Sunday, December 29, 2013

Modern Technology and von Neumann Probes: And Again, the Fermi Paradox

Good discussion here of how modern technologies (3D printing) could be applied to building our own self-replicating space probes, which in turn inevitably leads to a Fermi paradox discussion. Replicating probes are the way to go because they cover more territory faster. Authors cited in the article place lower and upper bounds on time to colonize the galaxy with self-replicators from 3.75 to 300 million years. Either way, it's difficult to square an apparently empty galaxy with these numbers, or indeed with the feasibility of such an endeavor. In fact, Frank Tipler (who made the upper bound estimate here) went so far as to argue that this has to mean there are no other intelligent aliens.

This version of the Fermi paradox can be solved by any of these:

- Most likely: they're around, and we haven't looked enough, or don't recognize them, or they avoid us because they're more interested in their own replication than in contacting other intelligent species, for some strange reason. We should expect that any self-replicating probes we find will have undergone natural selection to be primarily good at making copies of themselves, and secondarily at performing whatever mission their initial long-ago designers created them for.

- We're over-optimistic, and self-replicating probes are not feasible.

- These time estimates are not conservative enough.

- We really are the only intelligent species, or at least life is extremely rare.

Prebiotic Source of Nucleobases Found in Comets and Molecular Clouds

Formamide. It's been found in warm star-forming regions in about the same abundances as on some comets. Here's the possible synthetic pathway.


Star-forming region LH 95. Image credit NASA.

Franchise Gross, Per Movie Gross, and Profitability

Neat gadget from the New Yorker graphically showing that data. This is neat enough already, but the icing on the cake would be a way to look at per movie gross against ROI. Studios get nervous with big productions where they'll get killed if they don't make back their investment; better to have low-to-moderate-investment projects that are reliably profitable (hence Adam Sandler movies). Of course, you could be saying "but what about art!?!" in which case, there are any number of riskier projects on Kickstarter that would love your attention. The big studios pursue awards secondarily - they're businesses. (That's why they're big.)

Not surprisingly, with a much higher ROI on smaller initial outlays, more consistent ongoing returns over time, and distribution technology that allows them to control piracy much better, video games are commanding increasing attention as a fraction of the entertainment market. The only question is, where are the video game stars, and why haven't they outshone the film industry yet?

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Burgess Shale of the Singularity

This is the house in Palo Alto (or rather, the detached garage) where Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard built their oscillator, HP's first successful device, in 1939. Although it's a private home it's listed as a landmark, and while I was taking this picture two other groups of people came by to pay homage (one from France, one from Brazil) which made me feel not so weird for walking over there.


When the machines are looking back at their own Cambrian explosion-equivalent, perhaps they will view this place as the primordial pool from whence they arose.

I Wonder If They Sell Nexus Hair Products There

Come to think of it I wonder if they even make Nexus products anymore...(in San Francisco, a block away from this.)

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Water Vapor From Europa's South Pole

PART I: Europa has water vapor plumes at its south poles, consistent with tidal heating (Science paper here.) These are more easily understood but no less exciting than the water vapor plumes seen last year over the south pole of Saturn's moon Enceladus, which turned out to contain organics.

Enceladus
Europa

The reason this is so interesting is not just the possibility of life in these alien oceans, but the broader implications for the spread of chemical replicators on water-containing low-gravity bodies. Increasingly it seems that many asteroids are just dried-out comets that last their external volatiles, like we just watched in accelerated fashion with ISON. It's now well-established that both asteroids and comets contain amino acids and nucleobases (PNAS paper there), both from samples of fallen meteors as well as sample return missions like Stardust, which brought back material from comet Wild-2, which turned out to have an extra-solar origin (as well as carrying the amino acid glycine). If there are replicators - either natively evolved, or von Neumann probes, mutant or otherwise - it is likely they'll be composed of easily available building blocks in low gravity environments, and spread during Oort cloud exchange between adjacent solar systems.

Another implication is that the answer to the Fermi paradox may be that we're a little premature in saying there's no evidence of life. This is especially true since humans haven't even made 50 soft landings on other bodies in our own solar system. The Dawn mission to Ceres arrives in 2015 and the findings will be interesting no matter what.

As an aside, replicators that spread between stars would ideally avoid gravity wells like Earth, because we're dead-ends, at least without expending huge amounts of energy to get back out. That said, if you think simple life at the scale of a virus or prokaryote couldn't survive re-entry simply by sheltering in a crack on a rock, try again. The C. elegans worms carried aboard the Columbia were found alive in a Texas swamp 3 weeks after the shuttle broke up on re-entry. And they're multicellular.

(Of note for amateur astronomers: here's a Twitter feed for a quick check of the positions of Jupiter's moons relative to Earth. If it's cold and clear where you live, take advantage and get out there with a telescope!)


PART II: Movie Review, Europa Report

Fittingly enough I watched Europa report about two weeks before this news came out. It's on Netflix, and if you have Netflix, go watch it right now. (Trailer) It's a recently released independent and I'd count it among the better science fiction movies I've seen. A la 2001 and other hard science fiction works, there's not a lot of screwing around with normal filmy conventions; although maybe too much character development for my taste, because character development is not what this film is for. It's a technically accurate, very un-wild-eyed tale about the first manned landing on Europa, told mostly in raw video logs from the spacecraft with occasional after-the-fact narration from the mission chief on the ground. Beyond that I can't tell you too much without spoiling the movie, but you don't need me to. My only criticism, and it's not really a criticism, is that at times I felt like it was made as a trick to get more young people excited about the next phase of space exploration. If that's true, they still made an excellent movie. (Like I said, not a criticism.)

Defiler Touring Australia With Mastodon, Dillinger, et al

Hasn't been officially announced yet but it's leaked online. Soundwave is kind of like Australia's Warped Tour, but mostly for metal. Coming up late Feb/early March 2014. And Defiler is on it. Go. Here's The Regulators:



Listen you idiots down in Oz, I saw these guys at the Whisky in LA, and then the rest of the world has been using them since then (e.g. Russia). Go to the show. If you're smart you won't give me a problem.

China Lands Rover On Moon, Western Press Barely Reports

China has landed a rover in the Bay of Rainbows. Tonight when you go outside, look up; it's here:


Bay of Rainbows is the red X, upper right. It's not near any other landings, which is good for learning more about the Moon. Interactive map of the Moon and previous landings here.


The second story here is the meta-story of how little of a story this has been in the U.S. press. Only Cassini's maneuvers around the Enceladus water plumes in 2012 rival this for the lowest ratio of reporting:importance ratio. The extreme under-reporting of this event - the first landing in four decades - shows the U.S. press bias against science reporting, and/or against the possible relevance of anything that is done by someone outside the U.S. Sometimes I think it was a miracle that the Higgs boson was reported! Plus, the more groups of people we have in space (public or private), the more competition and the better for space exploration and science.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

New Godzilla Slated for 2014: Score Indicates 2001 Crossover


Above: as it turns out, the apes at the beginning of 2001 weren't the first thing the Monoliths tried to uplift on Earth, but the first time they tried it was with T. rex and it didn't go so well. I just wish someone would put a Monolith in Texas already. ZING, Hey-O!

