Archive for March, 2009

The Future of Broadcasting

I’ve recently been turned onto Hulu, a site which shows TV programs for free, paid for with commercials, much like ordinary TV. To be honest, I think the format shows promise. You can watch any show you want at any time and there’s fewer commercials (probably because Hulu has lower operating costs).

But, I have noticed a few problems with the format and construction which may make it an impediment to going mainstream. If I were making an online network, this is what I would do:

1. Make it so it’s possible to watch on an ordinary TV.– Obviously, since Hulu is online you have to watch it on a computer. But watching TV shows and movies on a computer is uncomfortable. The screen is small, resolution is usually poorer than television, and the vast majority of people have their living rooms centered around the television, since it’s been around for the past fifty or sixty years. I’ve always said (though maybe not on this blog or The Other Blog, I can’t be sure), any new technology has to relatively easily fit into the existing infrastructure of the end user. Otherwise it’s just too much of a strain and the technology dies, or is at least relegated to obscurity.

One way to accomplish this is to basically have something like a cable or satellite box. Hey, maybe you could have an existing cable or satellite provider carry it. Or perhaps launch your own provider (though that again tends to run a bit contrary to, let’s call it the the Existing Infrastructure Law, or EIL).

2. Offer Original Programming.– Hulu does put some originally programming on, but it’s not much. To really be competitive, they should commission their own programs, again, much like television networks do.

3. Keep It Free.– Hulu is of course, free, and so is broadcast television (discounting cable and satellite fees if you have those, which, most people do), paid for by advertising. It’s a business model that’s worked very well for them, and radio and newspapers, magazines, etc. (though those last two have a small price attached, most of their revenue is from advertising).

4. Offer Web 2.0 Compatibility.– User-content created websites like YouTube, Wikipedia, WordPress (hey! nice self-reference!), etc. have exploded in popularity over the past few years. Believe it or not, Youtube is only 4 years old. Wikipedia is 8 years old, and has seen its content double roughly every year (though this has slowed in recent years). Having the ability to load and view your own and others pictures and videos easily would be a popular feature on the TV-based medium.

I think that a network with those features would be quite competitive with both existing networks and internet sites. It’s sort of a fusion of all the best qualities of TV and internet and we will likely see something very similar in the coming decade or two.


The Presently-Past Future

Since one of my hobbies is predicting the future, it is often useful to look at what other predictions people have made, especially those that were made long ago, and can now be checked. Some seem silly and ridiculous, but some actually get something right.

Case in point: this video, made in 1967, about 1999 life.

The styles of the machines and clothing seen here may seem absurd to us in the early 21st century, but what this video is really about is what the machines do. This video is essentially correct.

Let’s see there’s online shopping, online banking, email/faxing. Home and store computers linked up…the internet? In fact the only thing that’s really not happened is the home video surveillance that the mother does of the kids, and I think that’s becuase most people just don’t have a need for it.

Of course, they also fail spectacularly at anticipating changing roles of the father and mother. Fortunately, that’s something we can all laugh at.

The History of the Universe: A Poem

In the beginning, the universe began. All points expanded away from all other points in an unimaginably colossal explosion. It was everywhere hot. Naked particles careened and collided through dense-packed space, barely moving a billionth of an inch before running into its neighbor.

But soon the universe began to cool. Particles began sticking to one another and quickly the universe became transparent.  It expanded still until a relatively weak force, gravity, pulled these collections of particles and forged them into new particles. The first stars were born.

These stars also were pulled together by gravity into great clouds, spinning, orbiting each other, in various shapes such as spirals and spheroids. The first galaxies had formed. After a few billion years and generations of stars formed, grew up, and exploded in supernova, the heavy elements began building up in the universe. Eventually, newly formed stars would have curious companions along with them: planets, formed out of this heavier material.

These planets circled their respective star, occasionally being tossed out into interstellar space or nudged into their parent stars by unruly bigger brothers. On rare occasions, they even collided, smashing their contents and filling the local space with debris.

