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 trappers 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 with how he usually writes.

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 master 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.)

Monday, December 10, 2018

Space Colonies Will Be Run By Dictators; Or, Why Science Fiction Is About Government Space Travel

Settling colonies in the age of exploration was easy. Jamestown in particular seemed like a breeze. There was air, water, food, and even people who would sometimes help you if you were nice to them. Even still, it wasn't until the third ship arrived from England that the colony became self-sustaining. The Norse were unable to hold onto Greenland at all, and we still in 2018 have not put a self-sustaining colony on Antarctica . That the land does not provide basic life-sustaining commodities for free - that there is no indestructible commons where air and water is concerned - has led some political scientists to speculate that the natural state of any off-Earth colony would be that of "Oriental despotism", which earlier historians associated with the culture of the Middle East. Another way of looking at this is that there's a predisposition to strong central authority anywhere that central coordination is required for survival. This might mean political rent-seekers who control the water by force, as in parts of the Middle East, or the coordination of crops that are massively productive when huge teams of people harvest it, as with rice in East Asia. This also solves the mystery of why states emerged initially in places that were actually quite marginal for agriculture - the dry high altitude Mexican Plateau, the Nile Valley, and the Fertile Crescent (with the exception of China - still explained by a benefit of central authority's ability to coordinate labor.) On the other hand, places where berries and game almost jump into your mouth are not famous for producing large states - though they do often produce impressive cultures, like the Pacific Northwest. When you get angry at some tribal council decision, it's too easy to storm off and take your family into the next valley and start hunting and gathering there. Not so when your life depends on predicting and collectively exploiting, say, the flooding of the Nile.

But there is still another reason to think that space colonies (planet-bound or not) will resemble the walled fortress of a desert, or the absolute authority of an Eastern monarch, more than a democracy. (Yes, it gets worse.) How do you get your family to your new valley? You can walk - even if it takes a while. If you got sick of Ohio and wanted to head west, you might have to pool your funds with other families but it didn't take that many families before you could put a small wagon train together. Leaving a gravity well and building a habitat are massively complicated and expensive undertakings. This is why space launches are the province (so far) of wealthy states and so far, just one corporation. For economic reasons of massive capital requirements, space travel will therefore be performed in a way that advances the interests of wealthy states and/or corporations. (This is similar to the reason movies are more constrained, i.e. less imaginative, risk-taking, and creative than writing or visual art - they're very capital-intensive and it's much more important in this medium to make back your investment!) Science fiction typically continues to imagine it this way, likely correctly - but rarely explores the pitfalls of large organizations having a stranglehold over the means of transportation in this brave new world - or the impact of, say, aliens appearing and handing out technology that allows individual humans to cheaply travel between planets. (Libertarians - if you think having private corporations do it, you not only have to explain how they will obtain such a position in the company of a cartel of violence-monopolizing organizations called states, you have to explain why it's better to be oppressed by a privately held rather than public organization. Left-leaners, if you think states are the ideal organizations to undertake such ventures, keep in mind that the first country with a real rocketry program was Nazi Germany, and the fastest growing one today is free-speech-crushing, putting-Muslims-in-concentration-camps China.)

It's also worth pointing out that, for related reasons, such colonies will be dependent on Earth for a long, long time, much longer than Jamestown was dependent on England Why? First off, people are much more comfortable now. Second, when the first settlers arrived in Jamestown, they were able more or less to build on their own the technology that they were accustomed to in England. Yes, in the case of iron production, English colonists actually reverted to a medieval version for a while, but they were still making the nails and blades and gun barrels and plows that they needed. What about the first settlers on Mars? Will they be able to make a smartphone? Will they be able to make another spaceship, or habitat, or geodesic farming equipment, or satellite dishes? Even assuming zero surplus mortality from the harsh Martian environment, how many ships and people are necessary before the Martian Jamestown is self-sustaining? The Martian despot will likely be interested in not just controlling the oxygen and water, but the shipments coming from Earth.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Interstellar and Intergalactic Panspermia

Active colonization time estimates for the galaxy are invariably much shorter than the lifespan of the galaxy. Passive diffusion would take longer of course but empirically observed Oort cloud mixing intervals even this far from the core for the sun are on the order of 10^5 years. Lingam and Loeb (2018) calculate the delivery of amino acids between star systems but not timescales; still, they estimate an upper bound for the size of interstellar objects for our system (a 10 kilometer-radius asteroid) and Alpha Centauri (an Earth sized planet.) This is a second source pointing to the fact that we may be an interstellar backwater, uniquely un-exposed to evidence of replicators* relative to the stars around us.

