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Paper Update

Just a quick update, the paper I mentioned in my last post has been accepted for publication! I am incredibly excited as I’ve never had anything published before. The working title of the article is “The Mayan Number System and Calendar” and will be published in Mathematics Teacher this December (basically to coincide with the whole 2012 end of the world nonsense. Still it’s some sort of link) Of course, once it is published I will reveal the actual answer and everything.


Incredibly Awesome News

I’m probably going to have a paper published! On Mayan numeral systems of all things!

This past quarter, I took a class called “History of Mathematics”. It seemed interesting, there was nothing else to fill my schedule, and, as it turns out, it will could towards my elective credit for my degree. During the class we had a homework problem which asked to find a simple way of multiplying a Mayan number by 20. Nobody could solve it, and the teacher (Dr. Shirley Gray) stated that in all her years of teaching the class, no student of hers had ever solved the problem. She had even written the textbook’s authors and they didn’t have a solution either. Well, I solved it.

It seems like a simple problem. But to understand it, we must understand how Mayan numbers work. Mayan numbers are, essentially, a base-20 positional system. It is like ours, except that each successive digit it twenty times greater than the previous one (in ours, of course, each digit is only ten times greater).

Based on this, it should be trivial to multiply by 20: just add a zero on the end (like multiplying by 10 in our system). However, there is a slight problem. For some reason, the third digit in a Mayan number is only 18 times the previous digit (meaning that 1-0-0 in their system is equal to 360, not 400). Adding a zero on the end won’t result in a number twenty times greater.

So, how do you do it? Well, I can’t write the answer here because I don’t want to inadvertently mess up getting the paper published. Dr. Gray did grill me on whether I found the solution online (which I didn’t, of course. Plagiarism is a very serious academic offense and if I had found it online, I would have stated so in the first place. I understand her caution completely). What I will say, though, is that the solution is simple, quick, and you don’t even have to convert the Mayan number into our own system to do it (they didn’t use Hindu-Arabic numbers, naturally. It was system of lines and dots written vertically, with a strange shell shape for the number zero. See here).

Where the paper comes in is that Dr. Gray was already writing a paper on Mayan numbers and wants to include my finding in it. So it’s not really my paper, but it’s still a mention in some official publication. Which is more than I’ve ever done so far.

So, when the paper is published, I will announce it here, as well as the actual solution with the proof I developed. It will interesting to put on my resumé, right below ‘recording “Hollaback Girl” with Gwen Stefani’ (true story! Also, sorry…)

Project Glass

Last July, I described how we could go from today’s technology to fully-immersive virtual reality in only two steps. Well, it now seems that step two is well on the way, having apparently skipped over step one.

Google has announced that they are working on, essentially, augmented reality glasses. Of course, technology like this has been worked on for decades with little to show for it. But this seems, possibly, different. This this time, it is a large high-tech company with a track record of producing practical and highly profitable technological innovations. If anyone has a shot to making these glasses widely available it’s them.

Second, take a look at this video:

Absolutely everything that is shown is what smart phones do today: listening to music, taking pictures, making phone/video calls, getting weather, looking up info online,  texting…it’s like wearing an iPhone on your head.

Furthermore, and something I stressed in my former post, it is very lightweight, and not cumbersome at all to use, like a real pair of glasses. This is essential. If it was a giant bulky headset, no one would want to buy it, no matter what it did. Plus, when not using it, you can still see where you’re going. You don’t even have to take it off.

Now, what needs to happen is for someone to make a virtual reality app. Something like Second Life that you can stream through the glasses. True it won’t be fully immersive, and you might need to have some sort of controller hooked into the glasses (note to Google: be sure to include USB or microSD slots), but it is a first step. From there you can build onto it to eventually create fully immersive virtual reality.

Anyway, based on all this, I predict two possible outcomes: 1) Google will introduce these within a few years (2014-15 frame) and make billions, or 2) This will flop by Apple will come out with their own version a little later (2014-17 frame)  and make billions (maybe they can call it the iEye ;)) Either way, the next wave of personal technology is rapidly approaching.

Yay! I found it!

A while ago, I posted a blog about a documentary on atheism that I particularly enjoy, and noted that it was, in fact, a supplement to another documentary called “Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief”, which I couldn’t find at all.

Well, I found it. I was walking along one day, thinking about it when it occurred to me: what if it’s in the same place that all other videos ever made in the history of the universe are? YouTube.
So, yeah, failure of imagination. But to be fair, it was released under a different title in the US called simply “A Brief History of Disbelief”.

Anyway, I’m happy.

Creationist Double Fail

A common creationist objection to the theory of evolution is the orbital recession of the Moon. It is well known that the distance between the Earth and Moon is gradually getting larger. Every year, the Moon is roughly 3.8 cm farther away than it was the year before. What creationists claim is that if you run the clock backwards, and let the Moon approach the Earth at that rate, it ends up colliding with the Earth long before the supposed age of the Earth-Moon system, thus showing that the world couldn’t be that old.

