Monday, December 31, 2012

How Many Voyagers Could We Launch?

From the start of project in 1972 through the Neptune encounter, the Voyager program (2 spacecraft) cost $865 million.  Adjusting for inflation and rounding up to the nearest billion since there has been ongoing activity, that comes to $5 billion a pair in today's dollars.

Voyager 1 will be officially cracking through the heliopause anytime now, at latest by 2015.  It's our first inerstellar spacecraft.  If we wanted to build and launch an army of small spacecraft, how much would it cost?  Using these numbers as our back-of-the-envelope starting point, the theoretical upper limit with these numbers is to look at world GDP, which nominally is $70 trillion.  We'll still need to eat, so let's only use half the world's economic output.  $35 trillion is 14,000 spacecraft.  (Excessive?  Half a percent is still 140 a year.)  We can build ion engines on the cheap once there's a plant in space; the cost remains getting them out of the gravity well we live in.  Orbital drydock would fix some of that.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Next Apocalypse, 2017: Strange Near Earth Object Returns

1991VG is a near Earth object that, at the time of its discovery, made several people question whether it was natural (rapid light curve, in an orbit that should quickly be disturbed or cause it to impact Earth).  It's about 12m at most in its largest dimension.  I remember people talking about this in 1991 (I was a high school senior) so I'm happy it will be coming back. 

It will be back in 2017 and at Propagandery they're assuming (for the purpose of promoting another fun apocalypse) that not only is it an alien probe, but that it's a Berserker replicator.  For one thing, I would be glad to see the world end and NOT with zombies so fans of that stupid genre shut up.  In '91 everyone was crying "Bracewell probe" but interestingly, this single most suspicious object showed no evidence of involvement in any long echo effect, a radio phenomenon which most speculatively has been attributed to back-talking alien probes (scroll to #5 in this list of possible causes of the phenomenon).  So as this thing approaches in 2017 I fully expect idiots around the world to be pointing radio telescopes, laser pointers and garage door openers at this thing to see if it transforms or something.

"Zoo Hypothesis" For the Great Silence Is Unwarranted

At Centauri Dreams, Paul Glister has posted a new model for the expansion of alien civilizations. He makes the point that if expansion into the galaxy is remotely possible, then it is overwhelmingly likely to have occurred multiple times, even plugging in what we think are conservative numbers to the model. Bypassing arguments about great filters and assuming they are out there, this makes Fermi's question more pressing.

Glister discusses one answer, the zoo hypothesis, which is exactly what it sounds like - a "prime directive" situation where Earth is quarantined. He notes correctly that it would only take one non-cooperator to spoil the surprise for us, but then reasons that if the first aliens ever were zoo-builders, maybe they would establish a precedent. He doesn't address why the first aliens might be likely to do this, which in my view leaves this wanting as a defense of the zoo hypothesis.

A far more parsimonious explanation for why we haven't noticed aliens if they are indeed out there is our own ignorance. It requires no (perhaps provincial) assumptions about the nature of the aliens and their intentions, or even that "intentions" means anything outside of humans. But we do know that we don't know everything. It may be that we've been staring them in the face the whole time, and even if they're trying to get our attention we can't possibly understand.

How so? Aliens who have expanded off their own planet are more likely to be millions of years more advanced than us than mere thousands. This means they will not seem advanced. They will seem incomprehensible, if we even recognize them. Ever try to call your cat's name to get its attention? That's what I mean. For example: we find through an upcoming experiment that the whole universe is a kind of simulation or local physics that they've created for some ineffable purpose; and what's more, every time there's a gamma ray burst, that's their signal for us to recognize them. That kind of frightening, abjectly humbling realization is in fact the best case scenario I expect, because it means they recognize us as alive, even if some kind of interesting virus, and they care.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Monday, December 17, 2012

Some Ongoing Problems of the Simulation Argument

For Simulation Argument background, go here.  For previous articles on the topic, go here.
Summary:   the definitions of simulation, and whether the origin and purpose of the simulation (if any) matter to the discussion, are sloppy perhaps to the point of meaninglessness.  First, it is often supposed that the simulators can perfectly avoid detection by patching laws of physics, erasing memories if they are discovered, etc.; if this is the case, then in principle the answer to the simulation question is unknowable and is a PEP (pointless epistemological problem).  There also may be no way to distinguish simulators revealing themselves from super-intelligences.  

The distinction between simulator-universe and simulated universe is incoherent and breaks down.  Simulated entities exist as real entities in the simulating universe.  Although the simulated entities may be able to interpret information only from a narrow slice of the universe, e.g. the hard drive they're running on, all consciousness is necessarily a provincial representation of information, each living in its arbitrary simulation of the universe; that is, the simulators might have a broader view than the simulated, but there is only a difference of degree, rather than of kind.  Implied in arguments about simulations is that conscious simulators exist and are intentionally deceiving us, but even if we are only perceiving some narrow slice of spacetime we cannot assume we know anything about simulators' intentions or even that intentional entities are directing the simulation at all, and in any event this information is irrelevant to the argument.  Even if we do show that we are in something usefully called a simulation, this is more likely to (again) expand our idea of the dimensions of spacetime, similar to the way astronomy expanded our knowledge of the universe outside the Milky Way a century ago.

There are several problems with the simulation argument.  Some of these problems involve the definitions of terms in the argument, which as commonly understood seem very sloppy almost to the point of meaninglessness.  The question was originally put as a special case of the self-indication assumption, where we can assume that if humans develop the ability to simulate historical events, they will; and that if they do, any given conscious being is overwhelmingly likely to be a simulation.  This is one way to make the experiment concrete, but it is unnecessarily provincial; it can be re-stated by saying that if conscious entities can be created within simulations, then any given conscious being is likely to be a simulation.  The two questions here:  what is a simulation, and what is its origin and/or purpose?

1) What is meant by "simulation"?  Typically this is conceived as a world of "false" sense experiences created by intentional agents ("real" humans, AIs, aliens, etc.); and their intention is apparently to deceive us.  (Already we're making unwarranted assumptions about the nature of the simulators, including their very existence, but more on this in #2 below). This classical, provincial way of imagining a simulation is basically a Matrix simulation, except where there are not necessarily bodies in the "outside" world corresponding to each consciousness.

In a very real sense, we are definitely living in a simulation - we experience certain sense data (visible light but not microwaves) and knit it together in one certain way but not another, along withour beliefs and emotions and our somatic senses that are all internal and subjective and invented.  We are creating this sensory experience in a not-at-all necessary way; we have built a certain kind of simulation of the world beyond our nervous systems.

The difference between a simulation/not simulation seems to blur into one of degree rather than kind.  If you put on rose-colored glasses, are you now in a simulation?  How about if you become schizophrenic and hear voices and believe the CIA is after you?  For most people adhering to the classic use, these are inadequate to call a "simulation".  What about a Derren Brown-style manipulation where people are seeing the real world, but props and people are being moved around in such a way as to convince them of something not true? Further down this path, how about a DMT trip, where your sense world is completely replaced?  The experience of DMT is not mere hallucination-icing on top of the consensus reality cake as with LSD - you're completely in another world.  Are those experiences simulations?  If a DMT trip is not a simulation but the one in the Matrix is, the definition seems (very strangely!) to hinge not on the content of the sensory experience but on whether there are deliberate controllers intentionally deceiving the simulatees moment-to-moment.  Method of deception and intent of controllers both seem spurious considerations in thinking about such an idea.

