Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Astrophysicist Ben Weaver on the Sloan Digital Sky Survey

Ben Weaver goes on Fun With Astrophysics again to talk about the Sloan Digital Sky Survey - listen here. I haven't listened to the whole thing but he probably talks about beer in there somewhere too because honestly, he usually can't help himself. (Here's the show webpage.)

I spend too much time worrying about whether we live in a simulation so of course that's what SDSS makes me worry about. As it's traditionally put by the likes of Bostrom or Descartes, the question is how we could be sure that what we think is reality is not a simulation, but it might actually be more interesting to ask how we could ever be sure that we are. The reason I mention this now is that it is exactly the kind of activities that Weaver and his colleagues are engaging in that are likely to piss off our simulators. Why? Some of the characteristics you might expect to see on the inside of a simulated universe are those which limit the amount of data the simulators have to crunch: i.e., resolution limits, and limits to how much of the game volume you could observe and interact with. So looking up and making the most detailed image ever (by orders of magnitude) of the universe that surrounds us is one of the worst possible things you could do. Weaver will soon receive a stern visit from Special Agent Smith because he's slowing down their mainframe.

See, they hate this. Before they could just put a bunch of dots up there and have like Atari 2600 graphics with square baseballs and it didn't matter because we weren't paying attention. But as soon as we really scrutinize it we're forcing them to dedicate all kinds of resources to keeping this looking convincing. We're asking for trouble. From SDSS.

I should add that increasingly for me, the simulation question is becoming a word game and a chance to make jokes. The reason is that the epistemology is sloppy, and what people call a simulation (or not) is not clearly defined and/or not that useful. To wit: are people with delusions in a simulation? They see the same thing you do, but come up with a different model of the world. What about people who believe a lie they were told? What about people with bad theories of the world, i.e. phlogiston, geocentrism, and surely in some cases, you and I right now? How about when you're watching a movie? Or when a drug shuts off your pain sense? Why not why not why not? The difference between Neo in the vat and someone who's sure they parked in this parking lot rather than that one looks more and more like a spectrum, with a quite arbitrary cut-off needed to determine where it starts being a simulation.

A flight simulator built in order to convince fruit flies that they're flying fast, and study their neurons in real time. Is this a simulation? Why or why not? From the website of Dr. Björn Brembs.

In the sense that we are only aware of a model of the world synthesized through a somewhat arbitrary set of filters, we are already in a simulation. What seems to concern people is whether the inputs are gaming our nervous system in arbitrary rule-based ways, and whether we were put in this situation by intentional beings, and both of these seem to be curiously human concerns. (A perennial question is why those intentional simulators would bother with all this, although the Drosophila above are quite unable to understand why or how we would do this.) I think these questions really do reduce back to the exist-or-not question that Descartes encountered, and the of it is just details about how we know the world and experience pleasure and pain, whether or not more information would tell us that spacetime is actually someone's flash drive.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Gustav Holst, The Mars Movement (1916)

Not nearly often enough do the awesome themes of metal and science (fiction) combine. (They do a little here, here and here.) But they really do here:

Some people will argue that the Mars Movement from Holst's The Planets is not metal. But there is a clear counterargument. Which is that those people are weak and stupid, and this is why we have wolves and other large predators.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

I Can't Believe People Go to Comic Con

I mean who wants to hang out with a bunch of nerds man!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Decapitation, POST(?)ORGANIC (2006)

It's always a pleasure to meet metalheads with clear critical standards for music, and even moreso to be introduced to a new band at this late date that arouses my interest. Thus I am now indebted to Alex Kulungowski for introducing me to Decapitated, a band I previously knew nothing about. I would put them in the same league as Meshuggah, Morbid Angel, the grossly underrated Lyzanxia, and almost Carcass (almost, but then Carcass are the god-kings.) I have to admit that I'm one of those guys who hears the word "underground" and translates it to "underproduced", so I tend not to run out and check out every band with an extreme name. Secondly, there's a whole world of bands from Eastern Europe whose lack of innovation and two-tin-cans-scraping-together guitars have poisoned me against all other bands from Eastern Europe. In the first few seconds of Organic Hallucinosis I knew that this metal bigotry had caused me to miss out on important metal. Decapitation is a shining star.

As metal should be, it's complex enough to demand your full attention to appreciate it, but not so unnecessarily scattered or avant-garde that you won't remember any of it or want to listen to it again. (I'm on my third listen of both songs below as I finish this post.) That is to say, it bears the mark of true talent of being able to create tension and violate expectation within a still-familiar framework. For example, they create a lot of rhythmic tension by placing a sixteenth note in a riff where you don't expect it, rather than constantly resorting to grating polyrhythms or strange meters. Listen to the outro of Organic Hallucinosis.

