by training and hence knowledge about how the Earth, the only place we know life exists, I very much dispute these assumptions.

Life is common, complex life probably not so much

If we look at the Earth as an example of how life may develop on a planet we find from the evidence that simple, single celled life appeared pretty darned quickly after the end of the late bombardment where it would have been practically impossible for anything to survive. So, we can assume that this kind of life is probably likely to spring up almost anywhere in the Universe given similar starting conditions. So, life in the Universe is common.

However, after this great “leap” life got lazy. It didn’t really change a great deal for over 2.5 billion years. OK, it had to cope with the rise in oxygen and switch power sources but otherwise it didn’t do a great deal other than maybe become symbiotic and file its DNA away into a special container. Basically, there was no evolutionary massive advantage to change, so it didn’t.

From the fossil record it currently looks as though a global climatic event effectively pushed life to co-operate so as to survive in challenging environments. Without this push, life on Earth would probably still be single celled.

So, just about a billion years ago we got multi-cellular life… Woo-hoo! It took a while before this became complex though and it seems that only when some of these found eating other life to be a convenient method of energy collection did the arms race begin and complex life began.

It was all a big accident!

Climbing the ladder to technology? Maybe not.

So, from this slow start it only took about 500 million years to get to creatures which could potentially have enough brain power to be intelligent enough to wield tools. So, why didn’t we see technological dinosaurs?

Well, technological intelligence requires a couple of things, firstly the abstract, innate intelligence and flexible world modelling capabilities so as to visualise the tool and make the imaginative leap to think them up in the first place. Secondly, you need the twist of evolutionary fate which gives the organism the body parts required to fashion and use technology.

It’s becoming more and more apparent that many creatures from many strands of life are capable of the first part. Not only great apes or primates or even mammals but birds (i.e. dinosaurs) and even molluscs (Cephalopoda, i.e. octopus). However, most of these intelligent beings are handicapped so that technological advancement isn’t practical. They either don’t have the tools, don’t have the time, live in the wrong sort of environment or aren’t social.

Also, in many ways, the pre-requisites for being technological aren’t usually the best for long-term survival in an evolutionary sense. Generalists generally find it hard to compete against specialists, unless there are specific environmental drivers which cause the specialists to fail. Humans almost didn’t make it.

So, humans are an accident?

Basically, yes. We are an aberration. We only made it as a sheer fluke. Given the odds we shouldn’t be here at all and the planet Earth would be no different than it has been since the last great extinction.

So, what does this mean for the Drake Equation?

We have to remember that we’re looking down the wrong end of the telescope at this problem and hence get a very skewed idea. We are here to observe and hence is seems that that must be proof of the inevitability of us appearing. The original parameters of the Drake Equation reflect this and are, in my opinion given the evidence, several tens of orders of magnitude too optimistic.

Well, even given the hugely, mind bogglingly big numbers of potential life harbouring planets out there it’s very probable that only a really, really tiny percentage managed to get beyond single cellular organisms. Even then the combination of factors which would allow a society to develop technology and become a civilisation are so remote and actively discouraged.

Is there anyone else out there then?

Probably not. Sorry.

Given the odds it’s quite possible that we are the very first technological beings to exist within the Universe, given that the Sol system was possibly one of the first to appear after enough building blocks had been created by the previous generations of stars.  Even if we are not, given the number of star systems out there, the time scales involved and the probable life of any species being only a couple of millions of years at best we’ve probably missed the previous ones and others will appear after we’re long gone.

We are but a fleeting island in entropy’s march.

Openindiana: How could the developers go so wrong?

Well, today I’ve been playing with OpenIndiana, the OpenSolaris derivative created after Oracle killed off its ancestor.

Well, to say that I was rather disappointed would be an understatement. It’s rather obvious that the developers of the distribution are not system administrators of integrated networked environments otherwise they would not have made such stupid design decisions.

