Monday, May 13, 2019

Things That Might Bother You About Avengers Movies

I noted before that the "20 Things Wrong With [Amazingly Successful Franchise Film]" articles are sad, then wrote just such an article. This is a very short one for a very few of the things about MCU movies that are most bothersome. To me.

Complete inconsistency in relative strength: the battles are what's actually important here, and even so, there's no rhyme or reason. Yes that keeps the audience interested and serve to advance the plot but come on, most powerful guy in the universe hits a mortal with no special armor or anything and they just get the wind knocked out of them - but he can knock down Thor or the Hulk? And he constantly doesn't take obvious shots?

Zero sum thinking: I get that Thanos is a bad guy, so his message - that there are only so many resources, and more and more mouths to feed - is not the one the good guys agree with. Yet the franchise appears to endorse it. The disappearance of half the life on Earth would be first, economically catastrophic. Guess what? Smartphones and corn don't just grow themselves out of the ground. Plus, the specialized knowledge required means that the disruption in productivity would actually be more than a 50% drop. Imagine your office functioning if 50% of people called in sick tomorrow. And of course, the disappearance of the Earth's oxygen-producing organisms, plankton, etc. would

Profound scientific incuriosity, including by career scientists: "Hey, I'm on Asgard! Should I maybe try to pocket a few pens or take a few pictures, ask people how things work? Nah, I'll just hang out and get all wrapped up in my personal issues." Incontrovertible proof of aliens on Earth by their repeated attacks, but no mention of a second Copernican revolution in decentralizing mankind's image of itself, or trying to get the alien tech for more than for the Avengers to make better guns. No attempts to start trading or at least communicating with aliens. Also, Thanos's snap would answer a bunch of questions - for example, which things are alive or not (did half of prions disappear? Viroids? Kind of weird that no wombats disintegrated, I was always suspicious of those things. However, Galaxy S5s disintegrated but not S4's, so that must be the sentience boundary.)


If these things start to bother you, though you can never really return to your previous innocence once you've noticed them, you can over-intellectualize and get partway back. Rather than criticize these gross inconsistencies, you can think of these movies as modern action-expressionism. The original expressionist film movement is often described as portraying the (actually more important to the viewer) inner emotional reality of the narrative, rather than the superficial matter of the characters' physical world. This coincides with the hyper-reality discussed by Umberto Eco (i.e., where for example artificial lemonade is more lemonadish than any real lemonade ever was; the California Adventure section at Disneyland is more like the Sierras because it purifies and concentrates all the salient aspects of the Sierras, etc. Alternatively, you could think of the MCU movies as magical realism, where the magic is focused on violence rather than relationships. Or, that MCU is modern-world fantasy in the same way that Star Wars is fantasy; though it takes place in space, exploration of the science is absent, and there are wizards and sword-fighting.

Finally: THERE WILL BE A STAR WARS-MCU CROSSOVER BY 31 DECEMBER 2018. Anyone willing to bet? And the way things are going, it will be Disney trying to use MCU to salvage Star Wars rather than the other way around.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Asia, Don't Cry (Alpha, 1983)

Hey, I don't want to hear your whining about me posting this song. Why am I making you listen to this? You know what you did. And now you're paying the price. Yeah, keep complaining and see how much good it does.

The best part is at 2:55 when he freaks out in the most stupid way I've ever seen.


Saturday, April 20, 2019

If Threonine and Aspartate are Detected on Europa, They Must Have Been Recently Generated

Important paper for detecting biosignatures elsewhere in the solar system. Truong et al measure the decomposition rate of amino acids in conditions mimicking the under-ice oceans of Europa or Enceladus. Using that data, they infer whether any amino acids detected there are leftovers from early abiotic chemistry, or must have resulted from a more recent process. In particular threonine and aspartate are unstable over time and if detected at concentrations greater than 1 nM, they must have been generated recently. Click through to the paper below.