POST(?)ORGANIC, Organic Hallucinosis (2006)

Spheres of Madness, Nihility (2002)

In Spheres above I particularly like the riff that begins at 2:30. Not what you would have predicted anyone would put there.

A final comment: highly technical and innovative bands also tend to come out of the starting gate that way, or at least tend to write that way as soon as they're proficient on their instruments, so it's interesting that Decapitated follow this pattern. (Is there any band that gets technical for the first time later in their careers?) I'm glad I discovered them now. They have a new record as of two weeks ago, Carnival is Forever. Support good metal.

Tuvan Throat Singing Somehow Reminds Me of Iron Maiden

Run to the hills, indeed:

From RussiaTrek.org.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Vernor Vinge, Rainbow's End

I often wish San Diego culture was nerdier. And with Vernor Vinge hailing from here, the man who brought us the concept of the Singularity as such, it really should be.

No, not a UFO. The UCSD library, which features prominently in Rainbow's end, is named after Dr. Seuss (his real name, anyway, Theodore Geisel.) It's like living in the not-too-distant future!

For some time I'd somehow missed Vinge's Rainbow's End. It's a fun read about living in the pre-Singularity End Times, and it's especially fun if you know San Diego well. Of course I liked the focus on UCSD, although he didn't talk nearly enough about how awesome the medical school is. I also don't like that the devastating earthquake was the Rose Canyon quake. Since I live on Rose Canyon. That said, Rainbow's End isn't quite as packed-to-the-gills with thought experiments and subtle instantiations of social and political ideas as the excellent Deepness in the Sky, but it's still well-worth your while.

Get more future San Diego in this SD City article about "America's Final City".

Monday, July 18, 2011

Shortcuts in World-Building

Austin science fiction writer Marshall Maresca wrote a number of posts about world-building recently. I liked this series because I've become more fascinated with the patterns and problems encountered by writers doing this, and how they solve them, than in the details of the worlds they build.

In particular, it's very difficult to extrapolate the impact of certain technologies far into the future, so writers often explicitly state why development of that technology stopped. The interruption of trends in science fiction typically takes the form of a war, a treaty or other deliberate moratorium, or most ambitiously, a violation of the principle of mediocrity. Usually these seem to have more to do with the writers' realizing it's too hard to extrapolate that far, rather than thinking that there really will be some event that stops the technology from progressing. This would seem to shirk Asimov's definition of science fiction: "That branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings." But optimistically, writers may just be trying to avoid a story that would be hard to read. Cynically they may be trying to avoid one that's even harder to write.

For example:

Frank Herbert's Dune - The Butlerian Jihad. In Herbert's future history, there was a war that resulted in the destruction of all artificial intelligence, and a religious edict not to re-create it. Useful, when you're writing about people in the year 25000 or so and you need their lives to be recognizable to people in the year 2000 or so.

See, if these guys are around in the year 12000, why aren't they all over the place in 25000? Because the story would be too weird and difficult, that's why, so you need a jihad. From the cover of The Machine Crusade at frankherbert.org.

Vinge's slow zone. Vinge posits an area of the galaxy where physical law has been manipulated to disallow superluminal motion and superintelligence, limiting travel and technology but also protecting from the predatory intelligences that apparently fill the rest of the universe and would certainly be central to the experience of any human that encounters them. (See the Warhammer 40k/Event Horizon discussion; but even Warhammer 40k has tricks for this problem. Incidentally, this raises the question of why people seem so much less concerned with continuity problems in video games than in prose fiction.)

Asimov's Foundation Series - the lack of robots. Since the Foundation series turned out to be in the same history as the Spacer Era, Asimov needed a reason to explain why robots weren't critical to the fabric of life in the Galactic Empire, which would surely have induced changes that would take a long time to think through, and produced a far stranger cultural setting. The given reason was that robots agreed that their presence was harmful to humans and agreed to disappear from history, with a few remaining to manipulate things behind the scenes (a conceit which he and his appointees used more in the later novels).

(Note that all three of these workarounds involve the development of artificial intelligence, something which Singulatarians should find interesting. Singulatarians should also feel a need to explain where the alien AIs are in the real world, if they really believe intelligence explosions are an inevitable outcome for any tool-using species. Note also that Vinge was first to name the concept of the Singularity.)