Where intergalactic material transfer is concerned, of course given the distances involved we should expect the process to be slower, both in terms of at an absolute rate and moreso in terms of colonizing systems, since the ratio of number of incoming objects:number of systems to receive material will be quite low. That said, a) there are extragalactic stars in the Milky Way right now, and b) we're actually talking about an exponential rather than linear rate if there are replicators* of any sort being introduced. This excludes infrequent but massive events like intergalactic collisions, like those which the Milky Way has undergone repeatedly in the past.

*I deliberately use the term replicators as a catch-all to include "space-viroids" (most likely), von Neumann probes, "cancerous" (mutants selected for fecundity over original function) or otherwise, or deliberate colonizations by agents with some kind of intention (least likely.)

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Ice Volcanoes on Ceres May Provide Replicators Means of Spreading

Extraterrestrial replicators (be they naturally-evolved, or von Neumann probes or the mutant descendants thereof) are at least as likely to be based on organic chemistry as on clanking iron-age technology, as is often imagined. Material returned from comet Wild-2 showed that it was actually an extraterrestrial comet, and had amino acids on it. Other investigations have shown the presence of nucleobases (the components of DNA and RNA.)

Even Arrhenius-style "panspermia" spread by passive diffusion on astronomical timescales is not implausible, as our Oort Cloud has mixed with close-passing stars' clouds on the order of once every 0.1 MA (and we should assume this happens to other stars as well.) However, for passively spreading replicators, higher-gravity bodies like planets or large moons are dead ends because they have no means of escaping the gravity well.

Water geysers on Enceladus, from

This is why comets and wet carbonaceous asteroids are the best places to look, and why the Hayabusa-2 probe on Ryugu is so important. Same for the Dawn probe. Europa and even Enceladus may be a tough sell as passively escapable gravity wells, but now we see evidence of active water volcanoes on Ceres through its life span.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Sometimes You Need a Little Puerile Humor

And sometimes you need a lot, so please watch this awesome video by Infant Annihilator, for their #1 hit Decapitation Fornication.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

A Tiny Fraction of the Things Wrong With Star Wars

I always think those "Everything wrong with X science fiction or superhero movie" videos are the saddest things in the world. If it was a hit movie, clearly no one cares, and yet here's some overgrown seventh-grader shouting into the virtual void about why people shouldn't like it.

Here's my contribution to the genre.

All Star Wars movies: "We have superintelligent androids yet they seem mostly to occasionally translate and calculate numbers. Should we let them do any dangerous tasks requiring split-second decisions like, I don’t know, piloting ships? No, we’ll still use humans for that." (Idea for later movies when people finally start getting tired of it: a Star Wars cryptohistory that shows what was happening the whole time, where in fact this is all post-Singularity, and the reason that events fit human cultural and psychological tropes so closely without making much sense if you think about it for more than two seconds - "sword and sorcery in space" - is that the AIs actually set it all up as a big Disneyland for us and/or to study us, and watch from the background. Kind of like the Matrix but real. Or a reverse Westworld. You're welcome, Disney.)

Also all Star Wars movies: Sith apprentices only succeed by killing their masters, even if they’ve turned kinda good like Vader and Kylo Ren. So how about, just be a Sith, and DON’T TAKE A FUCKING APPRENTICE. IT WOULDN’T BE A JEDI WHO FINALLY BECOMES SO INTENT ON NOT TRAINING SOMEONE ELSE!

Revenge of the Sith: "We have antigravity and cybernetic limbs and faster than light spaceships, but man we just can’t get a handle on tissue regeneration to help people grow skin back. So now left-in-the-toaster-too-long Anakin will just have to walk around wearing a weird suit and 1950s respirator the rest of his life, along with needing frequent moisturizer bath treatments."

Rogue One: "Hey we have energy weapons and all this other technology yet we’re somehow amazed that after years of technology someone built a laser with roughly the power of the Hiroshima bomb. Amazing!"

The Last Jedi: "Turns out ramming an enemy ship at light speed is massively effective! And yet somehow no one ever thought to built light speed space torpedoes, and even after they see it, no one exclaims ‘What an amazing innovation, we should build light speed torpedoes from now on!"

Thursday, August 30, 2018

No Radio Signals from Oumuamua

To help rule out Oumuamua as an interstellar probe, it was investigated and found to have no detectable transmissions within 1-10 GHz down to powers of at least 300 milliwatts. Yes, this could be like an uncontacted tribe on Earth in 2018 saying that the drone that surfaced in their bay wasn't sent by people because it didn't give off smoke signals - but you have to start with clear assumptions of SOME kind and test them. That such a ship-like object is passing through the solar system is exciting, but since we found it very soon after we were first capable of finding it suggests that such objects pass through our solar system all the time.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Interstellar Urey-Miller Experiment

