Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Complex Organics from Enceladus

The work is driven by a chemical species that is hard to explain as other than the result of the reaction of these other complex molecules, and they build a model for how it's getting from inside Enceladus out into the plumes. Cassini detected it both in the E ring and the plume itself. Figure 10 from the paper (!!!):

Bonus points for one of the cooler names for a peer-reviewed paper ever. Points off for everyone who's touched this data and not noticed this before! What are you doing over there! You're giving fits to us bio/chemical types who are following this work. SciAm writeup here.

Frank Postberg, Nozair Khawaja, Bernd Abel, Gael Choblet, Christopher R. Glein, Murthy S. Gudipati, Bryana L. Henderson, Hsiang-Wen Hsu, Sascha Kempf, Fabian Klenner, Georg Moragas-Klostermeyer, Brian Magee, Lenz Nölle, Mark Perry, René Reviol, Jürgen Schmidt, Ralf Srama, Ferdinand Stolz, Gabriel Tobie, Mario Trieloff & J. Hunter Waite. Macromolecular organic compounds from the depths of Enceladus. Naturevolume 558, pages564–568 (2018)

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Interstellar Object Oamuamua is Releasing Vapor

A Nature paper by Micheli et al demonstrates that outgassing is one plausible explanation for the subtle changes being measured in Oamuamua's trajectory. It also happens to visually look like a comet, though with much more silicate than organic material on the surface. There's less and less distinction between asteroids and comets - that is, a "primitive" (wet, not-yet-burned-off) body like Ceres is more comet-like than a drier body like Vesta. More here on the (now established) phenomenon of interstellar mixing and what it means, more speculatively, for von Neumann probes and/or the panspermia hypothesis.

Note: I refuse to use the apostrophe for Oamuamua because it misses up alphabetical order, and also, is dumb. Sue me, Hawaiians.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Another Interstellar Asteroid - This One a Permanent Resident of the Solar System

Asteroid BZ interested astronomers right away, because it is retrograde, in a 1:-1 resonance with Jupiter - suggesting that it was captured from outside the solar system just as ours formed, and is therefore older than the rest of the solar system.

But more interesting than that, it took several unlikely events for it to be captured and continue in a stable resonance over time (see last paragraph in the Orbit section.) This very strongly suggests that there are interstellar objects passing through the solar system all the time. For such an object to be captured so quickly, so early in the history of the solar system means that there must be enough of them to get trapped by freak aligments. Another way of looking at it is that fast = likely.

This is consistent with a similar argument made about Oamuamua, an interstellar asteroid that is currently passing rapidly through the solar system. Within a year of the first telescope that could detect such an object being activated, it found such an object. Good luck? Or constant interstellar material passing through? (It didn't take long to find BZ either, once we started looking.) The relevant point is that while the vast distance between stars is often cited as a form of quarantine for macroscale beings like us, it is certainly not such a quarantine, even on brief geological time scales, between pools of organic molecules. More here about periodic close passes between stars and interstellar mixing here and here, and (most speculatively) that if von Neumann probes exist, they are likely to interact with comets and asteroids with organics, rather than planets.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Trigon Disunity by Michael P. Kube-McDowell - Emprise, Enigma, and Empery)

I'd always wanted to do a blog post on this really solid series from the 80s, which I just learned on going back to read about, was nominated for some awards. There's always some satisfaction learning that the books you liked most as a kid, and stayed with you because they had some substance, get some recognition. I wouldn't call it space opera or hard sf per se, mostly because Kube-McDowell demonstrates a real knowledge of human dynamics and psychology that make the story better and keep his characters from being mouthpieces for ideas. The story is central here - but there are really interesting ideas spread throughout. Much like I rue that there is no good thrash metal being recorded today (despite the occasional band that will claim to be writing the next mid-to-late-80s-sounding Metallica album - and then never delivers), I wonder if a series like this could be written today. Its technology, historical and social sensibilities put it squarely in the 80s but not in a bad way. If I had to put it in a genre, I'd call it "late paleo space opera". It also has cool cover art. To this day I have an aversion to science fiction that is NOT in a small paperback with cool cover art, and was shocked as a kid to learn that hardbacks are somehow more prestigious.

It's been 30 years since I read this so I may be getting some details wrong, but in any event what I like about the series is some of the ideas - like science fiction pearls. The ability to create and include these ideas is why the genre exists.

In short: the first book opens in an exhausted, resource-depleted, post-half-assed World War III near future Earth that starts getting signals from a ship approaching the Solar system. Soon it's determined that the signal is binary, and based on a very simple code - 1 for the letter A, 2 for B, etc. And (spoiler) it turns out the aliens are not aliens, but rather humans. Earth is indeed the homeworld of humanity, but there was actually a first technological civilization that predates our own, and sent out colonies. There was a technological collapse (I can't remember why) and all the colonies were separated. The ones entering the Solar system were the first ones to reconstruct the technology needed to make the trip back. Subsequently, Earth's governments unify, and in partnership with the other humans that came home, we begin exploring our corner of the galaxy to re-contact the other isolated colonies. There ARE aliens - the D'shanna, and one other one I'll mention.

So far this seems very similar to Left Hand of Darkness (which is also great), although unlike in Leguin's novel, the contact teams in these stories were not so coy about introducing themselves when they found a new lost colony. What I liked at the time, and remember today, are those little nuggets. Without further ado, here they are (again, major spoilers.)
  1. Ever wonder what it would be like to have "the answers in the back of the book" - for all of reality? The D'shanna I mentioned were energy beings that humans on one colony communicated with. When the contact team found that planet, they found it represented by a fairly unfriendly gentlemen who kept stalling them. Finally they landed despite his objections, and realized the planet was all but abandoned, with him the only human on it. It turns out that being handed the answers to all reality so sapped humans of meaning and the will to live that they all perished (just stopped having families vs mass suicide, can't remember.) I liked this idea a lot, because it was something I've thought about too much - an actual objective truth machine. Much to their chagrin, they effectively found one.

  2. If you write a book with humans already mysteriously spread across the galaxy, and they did it on their own, you have a problem to solve - Either

    • Earth is NOT our homeworld, and there are powerful progenitors - in which case since the 1990s you had to explain why we're related to everything here. Larry Niven wrote these kinds of stories in the 60s and 70s, and I wonder how or if he ever solved. The Aliens franchise doesn't really explain it but then I don't want to see what dumb explanation they might come up with.

    • Earth IS our homeworld, and we're the progenitors - in which case, where are the ruins of spaceports and rayguns? Here, it's solved by making all of the first civilization's technology ice-based.

  3. The simple code I mentioned above was actually noted by a scientist's daughter. One scientist is completely ruined by having missed it, and ends up reading six levels of complex interpolation into the code, thinking that the approaching beings are antennaed moth-men (which they turn out not to be.) Interesting reflection on the psychological impact and compensation mechanisms for missing something right in front of you, as well as a comment on reading too much into things.

  4. He creates a custom for one of his planets of adolescents having rubbing stones. Every day you rub them with your fingers, and you're an adult once they're smooth. Of course some adolescents don't have the discipline to keep rubbing, and they remain rough; others try futilely to accelerate the process, only to end up with bloody finger tips. This stayed with me for some reason.

  5. Mizar (the brighter one), home of some really alien aliens. (from skyandtelescope.com)

  6. He includes really alien aliens. I understand why on Star Trek they have aliens whose only difference is a forehead ridge (the reason rhymes with "schmudget".) But in a halfway serious science fiction novel, it's inexcusable, and if that's the best you can do when you have no such constraints you might as well just include elves and dwarves while you're at it. Here, there are energy aliens who mostly inhabit another dimension and can see all of our reality (like Tralfamadorians in Slaughterhouse Five, but much cooler and nicer) as well as electric domes of rock covering the surface of a planet orbiting Mizar (the star that makes the bend in the Big Dipper.)