There's a further problem with the hierarchical conception of simulations.  In one sense, there's a very clear hierarchy - a baseball bat in the world of the simulators would end the experience of the simulated.  At the same time, the simulated entities are every bit as real as the simulators.  The simulators can use instruments to show how magnetic fields on certain areas of the electronic medium (hard disk, volatile memory, whatever) are coherent entities with prolonged, distinct existence.  Look!  There goes Jake, that pattern of 0's and 1's right there!  Of course, that pattern of zeroes and ones is having the subjective experience that he's playing frisbee in a park, only because his information-processing system is knitting together the events of magnetic fields on a hard drive in a certain way, just like you're knitting together the events of electromagnetic radiation and temperature and pressure waves in a certain way.  I'm intentionally avoiding questisons of whether information equals consciousness, but Jake certainly exists in the simulators' world, just in ways he doesn't understand.  Again this makes the simulator-simulated distinction collapse, since it is certainly the case that there are aspects of ourselves we don't understand that are obscured by the way our nervous systems work.

2) Who or what are the simulators, if any exist?  First, if we are simulated, and there are simulators (two different things!), then do the simulators' intentions matter to this argument, i.e. whether they are trying to deceive us?  Furthermore, assuming we're "running" on some computer in a wider metaverse, how can we say for sure that the physics of that universe demand active entities to build a computer?  Maybe there's a metal-rich moon somewhere on which there was some kind of natural selection for coherent spin-flipped-domain entities - software.  This is akin to the idea of a Boltzmann brain.  Either way, assuming we're in a historical simulation built by future humans hellbent on continuing our deception, and that we have a "real" body waiting for us to wake up, is a very narrow conception of possible ways our perception of reality could be systematically narrower than would otherwise be possible.  (For an exercise in throwing out unwarranted assumptions when you're asking a question that cuts so deep into reality, read Nozick's Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing in Philosophical Explanations.)

3) Pointless Epistemological Problems (PEPs).  There are a number of ideas (the technological singularity is another, as is the god of several religions) where a concept is argued to be fundamentally closed to human reason - that we cannot, even in principle, ever understand it.  This results in unfalsifiable arguments.  "We can't know if the singularity occurred because we're not bright enough to recognize AI behavior" is the same as saying "It might already have occurred and we can't know."  Similarly, the simulation argument is vulnerable to lots of smart-ass answers - if humans ever figure too much out about our simulation, the simulators will just hit pause and fix it, or they'll alter the software detailing that person's mental state and that person will forget, and we'll be back to square one.  So if we can't know, why even talk about it?  If we think the rules of figuring out the truth make it worth our time to entertain such ideas, then we must certainly also discuss at once the theory that not just the moon, but the whole universe, is made of green cheese.

Previously I wrote about an experiment that physicists recently proposed to test the simulation argument.  Although experiments around Bell's Theorem have repeatedly not supported local hidden variables (by some interpretations, discrediting simulation arguments), suppose that the new experiment shows unambiguously that we are in a simulation.  What then?   How does this new knowledge affect our future actions?

This experiment can show us nothing about the nature or purposes of the simulators, or indeed, that they exist at all - and maybe future experiments can.  For now, all we'll know is that the slice of spacetime we perceive is a smaller part of a bigger whole.  The justified change in our worldview will not be to suddenly resign ourselves to being  meaningless play things in an alien god's video game (which we must have been the whole time).  It will be to realize, again, that the universe is bigger and stranger than we knew before, more akin to astronomy's discovery of a universe outside the Milky Way, or the standard model's intuitively incomprehensible higher dimensions.  That is to say, the physicists doing the experiment, if their result is positive, will be remembered more like Copernicus than Morpheus.  Then we can begin to explore the physics of the universe outside our narrow slice of it.  If you're familiar with Conway's game of life, imagine you're the simulator, and you leave it running it overnight to find they've built a glider gun that has deduced the real law of gravitation when you get up in the morning.  That's what our job becomes.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Galactus Devouring One of His Heralds

Now, that we may ennumerate all the manners in which a thing may be awesome; surely, whatever be the accounting thereof, all are present here.

An Experiment To Test The Simulation Argument

It boils down to whether high energy photons (cosmic rays) travel preferentially along any axes of the simulation, so that there is anisotropy relative to the axes.  (Further explanation here.)  If such anisotropy exists, then we are in a simulation.

Suppose that next week they do the experiment, and it provides an unambiguous result that we are in a simulation.  What then?  It seems that we still can't conclude we are being simulated intentionally by some kind of agent, let alone the nature of those agents, what their intentions are, or what we should do differently as a result.  It would seem to follow that we should try to obtain information about the "metaverse" beyond the PlayStation that we're living in, but how that differs in terms of our current actions from the impact of (for example) a complete Standard Model, I'm not sure.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Really Great Old Ones

Billions of years in from now, there is a solar system of close-in rocky worlds whipping around an old red sun, a lukewarm island in the yawning blackness of the future's stretched space.  One of the planets here - a world with a core of bizarre lanthanides and a crust rich with the quivering g-orbitals of exotic super-heavy elements - hosts life.  Life which crawled from a morass of self-selecting replicators, incidentally as it often does, toward self-awareness.

One of the beings on this world - they said he was mad - claimed to have found evidence that theirs was not the first intelligence which inhabited their home planet.  There were others, from long ago, beings whose intelligence so far eclipsed their own that the young race was like mere vermin; others, who made space and time itself their playthings, and who were still here, hidden somewhere deep under the equatorial mountains.  This scribe wrote furiously all he could about them, somewhat in resignation, somewhat as a sick joke.  For he wrote that when these beings, these Great Old Ones, awoke, they would bring an age of unendurable, unending torment.  The best anyone could hope for was to be among those eaten first.

The Mad Scribe said it had found their machines.  Some reported that the Scribe was torn apart in plain view of others by invisible forces.  Later this was regarded as naive legend.

Until the stars aligned, and the Great Old Ones awoke.

It began as the same nightmare experienced by artists and monks all around the world, taunting them with the inevitability of Their return, and the pointlessness of suicide.  Then it was a team of explorers whose curiosity triggered it, who saw the monstrosity erupt from under those very equatorial mountains.  It unfolded with an impossible symmetry - the shapes itched, because they could be seen but not understood.  The explorers stood, in awe and nausea.  And then It heaved free of the rubble and rose into the sky.  And looking up at It, simultaneously many of the explorers went mad.

"Hello?" the thing said.  Its voice jellied their very brains.  "My name is Jake.  I'm the first one awake."  The tiny creatures in front of him spasmed with psychic pain.

"A straight line!" one of the explorers cried.  "Euclidean geometry! Angles which are either acute or obtuse!  O the horror!"

" know, It's just a line," Jake said.  "I didn't mean to uh -"

"O look at it!" they screamed.  "O how grateful am I for the poverty of language, for its hideousness cannot be expressed by mortals!"

"Come on, I have acne," Jake whined.

"Please, eat us first!  Now that we know such a thing as you can exist, please bless us with oblivion!"

"Look, this is not good for my self-esteem," Jake said.  "I really don't think it's that bad."

"Oh look at it, a color from beyond space, it is the fabric of madness itself!"

"Maroon?  Merino wool?"

"GAAAAHHHH!" and with that, the whole planet heaved a gasp of soul-destroying agony and expired.

"Well that's sad," Jake said.

If you think that was cheesy, the other way I thought about doing this was to re-write Flatland with the three-dimensional shapes as the Great Old Ones.  And you know what mister?  If I hear any more groaning from the peanut gallery I just might do it too.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

New Carcass in 2013

I'm really going to try not to build this up as the greatest thing that ever happened in metal and then be disappointed.  Much like post-Black Album Metallica, there's no chance it won't be good, it just might not be up to the standard of previous work.  Walker describes it as half Necroticism, half Heartwork, which is just about right.

