Tuesday, April 26, 2011

SETI's Detector Array Being Shut Down Due to Lack of Funding

Hey Great Filter/SIA/Fermi Paradox chatterati: if you consider this an important question, here's your chance to put your money where your mouth is. The array at Hat Creek near Mt. Shasta that's the main one used for SETI work is being shut down because they can't pay their bills. They note the irony that this is happening exactly when the number of extrasolar planets we're fidning is sky-rocketing. They need five million U.S. to keep it running. Without an active search, discussions of the Fermi Paradox and aliens will return to being only idle speculation.

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Metal Debate!

Appropriate, after a previous discussion of Dave Mustaine's Christianity, the following was an April Fool's joke but it would've been fun nonetheless: "Megadeth Frontman Dave Mustaine To Debate "God Is Not Great" Author Christopher Hitchens" (from Metal Underground). I imagine the outcome would have been about as one-sided as a guitar contest between the same two.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Kingsbury's Psychohistorical Crisis

Above: Splendid Wisdom. I mean Trantor. I mean, Corusant? Credit Slawek Wojtowicz.

May I recommend that if you're an Asimov fan, you read Psychohistorical Crisis. It is a non-authorized addition to the Foundation series, taking place two millennia after Hari Seldon. While the names are different, the universe is recognizably that of the Foundation series. And the novel succeeds not only as a Foundation tribute novel but as an outstanding work of science fiction its own right. (Here are two reviews.) What's so great about it?

1) It knits together history so far with distant future history in a non-childish, non-current-era-centric way. This is rarely done and is the holy grail of projection fiction; when it is done it's usually done in a narrow way around a specific theme or technology. Reading Kingsbury feels like reading history.

2) There's also some really interesting hard science/philosophical speculation woven into this book, as there usually is in Kingsbury's work. One discussion involves the finite information density of the universe and how that necessarily means that history is lost, not just in the sense of destroyed documents but the basic physical recoverability of information about past events.

3) He introduces a technology called the "fam" to deal with the complexities of a culture that has endured and accumulated (and lost knowledge) over tens of thousands of a years. The fam is a neurologically-interface computer that allows people in the novel to deal with, among other things, the galaxy's ten million word vocabulary, negotiate financial transactions and human geography, and in general function. Kingsbury thinks about the technology in depth. Removal or loss of the fam has devastating consequences that parallel brain damage in our own culture, losing the ability even to navigate ones neighborhood or understand language. Still there are exceptions. One character takes off his fam to stroll meditatively through nature, and another invites a sex partner to try intercourse without it, to focus on the bestial sensory world unpolluted by semantic thought. The massively complex, nonsystematic accretion of culture is terrifying to contemplate, and the only better metaphor I've run across is from a William Gibson novel, when a character observes a repair job in the London subway and notices how many unknown layers of tile there are on the walls, in a kind of cultural atherosclerosis.

4) It's interesting watching for Kingsbury's workarounds so that he could (legally) play in a universe that didn't necessarily want to be played in. Apparently there was no legal action from the Asimov estate but there were threats. Unfortunate, since the Asimov canon would be poorer without this apocryphal contribution.

5) This essay isn't the first to observe that science fiction is a genre which seems to assume (on average) that in the future, all humans will be white heterosexual male anglophone agnostic physical scientists or engineers. This has changed for the better over the years but when this assumption is violated it's still comment-worthy. (Case in point, the role of religion in Dune or the Pitch Black series.) This doesn't damage science fiction to the point of uselessness, but the values of its authors are more necessarily manifested, because they're often consciously writing about today's trends projected further into the future. Another interesting subject here is Iain Banks, whose Culture is basically the Enlightenment writ large, though his writing seems quite conscious of this idea, and the other concepts the Culture conflicts with are his foils (the Hells, the Affront, and the "out of context" problem.) In fact an argument can be made that, in having the protagonists use astrology to subvert psychohistory (the near-dictatorial guardians of which are some the most enlightened humans ever to live), Kingsbury is making a comment on the limits of reason and the Enlightenment to alleviate the human condition. A comment about salvation through Christ in the historical timeline Kingsbury included with the novel might lead one to interpret this as motivated by theism.

Consequently what I like about Kingsbury's future is that it's not obviously Western-centric and unquestioningly extending the Enlightenment, both of which assumptions are still the implicitly the case (generally) in science fiction. Kingsbury does actually mention America by name as a flash-in-the-pan empire - in naming past nations Kingsbury's history is more clearly a future history of the actual Earth than Asimov's was (or perhaps could have been, since in the Foundation era in the canonical Asimov universe, Earth had been forgotten as the human homeworld.) This distant future's cultural conventions are less familiar to a modern Westerner than in Asimov's series. There are a lot of interesting changes between the first three Foundation novels and the much later last two, driven by cultural changes in the intervening era, although to his credit Asimov addressed many of these directly. In Prelude to Foundation he addresses the racial makeup of the characters for the first time; Westerners, Easterners and Southerners parallel modern white, Asian, and black humans. Of course Asimov is not alone in this. As has been observed of Star Trek, this either supposes that off-Earth settlement will begin in our relatively near future, or more sadly assumes that humans of varying ethnicities will never mingle genes. (It's more annoying in Star Trek. It's 2300 and most people on Earth are still of one or another distinct race? Really? Depressing. Don't tell us you couldn't find multiracial actors either, it didn't seem to be a problem for Fifth Element.)

The Deer Singularity

Let's say we wake up tomorrow, and deer are on average slightly smarter than humans. Would the world become better or worse for most humans? What problems might we encounter?

I deliberately picked a timid herbivore for this thought experiment to avoid accusations of being alarmist. No point in debating what would happen if tomorrow morning we have a bunch of mountain lion Einsteins running around.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Sigh, Corpsecry/Angelfall (Imaginary Sonicscape, 2001)

The following is definitely one of the more approachable Sigh pieces, which I post here in the hopes that more people will help them "spread the plague of Eastern terror", as Msr. Kawashima once wrote. Sigh remain the only band whose recordings have literally terrified animals in my house.

I find this piece interesting because the ending contains some intervals and sounds that sound very classically East Asian (high pitched notes with vibrato, and the bells striking along with those pitched notes are quite atypical to a Western ear). I fear that were Mirai to read this he might take it as an insult to be placed in a tradition of modern East Asian composers (read: charges of unoriginality), to which I can only reply, your fans hold you to high standards sir.

In 2003 I had the rare pleasure of seeing Sigh in Raleigh, North Carolina, after which show Mirai and the boys obliged in signing my back with a Sharpie. I don't read enough kanji to know what it says. My hope is that it was some kind of shamanic or Shinto curse. And when I woke up the next morning, it was gone.

The production improved markedly on Hangman's Hymn, although I think we won't see a return to the "crazier than a shithouse rat" quality (to quote an actual professional review) of Hail Horrour Hail and earlier work. This is fine with me.