Thursday, April 29, 2010

Should-Be Household Name #2: John J. Montgomery

San Diego- and Bay Area-based flight pioneer John J. Montgomery received a patent for his aeroplane design and died testing one of them. He was the first person to execute a controlled, heavier than air, manned flight (he sat in it, it flew, he could steer, but had no engine.) He was partly inspired in his engineering by French-American engineering genius Octave Chanute. Montgomery Airport in San Diego is named for him.

Should-be-Household Name #1: Russell Ohl

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Playing "Find and Replace" With a Naive Attitude About Aliens

Lots of people have weighed in on Hawking's recent comments, which is great because it means that people are finally thinking about it. It's kind of like the asteroid-strike problem: no, it's not likely in the next few years, but humans are very bad at thinking about probabilities of unlikely but extremely consequential events.

People are apparently unable to apply the lessons of history to this question and end up somehow conflating the ability to travel between stars with having supernaturally transcendent moral sense (which, amazingly, stems from the same value system as the claimant). Imagine that tomorrow it's reported that in the southern Pacific, there's an island that until now the ships and satellites have missed, home to a completely naive culture. Would these folks say "But we have the technology to cross the ocean! That means that we're morally transcendent beings who've tamed our savaged instincts, so contact between global civilization and this island can only be positive for them!" That's the exact argument they're making here, only worse. It would be a little closer if we found a culture of semi-intelligent slime molds.

So let's have some fun with find-and-replace. Here's what Ethan Siegel would say, if he were a North American living in 1491, instead of a member of global industrialized culture in 2010. I have italicized the parts that become particularly rich when viewed in light of actual history.

If a ship managed to come all the way from another continent to within range of North America, we would already know an incredible amount about them. What follows is what I would say to them.

We know that, like us, you grew to prominence on your continent, developing over thousands of years to become the most successful culture in your land. We know -- like us -- you gained mastery over your environment, learning to utilize resources and tools to construct a myriad of things that would have never existed without your intervention.

And, unlike us, you have managed to build a ship to sustain you during a trans-oceanic voyage, far away from any natural power sources (like wood). This is a fantastic achievement, and we are a long way off from anything approaching this! Your technology is far, far advanced from ours. It's very likely that your exploration skills -- particularly for finding lands you're interested in coming to for their natural resources -- are superb, and vastly superior to our own.

In other words, if you're looking for new land in order to harvest resources from and we're a good fit, you're going to find us whether we advertise or not.

But we are young, and in our technological infancy. It was only 3,000 years ago -- about 120 generations -- that we started planting seeds and growing our own food. It is only now, at the present day, that we are beginning to learn how to build organized multi-ethnic governments. And you must have figured that part out in order to develop the technology and devote the resources to sustainably survive without land at all.

There are so many questions we are striving to learn the answer to, that we are only even beginning to pose well. And yet, to survive a long-term ocean crossing, any people must have already figured out an answer to these and many other questions. The two big ones that I want to ask are these:

* We have evolved to be selfish hoarders, always hungering for more, and to expand beyond the means of our resources. How did you overcome the limitations of your evolution? [This part I have ironically left unchanged. -MC]

* The resources available to plunder on our planet are limited, and it is almost unimaginable to imagine surviving a long amount of time (many months, at least) without any solution at all! But you did it. What was your solution to your energy needs?

But to imagine malevolent people? Why? Destroying us would be like crushing a colony of microbes just for kicks to them. Their technological level must be at least hundreds, if not thousands of years beyond ours. Can you imagine even the greatest military force from the Napoleonic Era even lasting a few weeks against our modern warfare technologies? It simply wouldn't happen.

But what irks me most of all is the cowardice behind a viewpoint that we shouldn't rush to meet another culture from across the ocean. It would be like forgetting the best part of being Native American: our bravery, our sense of adventure, our will to explore, thirst for learning and discovery, our curiosity, and our desire to experience all that existence has to offer.