Anyway, here’s the story of my day:

I downloaded the live DVD desktop version initially as I assumed that this would, when installed, effectively replicate a Solaris desktop environment. Seeing as Solaris in this configuration is capable of being a fully functional server as well I assumed that this would be the case for Openindiana.

So, I created a virtual machine under VirtualBox on the Mac, booted the DVD image and started the install. I was surprised about how little interaction there was during the install process as all it asked about was how to partition the disk and to create a root password and a new user. After the install things went down hill.

Now, it seems that the Openindiana bods are trying to ape Linux. When you boot up you get a GDM login screen, but can’t log in as root. So, you log in as the user you created, not too much of a problem, except that you now can’t start any of the configuration applications, they fail silently after you type the root password. You can’t sudo commands as it says that you don’t have permission…

Finally, I managed to get past this roadblock by trying ‘su –‘ which then asked me to change the root password! Once this was done I could actually run the configuration utilities. Not that it got me very much further, as there seems to be no way to set a static IP address out of the box.

I decided to trash that version and download the server version DVD. Maybe that would be better? Surely it would, it’s designed to be a server…

I booted the DVD image and the text installer started, very similar to the old Solaris installer to begin with, except all it asked about again was the disk partitioning, root password/user creation and networking, giving only the options for no networking or automatic network configuration. There was no manual network configuration! What?!!!! This is a server install!

Also missing from the installer was any way of setting up network authentication services or modifying what was installed. The installer had been lobotomised.

Once the OS had installed and booted up there were some more nasty surprises. Again, you couldn’t set a static IP address and any changes to the networking were silently reverted. It was only with some Googling that I managed to hunt down the culprit, the network/physical:nwam service, which is the default configuration. WHY?!!! This is a SERVER not a laptop!

Once this was fixed I managed to at least get a static IP address set up but it’s far more convoluted than with Solaris 10 or before.

Other strangeness in the design… All the X installation is there, except for the X server. Eh? What’s the point of that?

By default the GUI package manager isn’t installed. Once you do, however, it’s set up by default not to see any not installed packages, which is confusing. If you know where to look you can change this but it’s a stupid default.

Getting NFS client stuff working was a challenge as well. When you manually run mount everything seems to work out of the box. NFS filesystems mount fine and everything looks dandy. So, you put some mounts into /etc/vfstab and ‘mount -a‘ works as expected. Reboot, however, and nothing happens! This is due to the fact that most of the NFS client services are not turned on by default but magically work if you run mount. Turning on the nfs/client:default service doesn’t enable the other services it requires, however, but you don’t see this until a reboot. Stupid! It should work the same way at all times. If it works magically on the command line it should work at boot as well and vice versa. Unpredictability on a server is a killer.

On the bright side, at least the kernel is enterprise grade.

Elite: Dangerous, possibly the ultimate Elite-type game?

In a musing on my old blog site situated at LiveJournal eight years ago I outlined my idea for the best multi-player virtual Universe.

In November David Braben announced a new Kickstarter project to attempt to fund the very long awaited fourth Elite game in the series, “Elite: Dangerous” and this time it’s networked!

Elite: Dangerous

From the description so far it looks as though the procedural Universe creation is very similar to that I thought of in my original LiveJournal posting all those years ago, at least down to the star system level. At least in the first iteration there’s not going to be any chance to exit your ship and wander around the planets etc. But that’s fine.

The only problem I see is with rather large amount of money the Kickstarter project is asking for, £1.25 million! The fund raising is more than half the way through and still the pledges are only just above the half way mark and the rate of increase is slow. Somehow I don’t see it reaching the funding target by the 5th January.

I’ve put my money where my mouth is and pledged as much as I can reasonably afford. If you too would like to see Elite IV come into being then go over to Kickstarter and help with the fund raising.

Update: New video of gameplay:

New gameplay video.

Planets a-hoy! The benefits of getting up early.