Ever since the debacle of Prometheus in mid-2012 and the too-lukewarm-to-be-bad live action version of Yamato, I've been hesitant to let myself get too excited about new releases of film or music. But here they come remaking my other favorite thing from childhood, Godzilla, and I again find myself getting hopeful. I never even saw the 1998 one all the way through. An argument can be made that the solid competition from a smarter-than-expected Pacific Rim will push it to greatness, but who knows.

What I do know is that the Godzilla trailer's use of the spooky Stanley Kubrick weird mental light show music from the end of 2001 makes me think the jump crew is about to attack David Bowman.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

New Ecosystem Appearing Around Ocean-Borne Plastic Waste


LA Times


The idea of new replicators arising in man-made "ecospheres" is not new in science fiction - oftentimes the concept appears in fiction as machines self-assembling out of junk. This is the one interesting idea in John Updike's confused attempt at science fiction Toward the End of Time; there are "metallobioforms" that have appeared out of our waste. In the real world there is already a well-documented and very real machine ecology, albeit a virtual one, that has appeared around the stock market. Look for resources that are important to the tool makers, and there you will find the most advanced tools. The Pacific Garbage Patch is another entity that seems like it was made for speculative fiction, unpleasant though the reality is.

Consequently it's more than interesting that there is now a new micro-ecology detected growing on plastic waste in the ocean. This paper (gated) took waste from the Atlantic, and did some pretty interesting meta-genomics to see what was growing. I'm no microbiologist but I did scan the list for medically significant pathogens; the most concerning one is unidentified Vibrio species, concerning because they cause cholera among other things. But the analysis yielded a long, long list, which also included Moraxella (which causes pneumonia) and Pseudomonas, my personal favorite bacterium, which is kind of a jack-of-all trades in terms of what it can eat and what infections it can cause, and is already used for bio-remediation since many species can eat oil and other hydrocarbons. If you can get to the paper it's especially worth seeing their network analysis of hydrocarbon-metabolizing genes.

Artificial Slum For Tourists Prove We Live in a Science Fiction Novel

One co-written by William Gibson and Umberto Eco I think. This is in South Africa. I mean come on. Article here.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Legend of Zelda, Overworld Theme, Metal Version (orig. Koji Kondo)



I don't know which I enjoy more, these metal versions of video game themes (another one here), or 8-bit versions of metal songs. Also check out Jens Bjoern's version. (Bjoern's other stuff is worth a watch.)



Wednesday, November 20, 2013

World-Building: Delusions and Reference in Fiction

I'm in the middle of my interview cycle right now for psychiatry residencies, and one of my interviewers pointed me to the article that the movie KPAX was based on. You may remember this as the one where Kevin Spacey is a delusional patient who thinks he's an alien...or is he?

The movie actually annoyed me because (spoiler alert) they kept it neatly ambiguous, which I think is the lazy way out. More interesting is the true story that inspired the movie, The Jet Propelled Couch, a case study of a delusional patient which appeared in Harper's in 1954. (Since the 70s people have debated whether the anonymized patient in the article was actually science fiction writer Cordwainer Smith, and they have a decent case.) The psychiatrist who was treating the patient was himself a science fiction fan, and found himself eagerly awaiting installments from the patient's delusion. Ultimately the patient was cured of his delusion in exactly this way, when the psychiatrist found repeated internal contradictions in the material the patient was providing - for instance, in the distances of star systems from each other - but instead of saying to the patient "Aha! You have been caught and must now admit this is all nonsense!" the psychiatrist would suggest ways that the inconsistencies could be corrected - maybe the navigators who made the maps were using different units, and request that the patient correct the information for the next session. After enough of this, the patient finally realized he was making it all up.



This approach intrigued me because it works as a rhetorical approach with not-fully-delusional ideologues. Try this sometime. Instead of immediately pushing back against the declared beliefs, take them seriously, and follow their direct implications "out loud" for the benefit of the ideologue. This usually leads to glaring contradictions pretty quickly. This is a tough one for the ideologue, unless they're willing to come out and say "I demand you stop taking my ideas seriously!"

Many of us science fiction types enjoy learning the details of worlds and histories that don't exist, not to mention inventing our own. Scratch a science fiction fan and you may find a reluctant world-builder. But world-building doesn't require us to be delusional. (Articles on non-delusional world-building here.) I've met some frighteningly devoted Trekkies, but not a single one who thinks that Klingons existed. Then again, as a kid I did have the following odd experience: at about 14 years old, I had created a future universe where humans encountered the Ptranians, or the "space rats" as they were not undeservingly called, for their ferocity and hardiness. These unpleasant fellows evolved on a large moon of a gas giant orbiting Algedi, a place with violent, toxic geology and worse weather, and subsequently were very difficult to kill. Physically they were bipedal, covered with green and blue scales, with no hair but rather thick bristles that ran in a long mohawk-strip from their heads to their tails. In 2691 an Earth colony at 61 Cygni - to which we were only connected by light-speed transmissions - went silent, and then in 2712, the rats were here, attacking Earth. Anyway...one day, in the height of my fevered imaginings, I thought to myself "well if somehow NASA were to point some new state-of-the-art telescope at Algedi, they wouldn't see this planet and all the Ptranian ships right? They're not really there, right?" And I realized that for a few seconds I couldn't fully convince myself - didn't want to convince myself - that no, if there was anything at all orbiting Algedi, it wasn't space rats. It was a bizarre feeling of my thoughts about this being blocked. That scared the hell out of me. Fortunately my mind today is unclouded by delusional thoughts, which is important for someone as powerful, brilliant and handsome as myself.

All this does beg some questions about the linguistic problem of reference with respect to fiction - how can you say Yoda isn't 6 feet tall? He doesn't exist, he isn't any feet tall! - which seems (boringly) solved by recognizing that what we're really doing is interpreting inconsistent marks on a page that cause images in people's heads, which are extended according to assumed rules. Sometimes these rules are broken by enterprising writers (e.g. unreliable narrators) but somehow the contradictions and paradoxes thereby engendered do not cause the universe to implode in a pile of contradictions.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Review: Carcass, Surgical Steel (2013)

Short version: it's outstanding. Get it and listen to it repeatedly or be destroyed.

Long version: before we get to the song-by-song breakdown, a bit of Carcass history is in order; after all, it's 28 years since they first arose from their nursery of crusted iron, cracked stone and steel. One thing that this other review gets right is splitting Carcass's work into two periods, the grindcore and the death metal periods (where grind includes Reek of Putrefaction and Symphonies of Sickness). Carcass is one of my favorite bands, period, and I have listened to each of the grindcore period records exactly once, which I do not regret.[1] What's interesting is there's really not a smooth progression from one period to the next; there's really a full saltation from Symphonies to Necroticism, without any obvious exogenous reasons like personnel changes. By the way: now might be a good time to re-visit Necroticism. This record seems to be prompting that from a lot of old Carcass fans, and if you're a new Carcass fan, all the more reason. Badly simplifying, the new record is like Necroticism with Heartwork production and some Heartwork licks.