I am eager. I want to meet them. I want to know the answers to those questions. Right now, I find it very unlikely that there ought to be another culture within a thousand miles of us. But if there is, I'm going to try to find them.

So if any other civilizations read this, PICK US! HERE! All Native Americans may not be ready for you, but some of us are. If you come, the rest of us will come around. And I'll be among the first to welcome and greet you. Be gentle with us and be careful with our delicate native flora and fauna. We have a lot to learn, and could use a great teacher. I hope to hear from you soon.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Twenty-First Century Prog Metal

Check out Tetrafusion. They have songs about gravity and the Big Bang. They're cool.

Hawking Also Says We Should Shut Up

At Boing Boing, Maggie Koerth-Baker points to and paraphrases none other than Stephen Hawking: "For the love of god, everybody just stay quiet. If we're lucky, they won't notice we're here." Hawking joins many others in taking the same position.

By all means, we should try to hear them. But not vice versa. Did Native Americans build signal fires on the shoreline in case anyone in huge ships was sailing by and wanted to exchange their transcendent philosophical ideas?

Perhaps the Fermi paradox is best explained by rational behavior of the organisms involved. And the ones that make noise aren't making it for long.

Join the Earthquake Sensor Network

If your computer has an accelerometer, you can join the early warning network. With the ongoing seismic activity inland from San Diego recently I would hope folks in San Diego and Imperial Counties would be motivated. NPR has an article about it here. Among laptops, Lenovos and Apples both have accelerometers, maybe others too. Right now only 1,000 people around the world have this installed but the goal is to get at least 10,000 just in California. This is better than the post-quake "Did you feel it?" maps because it has the potential to give us a few extra seconds and save lives. Come on! It's more useful than SETI! Here's a link straight to the program itself.

Plus I bet this system is way better than toads.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Regular Dudes Send a Camera to Space

This is very cool. A weather balloon that must be what, $20? An apparently regular camera that they were willing to risk for science; and a parachute. They must have had some GPS doohickey on it because they were there waiting when it came down. I wish they posted more background on this!

The Many Assumptions of SETI

Some folks think that that concluding there are no intelligent aliens because we can't hear any radio signals is like concluding there are no intelligent aliens because we can't find any good Thai restaurants beyond the asteroid belt. The assumptions we're making are many and difficult to identify, given our provincial experience of the universe, and yet we must make assumptions if we're even going to get started. Here's a brief post about this problem, linking to a more in-depth discussion at Centauri Dreams. I share this concern and mentioned it before in my post about how to find von Neumann probes.

A Should-Be Household Name: Russell Ohl

He invented solar cells and developed semiconductor doping. Why is he less famous than, for example, Joe DiMaggio?

Should-Be Household Name #2: John Montgomery

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Music of the Spheres

Click through for the music of the spheres! It's pretty cool but it would be more interesting and less pleasant if the tones were less arbitrarily assigned, as they seem to be. Maybe based on a log of the mass or diameter of each planet to try to keep it within the range of human hearing (unlike the natural tone of supermassive black holes). Maybe they could get David Cope's AI to do it. Plus, as they have it, the solar system sounds too much like a casino for comfort. I felt like asking Saturn to comp me for a martini.

It occurs to me that Kepler's original work on the geometry of the solar system spent lots of time showing how it could be compared to musical chords. He (and Newton) might be horrified at the brusqueness of how the r-squared law of gravitation was re-derived as an exercise by Bayesian inference last year.

Reading original sources in science and philosophy is interesting for many reasons. One of them is that you can see how presentation styles have changed especially in terms of what is now considered extraneous. Plato in particular has a lot of superstitious gravel along with the gold nuggets; good thing there aren't people who demand that we take literally every last sentence in Republic.