While I'm at it, a personal Jeff Walker story:  when they first got together for a reunion tour, the only dates announced for quite a while were in Europe.  I put together a Myspace page (this was 2008) called "Carcass Come to the States" or something, and had people signing up for it to show that the market was there.  I think in my online promotional genius I got a grand total of 65 people to sign up for it.  Eventually they announced U.S. dates and I went to see them at House of Blues in LA.  I waited outside the venue and eventually Jeff came out (pics of me with Jeff and Bill below).  I mentioned to him that I was the guy that started the Myspace page.  "Oh right," he said as this picture was being taken, "you got all of 65 people to sign up.  Yeah, that's why we decided to come to the States."  Ten seconds later, he left with easily the cutest chick that had signed up on said page.  Frustratingly, I never did find out what this successful second career was that he had after Carcass.  Earlier he'd responded by email "I test blast beasts on laboratory animals."

Bill was much more mellow, and when I told him I liked the first Firebird record he said he was amazed anybody had ever even heard of it.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Sky Burial by Vulture

"...the Parsi community here intends to build two aviaries at one of its most sacred sites so that the giant scavengers can once again devour human corpses." How can you not get excited about a NYT article that starts that way? Diclofenac, a pain drug given to cattle, ended up killing the vulture population in part of India, which is why vultures have to be induced to return. (I worked on a U.S. formulation of this drug briefly and in my initial research ran across these kinds of articles. Wacky.) Tibetans have a very similar ritual, which makes sense if you live somewhere with low O2 and rocky soil.

Why am I posting this? Come on. Vultures eating corpses. How metal can you get?

I don't know if Italian artist Greta Alfaro had these rituals in mind when she conceived this art piece, but the vultures here (who show up after about 1m15s) make similar short work of this elegant vineyard-side table-setting.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Next: Hang-Gliding From Space

For many of us part of the fascination for sending balloons into space, and parachuting from it, is the proximity of such an exotic realm to our own world, and its accessibility, in some ways, with pretty mundane equipment. That's why personal space balloon launches are cool. (I wonder if the Peep they sent up with this one was still frozen when it came back down.)

And that's why this article on early Soviet space-jumpers was interesting, and why it seems strange that when astronauts come back down from the space station, the first thing they see is Kazakh steppe grass outside their window, and maybe a distant animal herd. More morbidly, that's why the sole of a shoe making it down from orbit separately, on its own during the 2003 space shuttle tragedy seems strange. This shoe made it from space? To the parking lot of a pharmacy? On its own? (It turns out that C. elegans worms survived it.) Even though a mere 20 miles above us the sky is black in daytime and you can see the curve of the Earth, 20 miles across the surface is closer than many of our commutes.

Inspired by this, I was curious whether soft-body gliders had ever been considered by NASA, in addition to the hard-body gliders and parachutes we now use. In the early 1960s glider technology was extensively tested but NASA went with an all-parachute descent. The Paresev glider is actually on display in the Smithsonian but I guess I wasn't paying attention.

If Baumgartner won't do it, then I wonder if Jokke Sommer could make a few phone calls to the usual crew of Branson, Rutan et al.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The C-Index: How Far Away Could We Hear Earth?

The C-Index is a quick-and-dirty way to determine the likelihood of our detection of, and our detection by, other technology-using aliens. Current technology changes over time, and this drives both what we emit (how loud we are), and what we can detect (how well we can listen).

So how close would we have to be to a twin Earth before we could hear it, i.e. hear ourselves? If twin Earth were orbiting Alpha Centauri, could we hear it with our own technology? How about fifty years from now?

In a post at David Brin's blog, he rounds up arguments about our own relative silence by stating "even military radars and television signals appear to dissipate below interstellar noise levels within just a few light years. Certainly they are far less visible -- by many orders of magnitude -- than a directed beam from any of Earth's large, or even intermediate, radio telescopes." (Interestingly, none other than Seth Shostak of SETI is credited with this observation.)

So right now it looks like our C-Index is ~3 light years. If you're interested in this kind of thing you probably already know this isn't even as far as the next closest star, which is 4.3 light years away. They could be right there, chattering just as loud as us, and we still wouldn't know.

Below: the yellow dot is the portion of the Milky Way
into which our radio waves have expanded (r=100 LY),
 but our current C-index is only 3% of that radius,
and therefore contains just 0.027% of that speck.

Aliens and Their Strange Obsession With Intelligence

A staple of science fiction is aliens that are obsessed with locating intelligence, and this is what drives their interactions with humans. What they do when they find intelligence varies. Sometimes they tiptoe around it, desperate for some strange reason to avoid revealing themselves. Sometimes they deliberately enhance it or invite it to achieve some level of enlightenment or at least join some great political organization, as the Firstborn in Clarke's 2001 or the Five Galaxies in David Brin's Uplift Series. But seemingly just as often, they eradicate it, as in the Revelation Space series by Alistair Reynolds or Beford's Galactic Center series.

Why should this be?  Some might be tempted to say, "Well they're intelligent.  And we're intelligent.  We should hang out!"  But this doesn't work well.  First let's get the obvious literary reason for this trope out of the way: these are works of fiction, and aliens in these books are made up because they are interesting for their own sake, and/or because through them we can ask questions about human nature and our perception of reality. Aliens that have no contact with humans aren't literarily useful, and at least on this planet, our intelligence is unique - so intelligence-seeking aliens who come to the solar system will pay attention to us. Among narrative motivations for why aliens seek human intelligence, it also flatters our conception of ourselves, either as grown-up and ready to take our place among the interstellar gods, or as self-flagellation about how we're uniquely nasty and brutish and combined with our intelligence we are a threat to the other peaceful aliens out there.

In reality, either scenario is incredibly unlikely to be true. The history of science is a history of one revelation after another of how we're not special, no matter how badly we would like to be. We're not at the center of the universe, we're not unique among animals, even though for a few biological characteristics we might be near one end of the distribution. (As is likely to be the case for every organism, which are complex entities that have lots of dimensions along which to vary. Sure, we're smart! And sea squirts have the highest vanadium concentrations. So what?)

I'll grant that intelligence may be more important than vanadium, and for the sake of argument, let's assume it's also not invariably an ecosystem-destroying dead end. It's not unreasonable to further assume that aliens we meet in places other than their world of origin got there based on being intelligent. Since we are just prior to our own expansion from Earth (if it ever happens), we are likely to be the stupidest things we encounter. And not just a little stupider. Millions of years stupider. How can I say this? Let's make an an assumption which is too charitable, which is that we only encounter aliens within 1% of our own level of development in terms of how long life has existed on Earth, and that development time correlates with intelligence. 1% ago there weren't even hominids yet. 1% from now, if some descendant of humans is still here, it's likely to be unrecognizably intelligent and powerful. So even with a 1% rule we should assume we'll meet aliens somewhere between as smart as us and 37 million yeasr smarter than us. On average they'll be 17.5 million years smarter than us. Visually:

(For more on this, go here and skip ahead to the second half for the review on McDevitt; also after I posted this, I read something by Michael Shermer which converges on the same argument.) Yes, this also begs the question of whether we know the speed and sequence of alien technological development. Surprise! We don't - so if we're to think about this at all, we should assume we're average.)