Truong N, Monroe AA, Glein CR, Anbar AD, Lunine JI. Decomposition of Amino Acids in Water with Application to In-Situ Measurements of Enceladus, Europa and Other Hydrothermally Active Icy Ocean Worlds. arXiv:1904.04407 [astro-ph.EP]

Friday, April 12, 2019

Warm Spot on Europa Produces Plume



Image credit space.com


Current explanations for this warm plume (in fact, authors refer to it as a hotspot) are thermal inertia (basically, having higher specific heat than surrounding areas and so retaining heat longer than surrounding areas) or more excitingly, subsurface geologic activity - which would have implications for the evolution of life. Blog post here, paper here.

Trumbo SK, Brown ME, Butler BJ. ALMA Thermal Observations of a Proposed Plume Source Region on Europa. The Astronomical Journal, Volume 154, Number 4.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Evidence - 2013 Metal Versions of Synchronicity II (The Police, Synchronicity, 1983) and Pressure (Billy Joel, The Nylon Curtain, 1982)

I've always thought that both of these uncharacteristically intense (for eighties "adult contemporary") and well-written songs would hold up well to a metal or hard rock treatment. Synchronicity II has that great phrygian progression at the end and with the perfect fifth intervals anticipates later-eighties metal. Apparently I'm not the only one who has thought this, because They do, in the capable hands of The Evidence. Side note: The Evidence hails from Calgary, Alberta, and this fact will not surprise you if you've been through there. The sheer per capita rate of solid metal and rock bands from southern Alberta is amazing.

(More metal versions of 80s songs here.)






Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Molecules with MW > 200 Found in Enceladus Vapor

That's bigger than all amino acids and nucleobases. (Note, 9 months old, I had missed this before.) Press release here, paper here. (Postberg et al, Nature. 2018 Jun; 558(7711): 564–568.)

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Putting Numbers on Panspermia: Material From Earth Impacting Outer System Moons, and Escaping Solar System

In a simulation, Worth Sigurdsson and House (2013) (WSH) retrodict that Europa, Callisto, Titan, and Enceladus have received 1,900, 370, 510 and 340 metric tons of material from Earth, with 3.4 billion metric tons from Earth ejected from the solar system entirely. Enceladus may be less interesting if it really did only form in the cretaceous, but the others have all been there since the start of the solar system. WSH state explicitly that they didn't try to estimate the viability of life surviving the journey, but it cannot be repeated enough that we now have evidence that living things - metazoans, in fact - can survive uncontrolled re-entry with minimal protection, as some worms that were on board the Columbia were found alive on the ground weeks later. We're now able to start putting bounds at least on local panspermia (within our own solar system), though it would be interesting to estimate the chances for gravitational capture by surrounding stars. This is exciting not only to flesh out the realism of panspermia as traditionally considered, but also the idea of very small, molecule- or cell-sized organic von Neumann probes passively spreading between lower-gravity bodies.

A very basic calculation using water surface area and the time it took for life to appear on Earth, shows that all other things being equal, there is a 1-in-3 chance of indigenous life on Europa. An experiment in reproducing impact conditions and local conditions on these moons, along with adding most-likely-transferred Earth fauna, seems that it would be fairly easy to do - a sort of Miller-Urey experiment for local panspermia.

R.J. Worth, Steinn Sigurdsson, and Christopher H. House. Seeding Life on the Moons of the Outer Planets via Lithopanspermia. Astrobiology, Dec 2013.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Asteroid Bennu is Ejecting Dust; Also, "Alien Tech" on Bennu? (Hint: No)

One solution to the Fermi paradox is that there's evidence around us and we just haven't noticed it yet. An estimate of 20 MA for colonizing the whole Milky Way has been advanced, and if von Neumann probes (VNPs) are possible, then they should be around us. We have a tendency to think of VNPs as industrial-age metal objects like Apollo 11, but organic VNPs could diffuse between low-gravity bodies when interstellar comets or asteroids pass through solar systems. Therefore, when we start finding some interesting high molecular weight organic polymers with non-random monomer sequences in the sample-return specimens from asteroids like Bennu, we should seriously consider that this might be what we're looking at. It is therefore interesting that Bennu is ejecting material (see here and here), which would be required if the VNPs are cellular- or molecular-scale chemical replicators that spread passively.

Here ends the serious part.

Admittedly this is an extraordinary hypothesis, and it requires consistent extraordinary evidence to support it. However, noticing that asteroids have boulders on them isn't extraordinary.