The Postman Isn't That Bad

Yes, and I thought Battlefield Earth was fun too. Maybe I'm more tolerant in general, or maybe speculative fiction people are a small enough slice that the broader public's tastes won't align with ours; who knows. For what it's worth, David Brin thought it captured the spirit of his book. No, it still doesn't quite get where it was going, but it's better if you take the film for what it was trying to be. To inject a pretentious note, this was one of John Updike's main rules for reviewing fiction, and it's true in any medium. If you pick up an Elvis record, and form an opinion according to classical music rules, you're wasting everyone's time. (In general if you consume things trying to like them, you live a better life. True with wine, true with movies; I wish more people would figure it out.) There are a lot of ideas if you pay attention, though they're subtle enough that they're maybe better rendered in writing than on screen - the barbarian general who maintained the trappings of civilization (making paintings - of himself; Shakespeare quotes about violence, understanding history well enough to see that he was at the head of a feudal system) with the protagonist serving as a nucleus of law and order just by doing something as glitterless as delivering messages reliably.

Importantly: like Lord of the Rings, this movie made me mad that I'm not out in the mountains where it was filmed. I haven't spent nearly enough time in Oregon and Washington. And I've spent a lot of time there. The scenery alone is reason enough to watch it so you can plan your next road trip.

It may just be that it was too damn long (2h59m). There was no one on the set with the stature to stand up to lead actor and screenwriter and tell him some scenes shouldn't be in; same in the editing room for which ones could be left out. Star Wars Episode I is another example.

Final note: I knew I'd heard antagonist Will Patton (General Bethlehem) somewhere before. I listened to Al Gore's The Assault on Reason on CD, read by Patton (whose performance I thought was the best in the movie). Once I realized the previous source it was an odd juxtaposition: the neo-Ostrogoth with the voice of an environmental spokesman.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

How Much Variation is There in the Wattage of the Earth's Crust?

It certainly seems like there have been more large earthquakes in the last few months than usual. What's the standard deviation for seismic joules per month or year? I posted about this on my outdoors blog here. What I'd really like to see is an animated GIF of the USGS California earthquake map. Like this:

[Added later: Turns out they do have such a page, which can be found here. It rocks]

This one is just a 2-shot animation over 6 days. Granted 2 data points isn't great, but I'm not going to take a shot every day and make a new GIF. It looks like the quakes around Mexicali and El Centro are a) getting smaller/less numerous and b) migrating northwest, both of which match what has been happening.

So what about it, USGS? Can't you automatically make a 1-month loop animation like Unisys does with weather satellites? This might provide researchers with valuable insights. I shot an email to the webmaster at the USGS site. [And they responded, and they are doing it. Thanks guys!]

Friday, April 16, 2010

We Should Aim at Making Space Travel Economically Self-Sustaining Now

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an alliance of businesses and organizations, just endorsed the President's current vision for space exploration. That's not the interesting part, at least to me. The interesting part is the Federation's stated goals: "to promote the development of commercial human spaceflight, pursue ever higher levels of safety, and share best practices and expertise throughout the industry." Shouldn't economic self-sustainability trump everything else? If space flight pays for itself, it will continue. If it's an expensive amusement park ride, it won't.

Has anyone done even 30,000'-view type proposals for commercially viable space operations? Zero-G manufacturing, towing in an asteroid for iridium? Yes, it's neater to send people instead of computers into space, but people break more easily and cost more money. And yes, the ultimate far-future goal should, as the Spaceflight Federation states, to get humans into space, and to settle bodies besides the Earth as insurance against existential threats, but it has to begin with economically sustainable activity.

[Added later: Tyler Cowen and Charles Stross both try to answer what the smallest population is that could keep us as wealthy as we are. Cowen thinks that even a world with a billion residents would be 15% poorer (presumably on a per capita basis) than our current world. In other words, a billion isn't enough to sustain our current standard of living even on a planet that has an atmosphere and water. Can we really expect that substantially fewer people can sustain just the bare essentials for survival on Mars, which would include technologically complex equipment? Until you get that basic sustenance, other colonies are necessarily dependent on Earth for their survival. Not surprising, since we haven't even sustainably colonized Antarctica yet, even with air and water.]