Every time a band takes the effort and money to make a record that doesn't sound like it was made in their parents' garage, the fragile underground types of the world invariably start mumbling "sellout". There aren't many negative reviews of Surgical Steel but the one negative review I've found so far seems to hail from these quarters. The ship out of the underground sailed long ago in the case of Carcass, and I'm glad that the people who like the technical death metal version of Carcass are no longer shy about telling the neckbeards to go cry it off in their parents' basements. If indeed any such basement-dwelling obscurovores are listening to the new record, then the two most stinging insults come from this album itself, which features a) an opening with a riff from a proto-Carcass recording, now given full professional production (nice catch by Michael Nelson in the first review above) and b) a whole song directly addressing said neckbeards. This latter irony seems to have escaped the neckbeard who wrote the negative review.


Me with Bill Steer and Jeff Walker outside House of Blues, Los Angeles 2006. Bill was as laid back and nice as you would expect. Jeff was as sarcastic and blunt as you would expect, but still somehow not a dick. Amott didn't talk to the fans.


In general this record continues in the vein of Necroticism and Heartwork, more like the former than the latter, with fewer neo-classical arrangements and more bizarre exotic melodies, bizarre music theory experiments[2] and skewed arpeggioid motifs (e.g. the odd ascending minor scales in Carneous Cacoffiny.) For those Carcass critics who don't like Swansong, there's not a lot here that is clearly an extension of that record, except maybe their greater reliance on metal's traditional major third harmony to build power (although to good effect). In many ways, Carcass's finest moments fit squarely within thrash - drum and bass synchronization with crunchy riffs, the use of exotic scales, and song structures that are generally not that complex. If I have complaints about Surgical Steel, they are:

1) that Amott is conspicuously absent from the album in all respects, including in the thank-yous. I can't imagine what would have prompted Amott not to be part of this other than something negative (wanting more money or personality conflicts). Not surprisingly, there's an absence of neo-classical bits seen most on Heartwork that most people had previously (and correctly) attributed to Amott; these made their first appearance on Necroticism, specifically in Incarnated Solvent Abuse;

and

2) that I was hoping to see a continued growth of Carcass's ability to develop songs, which talent Edge of Darkness on Wake Up and Smell the Carcass brilliantly demonstrates.[3] (Another example of what I'm talking about is some of the Tool song Eulogy.) But what Surgical Steel lacks in subtle thematic development it makes up for in volume of massive, smash-your-head-in, attention-demanding riffs nailed into the songs. Some find riff-fests like this to be a bit clinical (think Chuck Schuldiner) but if you're reading a Carcass review, that's probably not you.

If there is any stand-out change from previous albums it's a more personal feeling to the lyrics - more than before, you really feel this is Jeff Walker, telling you what's what, and that's fine - but more than that, the drums are impressive. There have been a number of comparisons of the guitars on this record to Dave Mustaine, but Ken Owen's[4] replacement Dan Wilding is truly Lombardoesque in the small touches he places, in particular the little fills just prior to the ends of phrases (see Mount of Execution).


SONG BY SONG

1985: A relatively brief guitar intro which would not have been out of place on Master of Puppets.

Thrasher's Abbatoir: a straight-ahead Carcass song with fast amodal fast-picked fret sweeps and kick-snares, but with few stand-out riffs. The lyrics make this one. I guess they were worried about picking up fans for the wrong reasons: "Hipsters and posers I abhor, Welcome to the thrasher's abattoir/Detruncation, Termination, With no sedation/Emasculation, Terrorization, Extermination. This means total W.A.R., welcome to absolute poserslaught. Die...time to die...die in pain." Right then!

Cadaver Pouch Conveyor System: early in the song there's a nice melodic guitar riff in a kick-snare section, and then some of the unexpected sequences of open chords (see I Told You So, Corporate Rock Really Does Suck from Wake Up). Then that section goes straight into one of my favorite moments on the record, an excellent solo during a simple bass-driven 4/4 crunch riff, which is reminiscent of a section in Opeth's Deliverance.

A Congealed Clot of Blood: this is the song on Steel that's closest to being "part 2" of a previous Carcass song, in this case Necroticism's Corporeal Jigsore Quandary. Why? Because of the part where a slow massive evil riff is put on display to bring our infernal lord forth into this world. Hail His infernal majesty! Hail Him this night! Hyperbole? Judge for yourself:





When that riff begins, you know the death growl is coming before you hear it. Plus, they're insulting jihadis, and it's always a good thing when religious extremists are insulted.

Master Butcher's Apron: there's a nice major-third riff in an early bridge section, followed by an excellent Bill Steer bizarre backwards-sounding riff. Apparently about post-colonial dictators; this is a much more political album than anything Carcass has done before, but I blame this on our being in a more political world than in 1996.

Noncompliance To ASTM F 899-12 Standard: opens with an unapologetically beautiful harmonic descending riff, then blasts straight into speed-picked fretwork. (One of the strengths of Carcass - the juxtaposition of the beautiful and brutal. See Heartwork's Death Certificate or Swansong's Polarized.) The harmonic opening is possibly not an accident, because this song is one long insult against the underground. Here Walker's word play is back in top form (see Embodiment, Blind Bleeding the Blind), with the single-letter changes and oxymoronic phrases one on top of the other: "Artistically moribund, Soulless ghosts of the underground, By the past you are bound, Stunted at birth/Dulled, blunted, low tensile dearth metal, Melodists of soullessness, Harmonisers of the converse". By virtue of one excellent high-register bridge riff with bent notes, this is the most Archenemy-sounding song on the record. (Oddly, considering the aforementioned total absence of Amott.) The name is another pun, because ASTM F 899-12 is a steel alloy used in surgical instruments in the U.K.;[5] the demi-humans of the underground have apparently found Carcass to be departing from the regulations.

The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills: no I don't know what the numbers mean, but they're inexplicably cool. Walker mentions that there's a lot of dirty hard rock influence on this record and I think it's on strongest display here.

Unfit For Human Consumption: the tract against the meat industry on this album. The main riff is nice and fast and charges ahead (the kind that makes you involuntarily nod your head in time while listening). I wish Carcass would do more of this.

316 L Grade Surgical Steel: this is the most personal thing Carcass ever wrote, about a bitter failed relationship. In keeping with GCP (Good Carcass Practice) I had to look up a word ("wittol", an acquiescent cuckold). Oddly, I would be more disturbed by a Carcass veering into saccharine emotional exploration than by a Carcass that did a serious acoustic album (what that says about the genre or me I'm not sure). This is probably the song that most consciously develops a theme (listen here). There's also an excellent crunch riff.

Captive Bolt Pistol: one of the weaker songs on the record actually. I was a bit nervous when this was the first track released, but it's not representative of the other work here. There's a fast-picked guitar solo that's absolutely inhuman, but without that this would be a rather colorless death-thrash piece.

Mount of Execution: this is the one with the ass-kicking ending and in some American States is a valid defense for speeding and assault (give this some time). It also has a more traditional accoustic section than Carcass has used before. I'm not sure which particular horrible Latin American massacre they're referring to here, but it can't be a coincidence that Walker spent a lot of time in Mexico in the interregnum. This is the last song on the record and there's an outro that rubs some people the wrong way but it's just a nice big crunchy riff that didn't find a home elsewhere, so they put it here, because they're Carcass and they can do whatever they want.