On many of these planets another unusual form of matter arose out of the heavy elements: life. This life had many different forms and nearly just as many beginnings, but all were in essence the same: a self-replicating, negative entropy phenomenon, an apparent rebellion against the laws of thermodynamics.

But this life by and large was merely a local curiosity. It did little beyond float, swimming, flying, or crawling around its native planet. It wholly reconfigured the faces of their planets, but still remained confined there, trapped by the pull of gravity and the harsh environment of space. When their local star died, they too also died.

On one planet, however, orbiting a yellow dwarf star almost indistinguishable from any other, a special kind of life developed. This life had the means to get off their world and into space. This life could figure out how the universe operated, and used that knowledge to better its own existence. This life called itself humanity.

Not that anything was special about this particular planet to allow the development of humanity. The emergence of intelligent life could have happened anywhere. It just happened to have evolved here first. A random roll of the dice that, by chance, smiled on these fortunate creatures.

The development of this type of life progressed swiftly. As soon as it learned to walk, it ran. As soon as it learned to jump, it flew. As soon as it discovered fire, it lit the machinery that carried it to the heavens. And as soon as it learned the true nature of its own existence it moved beyond it, into post-biology.

These new members of humanity were no longer made of the same material that had made their predecessors. They were stronger, more durable, and ultimately indestructible. And they lived in worlds of their own creations, simulations in which they were gods.

In the middle of the era that humanity called the 21st century, they became immortal in this way, or as immortal as one could get given the laws of physics. They realized that the resources of the universe, no matter how vast, were finite and their own survival depended on the acquisition of these resources.

So they launched into space and in doing so forever transformed the universe. They deconstructed their own solar system and reformed it into a giant hollow sphere to collect every drop of raw energy and store it for later use. They then realized that the entire universe was running through its energy reserves far too quickly for them and they sent out automated servants to colonize and exploit the resources of their whole galaxy. The galaxy itself grew dim. The light of a hundred billion stars no longer radiated wastefully into empty space, but was captured and stored, frozen in blocks of matter and antimatter and hurled towards the small sector of space where humanity still called its home.

But the galaxy itself was not enough. Billions more galaxies lay beyond in the void of intergalactic space. So humanity sent its robotic servants there as well, colonizing and enclosing countless trillions upon trillions of stars, distilling their photonic essence and shipping it back home across the millions of light-years.

Eventually, the entire universe was dark. Not a single photon was wasted, and humanity remained living in it small sector of space, enjoying its mastery of the universe. After trillions of years, the stars themselves wound down and the enormous galactic power plants which gave them their store of energy were switched off.

But it was not yet time for humanity’s time to go. No, for its life had barely begun. For quadrillions of years, quintillions of years, humanity remained in its simulated paradise, slowly feeding off their enormous store of energy. They would occasionally find and colonize coalescing black holes, bleeding off their enormous store of rotational energy, but it was merely a stop-gap until their reserves ran out.

Eventually it would run out, the laws of physics demanded that. As humanity lived on even the particles that they had stored their vast wealth of energy began decaying. Protons spontaneously transmuted into positrons and gamma-rays, the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics magnified over trillion trillion trillion years.

And at last humanity would take its last breath, having essentially become the universe itself, and passed on as everything else had.

But the universe itself continued in unconscious slumber. It would never end. It would expand beyond measure, until perhaps one day the process started over again.

Success! Well for Steven Colbert Anyway…

Apparently the next International Space Station module is going to be named after Steven Colbert. He won the write-in contest by an enormous margin.

Of course, the final decision is NASA’s, and I highly doubt that they’ll name it after him. But I think they should serious consider it: NASA relies on government funding which is reliant on public opinion. If people don’t want NASA around, they’ll vote people into office which will take away their funding and NASA will disappear. This, to put it mildly, would suck.

Unfortunately NASA as a probably-deserved reputation for being old and stodgy and if they do name it something else, it will probably just fan the flames of anti-NASA sentiment.

Well, however it ends up, it’s still pretty funny, much like Colbert himself.


XKCD beat me to this, but oh well…

The recent news on AIG bonuses has got me confused and upset. Not because they’re using taxpayer dollars to give out bonuses that they’re contractually required to by law, but that people have no perspective on how much the money actually is.