All this is to say that there is almost zero chance of meeting aliens just a thousand years smarter. If they're out there, and intelligence is required for space travel, then until we've been around a long time, we should assume they're almost all smarter than us. And getting back to the original question, what would this mean about their taking a special interest in our intelligence? It means there is likely to be none. It seems likely that the information they get from studying or molding the representational tissues in the skull of one species will be about as useful as any number of other biological innovations they could find here. I imagine the pride-wounded humans of the future who make first contact, jealously watching aliens that clearly find sea squirts more worthy of their attention, engaging in various pointless gestures of anger to give the aliens a piece of our mind that of course the aliens don't notice (shaking fists at them, using nuclear weapons, flinging feces - you get the idea.) Assuming we even recognized that they were there in the first place

But there is a benefit to being beneath notice, and that's being beneath notice, notwithstanding unintentional damage caused to us or our ecosystem or planet by their likely-to-be-unpleasant visit. We are highly unlikely to be a real threat, despite the moralizing built into science fiction on this question. (Forget The Day the Earth Stood Still. Arthur C. Clarke's frankly better-left-obscure 3001 contains a particularly cloying moral lesson as he reverses the benevolence of the Firstborn, which decided that we adolescent humans are far too nasty to be allowed to survive. Real aliens are unlikely to behave as such convenient mirrors of our own moral sense.)

Of course, if we kindergartners do somehow turn out to be a threat to the 17.5 millionth graders, we'll never know. There won't be a war, or anything we recognize as an extermination, any more than smallpox understands we deliberately eradicated it.

If any of the assumptions above are falsified, we cannot assume we are the stupidest. For example, if intelligence is not required for interstellar travel - that is, if replicators can evolve and travel between stars without intelligence, we should consider it likely that most extraterrestrial replicators will be space algae. Intelligence requires complex structures, meaning more matter than would otherwise be needed, and is vulnerable to disruption. if alien viruses can get between stars on their own, then there will be a lot more of them traveling back and forth than supergenius alien elephants. (I'm sympathetic to this argument.) If you think intelligence is a dead end, we won't meet intelligent aliens, because they die before they escape their solar system, just like we're about to do.   [Added later:  at least simple organisms can survive getting back down to the bottom of a gravity well without too much protection.  Caenorhabditis elegans worms on the Columbia actually survived the uncontrolled re-entry in 2003.]

It's worth looking at our own planet for concrete examples of how organisms of vastly differing intelligence levels interact. Even as the intellectual giants of our own ecosystem, the amount of contact we have with living things is not determined by those other living things' intelligence, but by other considerations driven by economics. Sure, we might not be as interested in cattle as we are in chimpanzees, but it's hard to say that chimp's lives have been altered by contact with the planet's dominant intelligence to the degree that cattle's have. Applying a similar argument, if our intelligence is useful to them, they'll pay attention. Refer to the development timeline above for why it probably won't be so useful. But that vanadium trick, now that's something!

The Xeelee are super-intelligent aliens from Stephen
Baxter's work.  They make things out of galaxies. The
things we meet, if we recognize them against background,
will be more like this than like us.  And they'll 
care about us helpless mortals?  Image rom Steve Burg's blog.

It might also be interesting to take the typical science fiction tropes of alien interest in humans as a given, and ask broadly why this might be. There are two questions that frequently arise in discussions of the simulation argument or Fermi paradox. One is why aliens would bother to trap us, either in a simulation or behind some other barrier that keeps us from spreading outside the solar system. (An ingenious rendering of the latter is the Bubble in Quarantine by Greg Egan.) In general motivations for doing this reduce to we're a threat (see above) or we're in a wilderness preserve or zoo. The second one makes for some neat fiction but it's hard to see why we should give it any credibility as a possible reason for why we don't see aliens or their artifacts or transmissions.

A second question is why uplift-seeking aliens would be concerned with making more intelligence, or accelerating trends. This reflects a larger problem of morality that all of us face in our individual, often misguided searches for "meaning". Morality is a tool that's embedded in the cognition of one particular social animal, so the animal can cooperate with conspecifics to spread its genes. Once that's assured, and it's living in a post-scarcity world, what then? How to live? Is suffering and happiness even meaningful freed from those constraints, and making the world better no longer inherently valuable (because nothing is?) It's possible that there is no way for us savannah apes to answer that question, once morality is taken out of its pre-scarcity context. Maybe then it's game-time, and that's what the Firstborn were up to, where the game is how many other species can you get to join you in Mindspace. But if you just want to fill your now-infinite time with difficult-to-attain goals, it seems that there are infinitely many of them, and elevating intelligence would not have any special luster. And if you think "interfering" in the development of aliens is somehow immoral, what could be worse than running around the universe pushing psycho-evolutionary amphetamines to every near-intelligent organism you find?

The bottom line:

1) If we meet intelligent aliens, they are overwhelmingly likely to be vastly more intelligent than us, and therefore not care at all that we exist, if indeed they notice us.

2) Therefore, if they do pay special attention to Earth or humans for some reason, it is unlikely to be due specifically to our intelligence, despite this being a central draw for alien attention on humans in much of science fiction.

3) If they do pay attention, to our intelligence or otherwise, it is likely that their attention will be very unpleasant, even if this is unintentional.

4) If for some reason we represent a threat, aliens will destroy us. We are unlikely to recognize what is happening let alone be able to fight back.

Nyiragonga Volcano and Darvaza Crater

How metal is this.

It's Only 10 miles from seemingly cursed Goma, Congo.  
Fast-moving lava wiped out the city 10 years ago.
The place has also been in the middle of some
kind of civil war or other for the past 20 years or so.

And here is Darvaza Crater in Turkmenistan, which is appropriate to include 
because it is also total metal.  Darvaza is similar to Centralia, Pennsylvania, except that a) instead of coal burning in the ground forever, it's natural gas produced by compressed Tethys Sea plankton and b) there was no town over top of it.  Turkmen are luckier than Pennsylvanians that way.

Fermi's Warning: Problems in Interstellar Exploration and Detection

[I have an article on the Singularity coming up at the European science/fiction magazine Concatenation in a couple months. Please visit their website ahead of time!]

With the discovery of planets around Alpha Centauri, the time for serious discussion of interstellar exploration has arrived. (And it's been going on in earnest for a while now.) Of course, the people who launch the probes will know they can't possibly see the up-close pictures of any extrasolar planets in their lifetimes. But if we're willing to set aside money in endowments to compound interest for the sake of future generations, why not do the same with long-term space travel?

A sensible approach is to send multiple small probes that behave as a network. Even if they can't reproduce, and even if they can't repair each other to some degree, this is superior to putting all your hopes into one object moving at relativistic speeds in unknown domains. It would be bad if, after millennia of waiting, your single big ship hit a comet in Alpha Centauri's Oort cloud. This is the proposal of Allen Tough and is being realized through a Cornell-initiated project now funded by KickStarter. Landers are a tougher problem, particularly on planets with thin atmospheres where we can't use high effectiveness-to-mass technologies like parachutes to slow the descent.

A Sprite chip-sat.

Human missions are much more difficult engineering problems - either of engineering the vehicles, or engineering the humans inside them. The problem of how to get humans to another star is likely to take much longer to solve than how to get unmanned spacecraft to another star. At the same time, keeping our eggs in different baskets is a good survival strategy for the long term, but that's no reason not to send machines out ahead of us.

At the same time, it's possible that if we reach other worlds similar to the one where we evolved, life (intelligent or otherwise) may already be there, and this may impact on our survival also. Consequently any program of interstellar exploration must be part of a program which acknowledges the very frightening implications of the Fermi paradox and also how to detect intelligent life, if it exists. At all costs we should avoid detection, the results of which which may be another answer to the Fermi paradox (i.e. that the Drake Equation should contain a term for predation.)

Consequently, here's a brief summary of some problems in interstellar colonization and interstellar evolution. Surprisingly, I haven't found an argument map for the Fermi paradox, the Singularity and related arguments, which is what I was initially planning to use as a figure.