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Doing My Part for Science Fiction

Now that we're living here in 2010, I like to walk around saying things like: "Well, back in the twentieth century, we didn't anticipate the impact of information technology!" Bonus points if I remember to refer to it as the TwenCen or something. Now I just need to find someone who was frozen in ice in the 50s to be my foil.

Also, when I refer to my neighborhood I call it my sector.

I wonder what science fiction will be like in the distant future. I've been looking for Charlemagne-era fantasy novels and haven't found any yet.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Rendering the Alien

According to Gregory Benford, rendering the alien well is the holy grail of science fiction. I think he's right; in his Ocean of Night series, one character tells a family member that "The thing about aliens is, they're alien."

But there's a lot of science fiction around, and the sense of creepiness, other-ness, or sheer marvel that writers try to pack into their extraterrestrials starts to seem contrived when you've run across it one too many times. These efforts typically fall into one of the following patterns, starting with the least unlikely.

- X-Files approach: never filling in the gaps, making only eerie, creepy suggestions around the edges.

- The biochemist's approach:
it's a lot of work to dream up an alien constitution that bears any scrutiny but it's rewarding to idea-oriented readers. A personal pet-peeve in speculative fiction is the use of an omniscient viewpoint, so that the reader knows what's going on but the characters don't, and you have to spend the waiting for them to catch up with you. Readers can sometimes be annoyed at this alien-rendering for the a similar reason; that is, even though the characters and reader are simultaneously discovering what makes the aliens tick, the author clearly knows all about it and you become impatient getting gradual fed bits and pieces of what is obviously from the start a coherent whole.

The Lovecraft approach
- The alien's body/ship/language reeks of wrongness in a way that disturbs any unfortunate humans whose poor nervous systems dare look upon it!

The transcendental, or reverse Lovecraft approach - The aliens are superintelligent and hail from a benevolent civilization, so that the merest brush with them results in being healed, or becoming benevolent oneself. Much is made of tears being shed upon the enlightenment that comes from contact with higher planes of mathematical beauty, etc. etc.

The highly evolved earth animals approach (also known as intelligent gerbils, also known as lazy) - pick a species on Earth and extrapolate its beliefs, behaviors and civilization if it were to evolve to sentience. Larry Niven is allowed to get away with this with the kzin, but that might be about it. Note that there are plenty of really weird living things right here on this planet but this approach almost invariably uses a mammal-equivalent, and the ones that aren't mammals are at least tetrapods.

The ridge-headed alien approach - I forgive television series like Star Trek for doing this to stay within the constraints of a budget, but if you're writing a book where it costs you the same (zero) to make up an original alien or a bald-headed guy in a silver robe, and you take Baldy, shame on you!

I Like Data Dumps in Science Fiction

We read science fiction for speculative ideas. This is probably true for most fans of the genre. I like the data dumps. I like the future histories and the descriptions of alien biology and explicative monologs of technology. For most science fiction, passages involving interactions between characters or the background of the protagonist is like plot in porn.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Robin Hanson Changes His Mind About Non-Human Intelligence

Hanson is on record as being un-thrilled about attempts to contact extraterrestrial intelligences. I share his position.

But for some odd reason he thinks that people who fear a possible (technological) Singularity are sadly misguided. This seems on its face badly inconsistent. Aliens from another star system are a threat, but an independent AI more intelligent than humans (and with different goals and values) is not? Puh-leeze. At least David Chalmers has the right idea.

[Note: Hanson has responded in the comments to this post. If you are a regular reader of his blog, you know that I am emphasizing this because it raises my status.]