Look! Boulders! And they're circled! Gosh, that MUST be alien tech!

One excitable UFO-hunting schmendrick insisted (after doing a complex analysis in Microsoft Paint, i.e. circling the boulders) that Bennu is "littered with alien tech". Then so is the construction site near my house! So is the desert! There are boulders all OVER the place - my gosh, we're surrounded by alien tech! Run! Apparently skulls have also been spotted. Space pirates? This is a particularly morbid form of pareidolia.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Security Precautions for Keyless Ignition vs Remote Entry

This is certainly the most practical post in the history of this blog, but it involves the hazards of relying on modern technology; specifically, power over reliability; one characteristic of the twenty-first century.

Some months ago I came home from vacation to find my car door open - not wide open, in fact as shut as it could be without actually being closed. Of course the battery was stone dead. I worried that this meant my electronic entry system had been hacked (otherwise, I would have to accept that I'm the kind of idiot who doesn't close my car door all the way when I'm about to leave for vacation.) Recently, another person on my street had both their cars entered without any signs of being forced, and they're quite sure the cars were both locked. Neighbors have been advising me to put my car keys in a Faraday cage when I'm out of the house.

If this is actually a problem, you can't rely on car manufacturers and dealerships telling you about it, despite it being clearly documented as a real problem that occurs in the real world. (Also, yes I do physically block cameras on my devices when I'm not using them - and yes, my wife once caught a virus which started taking photos from her camera - and yes, when James Comey was director of the FBI, he recommended covering your device cameras as well.)

For grins, I called my Honda dealership and asked the service department about this. With what sounded like a straight face, the technician told me that this has never happened. When I told him it's been documented on video, his counterargument was: no it hasn't, it's never happened. So they weren't much help. Ultimately I called a locksmith who verified what I thought must be the case about the various systems. (If you're reading this and I have anything wrong, PLEASE comment.)

The reason I'm posting this is that I had so much difficulty trying to answer the question by searching online, partly because there's no consistent terminology that I could find online. That's why I ended up having to call the (useless) dealership and quite helpful locksmith. So let's define terminology.

A remote door opener (the older original kind, which is the kind I have) requires you to press a button to send a radio signal, which unlocks the car or opens the trunk. There may be a chip in the key that is required for the car to start when you turn the ignition - but you do have to put the key in an ignition. Most of these use a rolling code that changes each time. In other words, every time you press the unlock button, the car sends back a signal saying "okay, that's the right code and I'm opening the lock - but here's the new code for next time."

To review: remote door openers only send a signal when you press the button, and you have to physically turn the ignition.

Keyless entry may require you to press a button on a key fob to open the door, or it may just automatically unlock the car when you're standing right next to it. Then, once you're in the car, there's no ignition to turn, just a button to push. The car will only start if the key fob is very close (inside the car.) In this case, the key fob is constantly sending out a signal to the car without you doing anything - certainly, in order for the car to start, and (if your locks open automatically without pushing any buttons) to open the locks as well.

To review: keyless entry constantly sends out a signal, and when you're close enough to the car, the car will allow you turn it on (and may unlock automatically.)

The "hack" is called a signal amplification relay attack (SARA), and really only is useful for keyless entry, not for remote door openers. Why? Your keyless entry key fob is designed to be very weak so your car can't detect it from more than a few feet away. But if the key is close enough to the outside wall of your house, with a special device, a criminal can detect the coded signal, amplify it, and send it to another device that's right next to the car which repeats the code. No code-breaking required; just one device for picking up the code as it's being constantly transmitted by the keyless entry key fob, sending it to a second device next to the car which repeats it. The car thinks that the key fob is right there, opens, and allows itself to be driven. (This is exactly what they did in the link above.)

You could conceivably do the same thing to a remote door opener like mine, but the bad guys would have to be sitting on your street with their devices to record the signal when you press it. The weakness of keyless entry is that it's constantly transmitting and actually lets you start the car. This is in contrast to remote door openers, which only transmit when you press the button - and even then you still need the physical key to start the car.