Summary here. At 5.5 K in Interstellar ice you get aromatic ring precursors. Note - the materials from the original experiment remain at UCSD where Miller was professor of chemistry, but the rig they used is at a museum in Denver.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

XKCD - Expanded Hertzprung-Russell Diagram

Reminds me of the interesting factoid: on a power-per-mass basis, our sun produces less Wattage than reptile metabolism. (Reptiles! Doesn't even approach mammals, an order of magnitude greater!) But that surface area-to-volume ratio is important, and as the XKCD author pointed out previously, if you had a whole planet made of mammals, it would put out a fair amount of energy in an unexpected scale-dependent phenomenon, although metabolism would not continue - turns out where powering stars is concerned, fusion beats glycolysis or respiration.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Implications for Panspermia: Metazoans Can Survive Freezing Under Natural Conditions

Nematodes were frozen in Siberian permafrost 42,000 years ago, and were thawed in a lab, showing behaviors like feeding. This has implications for panspermia. In another unintentional experiments, other roundworms on the space shuttle survived uncontrolled re-entry and were found on the ground weeks after the accident. Stars regularly make close passes on time scales on the order of 100,000 years. 70,000 years ago, there was a star less than a light year away (Scholz's Star.) Large meteor strikes regularly (on geological timescales) send material into space. Are there thaw-able Earth nematodes (and many other things) now in order around Scholz's Star? There are definitely extraterrestrial objects in this solar system, but only in one case have we checked for biochemistry - and we at least found amino acids.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Look for RNA-World Rock Strata on the Moon

Schulze-Makuch and Crawford show in Astrobiology that that the Moon may have briefly been habitable - either (two options) about 4.5 billion years ago, or 3.5 billion years ago, for a few tens of millions of years, with an atmosphere and some liquid water (Gizmodo digest here.) Since the moon was formed after an impact with the early Earth, we should assume they had many of the same starting materials. The moon had less surface area and less time, and split from the Earth prior to even the earliest suggested prebiotic activity around 4 billion years ago, so it would have had to develop its own life - it could not have been "seeded."

The Moon with life (although terraformed.) From Techeblog.

Recent work by Tashiro et al suggest that a 4 billion year old rock stratum on Earth shows evidence of biological activity and may even be the fossil result of an RNA-World stage in the evolution of life on Earth. If it existed on Earth, it also could have existed on the Moon. It's not as though that rock stratum is exposed everywhere on Earth (the Tashiro people used samples from northern Labrador, Canada.) But it's interesting to think that the same stratum could have existed on the Moon if prebiotic chemistry took a similar course - and that those strata may be much easier to find and more widespread given the inactivity of the Moon relative to Earth.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Attempts at Interstellar Communication: Receipts and Responses Within Your Lifetime

tl;dr Lots of scientists are on record saying that broadcasting messages to nearby stars is dangerous. If you take other low-probability high-consequence existential risks seriously, you should consider joining the effort (resources here.) Compared to some of the problems the X-risk community is used to thinking about, it would be relatively easy to stop METI and protect the future of life on Earth.

A very philosophical-minded Native American in the pre-Columbian era, sitting on the beach at night, might have thought: there might be a beach just like this one, far across these waters. And if we set up large bonfires, we can let them know we're here! What a joy it would be to meet and exchange culture and technology! We know how the exchange actually played out; if it had come a few centuries earlier, it would have been the Norse landing in New England and Virginia, and likely would have been even worse. In any event, if he would've known exactly how friendly those people across the water would be, he would've abandoned his plan.

This was the result of contact between two groups of the same species that had been briefly (in biological terms) separated. Based on simple evolutionary psychology, contact between two completely unrelated species would likely be much, much worse. You don't have to look for far arguments that contact between humans and aliens would necessarily be beneficial to us - because we humans are so dirty and sinful, and any aliens technologically advanced enough to visit us[1] would necessarily be morally advanced as well (inevitably and inconsistently, morally advanced in the eyes of the dirty human making the argument.) Consequently, active SETI should be considered suicide for Earth's ecosystem, not just for humans. And yet it's been done repeatedly, sometimes for reasons as silly as art projects.

Consider the following list of stars that have been targeted for such contact attempts, and which are close enough that a response (or a visit, if they can travel at light speed) could be received in the medically optimistic lifetime of someone born recently.

StarSun-like?Planets?Earliest Response
Teegarden's Starred dwarfpossible2036
GJ83.1red dwarf (flare)no evidence2040
Gliese 581red dwarfYES, POSSIBLY IN HABITABLE ZONE2050
Altairwhite (A)no evidence2051
GJ526red dwarf (flare star)unlikely2059
HIP 4872red dwarfno evidence2069
Kappa CetiYES, but frequent flaresno evidence2069
HD 245409cool orange/hot red dwarf (K-M)no evidence2077
HD 10307YESunlikely (companion)2085
47 UMa**YESpossible2093
Gl 777YESpossible2103
*Where there are asterisks, numbers of asterisks = # of contact attempts

This is by no means an exhaustive list of all messages, only those for which we can receive a response by 2110 - and only those which are publicly reported.

