Monday, August 29, 2011

Borges, the Blue Tigers

A lesser-known short story, online here.

The expressed horror at the a-rational foundation of reality situates him squarely within the tradition of strange fiction (see Hodgson's House on the Borderland) which was only then beginning to differentiate itself from other fiction. Borges even anticipated cyberpunk in a way. The ethno-cultural mishmash, the messy repurposing of rational social order, the uncertainty and crime and based motivations that lead, in the coordinatedness of the modern age and the future, to higher phenomena that are strangely alien to human experience, yet uniquely associated by humans.

It was strange to see an image of Borges ideas during Google's recent celebration of his 112th birthday. His work never presented itself to me visually. It's mostly about ideas and therefore highly semantic, and except for very specific experiences required to support the ideas in the story, not sensory at all. For example, the special color in the story I just posted; or the sensation of fire in The Circular Ruins. Borges remains the only non-English-language writer who I make a point of reading in his original language. This is why it seems quite strange to me that he's honored with a picture, rather than text. Consequently the Google Doodle didn't look to me like Borges but rather like Ultan the librarian from the start of Wolfe's Urth of the New Sun novels.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

This Bothered Me So Now You Have to Watch It Too

Like a Tool video made by Georg Cantor. The music is more industrial electronica but I mean come on.

METACHAOS from Alessandro Bavari on Vimeo.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Marshall Maresca and Bruce Sterling at ArmadilloCon

With others, they'll be on a panel called "Is the Singularity Possible?", a popular topic on this blog (a few relevant posts here, here and here). 10pm Saturday in Austin; schedule here.

Maresca's blog

Neil Degrasse Tyson is a Superhero

This went around a little bit ago but I mean come on. As if badass astrophysicist and wrestler wasn't enough, finally we know his alter ego: fighting crime as Late 80s Funk-Metal Man. Between him and Hawking's crime-fighting exoskeleton, the bad guys don't have a chance.

Intellectual Property on the Planet of the Apes

Franco's discussion with Jimmy Kimmel about a "non-visible art" museum - or rather, one which only contains plans and concepts for works of art - seems silly at first glance. But it becomes a lot more interesting in an age of 3D printing, where the templates are what really matter. Either way Franco is an interesting guy.

Metal From Failblog, Where Sadly, It Belongs

I must admit to one (and only one) tattoo, an un-dramatic but awesome "Delta S > 0" to celebrate the neat-o heat death of the universe. (I didn't have it yet when these guys signed me, so you can't see it there.)

Scrying: Hot Tasmanian Metal!

A plug for Scrying, a band in Hobart, Tasmania that is awesome enough to do a solid cover of Opeth's Blackwater Park at a school performance. For originals, check out their homepage.

Which Exoplanets Are Weird in the Most Interesting Ways?

There are three really cool ones:

A densely packed solar system - 2,000 light years away, Kepler-11 has a solar system with 6 planets. 5 of them orbit closer to their star than Mercury orbits the sun.

The darkest planet yet discovered - GSC 03549-02811, about 750 light years away, has an albedo of 0.01 (1 is perfectly white, 0 is perfectly black). Absorbance differences have been discussed as a biosignature - is this how a planet covered with a very effective antenna biomolecule or solar panel would look?

An inexplicable hotspot - Hotspots can appear on the side of a planet facing its star. They can even be spread by wind. But gas giant Andromedae B has a hotspot that's turned almost perpendicular to its star, and current models can't explain this.

From Daily Caller.

Of course I'm thinking about aliens. For that I would say the packed solar system. Making the huge assumption that aliens at all like us need energy, an easy place to get it is from a star. (The universe is primarily about gravity. Gravity is converted to nuclear fusion to electromagnetic radiation to redox chemistry here on Earth; ultimately even our ecosystem is driven by gravity.) So the more planets in the habitable zone, the more energy you have and the more robust and bigger is your ecosystem and economy. Therefore my money is on the packed solar system. If there's anything weird going on, that's where it is.

Liszt, Sonata in B Minor S.178 (1854) (perf. Evgeny Kissin)

The part starting at 2 minutes takes off and kicks some major ass.

Sadly it's not embeddable; listen while you read.

Constraints on the Singularity

Moore's law is a favorite of Singulatarians. Every so often there is an argument that we're nearing a constraint that will break Moore's law (here's a recent one).

Moore's law has held while we are incrementally improving a design and manufacturing process on one architecture, using one material. As such any exhaustion in innovations therein (or a change to a new substrate) should be expected to change Moore's law. If we're finally hitting a wall, then it's worth asking: what portion of economic growth over the last two or three decades is the result of productivity gains driven by information technology, driven in turn by Moore's law? We should worry much more about Peak Moore than Peak Oil.

Q: Does Metal Answer All Questions of Life's Origins?

A: Yes. In particular see #4 at that link.

Quiz: which is primitive Earth, and which is a metal album cover? Hint: big horned dudes didn't evolve until at least the Devonian.

More Speculative Fiction from Tijuana

This time by Pepe Rojo in Flurb online. (Previous TJ sf here.)

