Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Which Kuiper Belt Object Should New Horizons Visit?

After it completes its mission at Pluto, New Horizons is going to head out into the Kuiper Belt, and will visit one or two Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs). The Ice Hunters project is one of several at Zooniverse crowdsourcing part of its work - in other words, you can help decide which one it will visit. Yes, the New Horizons has a spectrometer to look at Pluto and KBO atmosphere and surface composition, which is more exciting now that we know there are neat nitriles and hydrocarbons on Pluto, and very interesting if you think we might find organic von Neumann probes on low-gravity high-water bodies in the solar system. Visit the Ice Hunter website to start.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A New Solution to the Fermi Paradox: Masturbation

Yes, basically. UNM evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller worries that our ability to stimulate ourselves with junk food, video games and porn (maybe we should throw cheap credit in there?) will lead to our demise, and whether this hasn't led to similar ends for intelligence elsewhere in the universe. This concern tracks eerily close to a line I extracted from an Vanity Fair article in a post at The Late Enlightenment: "A color-coded map of American personal indebtedness could be laid on top of the Centers for Disease Control's color-coded map that illustrates the fantastic rise in rates of obesity across the United States since 1985 without disturbing the general pattern."

The more general argument that Miller is making is that intelligence is a dead end. Indeed, why do so many seemingly adopt teleological thinking and assume that intelligence is the automatic endpoint of evolution, or at least the best way for replicators to make an impact on the universe? It's kind of strange that seekers of alien life consistently look for intelligence or even "civilization", which may not have any meaning beyond humans. Intelligence is just the most "extreme" form of behavior - and here the term behavior is used in its clearest maning, as biological motors (muscles) moving in response to nervous systems - which in turn are just networks of cells that integrate inputs from pressure, light, and chemical changes external to themselves. Nervous systems respond much more quickly than genes to changes in the environment, because they rely on millisecond-scale changes in ion currents. Of course those networks of ion currents are not perfect modelers of future states, they have weak spots or poor plasticity. They even have analogs of halting states. Therefore, because they change so much more quickly than the genes underlying them, problems in the system can be hugely damaging to those genes, to the point where they all disappear. Organisms profoundly changing their environment in ways that end up killing them is of course the core concern of sustainability advocates and it's happened before, right here on Earth, to the cyanobacteria - even before there was such a thing as behavior.

The Fermi paradox is an ongoing topic here, and other questions include: for Singulatarians, couldn't this be the instrument of the Great Filter, and/or shouldn't we be able to see alien singularities, whether as wave fronts of computronium (or at least von Neumann probes) or at least very strange looking decompiled star systems? Can we in principle even know what to look for? Miller's entry is that the Great Filter need not consist of an intelligence explosion, but rather an intelligence introversion: once a nervous system can game the system - game itself - it's not going to last much longer.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Synesthesia, A God Or An Other (Demo, 2011)

If you want to be an awesome metal band like Seattle's A God Or An Other, first thing is to have a cool album cover. This one is like Dali meets Roberto Matta. I mean you can't go wrong.

But then you have to back it up and actually be awesome, and I quite dig their atmospheric neo-North American black metal thing they have going on. But then you have to have awesome titles too. So these guys have this one (Synesthesia), and also Xibalba*, also Not An Eye Was Left Open to Weep For the Dead.

*Xibalba is also a Pomona band that plays around San Diego, as evidenced here; Facebook them here. Having exhausted the Abrahamic world, metal is quickly consuming the religious mythology of non-Western peoples. Quick! Someone invent a new religion so metal has some new dark iconery to incorporate!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Pluto Probably Filthy with Hydrocarbons and Nitriles


An instrument on the Hubble has shown a high UV absorbance on Pluto, which could be explained by hydrocarbons and nitriles. Granted, Pluto is a little past the frost line, but anytime we see more substrates for organic chemistry on solid surfaces in the solar system, this place looks a little friendlier for self-assembling organic replicators like von Neumann probes. More argument for why we should be looking for organic von Neumann probes in our own solar system, on solid low gravity bodies, here.

While we're at it: the dynamics of the Earth-Moon system work out so that at any one time, Earth should have 2 natural satellites: the big werewolf one that we can see, and a small meters-across one that it captures from time to time, then let go. And in fact this works out empirically. This has implications for the natural-seeding method of replicator spread, which I Fermi-problem-calculated out to be about 40 million years riding hyperbolic comets between stars the distance of the Sun and Alpha Centauri. Jupiter no doubt has captured satellites, but do they escape? It would be a good place to look for replicators (maybe better than the asteroid belt) but not good for them to spread from.

And if you're hoping for more islands in the void to serve as reaction vessels for aqueous chemistry, this should make you happy: M-class stars actually have a larger habitable zone than we thought (spectrum and albedo argument).

I Warned You, Cryonicists

...that you would wake up in a hellish, incomprehensible dystopia. (Actually it's not that bad, I just asked why they would wait until after they're dead, if they believe their own claims about future medical technology.)

