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ECLIPSE

I saw the eclipse!

It wasn’t easy. I flew out to Colorado to meet my brother, and then we all drove up to the middle of nowhere, Wyoming, through endless pastures and fields of sunflowers, plus plenty of empty land and the occasional geological portent. On an average Monday it would have taken a bit over three hours; it took us six, along with all the countless thousands of other enthusiasts winding through those two-lane roads.

We got there with half an hour to spare, in perfect sunshine. At half-eclipse, it still felt like any other bright summer day, but around 90%, things began to change. The shadows grew strangely sharper, and the light felt oddly blue compared to normal dusky twilight. Insects really did begin to chirp as if at nightfall.

Then, in a moment, totality. The horizon was ringed by impossibly pink sunset, planets were visible, and the moon appeared as a perfect black circle at the top of a navy blue sky.

People say it’s just sheer luck that the apparent size of the sun and moon are so nearly the same, so that eclipses are possible but exceedingly rare. There’s another lucky coincidence of sorts that’s less discussed: the solar corona is exactly the right brightness for appreciation by the human eye. Too bright, like the sun, and you wouldn’t be able to even look at it; much dimmer and it might be hard to see.

From Goshen County, Wyoming, just north of Lingle, the corona looked like a four-tailed white flame, frozen in time. Through standard binoculars, laminar striations were visible, reinforcing the sense of fire. A candle flame taller than a hundred earths, in perfect lily white.

And then, it was over. Two minutes of shock, and then back on the road.

Pictures here, including a spherical VR timelapse movie(!), and the grand finale courtesy of my brother.

Spamilton

I haven’t seen Hamilton, and at this rate I’ll probably have to wait for another 5 years or so, but I’ve heard the soundtrack all the way through multiple times, and I’m a big enough fan to appreciate a parody, like Spamilton.

Spamilton seems to float around, but at the moment it’s playing at the (confusingly stationary but otherwise fitting) Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, which is right by our house. The theater is like Broadway in miniature, two tiers but only ten seats across, with brick walls that look like this might have once been an alleyway.

At the end of an awful week, on a rainy evening, Spamilton was just the thing to lighten the mood. Ostensibly, it’s a story of the rise to fame of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton’s creator, set to the tune of Hamilton. That ends up being about 30% of the show; the remainder samples and skewers every Broadway hit (and a few flops) since Rogers and Hammerstein, with a breadth of commentary to match.

The show’s writing is clever, sometimes too clever for me to understand (like the deep references to second-tier Sondheim shows). The funny thing about this show, though, is that the jokes are not the best part; it’s the cast, whose impressions of the Hamilton songs, even with silly lyrics, are good enough for understudy roles at the very least. They’re so good that their parodies of sad songs will make you cry anyway. (Nicole Ortiz, who plays all three Schuyler sisters, is particularly amazing.)

A theme throughout the production is Broadway’s inescapable arc of popularity: a meteoric rise, and then a long slow slide from today’s hot ticket into yesterday’s fad. Much fun is poked at neverending “tourist trap” productions like Phantom and Wicked, but Spamilton itself might be a bellwether, airborne only while Hamilton is stratospheric.

At our Friday evening show, the small theater was much less than half full, not a positive sign. If Spamilton is running out of steam, it might be a sign that Hamilton is falling back to earth.

Net Positive

To find out what to do in New York City, I usually follow The Skint, which is full of fun cheap cultural stuff that’s happening around the city. Usually it’s Just Weird Enough, and sometimes it’s spot on … like last night, when it mentioned Net Positive, a screening of independent short films relevant to the politics of and on the internet.

It was held at Industry City, a pair of factory buildings that have been renovated into a lively and artistic space for startups and other hip companies. To get there, we had to walk through a pretty gritty stretch of Brooklyn and under an elevated highway, but once inside, the restaurants and courtyard were gorgeous at sunset.

The films were largely dystopian, in different ways. Somehow dystopia is easier than celebration, in a short.

The highest-budget production was probably HYPER-REALITY, which seems like an all-too-believable vision of an Augmented Reality future, for the sorts of people whose phones are full of crapware because they can’t afford a Pixel (or an iPhone). I feel like I might need to watch it again, more than once, to catch all of the stuff that’s going on; its incredibly high information density matches its vision of an overloaded future.