1. Whatever path we take to the stars, it will likely be one that yields profit in the near term. Interstellar exploration cannot do this, and will have to be borne on the backs of ventures that produce a return for the investors and/or citizens involved, like (possibly) asteroid mining.

2. The Fermi paradox is likely to be solved by one of two things: we are alone at least in terms of intelligent life (i.e., there is a great filter in front of us) or because they exist, but we don't know what we're looking for or at. This latter option complicates things and makes the universe seem more dangerous.

3. To find places that may be useful to us and/or alien life - assuming complex replicators made of matter (will we even recognize complex replicators that aren't?) we may also assume the following are more likely than not, and constrain our search accordingly:

3a. We should look where there is more matter, and more mature stars (longer for life to evolve and expand beyond its home world). This means to look inward toward the galactic center. On Earth, evolutionary innovation comes from the equator and expands north, for a similar reason: more energy into the system, more liquid water, and more evolutionary innovation. A similar principle may describe the distribution and migration of life in a spiral galaxy.

3b. Look for places with the best reaction media to produce replicators. Standing liquid makes the emergence of replicators more likely because you're creating an environment that favors the rapid interaction of molecules. Water is an especially good solvent because of the number of combinations it allows. This isn't an aqueous-carbon chauvenist argument - if there are other environments that allow replicator building-blocks to interact more rapidly and richly, then those environments will be better places to look for life than places with water.

Basis for aqueous chauvenism: it doesn't have to be a planet-wide ocean, but we don't
know of any reaction media that encourage diverse chemistry as well as water.

3c. Suspect life in proportion to reaction volume. If we're talking about water, this means more surface area, and more depth. As origin zones, possibly liquid-water-bearing super-Earths are then more likely to originate life than small worlds.

3d. Look for places with a good reaction medium as in 3b, but with low gravity. This directly conflicts with 3c, but low-gravity bodies with water would be good places for life to spread to (i.e. Enceladus) because of the economics of shallow vs. deep gravity wells. A watery moon of a warm gas giant would be even better. In this sense, super-Earths are interstellar East Africas; places like Enceladus are an interstellar Polynesia. (Admittedly intra-Earth colonization is a dangerous analogy in this discussion.)

4. We should look for artifacts at least as much as signals. Artifacts may be easier to recognize as extrasolar better than artificial signals; and, if some form of interstellar colonization is possible, or at least exploration, we should expect to find artifacts in our own solar system already, unless we think we're the first or are somehow amazingly lucky. The presence of artifacts is also a better test for te possibility of interstellar travel than signals. If von Neumann probes are possible (or "space algae", if we can tell the difference) we should look for evidence on small bodies in the solar system, again because of the economics of gravity wells. If we don't find evidence of artifacts once we've explored even a fraction on any low-gravity bodies, and von Neumann probes are possible, then the possibility of life or its artifacts expanding beyond its home solar system is de-valued significantly. (I would put this on Long Bets but at the rate of current exploration, don't think the question will be settled in my lifetime of maybe half a century more.)

5. I've already made many huge assumptions here, and I'm being more conservative than most. It bears keeping in mind that we have N=1 and we don't know what we're looking for or at.

Fear Factory, Zero Signal (Demanufacture, 1995)

The bridge section just after 3:00 is excellent.  Fast and not wholly atmosphere electronic elements are an element that FF didn't explore nearly enough.

They were also characterized by a machine-like square-edged always divisible-by-4 rhythm figures, stripping down to metal's basic mechanic of rhythm guitar + drum in a way that Helmet never truly captured. (For my money, the intro to Slave Labor from 2004's Archetype may represent some fundamental awesome limit in this regard.) That said, this was sometimes boring, and a lot of intervening time was what in pseudo-German is called angerfiller, leaving us waiting for these awesome bridge sections. For more of those, see 3m20s in Pisschrist, also on Demanufacture, or 2h43s in Archetype.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Boris Strugatsky Dies at 79

We've lost a great writer. His brother Arkady, with whom he co-wrote, died in 1991. Roadside Picnic is one of my favorite science fiction novels, and favorite novels period, of all time. If you haven't read it, you should fix that. It is everything a work of science fiction could be, and we should study it for its tone and its subtle never-stated (except in the title) paradigm shift. Thank you for your work sir!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Intelligence Itself as the Great Filter

[I have an article on the Singularity coming up at the European science/fiction magazine Concatenation in a couple months. Please visit their website ahead of time!]

I referred to the Great Filter in an earlier post.  This is the idea that the great silence the Fermi paradox seeks to explain is not illusory:  we really are alone.  If that is the case, then since we know of one example of life and intelligence which did evolve, there must some event or set of events that dramatically decreases the odds of life evolving, becoming intelligent, and spreading from its home or at least signalling its presence.  By self-indication arguments, we can assume that many other species have achieved a level of intelligence similar to our own, but that something must have happened afterward to keep them from persisting or expanding.  This means it is also likely that the filter is still in front of us, i.e. that we will go extinct or at least be permanently confined to our solar system.  I'm increasingly unable to discount the idea that intelligence itself is probably, usually, an evolutionary dead end. 

The less interesting version of this idea is that given the way evolution works, intelligence is invariably layered on top of older systems like emotions and appetites, which were previously constrained by the limits of their behavior but once amplified by intelligence quickly destroy the surrounding ecosystem.  (Essentially, the Special Agent Smith argument, but stripped of misanthropic moralizing.)

The more interesting version is that once a self-aware entity understands that pleasure and survival are separable - i.e., that its survival signal is not the same as its actual survival - and has the means to manipulate the former intentionally (ie full simulation and/or goal manipulation, which are the ultimate ends of heroin, pornography, and ideology) then the end is close.  This is a much more pessimistic version of involution.  Singularities could be thought of as either of these - a form of ecologic degradation that doesn't result in interstellar colonization, or as an opportunity to dissolve into fantasy worlds.

Finally, it could just be that it's incredibly unlikely that any life which evolves from matter, at the bottom of a gravity well, with a life-cycle inextricable from such an environment (needing an atmosphere, solvent, a complex web of other replicators), simply cannot expect to expand across a universe where even inside the comparatively cluttered galaxies the possible new homes are separated by light years.  To a first approximation, the universe is made of vacuum with some dark matter.  It may be then that every star is surrounded by an insurmountable Wallace Line.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

American Gerontological Society Meeting in San Diego, Right Now Nov 15-18

For the Transhumanists and others interested in aging. Here is the information. Leonard Hayflick is there.

(Little did I know until I read his Wiki bio that he discovered Mycoplasma pneumoniae, i.e. the pathogen that causes walking pneumonia. Cool.)

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Soviet Pressure Suits in 1939: Before Kittinger and Baumgartner

"As he was about to touch down, he realized he had only a few seconds' supply of air before suffocating; the suit had indeed proved to be hermetically closed. Steering clear of treetops, Yakov made his landing in the countryside, at the edge of a village. A woman carrying two buckets of water from the well saw what must have been the scariest thing in her life: a man in a bright-red fur suit — the color was to make Yakov easier to spot for the rescue team — with a glass cylinder on his head falling from the sky...Yakov touched down. He rushed to a tree and beat his head against the trunk to crack the helmet loose."

More here on this early jump from what we now call cruising altitude.  In some ways he seemed closer to Newton than NASA.