The usual objection is over the past 4.6 billion years (the age of the Moon), the rate that it’s been moving away at hasn’t been constant. The mechanics of lunar recession is complicated, having to do with the distribution of oceans and landmasses on the Earth (different distributions produce different gravitational “tugs” on the Moon as it orbits). Today’s rate is actually quite a bit higher than it has been in the past. So directly extrapolating today’s rate into the past won’t actually give you the correct answer.

And then…there’s this:

The Moon is currently 385,000 km away (on average. The Moon’s orbit is actually somewhat eccentric).

385,000 km / 3.8 cm per year = 10.1 billion years. Far older than the accepted age of the Earth.

So even if you do blindly extrapolate backwards, the Moon doesn’t actually end up colliding with the Earth. So not only do creationists not do their research, they also suck at math!

My Story

One of the problems with being an atheist is that you’re always perceived as something negative. And that perception really isn’t that far from reality. I mean most of what you hear about atheists is that they’re usually arguing or fighting against something. They’re trying to remove the 10 Commandments from government buildings, or getting prayer out of school, or they’re writing books blasting traditional religious thought.

While I do believe this is necessary at some level, there’s really nothing substantive about atheism or non-religion in general. There is secular humanism which does have positive core values, but that usually just gets lost in the mix.

I’ve also struggled to come up with something positive while at the same time promoting critical thinking. It’s kind of contradictory to lay out a set of positive values, but then saying “and be critical of everything, even what I just said”. Imagine if a Christian said, “God loves you and wants to save your soul, but also question everything. Even question whether this God exists in the first place.” It just makes it confusing.

So, what I thought I’d do was simply tell my own story of how I got to where I am today in my atheism. Well, not just atheism. Atheism is practically nothing. It is a mere sentence in the thick novel of my personal beliefs. I am a secular humanist, a transhumanist, and deeply convinced of the value and correctness of scientific methodology and of the ongoing scientific endeavor.

First, my parents. I grew up in a non-religious household. My mother is also an atheist, though not much of a critical thinker. She’s into things like Carl Jung and Carlos Castaneda; fairly flakey things about consciousness and perceiving the universe. But she’s not really hardcore into these things. She’s like the moderate Christian version of them. Sort of believes it, but isn’t devoted to it. My father was into Scientology, but was never a member; mostly because he had no money and they wouldn’t have him.

After my parents divorced, I lived with my mother and she decided to take me to the Ethical Culture of Brooklyn. If you don’t know, the Ethical Culture is a group dedicated to ethical ideas. Everyone was accepted, and no one was made to feel inferior because of their personal beliefs. It’s sort of a non-religious Unitarianism. But its main focus is on ethics: what is right, what is wrong, how we should act, etc, but also the discussion of those ideas, not just swallowing it whole without thought.

We stopped going after we moved to California. We tried the Ethical Culture here but didn’t it interesting enough to stay. A year later, when I was 12, I met a girl (now my wife) who asked me to go to her and her friends to church, which was the Methodist Church. I agreed, and found it kind of interesting. I eventually went through confirmation and joined the church, but I never really believed in it. I had just done because that was what everyone else was doing so I figured why not.

As it turned both she and her friends really didn’t believe in it either, and stopped going. I found myself alone there now, continually pressured to go by my mother. She obviously didn’t believe either, but she said I made a commitment to them and so need to see it out. Eventually I convinced her that I hated going and she let me sleep in again on Sundays.

It was during this time that I really started questioning religion and whether God exists. I hadn’t believed them before, but I hadn’t really been critical of it, and mostly didn’t even understand the concepts. I was an “implicit atheist”, where my non-belief was simply due to the fact that I hadn’t been indoctrinated into it. It was here where I shifted to “explicit atheism” where I did begin questioning and coming up with logical reasons why there is no God, and understanding just what “God” is. I now knew what I was rejecting.

So for a few years I did that until my sophomore year of high school when one of my friends, who was pretty devoutly Catholic, invited me to his church. I decided to go, but due to curiosity about what Catholics believe, not because I thought it might be a way to the truth. I went there for a couple years, and, I have to say, I actually enjoyed it. I didn’t think any of the Catholic dogma was true, but they were nice friendly people to be around. They weren’t pushy at all about their beliefs. I mean, I went to their youth group, called Life Teen, and there was a lot in there about what the church’s teachings were and how to be a good Catholic, but I was never singled out. I felt part of a group that was being taught. And I definitely learned a lot more about Catholic teachings than I did about Methodist teachings at the Methodist Church.

But I eventually decided to move on. During this time I had also really learned a lot about critical thinking and the scientific method, both from my teachers at school and online articles (particularly It was in these that I saw the true majesty of the universe. The fact that we have the tools to objectively understand the very fundamental nature of reality is astonishing.