Conversely, the least expensive production, and probably the most ethereal, was Project X, a movie about a building that was also the subject of a blog post I wrote in 2011. Of course, in 2011, we didn’t yet know that this building housed not only AT&T networking equipment but also NSA wiretapping gear, which is the subject of the film.

Summer in the city … it’s amazing.

Prague

I’m in Prague! For the first three or four days I was just around the conference hotel, which is nice but not especially Czech. But then last night I walked around Real Old Prague.

Proof.

It’s … I have no knowledge of Prague or Czechia, no associations or cultural connection. All I can do is sort of boggle, and compare it to places I’ve been before. It feels kind of like the old sections of Paris but … bigger? Wider streets, bigger plazas. Maybe it’s actually not that old, just built in a very beautiful old style?

I really know nothing, but it’s pretty! And full of tourists, but I can’t very well complain about that.

Is Biology the only Von Neumann machine?

People have been talking more lately about Moon Bases. Maybe it’s because of the world’s most expensive luxury cruise, or the Google Lunar X Prize, or Newt Gingrich, or Japan. Doesn’t matter.

If you want a moon base, you probably want to build it before anyone has to live there. This creates a double bind: who builds the moon base? Someone has to show up and start shoveling, and then there’s nowhere to sleep.

What would really be great is if we could send some robots up there to build a moon base for us. Then it would be comfy when we arrive. No shoveling required.

Of course, we’re probably talking about robotic bulldozers and such, heavy stuff to launch into space. And they only work so fast; it might take a long time. We might have to send a lot of them if we wanted, say, a city on the moon, and then we’d have to keep sending them from earth when they broke down. Annoying.

What would really be nice is if we could just send up one of these things, and then tell it to build another one. You know, melt some regolith, refine some metals, grow some silicon crystals, carve out all the parts, stick them together. Now you have two lunar construction robots. Do that a few times and you could really build something big, fast.

This notion is called a Von Neumann probe, after John Von Neumann, who first considered this kind of machine in an abstract way, shortly before computers and space probes started to become real things.

Von Neumann machines, or self-replicating machines, have a remarkable property: in a convenient environment, their numbers can grow exponentially. That can be very convenient for, say, colonizing an inhospitable planet. They also have a big problem: no one’s ever figured out how to build one.

It’s easy to see why it might be hard to build such a thing. Say you start with a bulldozer. Maybe you have a plan to use computer controls to carve molds out of sand and then fill them with molten iron, which will become parts for the new bulldozer. Great. (Drexler would call this a clanking replicator.)

This process is going to be complex, so you’ll need a pretty sophisticated digital logic system to drive it — a computer, essentially. But how are you going to make a computer? Current computers are made out of silicon doped with phosphorus and boron, so you’ll have to find those elements and purify them, a step which requires additional equipment that you’ll also have to carry around. Then there’s the lithography step, which currently requires a gigantic clean-room, an army of solid-state quantum physicists, and a bunch of very carefully tuned machinery that is nigh-impossible to build.

You have to carry all of this with you, and all the equipment required to build it, and all the equipment required to build that equipment … one might wonder whether any finite-size machine can actually achieve this.

Shortly after Von Neumann wrote his mathematical treatment of this idea, showing that it was possible in principle, in a bare mathematical sense, Watson and Crick published their analysis of DNA. Within a few years, it was clear enough: Von Neumann machines really are possible, because every living creature is a Von Neumann machine.

We can start from the simplest cell. A cell consists of (1) a DNA strand encoding some information, (2) a cell membrane (made of lecithin) and (3) some other stuff like ribosomes and RNA polymerase for reading the DNA. It’s abundantly clear that this thing is a self-replicating machine. If you don’t believe me, just watch The Inner Life of the Cell.

How does the cell avoid the limitless expansion of required equipment? I like to think that it relies on the discreteness of matter. Rather than build at macroscopic scale, out of chunks of solid stuff, cells are built atom-by-atom by ultra-miniaturized construction equipment. The simplest cells start to look distinctly digital, with countable numbers of atomic-level components that can be copied or deleted as needed. The problem becomes discrete instead of continuous, and therefore finite instead of infinite.

It’s really cool.

This seems like good news for Von Neumann machine enthusiasts. We know there’s at least one kind, so maybe there are more! But are there?