Well it turns out I was too optimistic, because you cryonicists will be waking up next to Larry King. Orwell's 1984 will seem idyllic in comparison.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Tommy Chong Wants You To Know Something

Although John Cleese is on record saying he hates this movie, I don't know what he's talking about. It's half of Monty Python, plus Cheech and Chong, in the same movie. It's physically impossible for the movie not to be funny.


Heavenly forth!
Corporations should show this for employee motivation.

Greetings your royal molestation!

Women's rights, here and here and here, and Graham Chapman further encourages good family values here.

You will laugh at this, and it means you're a bad person.

The sad state of the youth of today.

Proper education for the youth of today.

And finally, Msr. Chapman shows how civilized people settle debates.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Two Metal Proposals: New Metallica and AI Metal

1. A group of bands should get together and record the next Metallica album, each contributing one track. (Because Metallica isn't doing it.) Not covers. New songs. Like you think they would've written, say, during the Master or Justice eras. No concerns about originality, because you're intentionally trying to sound like Metallica. Imagine, we'd have Justice part 2! And we'd know a bunch of new bands good enough to create it!

2. Evolutionary metal. There have been a few articles bouncing around about algorithmic music, where simple loops of code produce music. Couldn't someone develop genetic algorithms to automatically create awesome metal? (Another post on AI and metal composition here.)

I'm sorry Dave, that bridge section doesn't crush enough.

Or on the contrary, it would be cool to do something reverse-engineering riffs, to see what the underlying grammar of a metal riff is. In any event, Ville-Matias Heikkila is "trying to crowd-source music discovery" and it's plausible that there will be an end-result similar to the former if there's a separate forum for exclusively metal feedback. Here's an example of his stuff:

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Upcoming Metal Shows in San Diego

As a service to the community (so you don't miss cool shows like I just did) check these out. Don't forget to check SDmetal.org.

Please enjoy Symphony X while perusing these events:

Friday 13 January 2012: a total metalfest at Electric Ladyland, with Ruinist, Caymul, Damcyan, The Parlour Shootout, Beheading the King, Thirty30, and Ruinist headlining.

Che Cafe has a bunch of shows coming up, AND they're trying not to close. If ever you buy a ticket and get in there, now's the time.

Wednesday 22 February 2012: Symphony X, Iced Earth and Warbringer at House of Blues San Diego.

Goddammit, the Iron Maidens Were Here

I'm walking down the street in Ocean Beach today with the modern-day Kevorkian, one Dr. Desai MD, PhD whose identity will remain protected, when I see that the all-girl Iron Maiden tribute band the Iron Maidens played a show in San Diego last night. Many Anglo-Saxon terms were used when I realized I'd missed them. I've wanted to see them for a long damn time. Next show is up in Garden Grove on 17 December.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Hari Seldon's Latest Disciple

"While Toynbee was impressing me with the history of civilizations, Isaac Asimov was shaping my view of the future in equally profound ways...For a high school student who loved history, Asimov's most exhilarating invention was the 'psychohistorian' Hari Seldon. The term does not refer to Freudian analysis but to a kind of probabilistic forecasting of the future of whole civilizations. The premise was that, while you cannot predict individual behavior, you can develop a pretty accurate sense of mass behavior. Pollsters and advertisers now make a good living off the same theory."

- Newt Gingrich

From "Newt Gingrich, Galactic Historian" at George Mason University's Heritage News Network. "If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, Newt Gingrich is from the planet Trantor..." Gingrich is not the first person to be inspired by Hari Seldon to do things in the real world; Al Qaeda and Shoko Asahara (sarin-in-the-subway guy) both thought his ideas should be reified as well.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Metallica and Currency Exchange Rates

Very interesting WSJ article about how Metallica's manager Cliff Burnstein partly bases tours on currency trends; a weak dollar is good for American exports, of which Metallica is one. (Thank you Marginal Revolution for the economic angle on metal.) One MR commenter asks if metal is a countercyclical good. The halls of Justice are, indeed, painted green. (ZING-O)

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Fermi Paradox and von Neumann Probes (Again)

Karl Schroeder points to a paper by Keith Wiley about the Fermi paradox and von Neumann probes. He converges on arguments made here, here and elsewhere:

1) that von Neumann probes are a better way to detect alien intelligences than electromagnetic radiation (either signals or detecting large structures)

2) that if self-replicating probes are possible and there are alien intelligences, there should be loads of them in each solar system already. The best feature of the linked paper is that Wiley takes a stab at estimating how many there should be in this solar system.

3) that the universe as we now see it could already have been profoundly influenced by the activity of intelligent entities, but we don't know because it's the only way we've ever seen it and we have dumb-matter (i.e. natural) explanations for everything. Apparently non-testable but still interesting to think about.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Ballard's Complete Short Stories

The Temptation of St. Anthony, Max Ernst

I've just read the Complete Ballard short story collection that came out after his death. It's thick and took me two borrowings to get through it. Before this my experience of Ballard was limited to Crash, the film adaptation of Empire of the Sun, and the novel the Crystal World. Certainly his fans (especially one old friend and sometime reader of this blog) play up his strangeness and the oblique apocalyptic imagery of his work, and maybe this is why I'm left a little cool by his short stories - my bar for shock and surprise were set a little high. In fact I would put most of these stories on the margin of mainstream 60s-90s science fiction; in fact P.K. Dick, with his non-hierarchical realities and attendant narrative structure games and unreliable narrators, is inarguably further outside.