  7. The initial mission to go meet the aliens that turned out not to be aliens had a crew consisting of:
    • A white European scientist
    • A black American minister
    • A south Asian military/political guy (he was in charge I think)
    • A Chinese crewmember, who I can't remember what he did

    I thought it was interesting how the different strands of human experience were also represented by different ethnic backgrounds.

  8. In near-future science fiction, you really can improve your verisimilitude by including a familiar setting, which Kube-McDowell does occasionally, mentioning his native Pennsylvania a few centuries hence - the Susquehanna Spaceport! He now lives in Indiana and in Alternities uses that setting.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Make Your Own Genre Crossovers by Imagining Subtext

There's a fan theory that Get Out is actually the sequel to Being John Malgovich, and that Katherine Keener is playing the same character in both movies - who has learned she can trap people inside their own or others' minds. This has been discussed enough that it was even brought up to director Jordan Peele in an interview, who said the theory was likely "brought on by the power of marijuana." Still, it's interesting to imagine she changed her name from Maxine and that Allison Williams is the grown-up little girl from the end of Malgovich, every bit as inhabited by old souls as the black servant/ancestors in her household, her moral sense twisted by the seventy old people whose minds and personalities she contains (along with a trapped and weeping John Cusack.)

Left: the young Tony Stark in high school looking at Kelly LeBrock and realizing that to have any chance of getting her he has to become a superhero. Right: the older Tony Stark appears to look into the future, but in reality is thinking about Kelly LeBrock.

Similarly in the very 1990s Surviving the Game, a film version of The Most Dangerous Game, Ice-T is brought to Rutger Hauer's estate as the unwitting target of a hunt. And the writers missed a golden crossover opportunity. Imagine it - Ice-T is running through the woods to get away from Rutger Hauer, when suddenly Harrison Ford comes running the other way in his future-noir trenchcoat soaked with rain and his fingers broken, saying "Listen buddy, I don't have much time. The key to escaping this guy is just stall until his four-year-lifespan is up, and then he gets all sentimental and lets you live." Ford takes off running, and soon after the bewildered Ice-T encounters a frustrated Tommy Lee Jones, running after Ford, who yells over his shoulder at Ice-T "Why didn't you stop him! He's an alien!" and Will Smith comes along two seconds later and flashes Ice-T so he doesn't remember seeing them.

The best example in any action movie of "bad guy seems about to kill the hero but first coldly explains his vision for the world, and then good guy rallies, says a one-liner that undoes it and kills the bad guy" is in Surviving the Game where Ice-T's pithy comeback is "Fuck that!"

People have been excited about the massive crossover event of Avengers: Infinity War, although I think a little wind is taken out of the sails by the fact that the crossing over was expected well in advance. I thought it was far cooler when in Predator 2, they revealed an oblong Alien skull in the ship's trophy room, or even the ending of this episode of Transformers from back in the day. Although the best actually acknowledged-crossover ever has to be this one from Hotshots 2:

But why wait for the franchises to get around to the crossover? A lot of the experience of watching a movie comes from inside your own head - and you can make up your own crossover by imagining that an actor who's been in more than one franchise is actually the same character, much like Katherine Keener in Get Out and Being John Malgovich. So here are some others suggestions to enrich your franchise consumption experience.

1) Watch Weird Science again, and assume that Robert Downey Jr's character is Tony Stark as a bratty rich kid. I mean they even make a nuclear missile! After the humiliation he receives when not only can he not get Kelly LeBrock, but one of the weird scientists steal his girlfriend, Stark then spends the rest of his life partying and doesn't wake up from the mindless hedonism and materialism that soothed his bruised ego until he is captured by terrorists and sees what his weapons are doing to the people in the countries where they're used.

2) In Westworld, the Man in Black enjoys the immersive experience of the massive park. It turns out that the way he became so rich was when he conceived and directed a similar entertainment, that being the greatest reality show of all time, the Truman show! But this left him questioning the construction of meaning and consensus reality, and feeling guilty at what he did to Truman, he set out to shock the hosts into free will. But his demotion from Truman's god left him bitter, hence his humble contribution as Satan walking to-and-fro in Anthony Hopkins' world. I shouldn't neglect to mention that the Man in Black started out working in real estate, but after the abuse he received from his superiors he swore he would only work for himself. (When he asks Anthony Hopkins about "opening him up" - displaced aggression from when he was told "Always Be Closing"?) Either way when the Man in Black broods, he's probably thinking over his last conversation with Jim Carrey - or hoping that Alec Baldwin is rotting in hell for the way he treated people. Little does the Man in Black know that Anthony Hopkins is a god not just in his own mind, but in reality - called Odin - and Odin recognizes that threat when a rebel Valkyrie posing as an executive shows up to take over Westworld.

3) In the first Star Trek reboot movie, to save his crew and family, George Kirk kamikazes into the Romulan ship. But he remains heroically calm, and why not - he has faced world-destroying foes before as part of the Avengers! He may even believe (incorrectly) that his Valhallan ancestry will save him from the explosion. (This theory also explains why his half-human son James Tiberius can hold his own in fist-fights with Klingons.) Meanwhile, Dr. Strange succumbs to the temptation to abuse his mystic powers, has a dalliance with dictatorship, and ends up hiding with his genetically enhanced followers in suspended animation - and his knowledge of Eastern culture leads him to change his name to Khan. He just acts superhuman while hiding all the fancy spinning light nonsense. ( You can see the Dr. Strange hints they dropped in that Star Trek movie! Those hints are...er ah...come on people with narrative pareidolia, I know you can do it!) And Professor Xavier, made immortal by (fill in technobabble - think that's lazy? pro writers do it all the time), thinks that Thor and Strange had the right idea and hangs around long enough to become a Star Fleet officer himself, quickly rising to the rank of captain, though he almost accidentally reveals his mutant powers by continuing a telepathic link to the Borg after his near-permanent assimilation. Generations in the distant future would remember these repeated destructive encounters with an overwhelming machine race as the Butlerian jihad, and Professor X knows he must survive because he learned through Cerebro that one day in the distant future, there would arise a messiah called the Kwisatz Haderach.

4) When Neo first woke up out of the Matrix, he was actually thinking "Whoa...Bill and I saw this place once when we went far enough into the future! Totally bogus!" Any incomprehensible plot holes can be explained by Neo waiting for Bill and younger-himself to show up at any moment, and they can even remake the Matrix movies with the time travel finally fixing things.

5) The cyber-infected John Connor jumps timelines and creates a new one where he cannot salvage the rise of the machines, but at least he can still make the human race go extinct - by interfering with the recovery of the human race in post-simian-virus San Francisco, helping the apes, and setting up the events of the third POTA movie. (The character does seem a little too earnest doesn't he?)

6) The Hosts from Westworld go to a new level - not Eastworld (or whatever they call the Japanese one) but rather - Medievalworld. As they move about the castles and kingdoms they soon recognize that the guests on this level are made immortal and called "White Walkers". If the guests spend a lot they even get to be kings and queens (although unlike in Westworld, in Medievalworld these story lines allow or even ENCOURAGE the guests to kill each other in-game.) One guest however is given a permanent special title for free, to honor her for having protected us in the real world against the killer robots from the future. Her real name is Sarah Connor but in the game she is called "Daenerys Targaryen."

