Felix Rambles

Another step to taking back control

More, bigger, pointless

19 July 2019 — Felix Pleşoianu

These days, humanity celebrates 50 years from the first Moon landing. Half a century since creatures of this Earth set foot on another celestial body. Inevitably, people in my line of work remember and celebrate one particular hero of that story: Margaret Hamilton, who led the software team and coined the term "software engineer" to describe what she did... because she was literally the first one.

And you know what? I think most modern programmers feel woefully inadequate compared to her.

You've probably heard the joke. I tweeted it myself just recently. It goes like this: the Apollo Guidance Computer had 4K of RAM and a CPU running at 2MHz, and they went to the Moon with it. The smartphone in your back pocket is millions of times more powerful and crashes trying to render a large web page.

Of course, it's nowhere near so simple. The circumstances were different, and highly specific. Moreover, we are doing hugely important work with computers today that wouldn't have been possible 25 years ago, much less 50. Such as putting together the data from countless telescopes the world over to image a giant black hole in a distant galaxy (an effort also led by a woman, by the way).

However, the sheer enormity of what NASA achieved in 1969, and the absurd discrepancy between said achievement and the humble computer that played a part in it can't help but amaze us. We stand in awe at the dizzying perspective. And there are a few lessons to learn from it.


Tags: software, philosophy, science

Comments? Tweet  

Possible apocalypses

03 November 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

What will climate apocalypse look like? Mad Max? Waterworld? Fallout?

It's a trick question. The oceans will rise, and the continents will desertify. What's left of them, anyway. And then the nukes could still fly. Not that they'll make much of a difference anymore once the world's biggest, richest cities are already underwater.

But what will that be like for you? Ever thought about it?

For one thing: migration. The New York City metropolitan area has more population than Romania at this point. They'll all have to migrate elsewhere. Every single one. And at least New Yorkers have somewhere to go. People in Tokio, not so much. That's one third of Japan's population. Every single family in the rest of the country will have to take in a refugee. And that's not counting all their other coastal areas.

If you're an only child like I am, you'd better take a crash course on living with siblings, and soon. Because if you're not among the refugees, you'll be among those who have to take them in. There won't be a "none of the above" box.

So much for the cozy apocalypse where we all settle down into a peaceful agrarian life. Or rather, we'll have that too, except with all the unpleasant sides we conveniently forget today: breaking our backs to barely make enough food, living with a dozen other people in two or three tiny rooms, and being grateful when that turns out to be the only source of heat towards the end of a long harsh winter.

Oh, you know what else will fall out of that? Disease outbreaks that will make the Black Plague seem tame. Which at least will alleviate population pressure. Too bad you won't live to enjoy it.

No, seriously. Do the math. Say a billion people die out of the world's current population of seven billion and a half. Now roll two ordinary dice. If the total comes up a six, you're among the victims. Feeling lucky today?

At least you won't have to deal with the ensuing societal breakdown. Because with that many dead, a lot of things that need done will no longer get done for lack of enough people with the right skills. Which in turn will only amplify all the other issues, much like climate change feeds on itself in the first place.

On the bright side, we won't have to deal with zombies, or Terminators. What a relief.

Tags: climate, science, society

Comments? Tweet  

What people want to hear

02 November 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

We live in a complex world, with complex problems requiring complex solutions.

Arguably that wasn't always true. We've evolved in a much simpler environment, where our simian instincts were good enough. But saying "good enough" is already an admission that things weren't so simple back then either; it's just that for the longest time we could muddle through.

Either way, that's not the case anymore. Which is why scientists are always so cautious in their statements, and carefully qualify every claim they make.

Too bad our instincts have remained the same, and cautious, careful claims sound suspicious to our big monkey ears.

What scientists say: for X to work, it would take countless pieces falling into place just so, clicking together perfectly and working without fail for who knows how long.

What most people hear: so it's a done deal, right? Nothing can go wrong. Let's do it!

Did I mention most people are also incurable optimists? And by that I mean "wilfully oblivious to anything negative". But don't get me started about magical thinking now.

What else scientists say: to save the planet, literally everyone has to take unprecedented measures on a humongous scale, in less time than it takes to raise a child.