AIG received $170 billion in loans (meaning they have to, you know, pay them back), and used $165 million to fulfill some of their financial obligations. Let me make it clear: the amount of money dispersed as bonuses is less than 1/1000 of the total amount of money received. And what else were they supposed to do? Not give out the bonuses and wind up being sued by the people holding the contracts for breaching them, and end up having to pay them out anyway, plus spend however much was needed in court costs? Let’s just be upset about something else besides this, ok?

There’s A Lot of Space in, er, Space Addendum

Just for fun…

Let’s say that instead of using the asteroid belt, we instead colonized a binary star system whose components were two 80-solar-mass stars. We then mine all the stellar material through star lifting, transmute it into carbon and other building materials via fusion, and use that to construct space habitats.

160 solar mass are about 3.2 x 1032 kg. That would make 2.1 x 1020 habitats, suitable for about 25 trillion trillion human beings to live in. Of course we might want to set aside some solar material to still power (via fusion) our “habitat galaxy” otherwise it might get quite dark and cold, but that would only likely be a few percent of the original stars’ masses.

I first calculated this scenario several years ago and it still boggles my mind just how much stuff is out there.

There’s A Lot of Space in, er, Space

Last time I discussed the terraformation of the inner planets and of the Moon, which I think might happen more along the lines of an art project rather than a necessity. An uploaded human can live just as easily in the vacuum of space as on the surface of the Earth.

But planets are actually quite small compared to the size of the solar system. Whenever you see a representation of the solar system, you’ll usually see something like this: a large sun with large planets orbiting around it, with the gaps between planets only a few times larger than the planets itself. But, in reality, the solar system is a bunch of specks orbiting another very bright speck, with vast amounts of space in between. Roughly one million Earths lined up would stretch across the diameter of the entire solar system.

So what if we were to fill that space up as much as we could with places people could live, namely, space habitats? The idea of space habitats goes back decades. It was found in the 1970’s that even simple materials like steel and glass could be used to create giant space stations that could support thousands, if not millions of people in space. In the future, we’d be more likely to use more advanced materials like carbon fiber or even carbon nanotubes, which are lighter and stronger, and so allow for more habitats to be constructed per unit mass.

Let’s assume a typical space habitat is a cylindrical shell 10 km long and 2 km wide. It is so shaped in order to be rotated to produce artificial gravity. At this size 1 g of acceleration could be maintained by rotating the habitat at a little under one rotation per minute. Inside, this will produce a livable space of about 62.8 km2. I estimate that the average human needs about 500 m2 of space for a comfortable living space and area to grow food and other necessities, and accounting for future advances in the technology necessary to create those things. This leads to the habitat being able to support about 125,000 people.

Let’s also assume that the hull’s thickness is 10 meters, and that the average density of the hull is 2000 kg/m3 (made primarily of composite materials). At this size, and accounting for the mass of the air that will fill the inner volume, a single habitat will mass about 1.5 trillion kg.

This is way too large to launch from Earth, even if launched piece by piece and assembled on site. But there are vast quantities of resources in the asteroid belt and they are out of the deep gravity well that makes things so difficult to get into space from Earth. The total mass of the asteroid belt is estimated to be around 3 x 1021 kg. A quick bit of division shows that this amount of matter could be used to construct 2 billion space habitats. At 125,000 per habitat, that’s enough room to support 250 trillion people. That’s old fashioned biological humans, mind you, not the shiny brand-new uploaded humans that severely reduce demand on resources.

Even if we were to admit that A) not every single gram of asteroid material is usable and B) we might want to keep some asteroids around for posterity, it still leaves the potential to support trillions of humans relatively close by.

Of course, why bother terraforming Mars, or moving to a space habitat, if you’re uploaded and can have whatever you want in virtual space (including living on a terraformed Mars or inside a space habitat)? I think, given the vast number of people that exist, and will likely exist in the future, there will be supporters for all of these possibilities, and we’ll undertake them all, not just one to the exclusion of the others.