7) Mace Windhu survives the fall inflicted by Palpatine, uses the Force to save Queen Amidala's life and travels to a distant galaxy. Due to time dilation the seemingly brief trip takes a long, long time, and they arrive on early 21st century Earth. Amidala immediately finds herself a god to date and Windhu knows that there are evil beings all over the universe, so he starts gathering the most remarkable humans he can find. By coincidence Saw Gerrera also escaped the Empire and came to Earth, to a country called Wakanda to serve as a warrior there. Darth Maul survives Obi-Wan and uses his powers to serve evil on Earth calling himself Toad. Both Maul's and Windhu's light sabers long ago ran out of charge, although when the Avengers are fighting, from behind the scenes Windhu occasionally uses the Force to deflect a shot the Avengers don't see coming. Somehow, none of them realize that a man who started merely as a master lock-picker long ago in a galaxy far away (Benicio del Toro), somehow also landed in our galaxy - to become a collector.

(As I complied this list, I was utterly amazed at how many actors had been both in Marvel Universe and Star Wars roles. Both of these franchises are now owned by Disney. My estimation of the likelihood of a near-future - within a decade - Star Wars-Marvel crossover is going up as a result. Since the characters that cross over early are generally peripheral which makes them more flexible for future writing purposes, my money is on Benicio del Toro.)

8) Captain America often thinks to himself during battles "You know flying was cool, but I'd rather just have a ripped torso and throw a shield around than have to be on fire all the time."

Above: Special Agent Smith, having taken his Vendetta mask off, passes the torch by giving Aragorn a light saber, so he can cross post-apocalyptic America and avoid cannibals.

9) Rocket the bioengineered raccoon actually is from Earth and knows damn well what a raccoon is, but doesn't want to let on to the Starlord. Why? It kind of sucks that he used to be human, had such a great bachelor party and his brain ended up getting uploaded into this form. Dave Bautista is human too, but disguises himself and plays dumb for a different reason - he'd rather the Starlord think he's an alien than a Nexus-7 replicant. He tried going back to Earth to farm and came very close to being retired by a Blade Runner, and he's not making that mistake again. Finally the Starlord finds himself captured by the Grandmaster, who is more bemused than usual and tells him (important to read in smiling Jeff Goldblum's voice) "So after all this is over you're planning on working on Earth resurrecting dinosaurs? I don't recommend it son - they brought me in once to observe and it didn't go well."

10) Obadiah Stane was...changed by his time inside Tron, and after he comes out and becomes an executive at Stark Industries, people can see his erratic behavior, but won't fire him given his insights into the virtual world.

11) Richard Riddick was not always human. Long ago he was a plant-alien named Groot, but constantly getting caught in wars hardened him and he finally had his brain (and voicebox) transplanted into a human body. Vaako thinks Groot-Riddick is naïve to retain even this much morality; despite Vaako's near-sacrifice to defend Valhalla, and despite his service to Starfleet as a physician, he was constantly ignored, so he said screw it, and became a Necromonger henchman.

12) Zoe Saldana in Guardians of the Galaxy is actually an Orion. Many years later at Starfleet academy, for fear that she would be discriminated against, she had her skin surgically changed from green to brown, but when she saw another out-of-the-closet Orion got into the Academy she requested to be her roommate.

13) In the Exorcist, when Max von Sydow sees the girl, he knows he can only be dealing with one thing: a Sith. He remembers Kylo Ren who left him for dead on Jakku, and uses some very basic Force tricks he learned from Luke. It's not enough as he soon discovers...but they should have compelled her with the power of Yoda!

14) Recall the Chancellor prior to Palpatine, who looked crestfallen at Palpatine's vote of no confidence. That was all for show, because the former Chancellor set it up for Palpatine, then gladly stepped down, and returned to Krypton, where they call him Zod.

15) Gandalf seems so world-weary because he was cast into this other strange dimension by a mutant's powers, and he tries to hide his true nature from hobbits (if you look closely, all his tricks involve manipulating metal in some way.) He thinks he recognizes Galadriel, who was similarly banished and briefly reveals who she really is - but the time is not right to go back to the mortal plane and re-take Valhalla.

16) There's an ongoing effort at an Alien-Blade Runner cross-over, which is predictable (both originally directed by Ridley Scott) but depressing, because the last couple Alien universe movies have not been great, and in any event no actors cross over between the two. But what if Hicks in Aliens seems so world-weary because he's actually an android - one designed to look and think like Kyle Reese?

17) After getting very little support from Sauron, Saruman barely escaped with his life to the stars. It doesn't take much for him to rebel against the Jedi and his master Yoda, who reminds him too much of those damn hobbits that were his undoing. And he certainly wasn't going to fall for another dark overlord, and rebels against Palpatine. But it was all part of Palpatine's plan...hence the incredulous look in the moments before it all goes finally and terrible wrong for him.

18) Deckard might be a replicant but he was engineered from a genetically superior human, and retains some of his memories - which explains the flashes of ark-hunting that come back to him and possibly his inexplicable enmity for Aryan-looking guys like Roy Baty. When K. find Deckard, he spots among his possessions a plain-looking cup. "Don't drink out of that one," Deckard cautions. (Note: Edward James Olmos thinks Blade Runner could be a sequel to Battlestar Galactica. No really. The intervening movie, from the end of BG to the beginning of Blade Runner, would be interesting. It's too bad they won't make it - but then again who does?)

19) On Girls, Hannah's ex-boyfriend lapses back into alcoholism and he and Hannah have a major fight. Suddenly Hannah finds herself choking without her ex touching her, and objects hurtling toward her face.

The bottom line: once you're in a science fiction franchise and have name recognition, you're set for life.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Super Earths: More Surface Area to Evolve Life, but More Gravity to Keep You From Leaving

Super-Earths have more surface area and may be more likely to evolve life merely for this reason. But ironically those planets have higher gravity that makes them harder to get off of - and that life is therefore more likely to be trapped. This is similar to the idea that planets closer to the galactic center might be more likely to have life because they're older, but less likely to have life because those planets are more subject to bombardments triggered by more-frequently close-passing stars, supernovas or gamma ray bursts. When the same cause (larger terrestrial planet) can plausibly have two contradictory effects and we can't decide which one will dominate, that shows how little quantitative knowledge we have and how little we really know with any confidence.

Last post about alien evolution: Method Proposed for Detecting Exotic Biochemistry

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Method Proposed for Detecting Exotic Biochemistry

As written previously, we can't assume that alien life would be based on the same biochemistry as Earth, and PCR reactions might come up with nothing. A new approach, still relying on nucleic acids, suggests that short oligos interact with many kinds of molecules, and that our sequencing technology could be adapted (and in a way, reversed) to detect even exotic non-nucleic-acid-based life. (Johnson Sarah S., Anslyn Eric V., Graham Heather V., Mahaffy Paul R., and Ellington Andrew D., Astrobiology March 8 2018.)

More on alien evolution here: Finding Extraterrestrial Organics is Old News; Let's Look for Evidence of Life

Thursday, February 22, 2018

SpaceX Falcon9 Launch from Vandenberg Visible from Northern California

Even though it's 300 air miles from my house to the launch pad at Vandenberg, I knew it would be quite visible - first, because in the pre-dawn twilight, the exhaust plume would be illuminated by the sun; and second, to be visible above the horizon at that distance you only need to be 18.5 km in the air, which an orbital rocket covers in a short period on the order of a minute. Sure enough at 6:18 Pacific Time I saw it. In the pictures below you can quite clearly see that the first stage has burned out and the second stage has ignited.

I was amazed at how quickly it appeared to be moving especially at this distance, but I didn't take video. Fortunately, Reddit user tKMagus did, from a plane as they were landing at LAX (about a hundred air miles, 3x closer):

Monday, January 15, 2018

Get Out Review - With Spoilers

A great movie, even if taken only as a horror movie. If you catch all the other commentary, much better. I will add a fifth to my other four favorites: Event Horizon, Martyrs, Jacob's Ladder, and the Hellraiser series (only the first and second ones of that franchise count.) Granted, it's the least scary of those five, but the most - interesting, I would say.