NOTES

[1] In fact I'm not even sure I listened to Reek exactly once. It was on a cassette and for this attempt, it was in a deck that automatically changes sides and then restarts at the beginning. So maybe I listened a little bit less or more than a full cycle. Either way it's like listening to an Anal C*nt record, there's kind of no point once you read the lyrics and you really can't tell anyway.

[2] A (non-metal-fan) friend did an analysis of Death Certificate for a music theory class and was forced to the conclusion that the fast riffs are 12-tone. I can't tell from listening to it and have never seen the music for it so I can't agree or disagree.

[3] Edge of Darkness is one of their masterpieces. How it ended up on a B-side collection rather than displacing one of the several weaker songs on Swansong like Firm Hand is beyond me. As a further aside I don't agree with critics of Swansong. Although it's about a 75 degree turn and a simplification from Heartwork, it was a focused effort that anticipated the late 90s return to neo-thrash and it showed Walker's song-writing skills; he is after all the punk in the band, so you shouldn't expect him to put together 14-movement pieces with ornate riffs.

[4] At the 2006 L.A. show, Walker's best one-liner was "Yes, I'm afraid Ken's in a bad place right now...England."

[5] I looked the titles up because my dad actually had several patents on types of surgical steel and the coolest thing in the world would be if one of them was in the title of a Carcass song, but the Brits have to be special and use their own alloys.

Abolish the Rules Made of Stone



Seen in the sidewalk at Church and 15th Avenue, San Francisco.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Comet ISON Is More Weird Than Disappointing

No, you can't really see it as brightly as everyone thought (not yet - but wait until perihelion) but it has some very unusual characteristics. Isn't it obvious? We're all doomed! Where's Derek Wildstar when you need him?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Time-Manipulated Cricket Song

Without a doubt this is the eeriest, and even most frightening piece of music I have ever heard. I am posting it here for others but I cannot listen to it any more.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Mosh Pits Described by Gas Equations

Story here. Back in the day I described mosh pits to the un-initiated in exactly this way. Note: a mosh pit is clearly not an ideal gas, because the particles interact with each other.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Proposal: One Way to Find von Neumann Probes

Find their relay stations. Still very much bound by our assumptions about how communications work (and that such probes would care to communicate with each other) but still translates to an actionable plan that can be approached reasonably with current technology.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Polar Lichens Survive Martian Conditions

Tested by the German Aerospace Center here. Also interesting: experimental worms from the Columbia (C. elegans of course) survived uncontrolled re-entry and were found alive weeks after the crash.

In related news, Robin Hanson weighs in with a statistical argument supporting the increasingly plausible idea that the origin of life (at least in its simplest form) was not on Earth.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Improbable Convergent Evolution of Caucasians in Science Fiction


Yes Captain. I too am puzzled as to how white people evolved independently on every planet we go to; not only that, but how over time Khan appears to be a kind of deep space Michael Jackson. From startrek.com.

This is an expanded version of a comment at writer Marshall Maresca's blog. Maresca's original post is Perils of the Writer: Writing Race in SFF. In it he addresses that interesting convention, the occasional African-American alien in Star Trek:
My college roommate and I were watching Deep Space Nine, and in the episodes a small group of Bajorans were meeting with Cmdr. Sisko. One of the leaders of the Bajorans was played by a black actor.

"That's cool," my roommate said, "They have African-American Bajorans." Then after a moment he said, "Of course, that's inaccurate. He's Bajoran. Bajor is a different planet, there's no Africa, there's no America."

Over the course of the series, we saw that the Bajorans were as racially diverse as humans are*, but we never learn any real details of that diversity. And that's fine, because it didn't need to be directly addressed, it just was a part of their reality, easily achieved by color-blind casting.
Oddly, it was always the lack of racial diversity that stuck out to me in Star Trek. Does anyone seriously think there will be fewer multiracial people in the future? On one hand, Star Trek (and every other science fiction show and movie) is casting actors that their mostly-white audience will relate to; it's unfortunate, but I understand why. ST does have the occasional non-white regular cast member, and an occasional extra or non-recurring non-human played by not white actors, like the Bajoran Maresca mentions. But to the extent that we consider Star Trek to be in any way a plausible future as opposed to a Game of Thrones fantasy, then how amazing is it that not only are most of the aliens we meet humanoid, but they're Caucasian! Incredible! (Literally. Crabs I could believe, but extraterrestrial white people? Come on. I know that makeup and effects cost money so not everyone can be a Tholian, but there are plenty of non-white actors.)

In truth, I kind of view black Bajorans/Vulcans/etc. the same way that I view non-European actors in Shakespeare - in and of itself, you don't really take these casting decisions as making any point inside or outside the story, that's just who the actors are, and you forget about it. Did it really affect Voyager's storyline after the debut that Tuvok was a black Vulcan? Was there some interesting or painful chapter of history on Vulcan that this built into his character? And come to think of it, have there been Asian aliens with speaking roles in ST? I can't think of any examples. (If you tell me the Vulcans and Romulans count as Asians because they correspond to China and Japan in the original Gene Roddenberry one-alien-race equals one-nationality scheme, I'll punch you. I really will.)

The problem is that token aliens only make the lack of diversity and specifically, multi-racial characters in science fiction film and TV more obvious. Wait, it's the year 2330 (or whatever) and you're telling me not only is Starfleet still mostly white, but there aren't many multiracial humans? The modern U.S. Navy is more diverse than this! And why did they jump straight to multi-species characters? That is obviously intentionally making a point, which is useful and interesting, both inside and outside the story. Great, a half-Klingon faces discrimination and questioning looks, and some viewers will identify with that. What about a half-black half-Filipino actor that Paramount and the writers somehow couldn't fit into the twenty-fourth century? Those actors are absolutely out there.* Again, I imagine Paramount would make no bones about saying, "We cast people the audience will identify with." It's the audience's accepting this as being remotely representative of the future that's mystifying. "Not every science fiction show and movie has to be Fifth Element," people might say, and that's certainly true, but then you can't complain if you see people using 8-track tape players in the future either.

To the question of race in writing more broadly - it certainly can give a feeling of verisimilitude, but if someone has the chance to write race (in a supposed future world) and doesn't touch on the actual real-world hair triggers, I think they're wasting an opportunity unique to speculative fiction. Most alien races are just science fiction demi-humans; for all many writers do with them, just go ahead and put elves on Alpha Centauri and be more honest about it! But if you actually want to use your aliens for something, you can be District Nine. Even if you insist on Caucasian aliens, you can still be Alien Nation. If you don't have aliens, you can be subtle like Asimov in The Currents of Space, where he wrote something that was clearly about mid-century segregation in the U.S. even if the color scheme was reversed. Case in point, in Elysium, people speaking Spanglish down on grimy Earth, security forces speaking German up on the space station. (Ouch! This German-American saw that and said "Oh no you didn't!") But it gets people thinking who might not have thought before. My own "debut" novel (that is, the one I'm furthest along on) takes place far enough in the future that any descendants of ethnic groups we might recognize are distant myths, although the characters are definitely not Caucasian-looking. The protagonist is a member of an occasionally-persecuted sometimes-tolerated minority religion; he's a powerful man but still sighs at the bizarre, annoying, sometimes dangerous blood libels that persist against them. Any takers on who this is about?