The argument against active SETI (or METI; Messaging ET Intelligence) is simple. Any aliens which receive the message and have the ability to travel to our solar system are very likely far advanced. Whether or not they intend to harm us - if they, it, etc. even has "intentions" - is immaterial, as any contact with them is overwhelmingly likely to be catastrophic for Earth's ecosystem as a whole, including the human race. Arguments that the aliens will be (or for some reason must be) "nice" are comically narrow-minded and provincial.

The best arguments in FAVOR of active SETI appear to be 1) if we remain silent, then we can infer other species are likely to have made the same decision and it's inconsistent to remain silent but keep listening. 2) Advanced species probably already know about us, and these efforts don't much increase the chances of being detected.

To #1, even assuming the self-indication assumption-reasoning here doesn't demand bizarre causality as Nozick argued with respect to Newcomb's Paradox, given the likely severe consequences of a visit from a species more advanced than our own, I think joining in with all the silent species and being part of the problem (i.e., leading to the Great Silence) is quite a good trade. Notice that in our own ecosystem, most animals are quiet, unless they can quickly escape by flight or into burrows, are hidden by darkness, or are surrounded by conspecifics. Those of us who assume that aliens must be friendly somehow always insist that natural selection stops applying to advanced species and across interstellar space.

To #2, if the best argument really is that "they already know we're here so we're not increasing our chances of detection by potentially destructive aliens THAT much", which is literally the argument made by Jacob Haqq-Misra, Chief Scientific officer of the Lone Signal project, then that tells you a lot about how well-thought -through the whole enterprise is. What's more, it's absolutely false. The C-index is a quick and dirty measure of our detectability - if there were a twin Earth, giving off the same amount of electromagnetic noise that we are, how close would we have to be to detect it? Currently, about 3 LY, meaning we wouldn't even be able to hear ourselves from the next closest star. A powerful directed message on the other hand would be much easier to detect from a longer distance - so these messages are in fact likely increasing the probability of our detection substantially, at least at the target stars. Otherwise why are they even sending them?

These projects are ongoing. The problem has been discussed at conferences with approaches including a moratorium backed by international law (so far only talk.) These things are slow. One approach may be to go directly to the telescopes sending the messages, as there are a limited number of such installations. In decreasing magnitude of offense with those messages, they are:

Eupatoria (Crimea, Ukraine) - 7 targets, 11 transmissions
Arecibo (Puerto Rico, USA) - 4 targets, 4 transmissions
EISCAT (Tromso, Norway) 1 target, 1 transmission (an art project!)
Jamesburg (Carmel, California, USA) 1 target, 1 transmission (crowdfounded!!)

In addition, Alexander Zaitsev is a Russian astronomer who is far and away the individual most responsible for driving METI efforts.

Lots of scientists are on record saying that broadcasting messages to nearby stars is dangerous. If you take other low-probability high-consequence existential risks seriously, you should consider joining the effort (resources here.) Compared to some of the problems the X-risk community is used to thinking about, it would be relatively easy to stop METI and protect the future of life on Earth.

[1] I purposely avoid the word civilizations, because that is a term which describes an entity with certain characteristics that humans can collectively form. Whatever activities groups of aliens form, it will not appear like any "civilization" we would recognize. "School", "herd", "flock", "swarm" are all terms that are at least as likely be useful to human impressions to describe the collective entities that we're likely to see.

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 collapse after an attack from the Mizaris (I think; described below) and all the colonies were cut off. The humans 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 and the aforementioned Mizari.

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 were only able to contact an unfriendly diplomat sort of fellow who kept stalling them. Finally they landed despite his objections, and realized the planet was all but abandoned, with this lone gentleman the only human on it. It turns out that the D'Shanna gladly gave this colony the final answers to all reality, and this so drained the humans on this planet 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, in the D'Shanna, the humans 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 it (he didn't feel the need to go back and re-write Mars stories where there was nitric acid everywhere, I think in a very wise decision.) The Aliens franchise doesn't really fully explain this problem either but then I don't want to see what dumb explanation they might come up with.

    • OR, 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 and melting, which leaves no trace. (G.I. Joe stole this idea later.)

  3. The simple code used by the first human ship back to Earth 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 obviously 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. The author creates a social 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 finally 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

  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. The D'Shanna are truly alien as well, energy entities who mostly inhabit another dimension and can see all of our reality (like Tralfamadorians in Slaughterhouse Five, but much cooler and nicer) and the Mizari are 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 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.