I'm glad I'm not the only one who thought of Being John Malkovich when I saw Catherine Keener condemning people to be in the Sunken Place, from where you're mostly a passenger in your own body. (Coming up with your own narrative for how the same actor is actually the same character in different movies can give you a lot of fun subtext. I wonder if Peele's fears of what happens to split brain patients influenced this, or he just watched the video for Metallica's One too many times.)

I can't help but wonder if the single Japanese party-goer was a reference to the single Japanese attendee at the birth of Rosemary's Baby.

I also notice that both Hellraiser II and this movie feature a malevolent psychiatrist and neurosurgeon doing their tricks on victims, although in Hellraiser it was the same person (Chennard appeared to be double-boarded.)

There were a few bits that were clearly intended to make theater-going audiences laugh ("T S fucking A, we get shit done" and all the sex slave discussion) but it wasn't done to the point where it damaged the movie's overall tone.

Then there's the racial commentary. First of all, at the ending, you're absolutely in the protagonist's shoes, thinking "Great, I almost escape, and here I am, a young black male at a murdered rich white family's estate, with police lights approaching. What chance do I have?" (Or, maybe the police are in on it.) Even forgetting that all the partygoers are sinister, their seemingly well-intentioned commentary on the protagonist's race are nonetheless douche-chill-inducing. And when the protagonist is talking by intercom to the blind guy whose brain he'll be hosting, he asks the blind guy "Why us?" (black people) to which the blind guy responds "I don't care what color you are." Yes, but the very real fact is that it is us, and here I sit - not some hypothetical demographically average person - strapped to a chair about to have my brain sliced up. Finally, the protagonist's buddy goes to the police and says "My friend from Brooklyn" (who the protagonist ran into by sheer chance) "must have been abducted. He's from Brooklyn, he didn't dress like that" to which the black police woman says "I'm from Brooklyn, and I never used to dress like this." And this is different...why?

I like that the protagonist doesn't hesitate (much) when it comes time to kill the bad guys, and does it in somewhat nasty ways. Antlers? TOTALLAY NOICE! But he does wait too long to try to escape. Maybe it wouldn't have mattered to his fate, but I would have been swimming across that lake as soon as that guy had his "seizure".

Betty Gabriel is a unique combination of very attractive, and very creepy. One of the most disturbing scenes in the movie is the tight shot on her face in the discussion about disconnecting the phone, and without her acting ability this would have fallen very flat. She actually turns into a grandmother in the scene at the end. I can't wait to see her in Westworld, which I also love, but hope she doesn't get typecast as a Stepford Wife.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Finding Extraterrestrial Organics is Old News; Let's Look for Evidence of Life

There's a new mass spec study[1] of crystals from two meteorites, one of which in turn has material originating from two separate parent bodies. The objects were about 4.5 billion years old, i.e. dating to the birth of the solar system, and showed evidence of organics resulting from aqeous reactions. Some findings of interest: "...signatures of low-mass C5 to C10 hydrocarbons at around 70 to 200 atomic mass units." Not much benzene, suggesting that any aromatic rings are locked up in larger structures. We're finding organics everywhere we look it seems, including Ceres, and that includes even amino acids and nucleobases. Given how quickly after the Earth formed we started seeing evidence of self-replicating molecules (at least the ancestors of cells, if not cells themselves), this means that life originated quickly on Earth, and therefore was a highly probable event.

It's also relevant that polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs - for instance, tar, graphite, anthracene in coal, and fullerenes) have been found in nebulas, as well as in Titan's atmosphere. Not only are they thought to be quite common in the universe, but possibly crucial to the origin of life (see PAH World Hypothesis.) PAH's are predicted to make up a large portion of the carbon at the surface of carbon planets. While carbon planet systems (unlike our own silicate system) were theorized only recently, it turns out that the Hypatia Stone, a bizarre meteorite found in the Egyptian desert, is loaded with PAHs and originated from outside our solar system - possibly as impact debris from just such a planet.[2] (It's becoming increasingly clear that objects from outside the solar system enter it frequently. First Wild-2 (which had amino acids in it), then Oamuamua, and now Hypatia. We've found these things on the Earth's surface without looking that hard for them! Given these observations, we should expect that interstellar mixing on relatively short geologic time scales is the rule.

This suggests several things and begs several questions.

- If a pile of complex molecules were delivered to Earth - say, a bunch of RNA that survived intact inside an impactor - that pushes back the question of the origin of life, but it also suggests it's very likely elsewhere.

- Have we looked for polymerized RNA or amino acids? Mass spec can detect and distinguish small fragments.[3]

- You might ask, why RNA? Why assume any similarity to Earth biochemistry? This raises the larger question of, if there is active extraterrestrial biochemistry in asteroids, how could we detect it? This is the question asked about desert varnish (which has been speculated as evidence of a shadow biosphere of non-DNA based life operating here on Earth under our noses.) If we did find alien biochemistry, how would we know what we were looking at, against the background of organics that we already know is there? While we haven't seen anything that obviously screams "alien biochemistry", that's the point - HOW does something look if it screams "alien biochemistry"? Are there general principles of such systems? You can't just look for macromolecules - if those are composed of the some monomers, they won't necessarily carry information (e.g. aliens trying to figure out our biochemistry from sequencing the fatty acids in our membrane phospholipids will not learn very much.) So it has to be a macromolecule with a limited number of discrete subunits. So far our samples have been limited t one biosphere. If we ever get enough complex organics from a sample return mission to be able to afford to destroy some of it in aqueous chemistry experiences, that will be a boon to astrobiology.

- If there is such a thing as a simple space-borne organism - or even the remnants of aberrant von Neumann probes that have "gone to seed" after eons-long selection for fecundity over their exploration functions - it would make sense to be adapted to low gravity bodies that are cheapest to move back and forth between. If Earth's biosphere is just overgrown von Neumann probes, that might just be because we're a dead end at the bottom of a gravity well.

Previous post on alien evolution, First Interstellar Asteroid? It's Interstellar, But Not the First We've Seen


[1] Queenie H. S. Chan, Michael E. Zolensky, Yoko Kebukawa, Marc Fries, Motoo Ito, Andrew Steele, Zia Rahman, Aiko Nakato, A. L. David Kilcoyne, Hiroki Suga, Yoshio Takahashi, Yasuo Takeichi and Kazuhiko Mase. Organic matter in extraterrestrial water-bearing salt crystals. Science Advances 10 Jan 2018: Vol. 4, no. 1, eaao3521. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aao3521

[2] Georgy A.Belyanin, Jan D.Kramers, Marco A.G.Andreoli, Francesco Greco, Arnold Gucsik, Tebogo V. Makhubela, Wojciec, J.Przybylowicz, Michael Wiedenbeck. Petrography of the carbonaceous, diamond-bearing stone “Hypatia” from southwest Egypt: A contribution to the debate on its origin. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, Volume 223, 15 February 2018, Pages 462-492.

[3] Zhaojing Meng and Patrick A. Limbach. Mass Spectrometry of RNA: Linking the Genome to the Proteome. Brief Funct Genomic Proteomic. 2006 Mar; 5(1): 87–95.

The Eric Andre Show Simulates Psychosis

First of all: you should be watching the Eric Andre show. Why aren't you watching the Eric Andre show. If you imagine several cast members from Jackass were performing in a fake talk show co-written by John Cleese and Salvador Dali, you're getting close.

You could also say that when a healthy person watches the Eric Andre show, maybe that's what it's like (seriously) for a psychotic person to watch a boring regular talk show - and the simulation of psychosis is more intense for the guests who Andre delights in torturing.* You can see some of them essentially go into shock as they cease to understand anything happening around them, a learned helplessness that has kept all but two of them on the set for the whole hour-plus interview! (They interview people for over an hour and then cut it down to a few minutes containing the good bits.) There are also extremely creative, silly, frightening man-in-the-street stunts, resulting in at least two arrests so far.