Positive observations: it's hard not to get the sense that Ballard is a guy who spent a lot of his time alone in introspection, and the essential isolation of his protagonists is near universal, whether they're in some kind of inexplicable post-London wasteland or in an unhappy marriage. His imagery of the deserts and ruins, and especially his accounts of the internal dialogue of the characters wandering them, are expertly drawn. His description of the strange malaise of the permanent desert-beach resort dweller is also incisive. Ballard also solves a narrative problem of speculative fiction - the extended character-less, plot-less extrapolation - by taking out the characters and action, and writes like a historian a journalist, in broad brushes. Hard science fiction especially often grudgingly salts a story with characters just so there are mouthpieces to describe the device or alien ship they've found, but Ballard sometimes tosses them out as superfluous and writes honest prose more true to its narrative purpose.

One trick that Ballard occasionally pulls out is to take advantage of his genre's tolerance of the fantastic by descriptions where it's unclear whether he's speaking metaphorically, or we're seeing the sci-fi version of magical realism. For example: in one story he makes frequent references to a woman who has twitching insect legs for eyelashes. Few of us would be romantically drawn to such a woman, if he's describing her literally. Is this magical realism, i.e. a change in technology which in turn has changed social norms, so the characters react acceptingly to something which would shock us? Or are we to take it as a metaphor, in deliberately alienating terms? More interestingly, is this ambiguity his intention? Without resolving the question of metaphor or realism, it's hard to know whether the characters react as expected or even visualize the story, which produces an interesting and distancing reading experience, and if he conceived and executed this deliberately it's easily my favorite Ballard signature - although so far as I detected, it occurs only in his early works.

The ambivalent: without taking sides in any piece of writing with political overtones, we can observe that those overtones are dated, and Ballard's 80s writing also carries the disdainful flavor of the frustrated liberal at that time in the political wilderness, writing self-satisfied allegories. (Again, I wasn't expecting such a supposedly strange writer to fit so neatly into worn slots left by his contemporaries.) Also around this time or slightly before we see his investigations into the parallel reality produced by consumer culture; maybe even due to its successful penetration of popular awareness, this species of bludgeoning anti-commercialism hasn't aged well either; I found myself thinking, "Yes yes, I get it." I'd rather read Umberto Eco's nonfiction on hyper-reality than this.

Ballard's self-reflection, when encountered repeatedly in a collection like this, is probably less charming than when seen in a single story or novel. But here his obsessions are on full display and in repeated screenings they get stale quickly. In particular, there is the frequent apperance of medical authority figures and psychiatrists in general - not surprising, since Ballard began medical school intending to be a psychiatrist but didn't finish - and in this at least he's different from his early contemporaries, whose heroes were often physical scientist-adventurers with seemingly no internal dialogue. (I'm in medical school right now and psychiatrist is on my short list of specialties, which initially endeared Ballard to me, but the effect didn't last. Introspection is difficult to make interesting to people besides yourself.) His non-standard (at least for mid-century science fiction) protagonists are refreshing but again, certainly not strikingly innovative.

Oddly, one of the aspects of Ballard's short stories that has aged well is a nuanced techno-optimism that places him squarely within the science fiction mainstream. This is probably what surprised me most about the bulk of these stories, relative to his reputation. Although unlike his mainstream sf contemporaries he recognized that science isn't magic and often induces social and moral conflicts that weren't anticipated (sometimes spending too much time on questions that medicine and science either has now answered or which the public became generally comfortable with), at base he shared what many now consider mid-century naivete; technological progress is inevitable, will lead to the betterment of mankind in important ways, and is pushed forward by rugged individuals with scientific training, even if they're a little more reflective than other science fiction protagonists.

The negative: Easily Ballard's most annoying tic is his strong tendency to make a point pretty clearly through allegory or symbolic analogy - and then in the very next paragraph, explicitly state the point he was making. I first noticed this years ago in The Crystal World; the same tic is on display in several of his short stories in this collection. The real issue is that there's no charitable interpretation of this habit. Either he's insulting his reader by feeling he has to explain what he's doing; or he's insecure in his own delivery and just can't bear that someone might miss it; or his editor suggested he make the message more explicit, and he dropped these clunking paragraphs into his stories and left them there, un-smoothed, out of spite or laziness; or he just didn't realize that this repetition would make such an impression. Even if he deliberately wants to annoy the reader (which would be a completely valid goal) there are much better ways to do it, and there's no sign that he's being so clever.

The lesson to me is that Ballard's reputation does him a disservice by setting expectations out of line with his writing. His work is worth our time but it would be much easier to appreciate him if he weren't consistently presented as science fiction's Dali.