Scientific American Questions Ethanol

Last summer brought many stories about the success of ethanol in Brazil during the times gasoline prices were peaking in the U.S. My hopes for the future were boosted by those reports, but the January, 2007 issue of Scientific American has brought me back down to reality. Matthew L. Wald reports in “Is Ethanol for the Long Haul?” that the numbers don’t add up for E85, the ethanol/gasoline mixture planned for flex fuel cars. Ethanol made from sugar cane and cheap labor may be economically sound in South America, but ethanol made from corn, expensive labor, and fossil fuels, will probably not be a practical choice. Nor is ethanol made from corn more environmental friendly than gasoline.

Ethanol made from various cellulose sources, including corn stalks, have a better chance of being an economic alternative to gasoline, but the technology has not be perfected yet. It’s a complex issue. If you grow corn just to convert it into ethanol, all the production costs have to be considered in its comparison to gasoline. If you grow corn for food, and then consider the stalks a byproduct, they can play with the books and make cellulose ethanol look like a better value. It takes a lot of fossil fuels to make and distribute ethanol, so the gain in freedom from the Middle East might be a desert mirage. If we used all the corn we grow for ethanol it will only replace seven percent of gasoline usage. There are more sources for cellulose, so it has a better chance at helping us get off the gasoline addiction.

What bothers me is the attitude that we want an alternative fuel to allow us to live in the same manner we do now. Car companies are showing flex fuel SUVs. The real reality we have to face is driving cars very different from what we drive now, and I don’t think Americans are ready for that. Just think, making cars more efficient by seven percent, which is easy enough to do, could replace the whole concept of corn based ethanol. Making cars twice as efficient would stretch oil supplies twice as long. The key immediate solution here is conservation and efficiency – not alternative fuels. Given time we should be able to perfect an alternate source of personal transportation energy, but I don’t think that time will be short.

This is the last day of 2006 and I marvel at living in the future. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s I thought the 1980s was the future, and the years after 2000 would be amazingly futuristic. And there have been lots of amazing changes, but I’m also surprised how so much has stayed the same. There are more people and cars, more technology and wealth, but people and their basic habits seem the same. Our television shows, if broadcast to 1950s TV antennas, would shock the Ozzie and Harriette watching nation, but they would understand everything and recognize the common basic human motivations and instincts.

Real change to help the economy and environment will have to come from leadership at the White House. I think the President will have to ask America to make sacrifices like they did during World War II. And I think making real changes in how we live with the enviornment will eventually bring about a new kind of prosperity. Looking for energy substitutes that allow us to continue living in our energy wasteful ways that hurt the enviornment are not good solutions.

There are thinkers out there that see other solutions, like Rocky Mountain Institute. I’d like to think that by 2027 many of these ideas would be in place, and it would be the dazzling future I expected the future to be when I was a kid.

Saving digital files forever

Will all your music, audio books, photos, movies, creative writing, diaries, blogs, email, web pages, business records, and other digital files be usuable and available in fifty years? I have a few files that I first created on my Commodore 64 back in the early 1980s converted to text files and saved in My Documents. I have some digital photos that are over ten years old. I haven’t been very careful with my MP3 files, and have thrown many of them out. I’ve even lost or misplaced some iTunes and Rhapsody songs that I’ve bought. Mostly, my My Documents folder grows and grows, becoming a giant trunk of junk that I move forward with every new computer. I’ve even started backing it up to an external USB drive – but if thieves stole both my computer and external drive it would all be gone. My wife’s computer is just as junky, plus she buys a lot of online games and if her machine died we’d be hurting for a lot of missing serial numbers.

Until we started scanning in old photos and slides I didn’t worry much about protecting my files. Some of the photos we are scanning are from the 1920s. We’re now in the business of protecting family memories that are 85 years old. I’m thinking of converting some of my record and CD collection that goes back to the 1950s. I’ve even been collecting old audio book tapes and converting them to digital to listen to on my iPod. All this stuff may not represent a lot of money, but it does represent a lot of time.

The only solution I’ve imagined so far is to copy files to my work computer. I’ve already started bringing work files home as a precaution. But it’s not very convenient at all.