Asimov's Foundation series - the lack of aliens. Asimov famously omitted aliens from most of his work, most conspicuously in the Foundation series (this is discussed further here). A galactic empire with aliens is much harder to create and much harder to claim as predictable by a science of psychohistory. It must be said that there are also no intelligent aliens in the best-selling science fiction novel of all time (Dune) yet this seems to have escaped the same degree of discussion. (At other points Asimov also felt the need to explain why there were never nuclear weapons used in all of galactic history; it seems humans were just too civilized to consider it. Would that it were true.)

Kingsbury's Psychohistorical Crisis - genetic standards. This outstanding but non-canonical addition to the Asimov canon is discussed in more depth here. The idea is that although humans are capable of genetic engineering, to avoid the species losing coherence and keep everyone capable of mating with everyone else, a genetic standard is adopted. The effect for the writer is that characters and the social universe in which they live remains more comprehensible (reflecting this in the political writings of the real world, Frank Fukuyama has observed that history is predictable only to the extent that human nature remains constant). One novel by Kingsbury may seem a strange place to focus on this concept but its appearances are scattered through many other science fiction writers' work.

Non-climate-altered futures from Kim Stanley Robinson. I once saw a talk by KSR in which he made the following interesting point: anyone writing science fiction today that takes place on Earth in the next few centuries, and does not represent climate change, is writing what is already guaranteed to be alternative history or just outright fantasy. Although I've been writing so far about conscious choices made by writers to avoid having to extrapolate technology to the far future, KSR is criticizing writers for avoiding our real future for no reason other than wishful thinking.

There are other approaches besides coming up with an explicit workaround. Some writers just don't address obvious plot- or setting-holes that exist (if time travel is possible, why isn't everybody fighting back at the causal high ground of the Big Bang?), whether through deliberate editorial control - that's just not what their story is about - or through omission. Another popular technique is just to wipe out civilization between now and your future history. You know this one: there's an apocalyptic war that serves as a future-historical reset button, and now the world can be any way the author wants it to be. Except culturally it will somehow remain remarkably similar to the U.S. in the year the author wrote the story. (Works from the Buck Rogers TV series through Brave New World have fallen prey to this; of course you can use an apocalyptic war for more than a convenient culture-eraser, but most don't.) The Butlerian Jihad above might seem cheesy but it's more interesting and less predictable than "The Great Cataclysm of 2096". [Added later, a more minor version of this: Vernor Vinge, at an appearance promoting Children of the Sky in October 2011, said he corrected some architectural inaccuracies in his description of the UCSD campus in Rainbow's End by referring to the Great Rose Canyon earthquake of 2017.] The Past Apocalypse is the world-building equivalent of quantum flux.

Of course, there are writers who work hard to squeeze out every last drop of implication from technology in their story, although they (perhaps wisely) tend to focus tightly on one theme. For my money, Robert Sawyer and Larry Niven's near-future work are the best examplars. Charles Stross also drives trends unapologetically to conclusion, although he's very ambitious and sometimes seems to neglect a consequence that would undermine his plots. Because I like him, I assume that's writerly editorial control rather than omission.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Dawn Spacecraft Arrives at Vesta

The Dawn spacecraft is in orbit around Vesta as I type. Of the two bodies Dawn will explore, Vesta is the more boring in terms of possibilities for organic chemistry, since it's drier. For Ceres, McCord and Sotin estimate a water contentof 17-27% by mass. This means Ceres actually has more water than Earth's oceans. Of course much of this will be present in minerals and not sloshing around loose, but that's still a much bigger reaction vessel than Urey and Miller had. In fact, if we think water-mineral interface is what matters, which is what underlies the assumption that Earth's first RNA replicators appeared in shallow warm pools where they had surfaces onto which they could be immobilized for more reactions, then most of the volume of early Earth's deep seas could have been an organic chemistry desert, by comparion to Ceres.

Unfortunately we won't know, because Dawn only has EM detectors. My wish for a landing or at least a gas chromatograph on board Dawn stems from my argument that it's exactly on small wet bodies like Ceres that we should expect to find evidence of von Neumann probes, or their descendants.

Above: gas chromatogram of amino acids found in the Murchison meteorite. The organic chemistry of small bodies, even including nucleic acid bases as in the Murchison meteorite">this paper, is usually discussed in the context of being a possible source of early replicator chemistry on Earth; this is not mutually exclusive with these materials being von Neumann probes, mutant or otherwise. Figure from Engel MH and Macko SA, Nature 389, 265-268(18 September 1997).

