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.