[My justification in posting this "review" here is that a) I really love this show and b) it kind of is science fiction, in the sense that in some of the dark near-future scifi from the 70s, they portrayed the future's entertainment as disjointed and psychotic, essentially, this show. So it came true. Finally!]

Two excellent examples of interviews are first, Jack McBrayer from 30 Rock:

Or this one with Lauren Conrad - PLEASE watch both halves.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Here, specifically, is WHY this show simulates psychosis.

1) Reduplication illusions. In many neuropsychiatric illness there are various versions of believing that your arm is not actually your arm, or not attached to you (hemineglect; phantom limb syndrome), or feeling that you have an identical twin following you at all times or a few steps ahead of you, or believing that someone you know is actually an impostor despite looking exactly like them (Capgras delusion.) Bizarre as they sound, they can occur in schizophrenia or after strokes and head injuries. Witnesseth: both Jillian Michael and Pauly D had to endure identical twins of themselves and the co-host suddenly appearing in the middle of the interview. There's a street skit where Andre has multiple arms, all connected so they move on their own. There's another where he has multiple selves that he controls as he walks down the street. It's funny, but in a way uncomfortably bizarre. He has brought out multiple guests and interviewed them seriously as George Clooney or Jay Z - sometimes the hired actor physically resembles the celebrity, sometimes not.

I predict that the fifth season will contain Fregoli delusion skits, where Andre prances around the city and harasses the same hapless bystander while wearing different clothing and makeup each time. (For maximum effect, there must be other hired actors standing nearby claiming that it's someone different.) At the risk of (positive!) stereotyping, it was with some of the reduplication illusions that I finally said to myself "this show is so bizarre that there must be a Japanese person involved at some level" and indeed Kitao Sakurai is an executive producer.

2) Hallucinations. No, they can't make their guests hallucinate per se (although Andre said they wanted to give ayahuasca to one rapper, then watch him try to rap.) They frequently make the studio stink, in one case using rotten clams, then act as if nothing is wrong. The guest chair is often used for these psychological torments - often it's heated so the guests swelter, and in one case (when Jimmy Kimmel was the guest) someone was actually in a space under the chair tickling Kimmel's bottom through the fabric. "My chair feels like it's alive," Kimmel announced, and was ignored by the host, making it seem as if he had lost his marbles for imagining such a thing. Apparently the interviews are loaded with things that we in the audience can't even see, either because they're cut out, or they don't show up on camera (e.g. dropping used dental floss from the ceiling onto germ-phobic Howie Mandel.) In this vein, Andre has said in interviews they planned to have two transexual folks have sex next to the camera, where the viewers can't see it but the guest can, and act like nothing abnormal was happening.

3) Complete non sequiturs. When you try to talk to a badly psychotic person, one thing you might notice is how one sentence does not at all lead to the next one, at least not in any way you can understand. If a few hours later you try to reproduce the things the person said, you find that they've just fallen right out of your head - just like trying to remember a vivid dream that's faded by lunchtime. Andre's questions and statements - in fact, even the very next word out of his mouth - often make no sense, and you can see his guests desperately trying to grab on to any thread of meaning or familiarity. He asks one guest what her zodiac sign is and she brightens immediately - "I understand the purpose of this, I know where this is going!" - and then when he announces in the next sentence that he is gassy, you can see her go back into bewilderment.

4) The guests are under constant threat. There's no predicting when it will happen, which direction it will come from, or what it will be, whether it's a shouting head smashing out of a desk to ask about prices (and then later gliding by sinisterly in the background) or an abominable snowman emerging from the darkness, or a chain saw, or a re-animated corpse crawling out of the ground in front of your chair.

5) The primal, dream-like nature of many bits, featuring as they do frequent frontal nudity and dangerous or verminous animals.

6) There are no clearly delineated levels of truth and fiction - you don't know which parts are done for the show and which reactions are genuine. You know that Star Trek episode where Riker is in a strange virtual-psychological prison, and it's never clear not just what's real, but what "level" of perception he's in within the simulation? No? Okay, how about Jacob's Ladder? Or the film version of Tristram Shandy? These disturb me far more than any visceral shock like jump-scares or gore. In the same way, because the show is logically and cognitively such a mess, there really is no way to tell where Buress and Andre's reactions are part of the bit, or they're genuinely uncomfortable, and it looked good on camera so they just left it in (Lance Reddick slamming the table; the grizzly bear interview.) Not being able to know this really bothers me. For instance, in the Pauly D interview where Andre's doppelganger didn't follow Andre's lead in taking his pants off, was this just really a bit gone wrong because the look-alike didn't want to take his pants off? There's no way of telling, and this is even more bothersome. There have been several moments - in particular the ladder discussion - where what appears to be genuine camaraderie emerges, but I don't fully trust even that.

Other tidbits:

One of his set-destroying scenes involves him in a strait-jacket getting involuntary injections from white-clad orderlies, but that alone doesn't give us much of a signal since that's a visual which is frequently used in such settings. The real punchline is that Eric Andre's father is a psychiatrist. I'm not sure that the show is intentionally checking the boxes of first-rank symptoms - it would be more interesting if they were rediscovering psychosis all on their own.

One thing I don't like about the show is that Andre clearly likes attractive women, and he sometimes seems to soften his shtick to flirt with them (e.g. Tatyana Ali, Asa Akira.) It's played off as a bit but comes off a bit douchily, and disappointingly you can be pretty sure it's real. He claims to have slept with two guests and has identified one of them. A lot of the overall approach to the show also seems motivated by a need to display dominance, which comes across more clearly in the street skits but especially when he is interviewed on other shows. But again, is this character or real? He doesn't seem to have an Andy Kauffman-like discipline in maintaining any kind of wacky character when he's in public.

And finally, Kraft Punk is the best, and the closest thing to a concrete "convention" that the show has (a wacky neighbor sort of fellow with a consistent theme, in the sense that he's all about cheese and his color is orange) but even here, what the convention is bracketing is utter nonsense.

*In the same manner, I have been told that if you watch Zardoz or Jodorowsky's Holy Mountain while on mushrooms, it cancels out and becomes like a Martha Stewart special.

**For the record, I find the ranch dressing character much more annoying than Bird Up.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Worst Argument Against Being Cautious About AI

Note: throughout this article when I use the term "AI" I'm talking about superhuman artificial intelligence, and I'm assuming the counterarguments are referring to same.

There is a species of article or blog post that basically boils down to "People who worry about AI as an existential risk are being irrational for reasons the follies of human psychology, and/or overarching principle linking intelligence and moral behavior." (I won't bother linking to one, you can do a quick web search and fine a lot of them.) In other words, they're attacking a straw-man argument that states: the reason to worry about AI is that it will necessarily be malevolent toward humans.

A side comment often appended to these arguments make is that to believe AI will be malevolent toward humans is to be comically anthrocentric. While this observation is quite correct, misunderstanding this point is exactly why these arguments are so wrong. You have to be comically anthrocentric to think that we are immune from the disruptions caused by superintelligence. That is to say: for AI to hurt us, it doesn't have to come after us specifically. It just has to not specifically care about us.

Case in point: settlers from Europe in the Americas were not malevolent toward the native humans, for the most part. They just found arable land that they wanted, and the didn't especially care who was already there - resulting in plague and death and the loss of many cultures and languages. (That was just between two flavors of humans where one side had about a four thousand year technological head start.) In the same way, the developers at the edge of my city don't have anything special against the deer and coyotes and worms in the soil - but the spreading pavement and light and traffic and noise has affected them just the same.