I bought a program called Second Copy that automatically copies my hard disk files to my external USB drive. It has a FTP function in the new version 7.0 that I’ve been meaning to try. I’ve wondered about setting up a FTP server at work as a target for my home files. I haven’t asked my boss what he thinks of that, but I’m willing to offer setting up a FTP server at home to send my work files to. I need to research finding a secure FTP program that would run in background on my two machines.

This isn’t a solution for most people, although many people do work with computers and it could become a fairly common solution. There are probably all kinds of legal issues to deal with. Another possibility is making reciprocal deals with friends and family. The trouble with that solution is most people don’t have static IP addresses or even computers with unchanging domain names from a DHCP pool. I do know people play online games so there is a solution for computer to computer communication. I’ll have to research that.

I just did a Google search and discovered a company that promises unlimited online backups for $54.95 a year, or $4.95 a month. That may be far more convenient than messing with FTP servers – if I could trust Mozy. What I really want is a data bank – a bank for my data files that is as trustworthy as my regular bank is for money. I think I’ll clean up my My Documents folder and sign up with Mozy. I’m not sure how long it will take to transfer 60 gigabytes to them, or if they are really sincere about promising unlimited storage.



Dreaming and Fiction

Some scientists suggest that dreams are a side effect of your brain’s processing of daily memories.  Others compare dreams to jumbled thoughts of an unconscious mind.  This reminds me of studies done on people put into sensory deprivation tanks where they would hallucinate.  Are dreams just unconscious hallucinations?   I’m also reminded of several brain books I read this year that suggest that our conscious mind might not be the only mind in the brain.  I don’t know what dreams are, but my dreams are sometimes very weird.

In recent years, since I’ve been studying fiction, I’ve notice that my dreams sometimes have the structure of fiction – they tell a story with an involved plot and are more than random events.  Last night’s dream was one of these.  In this dream I was part of a group of people that for some reason beyond our knowledge was forced out of our normal reality into another universe.   The group, maybe thirty people, were scattered in this new reality and we all struggled to understand what was happening.  The whole dream was intense and I woke up a couple times during the dreaming – which is probably why I remember some of it.

In this other reality there were powerful beings that watched people.  If these beings were around people had to cower, bow or hide from their sight.  I was with a woman from our universe and we wanted to escape this new reality, so we always ran from these beings.  We didn’t like being watched, but the local people from the new reality accepted their position without fear or question.  The reason I say my dreams use forms of fiction in their telling was the point of view shifted.  Sometimes I was the woman.  Sometimes I was watching the other people in other places trying to cope with the new reality but I wasn’t one of them.  Who I was in the dreams shifted several times.  This is like the authorial omniscient point of view.  After awhile the group started finding each other and we began planning our escape.  We wanted to find out how to get back to our reality.  This is like a plot.  One of our group, suggested a theory that we might not be able to get back to where we came from but might be able to move on to another reality, one without the watching beings.

We didn’t know how to shift reality.  In the dreams we were always running trying to find the edge of the world, or the top of buildings.  For some reason the edge of things were important.  At one point I discovered how to fly and I and my woman companion started flying away.  Then some of the others started flying with us and we flew to the end of the sky and broke into a new universe.  We were all scared by the new world, but I don’t remember why.  That’s when the dream ended.

I’ve had other dreams I wished I had written down because they were so well plotted that I thought I could turn them into a short story.  When we dream our bodies are shut down and we’re cut off from our senses.  I wonder if self-awareness or our conscious mind still functions in this sensory deprived state and needs to make sense of internal images.  Or is there another proto-mind in our brain, one that doesn’t have our identity, capable of taking on any identity, which is a universal character looking for a plot.  I’ve often wondered why we spend so much of our lives involved with fiction, either from reading books, watching television, movies and plays, daydreaming, playing role based games, etc.   Could it be we have a built in mechanism for creating fiction?

I tend to think animal minds don’t have this fiction mechanism.  I think animal awareness is of the “be here now” kind, and when they dream they see scenes of reality without fictional components.  I have always believed that self-awareness is dependent on language.  We divide reality up into parts and give each part a label and the side affect of that is the knowledge of that there is me and the rest of reality.  I think this fictional mechanism that exists within the brain is a mechanism for speculation, where it pictures me doing things other than being in the immediate reality.