Friday, April 2, 2010

Fahrenheit 451 One Step Closer

Firefighters arrested on arson charges. Almost as ironic as the fact that the version of the story distributed to high school students years ago was heavily censored.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

What's With the Moral-Apocalpyse Porn in Conservative-Themed Science Fiction?

Investigating the demographics of our favorite genres is an exercise in introspection: we're curious what our taste says about us, and where we fall on the spectrum with fellow art consumers. This is why William Sims Bainbridges' Dimensions of Science Fiction is on my to-read list.

It's useful to ponder what motivates not just readers, but also writers, and sometimes there are clear motifs that seem to correlate with writers' political leanings, above and beyond any deliberate rhetorical purpose they may have. A theme I'd long noticed in certain types of science fiction books and films is the moral weakening and decline of America, usually illustrated by increasing crime, a faltering standing in world affairs, and the powerlessness or unwillingness of incompetent leaders to do anything about the country's conversion into an amoral hell with cackling half-insane punks and drug-pushers running the streets. These works usually come across as a conservative's "warning fiction".

But there's more to it than that. As rhetoric, the existence of films or books making political and moral viewpoints isn't a surprise. What stands out about this sub-genre is its obsession with describing the decay, in graphic and sweaty detail, often describing specific moments at which all was lost. And as with all pornography typically the plot is filler, and you can tell which part the writer or filmmaker wants to get to. That's why it's so strange that people for whom the moral downfall of America is the ultimate nightmare are so set on so graphically illustrating it; the purpose of the unnecessary detail and intensity and length of these passages or scenes really comes across more as for the arousal of the writer rather than as a well-drawn image making a rhetorical point.

But it's not just "look how hellish this world is" post-apocalpytic shock-fiction, like the movie Hardware or the Deathlands series of novels (of which I had the ill fortune to read two); there seems to be no moral linked to the porn in those cases. Conservative post-moral apocalypse warning-fiction porn owes more to Blade Runner, but adds a fairly explicit political function to the eye-candy (if it has any) that the granddaddy of dark SF films lacked.

Some examples of conservative warning fiction/post-moral apocalypse porn novels and movies:

1. NYPD 2025 - Probably the most overtly political of the pieces I describe here. "It takes a new kind of cop to risk his life on future New York's out of control streets..." et cetera. The Big Apple has become a dangerous sleaze pit where crazed criminals take advantage of soft-hearted incompetents' bankrupt morality and politics. One sequence tellingly finds the protagonist interviewing the source of all evil, a liberal female journalist open with her sexuality (she has a tattoo with an arrow on her inner thigh saying "DOWN WITH MEN". (Reading this in seventh grade, somehow I thought she didn't sound so bad.) In another scene, the ham-handed way that conservatives declare themselves non-racist is on full display - "Look, I'm judging this person by his adhering to proper values, so even though he's ethnicity X, he's okay with me!" - when the protagonist kills a gangster as he's making collection rounds, and is thanked by a Jamaican immigrant who suddenly realizes the bankruptcy of the wishy-washy tolerance that has allowed crime to fluorish. (By the way, if you think the contrived one-dimensionality of the Legion-of-Doom-type conversations between antagonists in Ayn Rand's novels were bad, you haven't seen anything). Judging by the attention it receives online, this book unsurprisingly doesn't seem to have aged well.

2. Come Nineveh, Come Tyre - I learned some amazing things about this book while researching it; first some background. I was killing time in Castroville, California (the ugly sibling of Santa Cruz; in 2002 there was still unrepaired damage from the '89 Loma Prieta Quake) and read this book when I found it in a Goodwill, mostly for kicks. The most memorable passage is one where hapless, weak politicians at the U.N. (that conservative bete noir) sign away the U.S.'s future to China and the Soviets. The signing of what effectively was the American surrender document was written in vivid and exquisitely sliced moments. (I read the whole thing in the store so I didn't buy it and can't find it online, but trust me, you're not missing any immortal prose.) It was this novel, and this scene, I had in mind when I started writing this post. So cliched, so melodramatic, so all-downhill in terms of quality after the laboredly literary title. (I should add that all my characterizations of traditional conservative themes in writing and film from the last half century, while often negative, are not always indictments; I share many of conservatism's central concerns, but they haven't often been well-rendered in fiction.)