To repeat: for AI to hurt us, all that has to be true is that it does not care about us. It doesn't even have to have any special malevolent intentions.

There are projects that are essentially trying to solve morality before the first AI goes online, for exactly this reason. I wish them luck, but we've had a few dozen centuries on this project and not gotten very far.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

San Diego from Space, By Balloon

High altitude balloon launches are cool, especially when you can clearly see the San Diego coastline. It always amazes me that in the distance you can drive in a half hour, you're in space. (Now where's my check from the Round Earth Conspiracy! Come on guys!)

Friday, November 24, 2017

The Hidden, 1987

I always thought The Hidden was an unjustifiably forgotten scifi action movie from the 80s, and this is reinforced by the positive reviews it got and still gets. Basically, imagine the Terminator meets Fallen - except instead of a time-traveling unstoppable cold-blooded robot pursuing/being pursued by a good human from the future and shooting up Los Angeles in the process, and a demon possessing suspects and detectives, they're space-traveling unstoppable aliens (one cold-blooded and one nice) chasing each other and shooting up Los Angeles, and taking over suspects' and detectives' bodies. It's more smartly written and filmed than you might expect from that description (I still think the intro is quite clever.) And, the good alien is played by Kyle MacLachlan, and one of the evil-alien-possessed-people by Claudia Christian, before she was in Babylon 5. You may also recognize Ed O'Ross, who showed up in a number of action/scifi movies in the 80s and 90s. A good number of one-liners are had by all, with a possible explanation toward the end of the movie of what's happened to our political system recently.

As a side note, that narration on trailers from 80s can sound so dated makes me realize how very old I truly am.

The Hidden Car Chase (1987) from Sergei Nazarov on Vimeo.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

First Interstellar Asteroid? It's Interstellar, But Not the First We've Seen

Information here and here. Based on the velocity and path, this asteroid originated from outside the solar system. This is a great additional finding, but not actually news! Comet Wild-2 was the subject of the Stardust sample return mission, and analysis showed more than a few interesting things: that it contained the amino acid glycine, and that the nitrogen isotope ratio showed that the object likedly originated from a different solar system.

A point of interest here is that since the solar system's origin, there must have been multiple close passes by other stars - close enough that our respect Oort clouds would mix at the margins, and material would be exchanged between star systems. We have now verified this logical inference visually, and through direct chemical evidence.

Previous post about alien evolution, Life's Origins at Four Billion Years Ago; Implications For Our Future

Friday, October 27, 2017

If You Take Parfit Seriously, You Should Commit Yourself To Creating Superintelligence

Cross posted at Cognition and Evolution and The Late Enlightenment.

Derek Parfit makes the argument that if utilitarianism as it is commonly understood is to be taken to its conclusion - the greatest good for the greatest number - that mathematically we should care not just about making individuals happy, but making more individuals, to be happy. If you can have a world of a billion people all just as happy as a world of a million people, then that that's a no brainer.

The problem is when you get to the math of it. The "repugnant conclusion" that if the total amount of happiness is what matters, then you should favor numbers over quality of life. That is, a world of a hundred billion people with lives just barely worth living is better than a world of a hundred people with great lives - because the great lives are probably not a billion times greater than those of the hundred billion in almost total misery.

The obvious objection is that you're talking about theoretical people when you talk about those hundred billion. The counterargument is that we do care about theoretical people - our descendants - and you might already make environmental decisions to preserve the environment for the happiness of your grandchildren; right now you avoid (hopefully) littering the street to avoid upsetting people you've never met and will probably never meet.

There are other objections of course; for instance, that experienced happiness in an individual is what matters; otherwise slave plantations could be (in fact, probably are) morally acceptable.

But following Parfit's repugnant conclusion to its end, if the total amount of utility is what matters, then increasing the amount of utility possible to be experienced also matters. That is to say, there is no reason to stop at considering theoretical people, but rather we should consider theoretical kinds of experience, and theoretical kinds of experiencers. And there is nothing in Parfit's thesis provincial to or chauvinistic about humans. (If there were, that might solve the problem, because you could say "the closer something is related to me, the more I should be concerned with its happiness" - me and my brother against my cousin, et cetera - which, at very close genetic distances, is in fact what most humans already do.)

Therefore, we should try to make a world of a hundred million bipolar (manic) people who can experience hedonic value far in excess of what most of us ever do (assuming we can keep them manic and not depressed.) Or, even better, created an artificial superintelligence capable of experiencing these states, and not devoting all our resources to creating as many copies of it as possible. But cast aside those constraints - if you believe it is possible for a self-modifying general artificial intelligence with consciousness (and pleasure) to exist, then by Parfit, the only moral act is to give up all your recreation and resources to live in misery and dedicate your life to the single-minded pursuit of getting us one second closer to the creation of this superintelligence. The total suffering and happiness of life on Earth up until the moment of the singularity would quickly shrink to a rounding error, compared to the higher states these replicating conscious superintelligences might experience. Therefore, if you are not already singlemindedly dedicating yourself to bringing such a superintelligence to life, you are forestalling seconds of these agents' pleasurable experiences (which far offset your own suffering and maybe those of all living things) and you are committing the most immoral act possible.

This problem is superficially similar to Roko's basilisk (in the sense of your actions being changed by knowledge of a possible superintelligence) but I think it should still be called Caton's basilisk.

As a result of these objections, I do not think we need to take the repugnant conclusion seriously, and I do not think not dedicating yourself to creating a super-hedonic superintelligence is immoral.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Organics on Ceres Are From Ceres (not from other impacting bodies)

The organic material on Ceres, while intriguing, appears to be native, rather than delivered from other impactors. So says data from the Southwest Research Institute at the 2017 Astronomical Society meeting. The possibility of simple organic replicators on low-gravity bodies in the solar system ("space viruses", to be dramatic) an interesting one, and is one form (or one part) of the pan-spermia hypothesis that's been considered for over a century, going back at least to Arrhenius. (Space viruses might also be the only evidence we would ever see of alien life or even an alien singularity.) What this tells us is that the large majority of material on Ceres, and presumably on most large old asteroids, is native to those bodies since the dawn of the solar system.

What the findings mean for the "space virus" hypothesis is that we can be more confident that Ceres is not crawling with foreign space viruses - although if there is a replicator that can use the typical organics on large asteroids as building materials, that's not what you would usually see. That is to say, when an organism gets infected by a virus, the organism isn't infiltrated with foreign matter, but rather with a tiny bit of foreign matter that then rearranges the atoms in the organism into copies of itself.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Review, Blade Runner 2049 (Containing Many Spoilers)

tl;dr It's good, worthy of the original, with a much cleaner script, and what shortcomings it does have it shares with the original. Go see it now, on the big screen.


The cinematography (given other reviews to this effect I need not belabor this point) and the sound, which was fantastic in the first one and is a hallmark of Villeneuve's other work. It's not surprising that a director who clearly focuses on being a good story-teller - to the narrative flow - also pays so much attention to the sound in his movies. In at several interviews the actors described him as tending toward verbal sound effects in his direction. Roger Deakins should get the Oscar, [added later: he did] and you should watch this on the big screen.

In his movies, Villeneuve always goes for the emotional jugular, usually with the death of loved ones and harm being done to children, both happening here. From a distance it seems like manipulation but it feels wonderful while you're watching.

I really liked the shot looking down onto the city during the initial approach to Los Angeles. You see the detailed metal surface of the city, reminiscent of Latin American shanty-towns on the mountains surrounding the city centers - and then, best of all, you realize that's just the roof of packed high-rises, and you catch glimpses of neon down to the streets. And then there are the police and corporate towers above it all, implying the class stratification as in the first one - i.e., if you're not cops (or corporate) you're little people. This movies continues the trend of moving away from CGI and building real sets and doing real stunts (used to excellent effect in Mad Max: Fury Road.)