*Of course you can name lots of multiracial entertainers who have been successful - Keanu Reeves, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Moon Bloodgood, Vanessa Williams and Dean Cain for starters - and many more are certainly coming. The interesting thing is that there is no narrative and therefore easily-understood character for "multiracial" to fit into, so these people are still either white or black. (Fine, Moon Bloodgood was Native American in Terminator Salvation. But still not hapa.) I would argue that the believability of multiracial actors in other roles by people who know their background is a positive but, but these actors are mostly thought of in the same terms that all American race issues are still mostly framed: white or black, no option for other.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

A Way Around the Fermi Paradox: Just Look for Life, Not Intelligence

There must be more life than intelligence (assuming that all intelligent things are alive). Even if you think that the solution to the Fermi paradox is that intelligence is an evolutionary dead end, using our own planet as an example, you would have had 3.5 billion years to observe life prior to the emergence of intelligence.

That's why work by MIT's Sara Seager is so exciting (and brilliant). Instead of looking for signals (that we might not notice as signals) or even for artifacts, Seager is looking for chemical signatures of life, period. These techniques will limit us to a smaller set of closer stars, but a) again, life must be more common than intelligence and b) we actually know what we're looking for. In this case, biosignature gases - gases that cannot be in the atmosphere unless there's some non-geologic process actively replacing them. On Earth, that's oxygen. On terrestrial planets, another one is ammonia. That "smaller set" of stars that she's looking at - all M-class, in line with Seager's technique - is still 30,000 systems.

And most excitingly, she kind of puts odds on it: she plugged values into the Drake equation and, based on the actual data that her project will be generating, she thinks there will be two detections of alien life in the next decade. Not everyone gets to build a spreadsheet that translates budget numbers and processor speed into number of projected alien ecosystems discovered.

Abrupt Rise of New Machine Ecology Beyond Human Response Time

That's a new paper about ultra-high frequency trading in Nature Scientific Reports by Johnson et al. Link here.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

List of Organic Compounds Found in Sutter's Mill Meteorite

A paper by Pizzarello et al using NMR and mass spec of material extracted from the meteorites has shown many new compounds. I'm always frustrated when papers look at chemistry of extraterrestrial samples and doesn't use basic organic techniques (like NMR) so I was very happy to read this one. Of note, the extraction method used by this team is a new one and more closely resembles conditions on early Earth. The excitement about this paper is that it brings us closer to supporting a panspermia model for the origin of life on Earth. It also supports the idea that meteors (and comets) might actually be harboring some kind of active chemistry - and if we're going to look for von Neumann probes or indeed any replicator chemistry, we should start with the low gravity bodies right here in our solar system. Some of the compounds they found are below:



Pizzarello S, Daviodski S, Hollanda G, Williams L. Processing of meteoritic organic materials as a possible analog of early molecular evolution in planetary environments. Published online before print September 9, 2013, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1309113110.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Morality Machines in the Distant Future Universe

Far Futures is a collection of stories put together by Gregory Benford, with contributiosn from Greg Bear, Poul Anderson, Haldeman, Kingsbury, and Sheffield.


Not going to happen. But great story. If you don't like it, then re-write it with a Maxwell's demon catching particles as the universe continues to accelerate outward, trying to predict which ones it should grab based on current projected but not-quite-there solutions. Now would that really make the story better?

They're all excellent as you might expect from a Benford-edited collection, but the one story in particular that stood out to me was Bear's Judgement Engine. The story is a collision of thermodynamics, morality, and metaphysics. At the Big Crunch there remains a single library where the far future's remaining minds remain, crunching through possible solutions to suffering and the nature of existence.

Essentially, consciousness requires life, which requires energy, which requires things to prey on other things, and in all the aeons of existence, no one has found a way around this brute fact of reality. There is either non-existence, or there is suffering - which includes things making each other suffer. As the edge of the universe and the end of all things draws quickly and inexorably closer, this Problem is the last unsolved conjecture at the end of time. Why do they care? Because (in an homage to Buddhist ideas about death and reincarnation) their thoughts at the moment of the Big Crunch will determine the nature of the entire universe that will appear at the next Big Bang. A story like this can only end in tragedy.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Modern Architecture and Bad Bathrooms: Wright's Beth Shalom Synagogue, Philadelphia

That the bathroom is the most important room in any building is self-evident. Consequently, for modern architects to so studiously ignore it is a crime. Here in California the Salk Institute is a perfect example; I haven't been in enough of the prolific William Pereira's buildings to pass judgment (but here's more on them.)

In 1997 when I still lived in Philadelphia I was on a Frank Lloyd Wright kick and the Philadelphia synagogue Beth Shalom is a Wright building. In fact it was one of his last; it was started while he was alive but he died during the construction, in 1959. It's actually a bit garish and uber-Mayan; I wonder if the guys who wrote the script for Ghostbusters got the idea for the Gozer-building from this thing. That said, the worship space is pretty nice (third picture is looking up).




Of course I wouldn't be posting this if I weren't going to complain about the bathrooms, tiny, consistent with another famous Wright, Falling Water. Look at this! For that gigantic facility, there are 2 (two) stalls in the single men's room! I guess no one ever has to defecate in the presence of Yahweh?

Full New Carcass Album Surgical Steel, on Youtube (for now)

Several reviews have stated the album improves with repeated listening but that's B.S., I loved it the first time out. I think the two released tracks were the two weakest of the work!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Solitude Aeturnus, Into the Depths of Sorrow (1991)

This is the full album. The chant is "Dawn of Antiquity" then it goes into "Opaque Divinity".

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

More New Carcass

Submit to the new track Unfit for Human Consumption. All paths lead to annihilation but only with Carcass is there meaning.

Also, buy this.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Old Transformers Music and Sound Effects

I guess there's a video too but that's secondary.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

An XKCD Reader Asks About the C-Index

The C-Index is a way to think about the difficulty and likelihood of detecting other civilizations. It's a distance, in light years. The question is "What's the farthest away a twin Earth with the same technology could be so that we would hear each other, given how 'loud' we are and our detection technology?" Interestingly, we couldn't hear our own radio waves more than about a half light year away, and we're actually getting quieter, not louder.

A reader of XKCD's What-Ifs asks Randall Munro pretty much this exact question: "Let's assume there's life on the the nearest habitable exoplanet and that they have technology comparable to ours. If they looked at our star right now, what would they see?"

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Asimov's Foundation: The Meta-Cult?


Above: apparently, the idol of Paul Krugman, Newt Gingrich, and Osama bin Laden. Asimov Aqbar!


Peter Turchin is a historian who has written a book claiming to scientifically predict future history based on past patterns (War and Peace and War); it's no surprise that he is an Asimov fan, and to his credit he gets the reference out of the way quickly. But it's not just psychohistorians who Asimov's work influenced. Newt Gingrich and Paul Krugman are unabashed fans of the Foundation series, crediting it with their inspiration in politics and economics. And it turns out, so was Shoko Asahara, the Tokyo subway nerve gas guy who founded Aum Shinri Kyo, and who wanted to start the real Foundation. There's even speculation that Bin Laden was a fan and that Al Qaeda is his Foundation.