This story has flavors of both Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard. For example:

"A calculator decided to swap religions and went for the hexadecimal system. Destroyed a week’s worth of work. The experts are working on it. How about you?"

"It was an awful day," Dolly answered with a smile. "Everything was going well until the paper came. It was written in another language, but the pictures and the cartoons were all right, so I decided not to worry about it. At noon, the fridge had a nervous breakdown, and it defrosted. When I walked in, the kitchen was flooded. I had to mop the floor, sweep it, call the supermarket for more ice, and then call the therapist. He promised to have the fridge back this weekend."

More Metal Chix: Carmina Topacio Plays Afterlife, Avenged Sevenfold

Another installation in the Metal Chix(tm) series. Previous installments here and here.

The Black Hole (1978)

How metal is this. My parents took me to see this in the theater. No wonder I turned out this way. Somehow the most disturbing thing is the merger between the scientist and the robot, where his eyes are staring out of the robot chassis; for some reason I also found the glimpse through the newly cyber-ized Darth Vader's eyes at the end of Star Wars Episode III to be equally unsettling.

Desslok Has Already Taken Over

Don't worry about planet bombs anymore! Fortunately Desslok seems to have stopped his conquest with Aichi prefecture, Japan:

That's the governor of Aichi on the right. And here I thought U.S. politics was embarrassing.

Tell you what, the day California governor Jerry Brown shows up at a press conference dressed like Darth Vader, I'm out of here. At least we've never had a governor who looked like the Terminator.

Come to think of it Schwarzenegger's first act in office was to issue an all-points-bulletin for a Sarah Conner...never really understand what that was all about.

I think this guy was a better Desslok.

Brown M&Ms and Incinerated Guitarists

Normally I post economics-related stuff over on my social science-type blog, but Robin Hanson posted about Van Halen's brown M&M rider. (They insisted that all the brown ones be removed, and Hanson's explanation is interesting.)

Another hard rock business mystery for me is why Metallica didn't fire anybody after the infamous Hetfield-melting that occurred in Montreal in 1992. Because this loyalty to employees means in the future that they get the cream of the crop of roadies? I don't know what it would take to get fired from Metallica's crew if Hetfield-melting doesn't do it.

The aforementioned incident, Montreal, August 1992. Sadly they missed an opportunity at comedy gold by not playing Jump in the Fire.

Favorite Science Fiction Novels

Marshall Maresca joined NPR in posting his list of top science fiction and fantasy novels, and I thought what the heck. Unless you actually keep a list (and why would you) it's hard to think ordinally about things like this, but once you're engaged it's hard to limit yourself. In no particular order, here are the eleven works of science fiction (some of them are full series) that most influenced me. That's what I take "top" to mean.

Ocean of Night Series by Gregory Benford. No particular order for these except for this one, which is definitely number one. A practicing astrophysicist who writes excellent hard sf and a voracious reader and lover of actual littriture, Benford remains my sf role model.

The Foundation Series. Surprise. More on Asimov (canonical and non) here and here.

Roadside Picnic, the Strugatsky Brothers. One of two non-Americans on my list (I'm sure I'm missing some); what I liked about the work was the very real-feeling, petty motivations of the characters and the abject alienness of what they were encountering. Benford has said that rendering the alien is the holy grail of sf, and even he sometimes falls prey to a need for making buddy-buddy with the aliens his characters encounter. That does not happen in this book, which is both part of its point and for me part of its appeal.

Neuromancer, William Gibson. Again big surprise. Visiting Chiba a few years ago I was disappointed that the sky over the port was, in fact, a nice January blue with some clouds. You could even see Fuji.

The Forge of God and Blood Music, Greg Bear. The Forge of God has Big Ideas and tells a Big story about as well as any science fiction novel I've ever read (while I'm at it, the wildcat book-trailer for Eon below is pretty cool too). Bear's Blood Music is a work that starts out as almost a techno-thriller but quickly moves into questions of consciousness and eschatology. Plus it takes place in the biotech area of San Diego, which of course is awesome.

Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley Robinson. Hands-down the best alternative history work ever written, which I was fortunate to be able to tell KSR directly, and he confessed it's one of the books he's proudest of having written (and I can see why). My obsession with alternative history is ongoing (here or here for starters.)

Anathem, Neal Stephenson. Effectively, an alternative history of philosophy, for which music was written (see trailer below). As an aside, medical school has had the unwanted effect of making me impatient with fiction ("goddammit, why am I wasting time reading about characters that don't exist") so writers who wear erudition on their sleeve and info-dump, like Stephenson, are just fine with me. I turned pages because his re-imagining of the intellectual timeline was forcing me to make connections I hadn't made before.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451. I've read this three times at ages 12, 17, and 25, and (the following is a true compliment) like a Bugs Bunny cartoon, you get more out of it upon successive viewings at more mature ages. Incidentally this level of detail is part of how Bradbury defines literature in the book, in a much-overlooked monologue.

Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, Jorge Luis Borges. Borges is usually not thought of as being in the science fiction canon, and it's a short story. But the story plays densely with ideas (and frankly ignores characters) in a way that is most familiar to science fiction readers. It's a great science fiction story.