It turns out this novel was part of a five book series; okay, so maybe, like all sequels, it was worse than the first. How much worse? The first won a Pulitzer. When I started writing this post I never expected that this book (or its series) would ever have been recognized as significant, in any way, even within the genre! I cannot stress how stunned I am by this revelation, but judge for yourself.

3. Robocop - Criminals have taken over a bankrupt Detroit (wait, I thought this was science fiction?) The amoral downfall of America features the studied indifference of business executives after the needless death of one of their own, and the aforementioned madly cackling bad guys victimizing good people apparently for sheer twisted pleasure rather than for any material gain.

4. Judge Dredd - The conservative fear of the decay of big ("mega") cities perhaps raises its head early here; by virtue of humans crowding into giant cities, of course everyone goes bad. In the original work the film is based on there are also nuke-happy Soviets spreading mind-destroying viruses to add to the fun.

5. Demolition Man - This is the outgroup here, because it envisions an attempt at a utopia that, while it's a bit too G-rated and emasculated and claustrophobic for some of its subjects, is certainly far from a full-on dystopia; imagine a world taken over by yoga instructors and 50 year old New Age ladies that sell crystals and hand-made herbal soaps, and you're 90% of the way there. The "warning" of this movie boils down to "look how easy these people are to victimize; to protect them they need a real man willing to beat up civilians to get criminals." When a super-criminal from the modern day (Wesley Snipes) escapes his cryogenic prison, there are extended scenes of his victimization of these hapless neo-hippies. Tellingly, the tone of these scenes seems to make it quite deliberately very difficult not to take the criminal's side. You want Wesley Snipes to beat up these wimpy cops, because they're weak, and they had it coming. This movie always ran together in my head with Judge Dredd; oddly, both feature Sylvester Stallone and Rob Schneider. In his Super Mario Brothers costume Snipes doesn't quite come across as a late 90s L.A. criminal mastermind, but at least he engages in the requisite high-pitched insane cackling while committing nastiness.

6. Freejack - Protagonist Emilio Estevez awakes in the near (bad) future to find a polluted, criminal, humiliated America dominated by Japan. I save this one for last because of the homeless man's monolog to Emilio Estevez, perfectly exemplifying the obsession with illustrating the final, exact moment of humiliation and downfall, symbolic in this case:

Emilio Estevez: (Bumming about the horrible place America has become) Man, if it's come down to this, what's the point?

Homeless guy: He riddles me. The ancient riddle: 'Whats the point?' Have you ever seen an eagle flying back to his home with dinner for the Missus and all the little eagle babies? And he's flying against the wind and he's flying in the rain and he's flying through bullets and all kinds of hell, and then right at that moment when he's about to get back to his nest, he says, "What the fuck, it's a drag being an eagle" and right then two little x's comes across his eyes just like in the old-fashioned cartoons. And he goes plunging down, and down and down and BAM. He's just a splatter of feathers and then we dont have the national bird of America no more. Did you ever see that?

Notice the absence of Heinlein or Poul Anderson or Niven work in this list. All could be characterized as writers of science fiction with conservative themes, but all are at bottom optimistic about human beings, and more importantly, recognize a moral universe outside the United States.

I have no good explanation for why this strange pornographic obsession exists, but I can't help thinking about it. Since the moment of final moral defeat seems to be the absolute worst nightmare of these conservatives, it could be a desensitization issue. That is, if you spend enough time worrying about an abstract event (moral decay), you eventually develop a Stockholm syndrome-like relationship with it, much like adult horror buffs were often the kids who couldn't watch Nightmare on Elm Street movies alone until they were 13.