Consequently, when I was reading about Keith Raniere and his cult-like NXIVM in a Forbes article, I almost fell out of my chair when I read: " As a boy he read an Isaac Asimov sci-fi novel about a brilliant scientist who knew his galaxy was in irremediable decline and had reduced all human behavior to elegant mathematical equations. It inspired Raniere later to try to do the same."

What, did old Isaac accidentally write a cult handbook? Maybe L. Ron Hubbard made the mistake of being too overt and should have buried his ideas in fiction! Granted, the idea of an algorithm for building a strong civilization - sort of like the Ten Commandments written in Python - is certainly seductive, but there are lots of seductive ideas in sf that haven't had this degree of influence. (I was reminded of Heinlein when non-naturalized U.S. residents who fought in Iraq were given citizenship immediately upon returning in 2003, but that's the strongest I can think of.) Maybe all these people think they're going to be the Mule, only smarter.

By now I imagine the NSA must have a list of people who check this out of libraries.

Without Constraints, How Do Humans Behave?

Cross-posted to my politics and economics blog as well as Cognition and Evolution.

Life on Earth evolved in an environment of constraints: resource limitations, disease and predation all put lids on behavior and reproduction. Consequently, the mechanisms to deal with those constraints have no "brakes", because nature provided them. There's no reason to have tight control on over-eating, because such a situation rarely arose. There was no reason to protect reward circuitry in general from overstimulation. But now we're starting to remove those constraints. Solve food scarcity, and we get obesity. Go straight to the reward center (without a real external reward), and we get heroin and video game addiction.

This is the biggest problem we face in any post-scarcity world, or (more broadly) in any world where our behavioral regulation is freed from the constraints that sculpted it for billions of years, whether in reality (because there really is more than enough food) or virtually (because you can just shoot up and feel good). This problem has even been advanced to explain the Fermi paradox, since whatever behavior regulation intelligent aliens evolve, presumably when they solve their own constraints, they will run into the same problems - perhaps with species-destroying consequences. The more complete and effective a representational system is*, the faster and greater the instability it creates in the system.

You might think of a science fiction story where curious and powerful aliens have put humans in a kind of terrarium where the weather is always fair, there's always enough to eat, there's no physical danger, and where there is always another territory to move into, with no loss of security, if you burn too many bridges with the ones in this one. That is to say, someone looks at you the wrong way, or your significant other mildly irritates you - why stick around? The aliens have guaranteed there will be another handsome gentleman/pretty lady waiting for you when you get to the new territory. And when you get there you wonder idly if these are real humans also in the experiment, or were whipped up and memory-programmed by the tissue replicator twenty minutes before you got there; or maybe you were, before your new mate got here. But you're taken care of; does it matter? (California sometimes feels like it's almost there.) In a world of limitless security and resources and even others' company, why ever tolerate the least inconvenience?

A scenario similar to this that happens in the real world is the strange discomfort of working alongside someone who is wealthy independent of their jobs. Why are they even here, people might ask resentfully - and indeed, from anecdotal experience, when these people get annoyed, they quickly leave, because why not? They have security and more territory.

So what happens to people when all the constraints are removed, when they're both wealthy and not subject to censure by broader political forces? That is to say, how do humans behave when all the brakes are off?Predictably. From "The Prince Who Blew Through Billions" by Mark Seal, from Vanity Fair in July 2011:
On the brother of the Sultan of Brunei, Prince Jefri Bolkiah, who has "probably gone through more cash than any other human being on earth.": "The sultan's biggest extravagance turned out to be his love for his youngest brother, Jefri, his constant companion in hedonism. They raced their Ferraris through the streets of Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital, at midnight, sailed the oceans on their fleet of yachts (Jefri named one of his Tits, its tenders Nipple 1 and Nipple 2), and imported planeloads of polo ponies and Argentinean players to indulge their love for that game, which they sometimes played with Prince Charles. They snapped up real estate like Monopoly pieces—hundreds of far-flung properties, a collection of five-star hotels (the Dorchester, in London, the Hôtel Plaza Athénée, in Paris, the New York Palace, and Hotel Bel-Air and the Beverly Hills Hotel, in Los Angeles), and an array of international companies (including Asprey, the London jeweler to the Queen, for which Jefri paid about $385 million in 1995, despite the fact that that was twice Asprey's estimated market value or that Brunei's royal family constituted a healthy portion of its business).

"Back home, the sultan erected a 1,788-room palace on 49 acres, 'which is without equal in the world for offensive and ugly display,' in the words of one British magnate, and celebrated his 50th birthday with a blowout featuring a concert by Michael Jackson, who was reportedly paid $17 million, in a stadium built for the occasion. (When the sultan flew in Whitney Houston for a performance, he is rumored to have given her a blank check and instructed her to fill it in for what she thought she was worth: more than $7 million, it turned out.) The brothers routinely traveled with 100-member entourages and emptied entire inventories of stores such as Armani and Versace, buying 100 suits of the same color at a time. When they partied, they indulged in just about everything forbidden in a Muslim country. Afforded four wives by Islamic law, they left their multiple spouses and scores of children in their palaces while they allegedly sent emissaries to comb the globe for the sexiest women they could find in order to create a harem the likes of which the world had never known."
This reads like an account of what each of us would do if we found out tomorrow we were in a simulation, with power over said simulation. This is what happens when the brakes are off. If you object that this is an exception or an extreme example - I guarantee that this behavior happens more among the fabulously wealthy and powerful. Well of course, you again object, other people can't behave that way! But then if the tendency wasn't there, why should it happen at all? And (more to the point) do you seriously think you would be any better-behaved? Of course you would; you're biologically and/or morally superior to these folks and would never let that kind of thing happen. (Also note that lottery winners, with a sudden random infusion of karma or whatever you call the points in our game - that's right, "money" - are known for going off the rails, and being more miserable and more likely to go bankrupt than the general population. Also, see "athletes from poor backgrounds suddenly signed up to multi-million dollar contracts in pro sports".)

An astute observer will say, "So what if people descend into depravity? If you're in a simulation or the aliens' zoo or you're royalty and don't hurt anyone, if you're happy with harems and Ferraris, fine!" That would be fine. But the problem is these people often seem not to be happy. Here it's hard to get data, but they are not invariably happier than other humans and in fact often have considerably troubled emotional lives. Again, they're using nervous systems built for an environment of resource and social constraints. It should not be surprising that they experience boredom, restlessness, and emptiness. In fact in the developed world it's not just the ultra-wealthy that experience these things. That said, it's sure better than starving or being eaten by tigers, but it seems those are our two alternatives: obese or at best bored, versus running from predators, starvation, and stronger neighbors. Yes, I fully recognize the pessimism of this position.

So, there's an addition to Malthus here. Malthus merely pointed out that when all constraints are relaxed but one, that constraint will limit (and his rule concerned, specifically, energy input as the unrelaxed constraint, but you can imagine for example a dense population of well-fed non-preyed-upon humans being periodically cut down by plagues). The addition is that when all constraints are relaxed, the system becomes unstable, whether that system is a cell (cancer) or an individual. The more powerful the system - which can be approximated by how fast it can change - the faster it will become unstable.