CONCLUSION: if you have keyless entry, then YES, you should keep your keys in a Faraday cage - especially when they're going to be sitting unused for a long period (when you're on vacation.) Most people recommend wrapping in aluminum foil or putting them in a coffee can, inside your refrigerator. (I'm only repeating what I've read and make no claim as to whether this is actually enough to defeat SARA devices.) It would be much harder to do this to one of the older remote entry keys, and I am definitely not planning to get a keyless entry key fob. The risk:benefit is obvious. The only benefit to keyless entry is literally that you don't have to press a button, and don't have to move your arm to turn a key - in exchange for exposing yourself to this security problem.

Friday, March 22, 2019

AIs Are Beating Experts at Old, Relevant, Real-World Problems

When I was a molecular biology undergrad in the mid 90s, the Big Question in biochemistry was protein folding - how to predict the 3D structure of a protein from its primary (linear) sequence of amino acids. Solving this problem would provide a massive boon to many fields, not least of which is drug development. But it's a hard problem: a factoid cited to impress this upon people is that if proteins folded by passing through every possible configuration randomly until they found its working (not usually lowest energy) conformation, the process would take longer than the lifespan of the universe so far. Obviously this isn't what's happening. And yet, the promise of number-crunching power being used to finally solve this always seemed a few years away - many people, in retrospect comically, thought the problem would be solved by the close of the century.

The problem is still not solved, but scientists have made incremental progress, and now, the closest thing to a quantum leap forward. Every two years there is a contest where scientists competitively try to solve a structure, then get together and see who got closest. Mohammed Al Quraishi is a computational biologist at Harvard who writes about the 2019 meeting, and how the winner was: an AI, Alpha Fold.

This is exciting because computational biology may really be about to start paying dividends. It's scary because it's one more place where AI is starting to automate our jobs, even Harvard professors. Al Quraishi makes many interesting observations in his post, among them, that a technology company showed up and ate the protein chemists' lunch, and the reaction was muted; we're all becoming numb to this sort of thing. He tries to wake us up by asking how academic computer scientists would react if at a conference, a pharmaceutical company's scientists had showed up and beaten them at their own game.

I had previously made the informal argument that AIs would naturally exceed human performance on games, as games are clearly defined processes with discrete rules and entities, exactly the sort of thing that computers are good at. The difficulty comes when machines must interact between the information-overloaded not-fully-understood messy real world, which is why (again, I informally argue) computers are great at parsing text, and even writing text in the style of sports journalism or certain authors - but at bottom, these are all just very complicated echo chambers, with no meaning or subjective experience associated with the words and sentences. And indeed, the language manipulation has come first, but that doesn't mean encoding external experience in language is impossible. I had maybe subconsciously thought that something like protein folding, a perfect example of a messy real-world process, would be beyond the capabilities of machines at least for many years, but this theory has now been clearly falsified.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

STOP METI

tl;dr if you worry about the singularity or bio-terrorism as an existential threat, you should help the effort to stop efforts to announce our presence to aliens. This should be a priority for the rationalist and effective altruism community.

Many people are familiar with the SETI project, Searching for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. METI stands for Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Freeman Dyson believe this is incredibly stupid and dangerous.

Of the 13 (known) attempts to deliberately signal another star so far, the earliest that any response could be received is 2036. The earliest that any response could be received from a sun-like star with planets in the habitable zone is 2085. Additional attempts are almost certain to be made in the next few years.

Most scientists recognize how important - in fact, world-shattering - contact with aliens would be, and there's actually a protocol for what scientists should do if a message is received. But these attempts are being made by individuals or small groups, with no oversight, often with really stupid justifications. One was an art project; this one invited kids to compose the message.

The argument against deliberate messaging is that even here on Earth, contact between members of the same species with differing technology was catastrophic for not just the humans on one side, but the ecosystems. A visit from aliens with enough technology to detect us or visit would therefore likely be devastating, even if they don't have malicious intentions. Once we're detected, we can never be un-detected.