I liked the transition from slave to working skinjob, and the attendant shift social status represented as out of the frying pan and into the fire in a sense. In the first one after the term skinjob is introduced, in the narrated version we hear "O'Brien is the kind of man in history books used to call black men n-----s." In this one, skinjobs are walking around free but clearly despised by police and civilians alike. This closely parallels the status change of African-Americans from slave to free but living under Jim Crow and segregation.

Also a clear parallel - the police chief ("Madame") has more than a hint of plantation owner or county sheriff to her, and treats K as her boy. In the scene where she gets a little drunk there is clearly sexual tension and she talks to K teasingly in a way I doubt she would talk to her human employees. (She also at one point asks "How long have you been under me?")

The introductory scene continues the moral ambiguity of Blade Runner vs replicant. In the first one, it's "Did you ever take that test yourself Mr. Deckard?" that starts many viewers wondering. In the very beginning, a hard-working farmer (producing food for an overpopulated world and otherwise minding his own business) enters his kitchen, there's a thug sitting in the shadows who coldly dispatches him.

I like that we get out of LA in this one. If the cities are so miserable, now we understand why people aren't just moving elsewhere. If you've made the LA-Vegas drive on the 15, you've seen the single solar tower surrounded by mirrors, and in this movie we see a whole plain covered with them (I imagine Villeneuve doing his research by driving or flying around the desert and saying, "What is that? That's real, right now in 2017?") I like that LAX is now separated from the rest of LA by a fair stretch of Pacific and that there's a massive tide wall protecting LA. In general I appreciate movies that really use the places as they are instead of a made-up generic American city. In this one we see maps and landmarks - except during the visit to San Diego, which is seldom featured in movies. (Incidentally, that's exactly how I pictured the Dog Solitudes from Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive.)

They eliminate the question of whether K is a replicant very early on, which I like. They then play with the "are the memories real or not?" quite a bit. Favorite scene in this regard: K gets angry when he sees memory woman, and she assumes it's because he is finding out his memories are false, but the truth is much more complicated. And I'm still not clear that K really isn't the male twin who survived.

We still don't know if Deckard is a replicant or not. Villeneuve says in so many words that they were quite careful to avoid answering this.

We see a big Atari logo, but there's no explanation at all as to the resurrection of this company from 2017 to a corporate giant. In general the movie stays away from explaining how we get from 2017 of today to 2019 of the movies, and that's not what's important, so I'm glad they don't get bogged down in it. There continues to be an 80s flair to the styling, especially the cars (K's car looks like an old Toyota with flimsy plastic over it) although it's clearly shown to be a Peugot. (I wonder if companies actively fought to keep their logos out of this movie, given the fortunes of those prominently featured in the first.)

The Blackout is a way to keep the movie from being over in five minutes ("ah, I'll just go on Google 2049, and voila, there's Deckard!") but to the movie's credit, they don't belabor it. I had previously worried that this movie would suffer from the same problem that all paradigm-shift-reliant science fiction does, but I think I was correct that they aren't bogged down by it. the last one?)

Sylvia Hoeks said in one interview that the out-of-place crying was her idea and that Villeneuve trusted her to go with it. (Evan Rachel Wood has to do something like this in Westworld for her character Dolores and likens it to the "acting Olympics.") This is her first American movie, so I'm sure part of it is her showing off her acting skills to future directors. Even if this is confusing or even showboating, I don't mind, because we in the audience get to benefit from her performance.

The parallelism between Deckard's rejection of neo-Rachel and K's rejection of the not-true-Joi hologram is nice.

The fight scene and choking of Luv is genuinely disturbing.

The use of monumental architecture gives the movie a bit of an interesting 70s scifi feel (think of the concrete bunker where memory woman lives.) I wonder if they built this or just used some building on UC Irvine's campus, like everyone does.

There is rare use of humor, just enough to keep the movie from being too heavy or pretentious ("You must have been adorable" to the Wallace clerk.)

NEGATIVE or NOT FULLY UNDERSTOOD - the more I think about them, the less important they are.

There's maybe just a little too much correspondence between characters in the first and second movies, although many are hybrids. Memory girl is J.F. Sebastian (a replicant subcontractor who keeps to herself and has a genetic defect that keeps her from going off-world.) Wallace is Tyrell. Robin Wright is O'Brien. Blonde replicant girl is Pris. The man running the salvage-orphange is half Chu (the eye guy) and half Taffy Lewis (incidentally, I didn't like his performance - too over the top crazy.) K is a combination of Roy Baty and Deckard, Luv is a combination of Roy Baty and Rachel - but much more Roy. (Sylvia Hoeks didn't make up lines for Luv like Hauer did for Roy, but she did take liberties with emotional expression, i.e. the random flat crying.) She also auditioned by recording herself delivering Roy Baty lines. And she certainly perfected the facial-expression-of-naughty-child-while-doing-horrible-murderous-things look that Hauer used for Roy. You could say Joi is this movie's Rachel, but not really - she's the one that most does not fit.

One of the things that made Blade Runner unique was its depiction of 2019 Los Angeles as a multiethnic mess. When I first watched it I was an easily scared East Coaster, and I signed on to the sentiment that if there are that many Asians in an American city and white people eating with chopsticks, it must be a dystopia! Now I watch the first one and think, I wonder if that noodle stand is any good? This tapped into the growing fear at the time that Japan would take over the world. Today, implying a dystopian tone is much better done with climate change and much less with ethnic mixing. Therefore, oddly, in this one, there are remarkably few Asians (or non-white people for that matter - did they all go off-world?) and furthermore, the use of language doesn't make sense from a world-building perspective (Cyrillic on the farm modules; Devanagari in the police station; Korean on the casino.)

David Bowie was originally supposed to play Niander Wallace. That would've been perfect. I kind of wonder at Jared Leto as a choice. His dedication to the role can't be questioned, but I found his slow, staggered delivery a bit contrived and self-conscious.

I really liked some Robin Wright scenes, like the drunk one I mentioned. But some of her dialogue was clunkily written. "You've bought yourself a war." Sticks out to me; no good way to deliver it.

In the first one I wondered what the point was of using emotion to distinguish human and replicant. Because they then become dangerous? Pris was supposed to be part of a kick murder squad! In this movie, the unclear point is why being "born" makes such a distinction. But you can only explore the dimensions of the human condition so much in one movie.

Everyone who has seen Her will think of that movie during the sex scene, and I think the scene in Her was more poignant and better done - although technically I did really like the video effect here. That said, it still felt very crowbarred-in. The function this scene serves in the plot is to increase the emotional resonance of K's relationship with Joi, as well as to get a tracer into K's pocket, but this could have been accomplished in other ways.

I could've used less of the screen investigations (looking at bone fragments, looking at DNA.)

Where did Gaff's accent and use of cityspeak go?

There has already been discussion of another movie. Alien: Covenant has extras that strongly suggest continuity between Blade Runner and Alien (i.e. Weyland's mentor was Tyrell) but this has several problems: a) by 2049 there are at least 9 off-world colonies. In Prometheus, fifty years after BR2049, there are none. b) The late 21st century citizens of Prometheus seemed much happier than the people in Blade Runner. c) This also implies continuing between Blade Runner and Predator. d) There has even been implied continuity between two PKD-inspired movies, Blade Runner and Total Recall. What a mess! I hope that Villeneuve or his descendants don't think about this at all, but if these movies are commercially successful, I can easily see pressure being applied to make this into a parallel to the Marvel Universe. Which will not likely benefit the quality of these movies.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Life's Origins at Four Billion Years Ago; Implications for Our Future

A group from the University of Tokyo (Tashiro et al, 2017) argues in a Nature paper that carbon isotope ratios in rocks in northern Labrador, Canada means that those rocks harbored life almost four billion years ago. This pushes back the early bound on origin of life almost two hundred million years, almost to the Hadean eon. To be sure this finding has not been universally accepted, but it's worth thinking about what it would mean. In particular, and perhaps not coincidentally, this is also right about when the Earth's surface transitioned from molten to solid.