*The first representational system to evolve on Earth was the gene: the proteins it codes for are indirect mirrors of a DNA strand's environment - and as the environment changes, the genes change. As life became more complex, systems appeared that became able to more and more rapidly and/or accurately reflect parts of the environment beyond the replicator: the cytochrome P450 system which is a remarkably non-specific but effective metabolism system (which is how most drugs are broken down even though life on Earth has never seen these molecules before) and the immune system, which produces high-affinity molecules with a process of directed by limited somatic mutation. The ultimate such system however is the development of large numbers of cells signalling with ion channels, which can represent much more information much faster, and in humans has expanded to allow the assignment of arbitrary symbols to novel relationships (language). While we still can't assume that our language-enhanced nervous systems can represent every possible state external to themselves (any more than the immune system can do so), it's still by far the fastest-acting system and the one most likely to spell its own demise. As an aside, it's probably no surprise that plants that have begun to evolve "behavior" of a sort - the carnivorous plants - also use ion channels. Assuming causality is unidirectional, what happens first matters, and therefore so does speed.

New Mammals Being Discovered, Aliens Obviously Not In Solar System



The discovery of a new mammal had been announced by the Smithsonian - not a new insect or worm, a new mammal, in 2013 - and meanwhile, we can confidently say we have enough information to rule out alien artifacts in the solar system.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

De Niro As Hilarious Patronizing Satan

The movie Angel Heart with Mickey Rourke and De Niro is undeservedly forgotten (how could it be bad with those two in the same movie?) And, spoiler alert, De Niro plays the devil (but you don't know that until the end). Easily my favorite De Niro role. How can you not just roll on the floor at his mockery of concern for others and decency in general in these scenes:



Saturday, August 3, 2013

Asteroids and Comets Exist On A Spectrum

At least some asteroids have an internal reservoir of ice (along with organics); that's the thought for objects like 24 Themis, which retains a high albedo despite being inside the frost line. We also have evidence that centaurs (the outer-system asteroids) are really just relatively close-in comets. Recently a team showed that there are dead comets residing in the asteroid belt among possible dormant ones.

Increasingly it's clear that comets and asteroids are really the same type of objects - mineral objects coated and/or filled with water and sundry organics - with their visual behavior and surface characteristics determined mostly by their position in the solar system. If they've been out at the edge of the system for most of their life and make a sudden close pass to the Sun, they'll lose a lot of water, quite spectacularly. Others (like Vesta) have been stably far enough inside the frost line for long enough that they're dry. For those of us who think the organics we'll find on and inside these objects will be the most interesting thing about them, the limited information we have so far is very frustrating. Consequently I'm more than eager for Dawn to arrive at the much more primitive, wetter Ceres in February 2015.

It's worth emphasizing that we can't be too humble about our level of knowledge about our own solar system. Fuzzy images of Ceres were only compiled by 2007, showing some interesting surface features (craters and a bright spot). That is to say, if aliens had landed on Ceres and made a giant sign with letters 100 miles high insulting us - on the biggest asteroid in our solar system mind you - we would only have finally have noticed it six years ago. I'm not worried that the bright spot will turn out to be a dirty picture drawn on the surface, but it's worth keeping our state of knowledge in mind before we start saying we have no evidence of [fill in the blank] in our solar system.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Borges and Characters

But I think, perhaps, that the real reason he never wrote a novel was that the form is largely dependent on character, and Borges had no real interest in, or facility for, the creation of psychologically vivid people. (Try relating Leopold Bloom orally in five minutes, or Mrs. Dalloway, or Anna Karenina. Their greatness as characters arises out of their irreducibility to the facts about themselves.) He wasn't much for fleshing out, and he was not the kind of writer whose characters ever had a chance of "taking over" from their creator.
- From the New Yorker


More here on the underrated optionality of character in fiction.

Friday, July 26, 2013

How Close Are We to Becoming a Kardashev II Civilization?

Kardashev II civilizations have the power capabilities of an entire star. One way to do this would be to capture the star's energy with a Dyson sphere (below).


Futurists and science fiction types (myself included) often over-simplistically extrapolate current, very strange trends (in terms of the rest of history and nature), especially exponential ones. Despite that, people are looking for Dyson spheres for real as part of SETI. I think this program carries so many assumptions that it's doomed; but let's have some fun and say Dyson spheres are for galactic wusses that don't have the stones to just generate the power themselves. If we humans are eventually going to produce enough power to match our own star, how close are we? Is this something that should be discussed during the next election cycle?

Take a guess. Here are the numbers: the current energy output of humans is about 5x10^20 J per year (since this is energy over time, we're really talking about power). The Sun's output is 1.2x10^34 J per year. So how close are we? A factor of 24 trillion, that's how close.


Let's assume, even more stupidly, that our energy curve will continue to rise the way it has in the twentieth century (see above), despite the fact that the vast amount of that area under the energy-time curve (again, power) came from spending stored chemical potential energy in fossil fuels. The curve has gone up 1x10^14 J about every 15 years - arithmetically, not geometrically. At this rate of increase, the sun will have burned out long before we ever match it. (If you want to be a smartass, you could say that this means that we will eventually match the sun's power because the sun's output will drop drastically. But even then the constraint which determines this is the sun, not how fast our energy output grows.)

Another way of looking at it: if you wanted to match the sun's power by burning fossil fuels, then using the energy density of oil, you would have to burn an amount of oil equal to the mass of the Earth, 50 times per second.

What is this, XKCD?

You're saying, "Fossil fuels? Of course you idiot, you can't get to the Kardashev big leagues powering your civilization on combustion engines!" Fine, let's make an Earth out of antimatter, and gradually crash pieces of it into this Earth. You could put out as much as the sun for about a hundred million years, by shooting pieces of the anti-Earth at us at a rate of a million tons per second. (I guess you hold the Earth together with duct tape to keep it from flying apart during all these shenanigans.) Assuming you don't start with the part of the Earth where you're sitting it would probably look cool, but even so I bet you'll quickly be getting some neat-o cancers from all the high-energy photons this produces, and maybe even just diffuse axonal injury knocking you unconscious in minutes. Incidentally my suggestion is to start with Belgium.


Above: Belgium, at left.


There will still be people objecting, i.e. the Ray Kurzweils of the world, that problem-solving abilities (AI) will grow exponentially, and therefore the energy-producing capacity will follow. Fine. The question for them is what is going to power these other exponential trends, at much more mundane time horizons? (Like the singularity that's apparently scheduled for seven decades from now.) If the answer is "AIs will have god-like intelligence and they'll be able to do it and we can't understand", then why shouldn't we also believe doomsday prophets like Harold Camping who say their gods are coming, and make their claim with exactly the same amount of verifiability and comprehendibility? If you think Kurzweil makes sense, you should also read about the economist Julian Simon's commodities bets, because you should agree with him - although I find that singulatarians somehow find reasons to dislike over-optimistic economists, probably mostly just out of mood afiliation and status considerations.

Final answer: we are not going to become a Kardashev II civilization any time soon, and no one really knows how to get there or what this means, because the definition necessarily involves processes we don't understand. But I'm still fine with dropping large amounts of antimatter on Belgium.