It was an early start, 4:30am to be precise, but that’s the only time when you can catch anything really photogenic in the sky from my back garden at the moment as I’ve yet to get beyond the light pollution for the deep sky objects.

So, yes, the early start, at “stupid o’clock.”

It was a beautiful morning. The sky had lost all of the high, con-trail derived cloud from the night before, which had obscured practically everything and the air was still. It was chilly enough to need a hat and fleece but otherwise comfortable. The stars shone but were nothing beside Venus, the Moon and Jupiter.

Seeing as Jupiter had for so long been out of view I immediately slewed the telescope around to point to it, looked in the eye-piece, focused and discovered that the shadow of one of the moons was passing across the face and was close to the edge. I needed to be quick to be able to catch it in an image so rushed the “Imaging Source” camera out of its box, fitted the Baader filter and the Powermate 2.5x magnifier and started up the software.

After some critical focusing I pressed the “Capture” button and streams of data passed onto the hard disk. I’d made it. Little did I know that the first real capture was the best of the night, which, after later processing, produced this image:

Jupiter with Europa casting a shadow and Io.

5:09am: Jupiter with Europa (lower left) and Io (upper right). Europa’s shadow is just leaving the edge of the face of Jupiter.

After almost an hour of imaging Jupiter, with the glow of dawn swiftly growing, I turned my attention to the Moon. There, in the stark contrast on the edge of the illuminated half sat the crater Copernicus. Such an intricate crater with its ejector field strewn around it. So, this became my second target of the morning:

Copernicus

6:03am: The lunar crater Copernicus.

With light levels increasing and sunrise son to be upon me there was only last target, Venus.

Because I’m hardly ever up this early and because I have no view of the western sky from the observatory I’ve never actually imaged Venus before. This time I didn’t bother removing the camera from the focuser but hoped I’d be able to find the planet using the finder scope only. It took a while to fully centre in on it but eventually I did. After a few minutes of tweaking the exposure, I took my final image of the day:

Venus in the morning sky.

06:14am: Venus shining brightly.

And so, that was that. I stowed away the telescope, shut off everything, closed the roof and came indoors, and off back to bed for a couple of hours.

 

Geological Interpretation of a Curiosity Rover Image.

Mount Sharp Geological Sketch

Geological sketch of Mount Sharp, Mars.

Having seen some of the glorious images sent back by NASA’s Curiosity (Mars Science Laboratory) rover and the rather (geologically) uninformative BBC News and NASA/JPL reports upon them I thought I’d create a geological sketch interpretation. So, here it is:

Horizontally bedded rocks on Earth are generally laid down in water, so the lower unit was most likely to have been deposited in a wet environment.

Large scale cross bedded rocks are usually sub-arial wind-blown deposits, as in sand dunes. The bedding being the shadow of the trailing slope of the dunes as they march across the landscape. What you see left behind is the root of the dune.

The scale in the image is hard to gauge but seeing as the scarp is a couple of miles from the rover, the size of the dunes which generated the cross bedded units must have been many hundreds of metres high.

It should also be noted that the top of the lower, horizontally bedded unit seems to be an uneven erosional surface, suggesting a large time gap between the lower unit’s deposition and that of the upper unit.

Astronomical events: February to May

My last update on my astronomical exploits was way back at the beginning of February. At that point I’d just got the new telescope installed and Mars was getting closer to opposition.

Between then and the end of May was quite a busy time in the sky when it came to planetary observation as Mars continued to be visible from my back garden for much of the time and Saturn came out to play as well. Unfortunately, after the third week in May both planets were obscured by the house by the time dusk fell. Even so, I managed to get some decent images.

Mars

I’d already managed to get one good image of the planet by the beginning of February but due to cloud cover the the next opportunity wasn’t until early March. Thankfully, there was a short period of very good seeing, allowing me to even image clouds developing within the atmosphere.

Details on the surface weren’t that clear, but that was partly due to the low quality of the camera and its low speed with the light levels available. Once the atmosphere became more turbulent the results were no-where as good.