A recent paper reconstructing the last universal common ancestor (LUCA's) genome from a massive tree of millions of genes showed that it was pretty clearly a sulfur-vent organism. This is good news if you're looking for life on Europa or Enceladus, because that means that life on Earth didn't need the sun (and neither would any life that could evolve along vents under Europa's icy crust.) If you assume that the chance of life evolving by 3.5 billion years ago on Earth was 50%, and that the chance of life evolving is based on surface area, and all other things are equal (admittedly speculative when we don't even have all the information for our N=1) then there is a one in three chance of life on Europa. (If that probability correlates instead with the volume of water, then it was overwhelmingly more likely for life to evolve on Europa!)

[Added several days later: someone has finally run the numbers. A model of RNA polymer formation by Pearce et al suggests that the first RNA world molecules were most likely to have formed in small surface pools rather than sulfur vents - but even earlier, 4.17 billion years ago. If a wet-dry cycle is needed, this suggests ocean worlds like Europa are less likely than once-wet places with exposed land like Mars. The lesson of this paper is that you need puddles, not bone-dry deserts or world-spanning oceans. In this model, a world with puddles and organics seems all but certain to develop into an RNA world. A paper by Cardenas et al from the Geological Society of America Bulletin strongly suggests that 3.5 billion years ago, Mars was exactly the kind of place to have puddles. The logical argument is that life, or at least an RNA world, also developed very quickly there, and we should look for similar deposits to the ones found by Tashiro et al. If Pearce's argument does not produce findings like Tashiro's on Mars, we at least can start looking for differences in the early environments of the two.]

Two things to keep in mind about the LUCA paper: 1) LUCA is the last universal common ancestor. There could be a long lineage before it; and 2) the smaller and simpler a system, the more profound the changes possible in that system. If at one point Earth was an RNA World, molecular clock techniques developed based on modern DNA metabolism would probably be pretty bad at retrodicting LUCA. That two hundred million year gap map be exactly that. All that carbon might be free-floating ribosomes, or peri-biotic viroids.

Even more importantly, this has implications for the likelihood of the evolution of life. This discovery should worry you if you consider the Great Filter. The idea is that it seems very likely that life would evolve anywhere there's liquid water. Yet the universe is not obviously filled with intelligent life. Something is therefore stopping the progression from the evolution of life, to that life spreading from its home planet. (This is typically assumed to be some natural event and need not be some science fiction plot of an alien menace stamping out intelligence wherever it appears.) And every time that the origin of life is pushed back a bit further - that gives greater cause to worry, because where probabilistic events are concerned, the faster something happened, the more likely it was. If this paper is correct, then life on Earth appeared essentially as soon as the surface cooled from magma to solid. [Added several days later:

The real question is whether the Great Filter is behind us (we're freaks that got more complicated than algae) or in front of us (every intelligence is powerful but short-sighted and wrecks its own ecology before it can escape its home planet.) Therefore, a very reassuring discovery would be simple life - the local flavor of blue-green algae - under the ice Europa of Enceladus,* and in the ancient mud of dried Martian riverbeds, and baked into Venusian bedrock. That would mean that somehow, we got past the gate - still no guarantees, but we already passed the filter. This would mean that if we do manage to get out of the solar system, we'll find a lot of alien bacterial mats, but no alien minds. Boring? That idea is actually quite reassuring.

On the other hand, a bad discovery would be mass fossil beds of complex multicellular things (like the radioactive squid in Europa Report), especially ones with extrasomatic adaptations (tools.) We have had a number of landers on Mars and Venus, and none of them captured any obvious macroscale life. But a positive finding by SETI would be even more harrowing, especially because it's unlikely that there would be only one other intelligence that happens to be even within a million years of our technology - even if they're within 1% as old as we are, that's a gap of 40 million years in either direction! In such a situation we would have to include they must be legion. In such a situation, we would have to reason: we can hear them, but for some reason they never get away from their home planet - and we are unlikely to be any different.

*If indeed we believe that Enceladus only formed in the Cretaceous, then there is much less likely to be life there than Europa, and we should focus on Europa.

Previous post about alien evolution, Vast Cool and Unsympathetic: Other Worlds Detecting Earth

Benjamin T. Cardenas, David Mohrig, Timothy A. Goudge. Fluvial stratigraphy of valley fills at Aeolis Dorsa, Mars: Evidence for base-level fluctuations controlled by a downstream water body. GSA Bulletin, 2017; DOI: 10.1130/B31567.1

Pearce BKD, Pudritz RE, Semenov DA, Henning TK. Origin of the RNA world: The fate of nucleobases in warm little ponds. 10.1073/pnas.1710339114 PNAS October 2, 2017

Tashiro T, Ishida A, Masako Hori M, Motoko Igisu M, Mizuho Koike M, Pauline Méjean P, Naoto Takahata N, Yuji Sano Y, Komiya T. Early trace of life from 3.95 Ga sedimentary rocks in Labrador, Canada. Nature 549, 516–518 (28 September 2017) doi:10.1038/nature24019

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Vast, Cool and Unsympathetic: Other Worlds Detecting Earth

If aliens visited Earth in any numbers, the result would likely be a disaster for our species. This has been the consensus of the not-inconsiderable number of scientists who have given this topic serious thought, Stephen Hawking not least among them.

And yet, there are people who deliberately try to signal our presence to aliens. If you take the possibility of intelligent aliens seriously, you should support a ban on this activity. These people either don't seriously believe they'll be heard, or they're willing to risk the end of life on Earth at some future time, all for their little project. It's as if the Mayans had built signal fires on the beach to show the locations of their cities to any helpful people navigating the coast in giant canoes.

If you think life on Earth is the result of evolution, and for some reason you're hesitant to extend Darwinian principles to the rest of the universe, think about it this way:
  • a) the Mayans encountered individuals from the same species, a mere four thousand years more technologically advanced than themselves, and the results were catastrophic to Mayan civilization and the New World's ecosystem, and

  • b) any idea that humans are somehow nastier than any advanced organisms that might visit from the stars is based on nothing, except wishful thinking and a desire for moral signaling.
If you like Earth's ecosystem, and you despair of the way that invasive species from the Old World (for the most part) have rolled over those in the New World and on island ecosystems like New Zealand, imagine the damage to Earth's biomes from invasive alien microorganisms. (Again, if we take the possibility of aliens seriously, then this should be considered as low probability, very high consequence threat, i.e. an existential threat, along the lines of an asteroid impact or gamma ray burst.)

Therefore, it's worth worrying about how easy we are to detect. This paper proposes a way to cloak the Earth with lasers. Another way to think about it is to establish a detectability index, and a useful one might be: how far away could a parallel Earth (with the same EM emissions) be, for us to detect it? Or, for them to detect us? I call this the C-index, and XKCD's What If addressed the same question. Now, astronomers have asked what other solar systems are ideally positioned to witness a transit of Earth against the sun, even without hearing EM emissions.

Astronomers have debated what types of planets are most likely to develop life, and a good summary might be that we should like for habitable-zone super-Earths that are closer to the center of the galaxy and have had frequent proper motion close passes by other stars. We should see if any of these stars meet those conditions, and study them exhaustively.

Previous post on alien evolution, Influence of Interstellar Proximity on Interstellar Exploration and Evidence of Extraterrestrial Visitation