The arguments for METI are laughable, and best thought of in terms of a native American on the shores of the Atlantic, talking about building signal fires to bring the Europeans over even sooner. Their best arguments are:
  • Aliens might already have noticed us anyway. (So why make it more likely?)
  • It's extremely unlikely anyone will get the message (So why do it at all?)
  • They won't come for a long time. (If we discovered a form of energy that would start poisoning our descendants in 10,000 years, would we use it?)
  • If all the other aliens are remaining silent, then by doing the same, we're part of the problem, and we're hypocrites for trying to detect others (given the risk:benefit, that's a trade most of us would be comfortable making.)
  • Aliens who can respond or come here will necessarily be moral beings and won't hurt us. (This one is really absurd, and not only makes assumptions about the intentions of the aliens, it sounds very much like a religious conviction.)

You can see a more thorough treatment of these arguments by a SETI expert in this paper, and the abstract finishes with these sentences: "Arguments in favor of METI are reviewed. It is concluded that METI is unwise, unscientific, potentially catastrophic, and unethical."

You can see some of these arguments being made with a straight face by METI's founder Doug Vakoch in this article. Note that METI is a splinter of SETI, since most of the scientists involved in SETI forbade active communication attempts.

Going forward I'm going to do my best to create awareness in the rationalist community and put priority on this as an existential threat alongside AI. My plan is to contact the people at SETI to see what they're already doing and how others can contribute. It seems like the best approach for now is stopping transmissions by blocking individual projects, but ideally there would actually be a law against this as well as norms that socially punish defectors. To end on an optimistic note: because there is a chokepoint (money and limited time on transmitters which are mostly controlled by universities) this problem is actually much more tractable than avoiding a "bad hard takeoff" of general AI.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

More on the C. elegans that Survived Re-Entry During the Columbia Disaster

Living roundworms made it intact to the ground after the Columbia crash, as noted multiple times before (here and here.) There is more information in the article about their level of protection: "'They sustained some heat damage to exteriors, but that's about it,' Szewczyk said. The thermos-size metal container holding the nematodes was housed inside the locker of a crew compartment that was reinforced specifically to protect the materials inside. Once that compartment ruptured, however, the nematodes still survived the crash to Earth thanks to the locker's build, Szewczyk said. The C. elegans stayed alive upon impact because by the time that part of the shuttle fell to the ground, it had already decreased in speed, allowing the nematodes to touch down more gently." A locker is much less protection than being deep inside a solid chunk of rock.

This has obvious implications: "'From an astrobiology standpoint, the important thing was that if you had a multicellular organism going through the atmosphere you can have interplanetary transfer of life by natural means, and Columbia demonstrated that,' Szewczyk said. 'It was a fortunate thing to demonstrate that in the unfortunate circumstances that there were.'" Their descendants are kept at the University of Minnesota.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Excerpt from The Cleveland Wrecking Yard (Trout Fishing in America, Richard Brautigan, 1967)

Until recently my knowledge about the Cleveland Wrecking Yard had come from a couple of friends who’d bought things there. One of them bought a huge window: the frame, glass and everything for just a few dollars. It was a fine-looking window.

Then he chopped a hole in the side of his house up on Potrero Hill and put the window in. Now he has a panoramic view of the San Francisco County Hospital.

He can practically look right down into the wards and see old magazines eroded like the Grand Canyon from endless readings. He can practically hear the patients thinking about breakfast: I hate milk, and thinking about dinner: I hate peas, and then he can watch the hospital slowly drown at night, hopelessly entangled in huge bunches of brick seaweed.

He bought that window at the Cleveland Wrecking Yard.

My other friend bought an iron roof at the Cleveland Wreck­ing Yard and took the roof down to Big Sur in an old station wagon and then he carried the iron roof on his back up the side of a mountain. He carried up half the roof on his back. It was no picnic. Then he bought a mule, George, from Pleasanton. George carried up the other half of the roof.

The mule didn’t like what was happening at all. He lost a lot of weight because of the ticks, and the smell of the wild­cats up on the plateau made him too nervous to graze there. My friend said jokingly that George had lost around two hun­dred pounds. The good wine country around Pleasanton in the Livermore Valley probably had looked a lot better to George than the wild side of the Santa Lucia Mountains.
For the rest of it, see here. For context, see here.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Mozart, Symphony #25 in G minor, 1773



Could Modern Bacteria Seed Early Earth? Could Bacteria in Earth Ejecta Do the Same for Extrasolar Planets?