What most people hear: oh, it's all right then, we're saved. Nothing to worry about.

Think sci-fi writers have no sense of scale? Meet the readers. That's how the dream of space colonization stayed alive for so long, when it's even less plausible than I thought. And I had actually paid attention.

Most people don't want to. It tends to reveal the complexity of the world. And that frightens us more than any dangers.

Tags: science, education

Comments? Tweet  

Climate change versus optimism

01 November 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

When the Paris Agreement was formulated in 2015, the idea was that if we could rein in CO2 emmissions by mid-century, we could avoid dealing with a climate catastrophe by 2100. That's plenty of time, right? A good reason to be optimistic about it.

We should have known it was too good to be true when polar ice caps turned out to be melting much faster than expected, while scientists had to overhaul their models every six months just to keep up with developments. Three weeks ago, a UN report revealed that we only have until 2030 to clean up our act, or else we'll face climate catastrophe by 2040. In other words, the doomsday clock jumped forward by six decades. Still optimistic about climate change?

Turns out they missed one. A new study that made the news yesterday reveals that Earth's oceans have been soaking up much more heat than expected lately. Like, several times more.

Those twelve short years we thought we had? We don't have them.

If you're wondering how we ended up in this mess, the answer is optimism. Being optimistic is all we've been doing in the forty-odd years since the first alarm bells. We kept driving our cars, running our AC units, flying around the world, wasting plastics, cutting down forests... After all, scientists were bound to come up with a miracle invention that would erase all the consequences.

They tried to tell us it doesn't work that way. We didn't listen.

But hey, look on the bright side. Soon there will be no-one left to point fingers at you. Won't have to live with the guilt. Soon we'll all be equally dead and none of this will matter anymore. So keep driving your car. It makes no difference.

How's that for optimism.

Tags: science, climate

Comments? Tweet  

Space colonization, the undead dream

30 September 2018 — Felix Pleşoianu

I grew up with sci-fi from all over the 20th century. People have been dreaming of going into space for at least a century now. I can tell exactly what decades-old books and movies people are fans of by their vision of the near future. Enthusiasts still lament the slow death of NASA, and praise the achievements of a certain billionaire who shall remain unnamed. And they always have the same few questions for people who try to inject a little practicality into the discussion.

Why should we be doomed to remain Earth-bound?

What if a big asteroid hits the Earth?

Do you know how many inventions we now take for granted were developed for the space industry?

Well, I have a few questions of my own for all the dreamers whose feet still don't touch the ground after all that happened since the turn of the millennium.

Do you realize how much effort it would take to send a few thousand people into space? Because that's the minimum viable population for Homo Sapiens. Never mind the millions you'd want to send out for a meaningful exodus.

Do you realize how many different specialists you need to keep modern civilization going at present-day standards? We're talking specialties on top of specialties, all supported by an intricate network of academic institutions and research facilities the world over. There must be as many different scientific and engineering qualifications as you've had classes in high school -- as many as the minimum viable population I was mentioning. And yes, you'd need enough people in all of them. Renaissance Men could only exist in the Renaissance. And you couldn't survive on Mars with Renaissance-era tech.

And do you really think having colonies on Mars and the Moon would keep us safe from the Big Asteroid(TM)? Dude, smaller planetary bodies wouldn't take a hit as well as Earth would. And we'd be in a precarious position out there in the first place. You'd be better off trying to salvage the situation right here on Earth. For example by going underground. Or underwater. Or building arcologies (not that it works, we tried). Heck, early mammals survived the asteroid that killed off T-Rex, and they didn't have our abilities.

Not to mention that if we had the ability to send millions of people into space, we could probably divert big asteroids as well...

You want to boost research and development again like we did in the 1960s? Launch a big effort to fix the planet we've broken. Why is that never anyone's dream? We keep talking space, space, space, as if the one home we do have, for real, right here, is worth nothing.

Not futuristic enough, is it? Fixing the planet doesn't come with enough blinkenlights and things that go "voosh". And we want to feel like science heroes. We've been conditioned to, by a century of science fiction.

How about we wake up while we have anything left to dream about.

Welcome to the future.

Tags: science, education

Comments? Tweet