The suit description makes me think of Max Ernst. As a loyal J.G. Ballard fan that's never difficult for me. Here is 1940's Robing of the Bride (from

The Secret to Their Success

"I always thought it was strange when these artists like Kurt Cobain or whoever would get really famous and say, 'I don't understand why this is happening to me. I don't understand! Oh, the fame, the fame, the fame!'" he says. Nearby, there is a table covered with band photos that they have already signed. Kroeger looks around the room for a moment and then says, "There is a mathematical formula to why you got famous. It isn't some magical thing that just started happening." -Chad Kroeger, Nickelback

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Promising Candidate

At one point Seaworld in San Diego was running a radio promotion which began with a harsh-voiced Megatron declaring "Puny human insects! You and your precious city will all be destroyed! You have no chance of survival!" The first time I thought it was a Romney ad.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Cousin Lovers (Live Jam, 1998)

Some truly shredding bluegrass:

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Oct 19 7pm, San Diego Transhumanists at Rock Bottom

The title is "Understanding Paths and Goals to Our Improvement" for the San Diego Transhumanists at Rock Bottom in la Jolla.  RSVP here.  Sorry, no outdoors bonfire this time, but this way we can have good beer and food.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Oct 19, I'm Doing a Talk for San Diego Transhumanists

This Friday October 19 I'll be doing a talk entitled "Understanding Paths and Goals to Our Improvement" for the San Diego Transhumanists. RSVP here. It will be informal and relatively brief with discussion afterward, and I'm planning on doing it outside with a bonfire (exact location to be announced in the next few days). Bring a snack and a fleece if it's chilly, or just modify yourself to tolerate the cold better, your call.

Metal Update - GWAR Nov 3 in Santa Ana

Gwar at the Observatory in Santa Ana, November 3rd. Bunch of San Diego types coming up for the show. If you see me in there say hi. Or better yet, say America Must Be Destroyed.

Also, saw the Iron Maidens in Carlsbad last night. I'd missed them three times before and finally found out about this one, literally an hour before it started. Dayum was that a fun show.  They're in San Diego again on Saturday November 10th at Pure Platinum in Kearny Mesa.

And finally, see if you can spot the Ride the Lightning reference in this article.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

San Diego Transhumanists

Just went to my first one of these this past Friday.  I liked it a lot because it was structured, kind of like a nano-TED.  Check out the next one here.

Why Would Natural Selection Not Work the Same Over Interstellar Distances

"The late Czech astronomer Zdeněk Kopal summarized the pessimist outlook succinctly decades ago, in conversation with his British colleague David Whitehouse. As they were talking about contact with alien civilizations, Kopal grabbed Whitehouse by the arm and coldly said, 'Should we ever hear the space-phone ringing, for God’s sake let us not answer. We must avoid attracting attention to ourselves.'"

- From a review of/interview about the new book about the search for intelligent alien life Five Billion Years of Solitude

The Most Metal Puss Ever

He seems very over it. FYI Bill Murray is the cat's name. This confused me greatly at first.

Darth Vader Rises

Turns out that respirator is putting out heated air. This comes courtesy Dorothy, who was at the big annual New Mexico balloon launch. Dumbo, Elvis and an Angry Bird were also in attendance.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Metal and Will Wheaton

Reader Greg kindly passes along a link which delivers exactly what the title of this post promises.  The union of metal and sf is great, but Wheaton is a pop culture vortex and we shouldn't be surprised he has achieved this union.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Nerdcore Night at the Ruby Room, 8pm Thurs 4 Oct

I just ran across the San Diego Speculative Fiction Society, Inc. which among other things is the sponsor of the San Diego Sci-Fi/Fantasy Meetup Group. They're even having a con this weekend, but I'll just be going to Nerdcore Night this Thursday 4 Oct 2012, 8pm at the Ruby Room in Hillcrest.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Two Excellent Comets Coming in 2013

There will be an awesome one in March 2013 and then - no exaggeration - the greatest one of your lifetime, and maybe the millennium, in November. Brighter than the moon.

Halley's Comet as recorded in the Bayeux Tapestry, which is probaby better taken as a record of the Norman conquest of England than an astronomy text. But still.

Puppets and Metal and Lovecraft

Imagine if Cthulhu and aliens invaded Fraggle Rock all to the tune of Mastodon.  That's exactly what you're about to see.  You're welcome.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Summary of Actual, Current Starship Designs

From Popular Mechanics here.

Jack London, The Scarlet Plague (1915)

It's not exactly a zombie novel, but it's definitely post-apocalyptic.   (Yes, and it's by that Jack London.)  For a return-to-the-stone-age work set in the ruins of San Francisco, I prefer Earth Abides by George Stewart, but this is still an interesting early twentieth century, return-to-savagery in a morally indifferent universe piece.   Full novel at Gutenberg here.

* * *

The old man peered from under his green leaf at the danger, and stood as quietly as the boy. For a few seconds this mutual scrutinizing went on; then, the bear betraying a growing irritability, the boy, with a movement of his head, indicated that the old man must step aside from the trail and go down the embankment. The boy followed, going backward, still holding the bow taut and ready. They waited till a crashing among the bushes from the opposite side of the embankment told them the bear had gone on. The boy grinned as he led back to the trail.

"A big un, Granser," he chuckled.

The old man shook his head.

"They get thicker every day," he complained in a thin, undependable falsetto. "Who'd have thought I'd live to see the time when a man would be afraid of his life on the way to the Cliff House. When I was a boy, Edwin, men and women and little babies used to come out here from San Francisco by tens of thousands on a nice day. And there weren't any bears then. No, sir. They used to pay money to look at them in cages, they were that rare."

"What is money, Granser?"

Before the old man could answer, the boy recollected and triumphantly shoved his hand into a pouch under his bear-skin and pulled forth a battered and tarnished silver dollar. The old man's eyes glistened, as he held the coin close to them.

"I can't see," he muttered. "You look and see if you can make out the date, Edwin."

The boy laughed.

"You're a great Granser," he cried delightedly, "always making believe them little marks mean something."

The old man manifested an accustomed chagrin as he brought the coin back again close to his own eyes.

"2012," he shrilled, and then fell to cackling grotesquely. "That was the year Morgan the Fifth was appointed President of the United States by the Board of Magnates. It must have been one of the last coins minted, for the Scarlet Death came in 2013. Lord! Lord!—think of it! Sixty years ago, and I am the only person alive to-day that lived in those times. Where did you find it, Edwin?"

William Gibson: SF Writers are Screw-Ups

...when it comes to making real predictions anyway. He makes the excellent point that we remember only the successes, but we don't compare that number against the overall denominator of all predictions. Most of which are goofy and wrong. SF is great because it allows us to bring an additional element of literature into play (setting) instead of just accepting it as a given, thus considering counterfactuals and asking questions that we would not be able to otherwise. But as fiction, it's always a mirror of the people writing and reading it, and the time and place they live.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

How to Build an Interstellar Ship

This piece focuses on the here-and-now urban ecology applications that could help drive the development of interstellar-travel-oriented biotechnology. This is smart because a nearer-term payoff dramatically helps to move technology like this forward, and it's why the recent asteroid mining proposal is exciting (though there hasn't been a lot of discussion since the initial press release).

Another possibility, if not for interstellar travel, then for colonizing Mars - settling Antarctica sustainably.

You think that's inhospitable? Seriously? Then you don't even want to see Mars. That's all water laying around. Plus there's air. And Antarctic settlements wouldn't last two years once the supply lines shut down.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

An Amazingly Disgusting 1980s Cartoon: Inhumanoids

It really is amazing that this grotesque series got picked up by a network, in the 1980s. Evil giant undead creatures living underground? See-through digestive chambers used to torture people? I mean come on. If you don't watch the whole thing (which you really should) skip to 17 minutes even for a real time-stopping gem of a line by the gastrointestinally gifted main antagonist (give it a few seconds).