The C-index is this: how close would we have to be to an identical twin Earth to detect them with our SETI searches, given our current detection technology and our (their) emissions? Many argue that we would identify zero twin Earths this way because to detect them, they'd have to be within 3 LY or so - closer than the closest star.

But this post is asking a different question: if modern archaebacteria were seeded onto Hadean prebiotic Earth (say, an iron-sulfur species like the ones that our best guesses show were the last universal common ancestor of all life on Earth) - would they run rampant and colonize the whole world, or would they collapse, relying on some pre-existing network of metabolites produced by other cells? This is relevant to the question of passive colonization of simple organisms from Earth to nearby stars over arbitrary time scales. Archaebacteria in particular are a concern for NASA in terms of contaminating other planets.

This idea has been floated multiple times, including by astronomer and writer Fred Hoyle. Here is how the process of passive colonization could work. Asteroid impacts are sometimes powerful enough to eject surface material at greater than escape velocity. This is how we have over 100 fragments of Mars on Earth right now. If this happens, some bacteria may survive the initial shock, heat, then freezing and dehydration (some bacteria can survive these conditions; and in any event it doesn't have to be many.) Some of these meteorites will escape Earth orbit. If in vacuum and cold they're stable for arbitrarily long periods, they'll just accumulate in the solar system as septic Earth-meteorites over time. Some percentage of these fragments will interact with a solar system body (e.g. Jupiter) and be accelerated to solar escape velocity (like Oamuamua was in its native system.) Some percentage of those will enter another solar system (this is likely to happen once every 15 billion years, based on calculations inspired by Oamuamua.) Some percentage of these fragments will pass through a solar system with "primitive" planets with a liquid water-CO2 atmosphere like the early Earth. Some percentage of fragments will actually strike those planets, and some percentage of bacteria will make it to the surface intact.

Of course there are many unknowns and I only cited one number. We need to know the bacterial "burden" blasted out of orbit per unit time - none of those in our lifetimes, probably not even Tunguska; the percent chance of survival; the stability over time once frozen (being in solid phase is certainly not absolute protection against radiation). The frequency of planets is roughly known, but not the frequency of terrestrial CO2-water worlds, although reasonable bounds could be placed. As to surviving re-entry, this tends to raise the most eyebrows - but it's worth repeating that roundworms on the Columbia did in fact survive uncontrolled re-entry and were found alive on the ground weeks later. Inside a large iron-silicate rock they may be even better protected.

The most uncertain part of this list of attrition factors is the last one we've now come to, the chance of the bacteria fluorishing on the new planet (lack of metal ions for enzymes, or presence of cyanide, low volcanic activity if we're relying on the iron-sulfur archaebacteria; etc.) But we can start actually filling in the values for passive ("dumb") colonization - the equation to show how fast Fred Hoyle's "lifecloud" and Arrhenius's panspermia would actually occur. Note that this is a different concept from the organic von Neumann probes that could also unintentionally seed life as a side effect, although mechanics would be the same, and we would still be looking on watery low-gravity bodies for evidence of them, like comets and asteroids.

Initially I was tempted to make a stab at setting bounds on 50% chance of colonizing another star, but many of the probabilities would be just guesses. It's clear that this is quite a list of attrition factors, reducing the chance nearly to zero for any one cell or asteroid strike on Earth to seed a future alien ecosystem. But over geologic time there have been quite a few of these strikes, and assuming vacuum-frozen surviving bacteria are stable for a long time (a relative straight-forward thing to test), then the solar system has been slowly filling up with septic asteroids - some of which no doubt have been ejected. So for the near-term, this is unlikely to produce lots of passively seeded worlds, but over arbitrary time, the universe would be accumulating archaebacteria from every place that life evolved. If we think of the Sun as a second-generation main sequence star, then planets of third generation stars are more likely to have been seeded by second-generation ecosystems - and may have more metals available in the ashes of the second generation stars from which they're built.

Other quantitative predictions: a one-third chance of life on Europa.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Van Halen, Hot For Teacher, 1984 (covered by Dillinger Escape Plan, live, 2008)



Bonus - Rebel Yell by Billy Idol, covered by Children of Bodom (Skeletons in the Closet, 2009):



Double bonus - Disposable Heroes (Metallica, Master of Puppets, 1985) as if Meshuggah covered it, by Morten Müller:



Sunday, January 13, 2019

Reaction: Gun, With Occasional Music (Lethem)

Highly recommended; spoilers follow.

