Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Malcolm Gladwell Knows Why You Want Nanotech

In his review of Chris Anderson's Free, Gladwell addresses Anderson's discussion of the 1950's optimism about atomic energy: that it would make energy too cheap to meter. It's 2009 and guess what?

Gladwell points out that it's not just the cost of power generation itself but the transmission system, among other things, that result in the cost of electrical power. He then expands this to a more general principle that, without intending to, crisply exposes the singulatarians' yearning for nanotechnology:

This is the kind of error that technological utopians make. They assume that their particular scientific revolution will wipe away all traces of its predecessors — that if you change the fuel you change the whole system.

Nanotechnology as the term is usually used is really just magic, disguised by modern-sounding words; and in exactly the way Gladwell calls out, it frees us from the tyranny of legacy systems, at least in the minds of its enthusiasts. No more costs associated with commitment to previous infrastructure! The atoms will just rearrange themselves! That's great; and I assume unicorns are going to help you do it? (Oh wait, that's ridiculous? For more on unicorn science, go here.) The idea of the world remade in man's image at the molecular level (and intelligence per unit mass skyrocketing beyond human ken) falls apart on the most basic questioning. As Drew Endy said at a LongNow Foundation discussion: what will power it?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Late 70s/Early 80s Science Fiction: The Genre's Dark Period

Recently I've been watching classic movies from this period and they strike me as uncannily dark. Of course there's Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982, duh), but I would add 4 others to this list: Brainstorm (1983), Altered States (1980), Close Encounters (1977), and the first Star Trek movie (1979). Yes, Star Trek! What do I find so dark about them? I don't know. I'm not enough of a film buff to know what kind of film they used, or the kinds of shots or other fancy cinematography stuff. If you run across this post and think you have some idea of what unites these, I'm curious - in particular, regarding the last 3 - by all means, let's hear it.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Stop Talking to Aliens

One of the perennially favored topics in "human-interest astronomy" stories is "what to say to aliens". Here's the cutesy article in the SF Chronicle that inspired me to write this. Note all of the self-flagellation; "my species is dumb; my species is stupid; if you come here, fix us; we don't deserve to be a member of a higher plane, blah blah blah". I guess where interstellar politics is concerned, I'm a conservative. I assume the worst of intentions, and I don't appreciate self-indulgent celebrations of victimhood and lowliness.

If anybody seriously thinks that other intelligences will hear these signals, then we should stop sending them immediately. The other intelligences won't care about our sensitive perceptions of our own faults (according to tests by our own standards that curiously enough the self-flagellators would do better on). They may not be able to care about things to begin with. When you think about aliens, don't think wise diplomats with bumps on their foreheads inviting us to join their great philosophical congress. Think great white sharks with lasers. Think kudzu and killer bees, not Vulcans. They won't even necessarily be smarter than us, just better at spreading. They don't have to be more "civilized", whatever that word can mean in application to non-human species. It'll be more of an invasive species colonizing a new biosphere situation (rabbits in Australia) than a meeting of minds (if indeed they recognize that we have mind, and, they care). They will have less to say to us, and the same interest in saying it, as the other organisms on our own planet. Ascribing any kind of moral dimension to life outside humans is nonsense.

Here's a video of killer whales playing with seals that are clearly terrified of being killed and eaten by them. Because "more intelligent", "more evolved", and "nicer" are all the same thing, right?

Quiz: what has happened right here on Earth when members of the SAME species meet each other? What happens to island ecosystems suddenly put in contact with Old World flora and fauna? Overrun, no chance, game over.

If anyone else is out there, we're like pre-contact Native Americans or Pacific Islanders right now. Let's try to lay low until we know what we're facing. Otherwise we're setting signal fires to let the conquistadors know where we are.