Monday, September 17, 2012

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Vandenberg Launch Now Scheduled 14:39 Pac Time Thurs 13 Sept.

And I'm not holding my breath for that one either.  Too bad it's during the day.

Send Ships to Space With Nuclear Bombs

It was called Project Orion - documentary here.  There was actual U.S. Federal research money spent on this.  If you've ever read the Niven-Pournelle novel Footfall you've heard of this before.  (Thanks to Kevin for the tip on the documentary.)

More Nerdy Things in San Diego

The personal drone company 3D Robotics, which also has a manufacturing facility across the border in Tijuana.

Thursday, September 6, 2012


For the MD/PhD's for metal, to celebrate my joining this august assemblage, a selection from the greatest movie ever made, Knights. This is a moving film about empowering disabled people with sialorrhea in the Southwest:

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Sugar Molecules Found Around Young Star

IRAS 16293-2422 is a young binary system, and now carbohydrate molecules - specifically, glycoaldehyde - have been found in the dust around it. What's interesting is a 2005 paper showing higher-than-expected abundance of sulfur-containing molecules; sulfur is important in biology since it is relatively easily oxidized or reduced and can form bridges with itself.

The less speculative reason this is interesting is because it has implications for the evolution of life and the deposition of organic molecules in an early solar system that would make Earth-like life possible. More speculatively, if such things as von Neumann probes exist, these dust clouds around young stars (if common) would be substrate-rich places to reproduce if they're using organics, since they wouldn't have to go down a gravity well or even drill into an asteroid as has been previously discussed.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Real Hari Seldon

The real-life Hari Seldon is Peter Turchin, a man who aims to find the patterns in history.  One of the requirements for Seldon's psychohistory was that the populations under observation didn't know of the predictions; in the same vein, can we apply patterns from the pre-industrial age to the modern world, or are all bets now off?  Full article here at my socioeconomic blog The Late Enlightenment.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Friday, August 24, 2012

The VLA and Skynet

The Very Large Array (VLA) is a fairly well-known radiotelescope installation on the San Augustin Plain west of Socorro, New Mexico.  I went there two weeks ago.

These have been used with various degrees of special effects in several science fiction movies, notably Contact, 2010, and most recently Terminator:  Salvation:

Keeping this in mind, when I encountered the wall of notes (above) that past visitors had left for the astronomers, I made sure to add my own to warn them.  (A post-it note is the only responsible way to try to warn someone of the impending extinction of humanity.)

The whole time I was there I did not see a single other human being, so maybe Skynet has already taken it over and is just lying low.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

I Ain't Never Seen THIS Autobot Afore

From Comic-Con 2012, San Diego.

Oration On UCSD Architecture

"UCSD’s continued expansion into a science-fiction nightmare: It’s been a growing monstrosity for decades. Where there once stood mighty eucalyptus groves and quaint ’70s wooden ranch architecture, there are now mostly big gray concrete boxes. Nothing’s human scale. One of the last campus sweet spots, the charming University Center, with its 1950s Camp Matthews bungalows and grass field, was leveled a few years ago to make way for the giant, hideous Jacobs School of Engineering building. Wanna feel like a cyborg sent for reprogramming in a dystopian future? Borrow $80,000 and get a degree from the University of California. "

Well that's nitpicking isn't it.

I might not join the writer of this erstwhile San Diego preservationist in UCSD-bashing, but in all seriousness, I'm not a big fan of the nearby Salk Institute. Like many people I'm not a big fan of mid-to-late twentieth century institutional modern architecture in general. Anything that attempts to create its own style looks dated very quickly (ever see the quaintly 60s international terminal at JFK? Eero Saarinen, same guy who did the St. Louis Arch. Only the Arch remains in good taste since it's too simple to identify with any one era.) And the worst thing about modern architecture, since it's clearly meant to impress one-time visitors rather than the people that work there? The bathrooms always suck. This is the most important room in the building as far as I'm concerned, and in the Salk they're a disaster, just like in many of Frank Lloyd Wright's buildings. Beth Shalom Synagogue in Philadelphia, one of his last structures, is a perfect example.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Vandenberg Launch 0027 Friday 3 August

The launch of the NROL-36 payload (a spy satellite) was delayed 1 day. This means it will be launched Thursday night/Friday morning at 12:27 a.m. I've seen a launch from just outside Vandenberg but I want to see if it's visible from San Diego - it's 230 air miles but it should be, since these launches are usually visible from San Francisco which is further. Vandenberg launch schedule here. Beware sudden-onset fog at the coast! If this hadn't been delayed, I would have missed it last night for exactly that reason.

Atlas V launch from Cape Canaveral earlier in 2012. 
Skip to 2m20s for the liftoff.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Stuff on the Radio Really Does Suck

And now we have quantitative evidence. This shouldn't be surprising. If you're hearing it on a for-profit radio chain, why should it appeal to taste? It just needs to be inoffensive; the Budweiser of music as it were. This is even truer of film, where the medium requires greater initial investment so business interests are more risk-averse. Profit and business are great, but not necessarily for producing great art. When we pay attention to what organizations are maximizing, the world makes more sense.

Remember That Lou Reed-Metallica Album?

Fortunately, neither do I. But this Chuck Klosterman piece on Loutallica says it all. Attempts at innovation are to be commended but the reason not everyone does it is that they very often don't succeed. And I'm sure Lars Ulrich will see this on the internet and start crying.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Theory of Everything Really Might Be

Swiss AI researcher Jürgen Schmidhuber makes a computational argument for the possibility that our universe is completely deterministic - apparently random events are not, and therefore predictions for everything (everything!) can be compressed into short strings.  I got this from the list of "higher order" conspiracy theories here.  Note that he's not making a formal argument but rather making a weaker statement that we have no evidence that our universe does not have these characteristics.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Evolutionary Algorithms Produce Music

We need to do this but with the feedback coming entirely from metalheads.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Science Fiction Movies as Old School Pulp Novels

While we're all bashing Ridley Scott.  Via Reddit. More here.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Prometheus Spoilers

[Added later:  without looking for them I encountered a number of negative reviews of Prometheus on the web, every last one of them bad.  Links to them at the end.  The one by Julian Sanchez is the funniest.  Also, someone I saw the movie with pointed out that there are fixes to some of the apparent plot holes, the biggest of which is that this is NOT the same planet as the rest of the movies!  I and most of the audience had missed that completely.]

Not only are there spoilers, but also there's me complaining for several paragraphs.  So steel yourself against the onslaught of whingeing.  I tried to keep myself from having unrealistically high expectations, and the other folks I saw the movie with seemed to like it.  The following reiew is written assuming you've seen it.  Note that if I walked into a science fiction movie and it was deep enough that it was even possible to critique it on this level, I would be very happy.  But I have high standards for Ridley Scott films.  Starting out positive:

The Good

1) The universality of meaningless struggle and violence and smallness.  In the later movies, nasty small-minded humans are trying deliberately to get the xenomorphs as weapons.  This is portrayed as a sign of the awfulness of human behavior, and yet that's exactly what these things were designed as in the first place, and in fact our wonderful creators were going to use them on us, not even for any reason that we could understand. My favorite scene in Alien is Ash's monologue on the amoral perfection of the xenomorphs, and the one that comes close here is David pointing out the disappointment of finding out the desultoriness of one's creators, but how they might in fact be one's moral inferiors.  (There are echoes of the scene in Tyrrell's bedroom with Roy Baty and his own creator.)