Science fiction which only recycles the surface trappings of the genre without using them as a vehicle - i.e., that doesn't take advantage of the freedom allowed by world-creation to get at something - is a hollow failure. Using a novel to investigate the function of language itself, as this one does, seems an abstract and sterile endeavor and in lesser hands probably would be, and might be impossible if you couldn't invent a counterfactual world that better exposes the uneasy conflicts inherent in such a question. Gene Wolfe's New Sunnovels are about the limitations of language - the Ascians who can only speak in stock phrases and communicate meaning by how out-of-tune the uttered phrase is with the current situation; or the degeneration of imagination as moves from direct experience to more and more iterations of mere telling, like people breeding in a prison who thought bees were a foot across because they'd only heard about but never seen them; or the silo-ing of genres into guilds. Gun, With Occasional Music is a meditation on language using the medium of detective fiction, and properly using the freedom that science fiction allows to explore its core concerns - language's richness and its relationship to truth, authority, and action.

As a point of comparison, the influence of Philip K. Dick on this novel is obvious, in the same way that Black Sabbath's influence on Metallica is obvious - Lethem takes what's good about PKD and makes it better, with much better writing. Gun is Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, more fully developed and better-written. Androids is a manatee and Gun is a dolphin. If you need this novel put in terms of other novels, it's about half Androids, a quarter Scanner Darkly, and a quarter auster's City of Glass, the latter of which is the only work of anti- or meta-detective fiction I've read that does that particular "genre" justice. (Again, by properly using it, and not leaving the genre's tricks un-fired on the mantelpiece.)



At its core, this is a detective novel about a half-washed-up private eye trying to get a guy off for a crime he didn't commit. It's the world that they inhabit The plot really serves only as a medium for you to notice the author's investigations of language, and if the book has a flaw, it's that the plot is overly complicated and distracts from the central value of the novel. The world this detective finds himself in is one where questions are illegal, metaphors are misunderstood, jokes are taken literally, and by the end, even too many simple statements become suspect. There are also evolved animals and developmentally-accelerated children, though (key to my criticism here) none of this is really essential to the plot. There is a recognition of class, though this seems more a necessary part of a detective novel, and less an actual exploration. In a nutshell, the animals and babyheads (more on them below) are clearly lower class. So?

Questions are an obvious threat to authority ("The number one enemy of progress is questions!" - Jello Biafra) and in this world there is an Inquisitors Office, which contains the only people allowed to ask questions, and then only in the course of their investigations (them, and the occasional private investigator - but they need a license to ask.) There are several references to psychoanalysts - the most instrusive question-askers of all - but they're illegal, replaced by Inquisitors. In fact the only psychoanalysts encountered in the novel are a hollowed-out degenerate incarnation thereof, going door-to-door like Jehovah's Witnesses, and they're evangelizing - that is, telling, not asking.

But the threat from language to authority comes not just from questions, but from metaphor. Dictatorships are famous for their difficulty understanding, and (therefore) their intolerance of, parody and ambiguity. Consequently this is a world where authorities either cannot understand metaphors, or have forced them to become literal. Criminals are put in actual freezers. Everyone is using an officially issued drug ("make") and one of them is described thusly: "Think of it as the opposite of deja vu - nothing reminds you of anything, not even of itself." A more certain death for metaphor could not be described! Evolved animals jump from figures of speech into real life - Metcalf has a monkey on his back at one point, a sheep is afraid to disobey the man she lives with, and just as he was emasculated in leaving the Inquisitors Office to become merely a "private dick", his manhood was taken by the woman who broke his heart and left him after what he thought was a temporary trade in genital sensation, made possible by future neuro-programming. The character who turns out to be his arch-nemesis is an evolved kangaroo. This one I couldn't process other than to realize that since Joey is common young gangster name, it would make sense in this world for that gangster to be an actual young kangaroo. Every now and then the prose snaps out of gumshoe-rhythm but it's typically associated with certain characters; Testafer is the closest Lethem comes to exposition, and to a lesser extent the antagonist Phoneblum. But these sections don't expose the central theme, and the closest Lethem comes to just giving away the come occurs when the protagonist, in frustration with the babyheads, asks "What if I told you I thought Truth and Justice were two completely different things?" This narrator seems to actually think in clever metaphors (as is common in detective fiction) but the Inquisitors Office goons often flatly don't understand his constant wordplay. Late in the book, when the character wakes after six years in the freezer to an even worse world, people don't even understand jokes without the help of computers they carry with them to tell them they just heard a joke. (They still don't understand the jokes, but they know the appropriate response is to laugh.) TV shows and even the news are abstract and non-representative. The news is delivered with music, which, as an abstract art-form, is un-threateningly indirect and un-revelatory (This is how the USSR announced Premier Konstantin Chernyenko's death, though it's certainly not the only dictatorship which has been less than eager to explicitly communicate bad news.) But even TV shows are abstract in this world, seemingly serving as animated Kandinsky paintings, like visual muzak.