For example, when we are young and want to go out on a date, we imagine a lot of possible date scenarios before we ever go out on a real date.  In the animal world, a male elephant would not think about a female elephant before he met her.  With elephants dating is running into another elephant unplanned, touching each other with their trunks and depending on other forces of biology, mating.  I don’t think male elephants sit around and imagine their version of babe elephants with long twisty trunks.

I wonder if this internal speculation brain function, combined with the sensory deprivation state of sleep, builds stories out of whatever images pop up in its view.  I also wonder if my speculation function has been beefed up because I study fiction and writing.

Do dreams mean anything?  I don’t know.  Does this dream of mine mean anything?  Well, I can tell you I’ve been reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and I’ve been thinking about religion.  When I think about religion I think about angels, gods and dead people watching me.  I find the thought of this otherworldly spying very creepy.  That could explain my dream.

The Long Term Value of Personal Web Sites

I’ve been developing web pages since Mosaic first rolled out.  I ran gopher sites before that.  I work at a University in the College of Education and the internet has always been considered a great educational tool.  First, before the World Wide Web, it was just email, UseNet and FTP.  When home pages and HTML came on the scene, educators immediately took to the idea that all students should become writers, publishers and graphic designers and those skills should be universal like knowing how to do basic math.

This wonderful ideal was quickly shot down when it was discovered that most students hated creating web pages in HTML, or even with WYSIWYG HTML editors.  Millions of home pages were created and then left to die of neglect.  Most web users prefer browsing commercial sites, or sites created by highly motivated amateurs.  Entertaining pages are hard to write and develop.  A few years later blogging became all the rage because it allows the ordinary person to create web sites with limited technical skills that appealed to people you know.  Blogging has since exploded into a creative outlet of many forms.   Years ago the idea of anyone reading your diary would cause extreme emotional distress – now people think nothing of confessing their most personal activities, including sexual and criminal, as well as their favorite tedious boring ones too.

Most blogs have limited appeal and also die the great static death of neglect, but they are far more popular because they are much easier to create and they have actually proven to be purposeful.  It doesn’t matter if the whole world isn’t watching as long as a few friends are.  To inspire people to create web sites really means giving them a useful purpose that people will value.  Higher Education keeps promoting web development to students but they have yet to find a purpose that students appreciate.  The big thing now is student portfolios.  Except for educators who like the concept of student portfolios, there seems to be no one else, including students, who see a purpose in visiting them.  They remain a solution looking for a problem.

Blogs succeed, in their very limited fashion, because many people do have a slight drive to express themselves, and because blogs provide for a certain amount of social bonding.  Yet, I wonder about their long term success.  Back in the 1950s everyone liked trying out the hula hoop but few people stuck with the toy.  Email is a natural success replacing the age old letter.  Its purpose is evident to all.  Photo sharing sites are succeeding because they serve an obvious purpose.  The success of online gaming is a no-brainer.  But be honest, how many blogs do you read faithfully?  What about Wikis?  Wikipedia is a huge success because a big encyclopedia has obvious purpose.  Online shopping, online banking, online shopping – are all concepts that have obvious purpose.  But think for a moment – how many sites do you visit that were created by amateurs?  They have their limited appeal, but is creating web sites a skill that should be promote to all kids?

That leads me to wonder if there is anything about creating personal web sites that have obvious long term purpose.  Are there any reasons for the average person to express themselves on the web that has lasting value?  Famous people maintain web sites to manage their fame.  Experts like to keep websites to focus on special topics.  Politicians like web sites to gather voters.  I have a web site about the classics of science fiction that’s been up for years getting a constant 40-50 hits a day from people wanting to find a list of top science fiction books.  I maintain another web site about Lady Dorothy Mills, a long dead and forgotten writer of fifteen books from the 1920s.  I maintain this site to find her last few readers.  It gets handful of hits a month, and about one email a year.  Both of these sites have extremely minor purpose, but enough.  So do people find a purpose in maintaining web sites about what they watched on TV last night?  Or jotting down a few lines each day about their moods?

What aspect of human nature would lend itself to the creation of personal web sites of lasting value?  We know friendship motivates blogging and it might have a limited long term value, but it may end up being a fad.    Most people prefer phones, email and IM.  Scrap booking is a hot fad right now, and photo albums have been a part of family treasures since the invention of the camera.  Diaries and journals have always been kept by a small fragment of the population which accounts for some of the appeal of blogging.   List making is a habit of some people so it might have a certain appeal – but probably to people who also have a collecting habit.