2) Surprises.  a) That the space jockeys are humans wearing helmets. b) That Vickers is Weyland's daughter (clearly android like in the beginning). I was expecting another android though for a while I was convinced it was the captain. (Problem, not unique to this movie: advanced technology advancing further. David is an early model android. Presumably 28 years later, Ash is better than him, and 85 years later Bishop is better still. I didn't notice that much of a difference.  More on this below)

3) Body horror:  An alien parasite results in actual pregnancy, vs. just an exogenous parasite in your stomach. The medical capsule scene got to a lot of people. Which is good.

The Bad (in roughly decreasing order of badness): 

1) Underdeveloped immortality.  The theme of the quest for immortality and its consequences was badly underdeveloped.  Show how it's a naive fantasy and the universe is at best indifferent to our dreams and values; or show how it's actually immoral or a tragic flaw, and leads directly to our downfall.  As it is, we don't know which it is, or frankly if the writers even thought about it.  It's right in the middle:  prominent enough to draw attention, not coherent enough or given enough time to matter or make sense.

2) Underdeveloped characters.  I'm certainly not the only one to notice this.  Elizabeth Shaw is somewhat well fleshed-out, as is Ms. Vickers (Charlize Theron) and David the android.  But even the well-built characters have cloudy motivations (Vickers is the only consistent one) and make decisions based on knowledge they couldn't have or at least be certain of.  Examples:  Shaw's mate and colleague mopes around the ship after finding all the space jockeys are dead, but we don't know enough about him to understand his moping.  He's just co-discovered the biggest find of all time, as he himself states!  He certainly doesn't come across as a true believer on the level of Weyland.  And when the previously infertile Shaw is suddenly pregnant (something that seemed important to her just hours before) she has no ambivalence at all about slicing out the fetus before she's even seen it, though granted she wanted to and David wouldn't let her.  Why does she so rapidly switch from awe at the creators to demanding (futilely) to ask to their faces why they were going to kill us?  David's Freudian/Oedipal "kill your parents" line came out of nowhere - yes, he's an android, but he had no character non sequiturs before that point.  And how did the captain know that those things on the ship were weapons?  And why did the flight crew so easily believe Shaw's claims that the ship was going to Earth as to commit suicide?

3) Context.  It would've helped our understanding of the characters' reactions a lot to know where humans are in terms of finding life elsewhere in the universe.  Have we already found alien algae?  Alien civilizations, or at least dead ones?  Here in the real world, we've crashed a spacecraft into Jupiter to avoid crashing onto and contaminating Europa, and here these yahoos are taking their helmets off inside an alien temple.  They're about as cavalier as you could possibly be, landing on a (previously inhabited by intelligent aliens!) alien planet for the first time.

4) Strange choice of weapons.  a) They weren't necessarily expecting an oxygen atmosphere and yet they brought flamethrowers.  b) The space jockeys must rely on weapons that come after you like giant predators and bust out of your abdomen?  Really?  Yes, those critters are nasty, but if the space jockeys are masters of biology, you'd think it would be easy to create a virus that kills us but not them, and then they have Earth to themselves.  The zombie virus that infected one of the crewmembers would be a lot more effective.

5) Continuity.  When Vickers got buried, I thought "Okay, this is why future expeditions didn't find human bodies and a pod.  Then when the space jockey comes into the escape pod to kill Shaw, I thought, "How does he end up back in the pilot's chair?"  Of course we find out in the end that there are ships all over the planet, which gets them out of arranging things like they're found in Alien - but not out of why later expeditions (and colonists!) didn't notice the temples and ships all over the planet!   Even if Scott said the hell with Aliens and later films, we need continuity at least with his own.

6) Common problems of science fiction.  The following are problems that aren't unique to this movie since they arise constantly from certain commonly used science fiction elements. 
  a) This planet was, if not one of the first interstellar systems humans visited, one of the early ones (30-odd LY away).  So in the next ~28 years before Ripley's crew goes there (apparently on the way back from somewhere else even further away), no one else notices anything odd?  Or notices the distress beacon?  But this same problem exists elsewhere; in Star Trek Enterprise we meet aliens that are nowhere to be found in later series, even though presumably these are aliens that are closer to Earth than others because we meet them so early in our first tentative explorations. 

  b) There are 35,000 year old cave paintings in Scotland.  The dead space jockey was 2,000 years old.  So is an already advanced race really so substantially similar, in appearance and technology, after 33,000 years?  Again, this is an almost insoluble problem in science fiction dealing with long periods of time in the future, when the starting point is already far beyond us technologically. 

  c) In movies that rely on a paradigm shift for the money shot - think the red pill awakening in the Matrix, or finding out the aliens are lizards in V - it's very hard to do a reboot, or frankly even make additional movies.  You're trapped into either doing something different, in which case the people who went to see the movie are disappointed, or you do the same reveal, in which case no one gives a damn because they already knew, or you do it half-assed.  (But the movies get made, because we buy tickets; you don't get a refund if you complain enough in a blog post.)  Prometheus used the third option, with things going down people's throats.  Yes, it's invasion of one's habitus but it's not things bursting out of stomachs, and it's not as good or surprising as the first time.  But we're seeing the Alien prequel, so we're expecting it.

A counterargument that was offered to my critiques is "Maybe it's a science fiction movie."  (Thanks Colin.)

Technical quibbles: 

- The language that David was practicing did appear (in my brief glimpse of it) to be proto-Indo-European. (The gh's.) Indeed there's a tradition, thanks to Marija Gimbutas and others, of imagining the ancestral Indo-Europeans as pale, dark-haired militaristic super-men who swept out of the plains north of the Black Sea and descended on the poor Basques and Dravidians and whoever else got in their way. If this reminds you of the Kurgan from the Highlander, you're right on, since kurgans are burial mounds in the Ukraine that are thought to be the remnants of Indo-European culture prior to the diaspora. The problem with the space jockeys being Indo-Europeans is that there was no written form - the first written IE language we know is Hittite, about 2000 BC - so David would have been out of luck. This will certainly be the only blog post in the world calling the film out on this so I don't think I'm going to hurt anyone's feelings.

- Most obvious, you can't see things as small as DNA, not with visible light.  Yes, this film is not a course in electron microscopy, so I took it as expressionism.  Or something.

- We don't know any mechanism that would put and keep oxygen in a planet's atmosphere, other than biology.  So they should've been very interested in that.  Maybe it was the terraforming temples, but they don't discuss this.

- They were able to determine that the space jockey was human.  Fine - but he clearly isn't any kind of human we (or they) have seen before.  Their awesome late 21st century sequencer should have seen this, and it might have made the movie more interesting to add, "He's most closely related to - Bushmen, but they've diverged for over 100,000 years."

Stuck out to me because I didn't get it:

- The reference(s) to (I believe) Lawrence of Arabia.  Maybe the crew noticed that the actor playing David bore a resemblance to the young Peter O'Toole, and that was that, but it seems this wouldn't have made it into the film.  It's hard to fit any individual or group in the film into a narrative parallel to L of A.

- The repetitive "I choose to believe it" from a woman wearing a cross.  Ironically I was seeing this movie with a few folks from the San Diego New Atheists, so this didn't go over so well, but I also don't think that Scott was saying that this is the way to go.  (Her choice of belief ended up not working out that well for her.)  It is interesting that the cross here (as often elsewhere) seems to be a symbol for abstract belief in belief, rather than "My saviour is a supernatural being who was tortured on a device like this".  Still I'm not sure where this fits into the rest of the movie.  There's no apparent link to the immortality theme either.

This movie fell short of my admittedly high expectations, and I worry that Scott has come down with Lucas syndrome - many ideas, and he's now too much of a giant for crew to challenge him on the bad or underdeveloped ones.

[As promised, more reviews here by Marshall Maresca, WhyEvolutionIsTrue, and the funniest by Julian Sanchez. ]