The thing about Von Neumann machines is that they copy themselves, which means pretty soon you have a lot of them. On earth, we see them everywhere, and typically refer to them by subtypes, like trees, people, mildew, etc.

But we only see one kind. All of these things are Life, which is just one kind of machine. They all have the same lecithin-based membranes, and DNA-based memory units, and closely related other machinery. They all formed from a single family tree.

When we look in rocks, we don’t see little rock-machines tunneling around making copies of themselves. There are no ice-robots, magma-swimmers, solar jellyfish, or moon men. We would know if there were, because once these things get going, they don’t stop until they run out of stuff, and then they start fighting for the remaining stuff, eating each other, diversifying into predator and prey, etc.

Instead, all we see is silence.

Life as we know it formed less than a billion years after the Earth itself, and maybe a lot faster than that. The universe has been around for 13 billion years, and there are countless billions of planets and stars. Where are all the strange self-replicating things? (This is a variant of the Fermi Paradox.)

I think we should entertain a possible answer: they’re here, and we’re it. We have exactly one known type of Von Neumann Machine, and some good reason to believe that if others were possible, we would be able to spot them. We also know that all the other types we’ve tried to design have some serious problems that smell like fundamental physics.

So maybe, just maybe, the laws of physics only permit one kind of self-replicating machine, and it loves cake and hates bleach. Or to be more precise, maybe the space of physically allowed self-replicating machines is connected and fundamentally resembles Biology.

If so, scifi fans are in luck: to learn much about the universe, we really will have to build spaceships, and colonies, and all the rest. The robots won’t get to have all the fun.

The Three Musketeers

The Hudson Warehouse theater company is doing their amazing annual thing: free performances in Riverside Park all summer long. Two years ago we saw their She Stoops to Conquer; today we saw an original production of The Three Musketeers.

Some details of the plot have been excised, and perhaps slightly altered, but the main points and favorite scenes are all there, in full swashbuckling glory. The script is interesting, mixing archaic English (and a light sprinkling of French) with modern colloquialisms and the occasional anachronistic cultural reference. One character, ostensibly listing the desirable traits for a Musketeer, actually recites the (American) Boy Scout Motto.

Mostly, though, the play is an excuse for sword fights. We showed up an hour early to claim front row seats, and watched the final rehearsals of every fight, first slow, then full-speed. Some sequences (like a match between a rapier and a beer stein) took several rounds to polish, but in the performance somehow everything worked.

The actors were unamplified, performing in the open air, in a space not designed for acoustics. It’s a quiet park by New York City standards, but still a tremendous challenge to project to the back of the house. The actors more or less yelled their lines, which sounded natural in some voices and strained in others. Amplification might have helped, but seeing as the actors performed straight through a light shower, I can see why they avoided it.

All in all, I’m definitely a fan of Hudson Warehouse. They don’t take themselves too seriously, and neither did these authors and playwrights.

Will

We live about 4 (long) blocks from Bryant Park, which shows classic movies in the summer. Last night they set up the screen, not to show some old movie, but to present a brand new TV show. It was the open-air premiere of TNT’s Will a tale of the young William Shakespeare, trying to make a career for himself.

In my view it’s … flawed.

  • It’s drenched in graphic violence, gore, and as much sex and nudity as one can get away with on network TV.
  • The costuming is so excited that it breaks any suspension of disbelief.
    The Globe’s groundlings wear clothes, makeup, and hairstyles that look more like an EDM show than Elizabethan England. At one point a major character shows up in a leopard-print bomber jacket … no.
  • Rather than struggling for his craft, apprenticing, working odd jobs and trying to get his foot in the door, Will is an impossible overnight success. Literally: he produces a full play at the Globe on his second day in London.
  • The cinematography is bizarre. At one point the frame rate drops to like 2 FPS, in a clumsy attempt to convey disorientation or something. Don’t mess with the frame rate! You’re just reminding everyone that this is a video!

It’s still interesting, though. The plot is built on the presumption that Shakespeare is a crypto-Catholic, fleeing persecution by the theocratic state. It’s a conceit used to draw parallels to persecution in our own time … mostly ham-handed, but sometimes effective.

There’s also a pretty fun Elizabethan rap battle (a “duel” of words). That’s a testament to the acting, which is pretty much uniformly great.

I don’t think I’m likely to watch the rest, not least because I don’t have a TV subscription, but I hope the show works for someone out there.