The only additional trait of human nature I can think of now that might motivate people to create personal web sites is the desire to be remembered.  Genealogy is a popular hobby, and a good percentage of people like to hear stories about their ancestors.  I’d love to be able to read a blog written by my father while he was growing up in Miami in the 1920s and 1930s.  Or one written by my grandmother, who was born in 1881, and came to Memphis in 1902, to find office work as a single woman.  I have to be realistic though.  How many people would put in the hard work at maintaining a readable diary with the thought it might be read by their descendants?  My idea of creating a Wiki to store my own memories for me to read as a help to remembering might be of more realistic value since people are living longer and forgetting more.

No one really predicted the massive success of the World Wide Web.  Science fiction writers never saw it coming.  For the most part they failed to predict the impact of the computer.  It’s very hard to predict what the web will mean to people in 20 or 50 or 100 years – it’s been around for a dozen years and become integral to society.  It’s now taken for granted like electricity or automobiles.  The internet is always finding new uses – look how international terrorists have found new ways to use it.  I just wonder how many people will find a personal reason to publish on the internet.

Finally, can a personal website last a lifetime and longer?  Will any blogging site still be up and running 100 years form now?  Unless some governmental agency, like the Library of Congress, offers to host web sites with the charter of preserving them forever, I doubt personal web sites will have a long term existence.  If the web had been invented in 600 B.C., would sites of Homer, Jesus, Caesar, Galileo, etc. still be up?  I doubt it.  It’s going to be very hard to preserve the web.  The knowledge of history we do have comes mainly from recorded history.  Would the major religions have survived without their various bibles?  Anthropologists learn a lot about ancient societies from their business records, tax records and shopping lists.  A thousand years into the future a lot could be said about our times from the database of

I think personal web sites, for whatever purpose, won’t achieve critical mass of value until they are considered permanent.  If people knew they were writing for their children, grandchildren and future genealogists and historians, then personal web sites might take on a whole new meaning. 

Wiki as Artificial Memories

In science fiction there is a concept of mind transfer which deals with the uploading of human minds into computers – in essence a technological solution for creating immortality by providing an artificial life after death.  This concept has one major flaw.  The entity that is you still dies, but you get the comforting warm fuzzy feeling that your personality will live on.  Of course, I believe the chance that science will one day be able to record our personalities is equal to the chance of people having natural life after death.  Both are fascinating concepts but unfortunately mostly suitable for idle daydreaming and wishing.

That doesn’t stop me from wondering about the concept of personality.  If I could be recorded or if I could survive death, what is the essence of my personality?  From the outside people sees a middle-aged bald fat guy.  If they get to know me they will get to know a personality that’s interested in a lot of ideas and books.  If an android could be created that had all my opinions, memories and interests, would people tell the difference between the human me and the artificial me?  From the inside, being me feels like a history of experiences and memories that observes reality with a certain range of senses that is always affected by the quality of my health.  An artificial me, would have to feel like me when I wake up in the morning and want to do the same things I normally do.  It would have to feel about situations in the same way I feel.

I don’t think it’s possible to build an artificial internal me.  Nor do I see any reason to do so.  If I can’t experience the reality of being me why would I care if science could create an artificial me?  What I love about being me is being alive and having my unique experiences of reality – I’d have to be rather egotistical to create another me – and if I could, it wouldn’t be me, so what’s the point?

Now it may be possible to create an artificial intelligence that can mimic my personality from the outside.  The act of creating one would be a good programming challenge.  It would also be a philosophical and metaphysical education.  Think about it.  If you could program a computer to fake being you, you would have to know who you are to fake it.  This may turn out to be disappointing.  Trust me, I’ve given this thought experiment a fair amount of daydream time and you may not want to know where this experience will lead you philosophically.

Since creating a personal android is not feasible right now, I’ve thought up a very cheap alternative to use for this experiment.   I’ve been following the growth of Wikipedia for a couple years now and I’ve wondered if Wiki software could be used as a representation of artificial personality?  Now I wouldn’t want strangers editing my memories, but the software could be adapted as an encyclopedia of personal history.  Since I believe our personality is really the memories of our life experiences, our opinions, beliefs, likes and dislikes, I think it would be possible to create an encyclopedia of “who we are” that others could query and get a fairly good idea of our personality.  Think of it as the brains of a future android – the reservoir of knowledge that such a device would query when asked questions.