Urth of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe. Main argument: I mean come on. Also militating in favor of my inclusion of Borges on this list, try to tell me that the blind librarian right at the beginning of Shadow of the Torturer isn't Borges. The books take place in future Buenos Aires for crying out loud.

Ringworld, Larry Niven. My favorite hard science fiction. Engineering thought experiments.

You will note a lack of fantasy novels. Fantasy is transparently Northern Europe's early medieval period with different names (no surprise that genre-founder Tolkien's day job was scholar of Germanic and Old English poetry). But in the past few years I've read at least one fantasy novel that I really appreciated, China Mieville's innovative and political-allegory-dense The Scar.

Novel Replicator Chemistry on Super Earths

An Earth and Planetary Astrophysics paper discusses the possibility of plate tectonics and atmospheres on super-Earths (terrestrial planets bigger than Earth).

Artist's rendering of GJ1214b. The Hubble found signs of wator vapor during a transit. From

If we assume that other complex Earth-like life (based on chemical replicators that operate in aqueous solution) is likely to evolve on terrestrial planets, it seems that the more volume that planet offers for chemistry, the more likely life is to originate from there; a given super-Earth with liquid water is therefore more likely to develop complex life than a smaller terrestrial planet, and therefore assuming that complex life can expand from its world of origin, super-Earths' progeny will be disproportionately represented. If this reasoning is correct then we would do well to focus exoplanet observations seeking life signatures on super-Earths in habitable zones.

It's worth stating that truly novel replicators - i.e. ones not originating through panspermia - would be far more valuable to our understanding of evolution in the abstract, and of the behavior of complex systems - than those seeded by a common stellar cloud of expanding material of otherwise inert nucleobases.

"Unless There Is A Butlerian Jihad..."

"...the transparent society is inevitable." So says Razib Khan in pointing to a story about Germany's investigation of Facebook tagging. Perhaps this is a conspiracy by lazy science fiction writers to make future societies more predictable.

Bell's Theorem: We're Not In a Simulation

Bell's theorem is the one that predicts quantum entanglement. (If you're not already familiar, go here to learn about it.)

The point for this post is that Bell inequalities have repeatedly been shown to be violated, which means that there are no local hidden variables.

The implication is that quantum mechanics is at the "bottom" of reality; the implication for the simulation argument that I constantly decry as meaningless yet can't seem to keep myself from writing about (most recently here and here) is that we are not in a simulation. No local hidden variables means no concealed causally-upstream inputs.

This is what many simulation-worriers have told us to look for, and if QM is complete (as Bell's theorem suggests) they're not there, period. What we really need is a fully generalizable, formal argument as to whether hidden variables are in principle detectable from inside such a system. When I add cells to a game of Conway's life that's already running, is it just the equivalent (from the gliders' viewpoint) of particle pairs popping into existence? Too bad Turing didn't read more Descartes.

The reality-skeptic's counterargument of course (for example, from Robin Hanson) is that every time we do such experiments, the simulators get ontological do-overs to conceal their dastardliness, i.e. the rules of the simulation are changed briefly, and/or they make us forget, etc. etc. etc. Of course this is the same as saying that if we are in a simulation, we could never know (asking how we could know for sure if we are in a simulation is at least as interesting a twist on this question, which is usually asked in terms of how we could know we're not. That is, what could I do to trick someone else into thinking they're in a simulation when they're not?)

All of this again raises the question of why the simulators would care if we found out. When I'm playing Conway's life, if one of the gliders becomes sentient and figures out it's on my computer, it doesn't much matter to me. What are they going to do, spell out dirty words on the screen next time I check the playing field? Also, it often pays to be suspicious of any science that claims to have solved the universe, even if there is a rigorous argument supporting this. To argue by analogy: would Newton have been able to show, had he rigorously pursued it mathematically, that his own theories were NOT at the bottom?

In closing, just in case, please meet me at La Jolla Shores tomorrow to spell out dirty words.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Prokofiev, Dance of the Knights (Romeo and Juliet op. 64, 1935)

I've been posting a lot of non-metal recently but I think discerning metalheads gravitate to the same patterns: the powerful low brass that sets the rhythm and tone, the strong arpeggio-like melody that starts the piece. Other classical pieces have similar near-universal appeal to metalheads for similar reasons, for example the summer movement of Vivaldi's Four Seasons (covered here after Bach and others).

Yoon Ha Lee: If Borges Wrote Science Fiction

Ginnugagap, Sigrid Sandstrom, from the Hrönir exhibition

A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel, a short story by Yoon Ha Lee, is online at Tor and it's quite good. Like much of the work of old JLB, it's not a story so much as an exposition of ideas and speculative setting; i.e. it boils down this kind of fiction to the points it truly serves, and at one point pungently comments on the genre in the process; probably the least subtle thing about the piece, but which I quite appreciated.

She's already published quite a bit so I'm looking forward to reading the rest of her stuff soon. Her homepage is here. [And added later: not long after I posted this I ran into another story of hers in Clarkesworld Magazine, Conservation of Shadows.]