Then there are the babyheads, the accelerated infants, deliberately drawn as the most disturbing and creepy entity in the novel. There's an implication that the babyheads are the future, spouting pseudo-profound nonsense (which is therefore harmless); I can't help but think he's picking on the post-modernists here. In the babyhead bar, they make clear their contempt for the prohibition on question-asking, but you don't get a feeling of liberation that you're in some inner sanctum where linguistic freedom has been protected. Rather, you're clearly in a cognitive and linguistic ghetto.

A final thought on the predictions that Lethem got right. Everyone in this world has "karma", a system of points which, when the Inquisitor's Office has penalized you so much it reaches zero, you're shipped off to the literal freezer. Reading this in 2019, you can't help but think of China's social credit system, which is amazingly under-discussed in the West. There is no discussion of how the world got to be this way - it's not really what the novel is about - but as the fire chief described in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, I can imagine a populist uprising driven by grass roots intolerance of question-askers in an increasingly complicated and difficult to negotiate world. There's no mention of a top-down central state here.

At the time of its publication the term "slipstream" was thrown around a lot as a category for this book, equal parts science fiction, litfic and post-modernism. But like most attempts at artistic hybridization, it looks more like one than the other, and Lethem falls more on the literary side. The critical question: is the novel about the technology? That is, do you and the writer care about the details of how things work, or are they a literary conceit that's serving another narrative purpose? This is why this novel, Fahrenheit 451, and Star Wars are not really science fiction. They create a setting that serves a purpose in the themes they're exploring, but Lethem and the reader do not care how the babyhead technology works (same for a light saber or the mechanical hound.) For that matter, in modern writing and film, many other genres have incorporated the superficial trappings of science fiction - thrillers especially, but increasingly romance as well. Another example is John Updike's not-really-successful science fiction experiment Toward the End of Time. It's literary fiction (fair enough) with some genuinely interesting science fiction ideas, unfortunately shoe-horned in. Updike wasn't fooling anybody into thinking this is what he usually writes about.

If I have a complaint, it's that the first few pages I was put off by the annoying intensity of the detective novel style. It's far beyond what would be needed to tell us this is a detective novel, and I appreciate that a debut author wants to showboat a little in terms of demonstrating his mastery of the idiom - although, for example, David Mitchell manages this better and less self-consciously in Cloud Atlas.

Dying Fetus, Your Treachery Will Die With You (Descend Into Depravity, 2009)



Thursday, January 3, 2019

Arkona, Stenka na Stenku (Stenka na Stenku, 2011)



H/T Chris. Who know that the folk metal genre was rich enough to be sub-sub-divided into eastern and western folk metal? Also check out Korpiklaani.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Deoxyribose From Abiotic Space Conditions

Another biomolecule, the pentose sugar that serves as the backbone of DNA, quickly produced in un-directed synthesis under conditions that obtain on ice in space. Given the speed with which the first life formed on Earth (0.1 GA after the planet cooled to a solid form) as well as increasing evidence like this about how easy it is to make nucleic acid building blocks under prebiotic conditions, it's also very likely that life forms everywhere with water and carbon - even in ice. (See here for most recent panspermia/evolution post.)