I just thought of a real value for such a product.  I wish my parents, grandparents and all my ancestors had created such an artificial personality.  Ditto for all the famous people of history.  It would be great to be able to go “interview” all these people.  Also, imagine whenever you meet a person in real life if you could go query their artificial personality?  Would you want such an AI to represent you?  What if potential employers wanted to interview your AI instead of you?  What if people getting to know you discover that your AI and real personality diverge?  Is such a representation of personality even possible?

Picture this.  You go to a party and meet new people.  They ask questions about you and from your answers these people make judgments about your personality.  Often these questions don’t mean much:  “What did you think of that movie Borat?”  or “When should the U.S. pull out of Iraq?” or “Do you still know anyone from your first grade class?”  An android standing in for you trying to pass this advanced form of a Turing Test would essentially need to answer any question – but answer it just as you would.  Is personality just a long list of answers to specific questions?  If it were, then scientists could create a download of you by asking you a lot of questions and recording the answers instead of taking your brain out and pulling it apart neuron by neuron.

To the outside world is Jim Harris more of a middle-aged fat bald guy or an invisible being who knows a lot about computers and books?  When you think of your friends do you think about their opinions or their image?  Is J. K. Rowing the sum of the Harry Potter books or the lady we all see interviewed on television?

Because of my problems with memory and my philosophical interests in defining personality I’ve decided to use my computer tools to create an experiment.  The ordinary blog could be a good way to represent personality but I think they have problems.  Blogs work like a diary and aren’t really suitable for browsing through structures.  I think I could set up a Wiki with a home page that had two columns that would organize my life for quick reference.  The first column would be a listing of years in chronological reverse order.  The second column would be an alphabetical listing of hobbies, topics of interests and other key words in my life.  I thought about a third column listing names of people that I know, but that list might be too long for the home page.

Playing with Wikipedia shows it to be an excellent tool for organizing a lot of information.  Wikipedia’s detractors are mostly concerned with editing and the authority of authorship.  If I was creating an encyclopedia of my own life I would have to trust myself as a primary editor and contributor.  Now we all know how everyone is an unreliable observer so I would also have to consider allowing other people I know to contribute and edit entries.  For example I have a lot of memories about playing in the woods near New Ellington, South Carolina during our 1964-65 stay there.  I could allow my sister to contribute so we could compare memories.  However, I wouldn’t want her to edit out my memories.  What I’d really like is Wiki software that allowed for controlled annotations.  I don’t know if Wiki programs offer that feature?

Beyond standard Wiki software I’d like some advance features.  Right now people could go to a artificial personality Wiki site about you and start browsing and searching the site and get a fairly good idea about what you are like if you took the time to create the site.  Let’s say you want to build this site for your descendants so they could get to know you.  Now imagine better software and technology – this kind of stuff will be added over time.  Personally, I can envision logging into a personality and seeing an artificial movie of a person talking to me.  This talking head could morph into a moving image of that person from child to wrinkled old dying body.  Such software features would be far in the future, but for now I can imagine several enhancements to regular Wiki software.

A cool feature I’d like for this personality Wiki is a photo manager.   First, I’d obviously like it to manage all the thousands of photos I’d like to upload, but second, I’d like it to have a security system which would allow me to give friends permission to upload their photos and annotate any photo that they have knowledge concerning the contents.  To be nice this software should also automatically create several sizes for each photo – thumbnail, sized for inline text, large page use, full screen and blowup magnifier like the software we see in the film Blade Runner.  Remember in Blade Runner the androids were given family photos to enhance their beliefs that they were real people and not machines.  I think photos are key artifacts to recreating artificial memories.

Since I’m dreaming – I’d also want similar tools for video and sound.  Videos and sound recordings are actually more real than memories – almost disturbingly so.  Yet, if we’re going to build an artificial personality, should it match the self-awareness of the model, or the awareness of the model from outside viewers?  People find video recordings and sound recordings of themselves unnerving because they don’t match their own self-images.  Think about this.  If our technology existed back in biblical times and Jesus was making this experiment what artifacts would you want him to use to show what he was really like?  Yeah, video.  High quality video is as close as we can get to replicating reality.