Both Vesta and Ceres are big enough that you can't reach escape velocity just by running (Vesta's escape velocity is a little less than a jet's at cruising altitude, and for Ceres it's a little more than Mach 1); so they still aren't trivial gravity wells (a criterion for being a good place for replicator activity). However, it looks like water vapor has already been observed escaping Ceres, a necessary step in the spread of an organic-molecule model of von Neumann probes. But I hope that Vesta surprises us, because we have to wait until February 2015 for Dawn's efficient but not-flashy ion thrusters to get it there.

Dawn's launch.

What would be really ironic is if we didn't find anything until we towed a smaller asteroid back to Earth orbit for mining.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Make Space Travel Profit-Generating

An article from the Economist has been making the rounds, in which it is noted that for the near-term, the Space Age is over. There should be no surprise: space travel got off the ground as a race between nations and there has not been serious public discourse so far to conceive of it as anything other than a patriotic contest: that is to say, a money sink.

Europeans didn't go to the Americas just for their crowns. Why don't we think in space travel in more economic terms? Image from Anthonares.

Of course, people do things for reasons besides creating material wealth - we do things to create happiness, and wealth is just one (major) route thereto. Net-consumers of wealth (like entertainment) are okay when it's merely entertainment that feeds happiness without doing TOO much damage to the material bottom line - but when we're eating up many billions of dollars in some pursuit, the question of return on investment becomes much more important. Even the comparatively cheaper (in terms of national investment) European adventures across the Atlantic centuries ago were at least partly business ventures. If we want to see space exploration continue, it must become a profit-making enterprise.

Gravity wells are expensive. Enterprising aliens may warn us that the really scary thing about black holes is that they're terrible for profits.

As our economy now operates, the obvious revenue source from operations in space would be metals. The main expenses are getting out of gravity wells, and keeping humans alive. A path forward would then be:

- Improve automation (as is happening independently) and machines' ability to operate in vacuum and zero gravity

- Focus on obtaining commodities from small asteroids (this article breathlessly mentions "trillions" but fails to appreciate the impact on a commodity price when a whole planetoid of it is dumped on the surface.) Anthonares has a good quantitative exploration of the concrete economics of commodities and space-mining.

- Focus on a way to get the ore down from orbit (we don't need a space elevator. When you're dropping something, simpler technology works; you just need clear ground underneath it. Antarctica?)

- An application for self-reproducing automata - if the next-generation automation could make more of themselves out of nickel-iron-iridium, and obtain fuel from the carbon compounds in chondrites, you've just solved the expensive gravity-well problem.

A RepRap device, which is a 3D printer that can print large portions of itself. If it could make itself out of iridium and/or nickel and/or iron, we're halfway to von Neumann probes. Aliens are more likely to meet RepRap's descendants than to meet us.

Note that a single expedition could pay for itself in commodities, but there's a considerable funding hump to get over. (If you think the development time for pharmaceuticals is hard, you haven't seen anything yet.) So there is still a role for those deepest-pocketed, longest-term-thinking of institutions, governments. Depending on your political tastes, this could be anything from tax incentives for private industries, to dedicated government research labs.

As an aside, I've argued before that we're most likely to recognize other intelligences by the self-reproducing tools that are spreading out from their point of origin (their von Neumann probes) rather than their signals, which may be in a medium that we don't know about and in a pattern that we cannot recognize. (Apparently the as-yet-uncontacted hunter-gatherers in the Amazon have somehow missed all our radio broadcasts. I bet they think they would know about all their neighbors.) It's intriguing to think that the first replicators we encounter may therefore be alien mining equipment.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

More Metal Chix: Dutch Cissie Plays Blackened


Other Metal Chix(tm) of note in the international Metal Sisterhood include Taiwan's memorably named c22212803 and her almost one-woman rendition of Redneck, as well as the incomparable Israeli-American percussionist Meytal whose chops can be observed on a cover of Bullet For My Valentine's Tears Don't Fall. But of course I don't want to discriminate against my own gender so this maniacal French chap giving the classics a metal rendition deserves a link too.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Fermi Non-Paradox: We’ve Barely Started Looking

One solution to the Fermi paradox is that there is no paradox. We don't know what to look for, and we've barely started.

To reinforce this point: a metagenomics project has just discovered 662 new species of bacteria. From human navels.

It's a little arrogant to think that we've done all the looking we need to in order to say there are no aliens. Imagine pre-contact Native Americans spending an afternoon staring out over the Atlantic and at sunset saying, "Alright guys, enough of that. There's nothing out there."