So, I decided to buy a better quality planetary camera. The resolution was still 640×480 but its noise levels were far lower, so that even without getting the colour balance correct on the first go I managed to get a far better image:

Unfortunately, by the end of March the weather closed in and the next time I could get out to view the sky was in May.

By the middle of May the planet was rapidly receding from view, markedly shrinking and becoming harder to image, especially as by the time it was visible it was almost behind the house. However, because of the change of angle, it was far easier to see that it was indeed a sphere as it was easy to see its phase:

Before long, however, it became impossible to image.

Saturn

Saturn wasn’t easily visible from my garden until the clouds cleared in May, which gave me only a few short weeks in which to view and image it before it too disappeared behind the house and into the dusk. Also, most evenings the sky was just too unstable to get decent images of the planet given the amount of magnification required. Having said all that I did manage a few really pretty decent images such as this:

It’s been two years since, and still people are asking.

It’s somewhat surprising but it’s practically two years since I last wore the kilt properly and yet I’m still getting asked if I’m going to wear it again now any again.

The most recent event where I was asked about it (all were women) was at the University of Oxford ICTF Conference. This is an annual event currently held at the Kassam Stadium where the majority of the University’s IT staff go and “network”.

The continued interest in the kilt wearing made me think that I needed to once and for all do a poll and find out what people really thought about this subject. To this end I used an “app” on Facebook to create one and invited all those on Facebook and a few other friends to take it.

Even though the turn-out was only 10% of those asked, i.e. 21 people, the results surprisingly mirrored response I found during the time I wore the kilt:

Poll results
Do you feel that wearing a kilt is inappropriate in a modern social context? Yes 2 votes 10%
  No 19 votes 90%
       
If you saw me wearing a kilt, such as that shown in my Facebook photos page, what would your thoughts be? “Oh, he looks good in that.” 14 votes 67%
  “Oh dear! What *is* he thinking?!” 1 vote 5%
  “Where are we going for lunch?” 6 votes 29%
       
In future, would you like to see me wearing a kilt? Yes, I rather like the idea. 5 votes 24%
  Yes, but only on special occasions. 4 votes 19%
  Yes, but not in a work environment. 1 vote 5%
  I’m not bothered either way. 9 votes 43%
  Not really, but it’s your choice. 1 vote 5%
  No. I think it would be a bad idea. 1 vote 5%

One thing which made me wonder is that the number of people who believed that it was inappropriate to wear a kilt in a modern social context was larger than the number who thought it would be a bad idea to wear it.

Anyway, I can now point to this poll as the reason I don’t go around wearing a kilt all the time.

Weather based computing definitions.

Cloud Computing

A computing resource located “out there” somewhere, connected to the Internet and operated by a third party.

When the heat is on, just like real clouds, they can either evaporate or become a storm (see Monsoon Computing). In either case it’s not good news.

Fog Computing

Like Cloud Computing but down to earth. i.e. based in reality and generally under the organisation’s direct control. Often called a Corporate Cloud Computing resource.

This generally hangs around longer than is required but never lets the temperature get too high.

Mist Computing

You’re sure that you purchased the equipment for your corporate cloud computing resource, but you can’t see very much of it and it’s not a lot of use.

Very Light Drizzle Computing

You’re pretty sure that there must be a computing resource somewhere, you can feel it, but you can’t find it.

Drizzle Computing

You seem to have a large number of light-weight and low powered computing systems for your processing. However, all they seem to do is annoy you and never actually do anything useful.

Rain Computing

You have a large number of independent computers all working to solve your problem, or at least dissolve it.

Stair-Rods or Monsoon Computing

Somehow you seem to have huge numbers of high power processors on your hands, all working on your problem uncontrollably. Unfortunately, the upshot of this is that your problem isn’t solved, it’s washed away by the massive deluge of cost and possibly information overload.

So, do you have any more/better amusing definitions for weather analogous computing names? If so post them as comments below.