Now this might sound silly, but I’d like a linking mechanism to Pandora or Rhapsody that would play music from specific months in the past or even specific songs.  Movies have soundtracks, so why shouldn’t our personality Wiki?  Most of my memory is linked in time to the music I listened to in the past.  Since it would be illegal to store copyrighted material, I’d like to have a code linking system to sites that can play the material legally.  It would be great to send the month and year in a XML structure to Pandora and it would play the music in the background like a radio show from the time.  Ditto for movie clips and TV shows.

This is an ambitious idea that will take me years to complete.  Since I’m a lazy kind of guy I probably won’t create it.  I’m all ideas and no work.  Yet, this idea is appealing and I may work on it in simple ways.  I’m constantly trying to figure out when and where I was for certain events.  Think of a simple list of 1st through 12th grade with hyperlinks to pages describing those years and showing photos.  Or a list of years from 1951 – 2006 with hyperlinks.   Those lists would be an easy way to start work and it would help me dredge up memories.

Access time in a fifty-five year old brain

The main reason I’ve created this blog is to help me remember.   After that I want to study how information is organized with the ultimate plan of taming the horde of competing topics that have tangled up my synapses.  I’m hoping if I can find a way to organize my thoughts I will be able to remember facts and details more efficiently and faster.  If I can’t, then the search box will do the job my neurons can’t.  My access time for my gray matter runs from instant, to many hours, to total failure.  This started as a noticeable problem in my late forties and has been getting worse ever since.

I assume this is a natural side-effect of getting older and that I don’t have Alzheimer’s.  My condition causes growing frustration and acceptance.  It is annoying not to be able to recall a specific piece of information that I just know is there somewhere in my brain.  On the other hand I can just laugh it off as a foreshadowing of the absent-minded old man I will become.  It’s almost pleasant to think, “Oh well, I really don’t need all those pesky facts.”  However, in conjunction with memory failure there seems to be a related trait for forgetting how to say words.  My speech has never been very grammatical and my pronunciation of many words is rather mangled, but things are getting worse.  I’m guessing these glitches in my neural hard drive are related.

Most people have memory lapses that get worse with age.  Diseases like Alzheimer’s are far different and more complex and are usually signaled by the failure to learn new skills, rather than simple forgetting words.  I’m hoping my brain is just getting rusty and I can find ways to exercise it.  I also have a theory that I can use computers as a crutch for my brain.  In other words, use software, hardware and networks as an extension to my three pounds of gray matter.

My problem started with the simple act of forgetting words.  For example, on Christmas Eve I was talking with my nephew David, who is joining the Army.  We were talking about boot camp and I wanted to ask him if he had seen Full Metal Jacket, a film that dramatically educates about the nature of military training.  I couldn’t remember the title of the film no matter how hard I struggled or furled my brows.  Requesting access started about 7pm Christmas Eve.  The title popped into my head around 10am Christmas day.

Why did my brain require 15 hours to dredge up that title?  I saw the movie when it came out in 1987 (had to look that up on ) – and maybe I’ve thought about it a few times since.  I’ve read about Full Metal Jacket and seen clips about it in documentaries – but I doubt if my brain has had to deal with the title more than ten times in almost twenty year.  Maybe frequency of recall determines the access time in my brain.  However, that doesn’t explain why can take a class on Photoshop and forget nearly everything I learn within hours and never recall those facts and techniques no matter how long I wait.  Or explain why I can forget the name of someone I’ve worked with for years and see every day.

One hypothesis I’d like to test is the belief that if I write things down in little essays for this blog it will help me remember.  I’ve read thousands of books but I’ve forgotten 99.999% of what they said.  I read newspaper articles, essays, short stories, web pages every day – but they don’t stick with me either.  I think I’ve probably seen thousands of episodes of the evening news and who knows how many hundreds of documentaries.  I take in a lot of information – so why don’t I retain more if it?

Why do I remember some details and not others?  I can still remember the multiplication table I learned in grade school but I can’t remember which grade I learned them – was it the second grade?  Imagined if I had started a blog as soon as I could write?  I could search on “multiplication table” and find my diary about singing seven times seven is forty-nine.  Can a blog become my auxiliary memory?