The true power of science is in its ability to test and verify theories, and to discard those that do not conform to nature. It is this that really distinguishes it from religion. There is no faith, there is no condemnation of questioning, and there are no logical gaps and fallacies. There is just no comparison. Science is adaptable. It takes this premise that we don’t know anything about the universe, and tries to figure it out. It doesn’t claim a dogma, then try to work backwards to find the evidence for that dogma. Everything is open to investigation.

By the time I was in college I was pretty set in being an atheist. I still say that I would believe in God if there were sufficient evidence (and given the nature of the claim, the evidence would have to be extraordinarily good), but nothing has made it in so far. There are just no good reasons to believe that a supreme being exists in the universe, and a great many reasons to believe otherwise.

I still struggle with personal beliefs, though. I first discovered transhumanism when I was 19 through Marshall Brain’s web pages. At first I didn’t like it. It just seemed too bizarre and undesirable to me. But, eventually, I sorted through it with my mental critical thinking tool kit, and found there was something here. We could make people better, or rather, develop the capabilities to let people make themselves better. We could develop the technology to upload the human mind to become immortal. We could develop the technology to create vast simulated realities and live in them as literal god-like beings. It is practical.

I’ll close out here with my rejection of my belief in extraterrestrial life, and not just because it’s my latest personal discovery. I had believed that aliens must exist in some form somewhere. Given the incredibly vast number of stars in the universe, coupled with the relative ease it is to make life, the universe must be teeming with life and other civilizations. But, as I started to investigate the consequences of those beliefs, I found that they were incompatible with the universe I saw around me. Where were these aliens? I believed aliens would colonize a large volume of space, as large as they possibly could, and do it quickly, since their only limited by the speed of light. So why aren’t they here already? Eventually, I realized that the simplest explanation was that they didn’t exist at all. It was devastating to me. I wanted to believe that alien life existed so badly, but the evidence just didn’t bear it out. I had to discard that belief, but it was actually not so bad. Because of my experience with having to prune my beliefs when necessary, I found that I was glad I came to a logical conclusion. Critical thinking gets easier, the more you do it. Changing your beliefs that you hold dear, gets easier.

And it’s a good thing too. We don’t know the nature of the universe when we’re born. It makes no sense to then pretend to.

Two Technological Steps Away from Virtual Space

In thinking about how we might get from today’s technology to the technology I’ve envisioned in the future, it’s often useful to work backwards; envisioning how to step back from high technology to lower technology.

For virtual space, it seems that we might accomplish the transition from today with only two “stepping stone” technologies. So, what exactly is virtual space? Simply a fully immersive, artificially created simulation of the world. You can interact with it just as you do the real world. You can see, hear, smell, feel, taste, etc, everything in the simulation just like you would in real life and, above all, have abilities that are impossible in the real world (flight, teleportation, instant creation of anything, etc.) So what would one step back from that be? Maybe a less-immersive type of virtual space.

Like say, portable, light-weight virtual reality glasses. These glasses simply give visual and auditory feedback, like playing a video game, but operated completely through audio and tactile command (with something like a virtual keyboard, which the glasses create, much like what can be done today). These glasses will be used to surf the internet, play games, make video and audio phone call, perhaps even be used to travel though a primitive version of virtual space. They could also be used as a real-world HUD (Heads-Up Display), which can overlay important information about real-world things, appearing on the things themselves (for example, lets say you’re at a restaurant and you don’t know what to get. You might use the glasses to go online, look for reviews of specific dishes, which the glasses will then point out by apparently projecting some sort of highlighting feature on the physical menu in front of you. I say “apparently” because the “projection” is entirely contained between the glasses and your eyes meaning only you can see it).

So how might we get to this technology? Well, I can see it growing directly out of cell phones. Basically, imagine something like this, but as an add-on to cell phones, like Bluetooth. Instead of looking at your screen, the information is relayed by Bluetooth, or similar technology, to these glasses that you are wearing. But you still have the phone and everything on you.

So that would be only two steps: electronic glasses connected to cell phones, electronic glasses without cell phones. The final transition comes at the end. It’s likely that real virtual space won’t come about until people start uploading. The demand just won’t be high enough to encourage a large percent of the population to undergo major surgery just to have the latest high-tech gadget (also, what do you do when the next model comes out a year later? Go through surgery again?). But if you’re uploaded, the transition from one set of virtual space hardware to the next becomes much simpler. Being uploaded means that your mind and your brain will already be easily accessible in the future.

So, what do we need to start on this path? Well the electronic glasses would be a considerable piece of technology in their own right. In order for there to be wide demand of these, they would have to be very similar to existing glasses of today. They would need to be just as light-weight and allow just as much visibility out of them, and be just as easy to take on and take off. They would also have to be very cheap, possibly no more that $100-$200 in today’s money. That might take some time, but we do have a few decades for this to be developed. Maybe in fifteen to twenty years, we’ll all have glasses like these.