ADDENDUM: This is from Wikipedia about the sun's power generation and for some reason I find this shocking.
The power production by fusion in the core varies with distance from the solar center. At the center of the Sun, theoretical models estimate it to be approximately 276.5 watts/m3,[54] a power production density that more nearly approximates reptile metabolism than a thermonuclear bomb.[b] Peak power production in the Sun has been compared to the volumetric heats generated in an active compost heap. The tremendous power output of the Sun is not due to its high power per volume, but instead due to its large size.
Putting it in socioeconomic terms, the sun is like China - the per capita income is actually not impressive but it's huge, so the multiplier is big.

Monday, July 22, 2013

For The Over-Optimistic

Brief online debate between David Brin and Aubrey de Grey here. Brin points out that the low-hanging fruit for life-extension have already been picked, and that any life extension on the order of decades (not to mention indefinite extension) will require "thorough" intracellular nanotechnology. Agreed. There is always a component in every make of car that fails first, and even if you keep replacing components, eventually you'll be putting new parts in every day. This is why people don't keep repairing their cars indefinitely! What's more, a car is not a person. Your transmission is not you. Your brain is you. And we don't know how to replace that practically, and we still don't understand consciousness and self even at a basic philosophical level.

Living a long time is emphatically a worthy goal but we will not have this technology in the next few centuries.

Friday, July 19, 2013

RE No Country For Old Men: Chigurh's Brain

If you haven't seen No Country For Old Men, what's wrong with you.

The fascinating thing about this movie for me was the behavior of Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem) relative to other characters. Chigurh seems to be the only guy in this movie with frontal lobes, particularly in terms of his ability to model the other characters' behavior, while they're utterly at sea about his next action - like a human playing with a dog. The difference in the use of language is particularly striking: the rural hayseeds he victimized throughout the movie are uncertain, approval-seeking, making simple, naively truthful declarations. Chigurh only speaks to cause an effect - his words are noises that move things - and the effect is sometimes a certain behavior from one of the hayseeds, and sometimes to amuse himself. If he says something true, this is incidental.

What's so fascinating about this? Because although Chigurh might be the only person in the movie who has free will (as opposed to reflex and instinct), he seems not to believe in free will: he has placed his behavior, or believes it is inevitably, under the control of rules and fate. In this scene, he is (we assume) determining whether he'll kill a gas station attendant based on the flip of a coin:


The tension in this scene is among the best in the history of film. Do note the unplanned choking on the peanuts. There was no rule, no fate there, and it hurt him.

Later in the movie, when Chigurh is about to kill Woody Harrelson's character, he asks if "If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?" The ending is interesting in that Chigurh gets into a bloody, near-fatal car accident - accident.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Consuming Random Elements and Werewolves

I'm kind of jealous of the first half of the twentieth century. It was a time when you could just feed frogs rubidium and write down what happened. I once argued that based on its rarity, ruthenium was actually a better currency standard than gold; gold is (or was) a standard by historical accident of having a high redox potential, therefore being the only metal found in nature in its non-oxidized form, plus monkeys like shiny things. Okay, forget the common isotopes of elements; what happens when you start feeding, so heavy water to living things? Not much, actually. No eye lasers, no phasing through walls, you don't even turn into a werewolf. It doesn't even taste any different (according to Harold Urey)


Nope. Not even close.


So what do you have to do to poison yourself with heavy water? To show the initial effects, you'd have to drink about a quarter of your water weight. Those initial effects in mammals are sterility - D2O in high enough concentrations is toxic to rapidly dividing cells, just like radiation or free-radical generating chemical species; this is a result of the altered kinetics when free protons begin to be replaced with slightly-more-than-twice as massive deterium nuclei. Consequently as the concentration increases, the damage begins to effect other high-turnover tissues next, like the GI tract and after that, presumably the central nervous system. Mammals given only heavy water die after a week. It turns out a disgruntled employee at a Canadian nuclear power plant spiked the office water cooler with D2O back in 1990, but it wasn't enough to replace any significant water weight as mentioned above, and no one was injured.

One interesting (but simplistic) idea was that in slowing the reaction kinetics of an organism's biochemistry, you could slow the organism's aging. And indeed it was shown that Drosophila given D2O did live longer. No telling what's going on to their gametes or nervous systems, or what would go on in a longer-lived more neurologically complex organism!

The question of why our ancestors made some very basic chemical commitments (nerves based on sodium, potassium and calcium flux, for example) is interesting but ultimately not useful, very likely having to do with the happenstance of what was available and soluble at the Earth's wet crust. Lithium is similar enough to sodium that it can fool certain sodium channels in the central nervous system and decrease the rate or amplitude of mood swings in bipolar people, but that's a coincidence.

By the way, the werewolf formulas are pretty disappointing. There was one where you can use a mixture of nightshade and children's blood and smear it on your skin during a full moon but it didn't work. Maybe you can't use your own blood like I did (but I was ten, so it should count.) Another way is to drink water out of a wolf paw print in the Harz Mountains in Germany. I'll have to import the wolves since they're not extirpated in Germany.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Into the Void (Orig Black Sabbath, covered by Soundgarden feat. Chief Seattle, Satanoscillatemymetallicsonatas, 1992)

I never knew this existed until five minutes ago. I always thought this song seemed written by Soundgarden. Chief Seattle can't rhyme for sh*t.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Big Rip Is Already Happening

From this interesting piece at Less Wrong, which shows we're losing about one galaxy per year due to the accelerating expansion of spacetime - also, associated arguments on why we must maximize the chances for successful colonization.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Late 1800s Political Science Fiction

Cross-posted to the Late Enlightenment.

Here's an interesting old science fiction book: Better Days: Or, a Millionaire of To-morrow, by Thomas and Anna Fitch. This should rank with Bellamy's Looking Backward. Set in the authors' near future of the 1890s, in it a wealthy industrialist develops bombs powerful enough to level cities, that can be launched accurately from zeppelins or boats. To be clear, this is a utopian work - although it involves an early prediction of the nuclear age, the authors assume it would necessitate a global detente. The authors correctly understood some of the political ramifications: that these weapons would have to be regarded in a special category and their manufacture restricted by international agreement so that they did not proliferate; and so he also predicts a version of the League of Nations. What he failed to predict was how this would be accomplished; by a cartel of countries who openly have such weapons, and a secondary cartel of those who everyone knows has them but don't openly declare them. The book features various heads of state realizing and announcing that they must cease prosecuting wars and allow all their territories to return to home rule to avoid their own capitals being destroyed by other states or even small groups of revolutionaries who make the explosive agent ("potentite"). If it's that easy, it would seem his international non-proliferation police wouldn't be able to do their jobs. U-235 is harder to make than potentite and we still seem to be nervous about Iran. We should be glad it was nuclear weapons and not potentite! (Or microwaved sand as Nick Bostrom speculated.)


Above: Coronado is the north-pointing peninsula at top, and the islands are to the south.


Of local San Diego interest: the initial tests for the various heads of state are carried out from Coronado, long before it was selected as a naval airfield. Unfortunately the Coronado Islands are destroyed in the demonstration. (Although last time I looked out the window of Hillcrest Hospital I could see them just fine; so for this and other reasons, this is alternate history now I guess.) The authors were possibly more interesting than the book; the husband seems himself like a character made up for historical fiction. Thomas Fitch was an attorney and politician who served in the legislatures of no less than four of the states and territories of the time (California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona), which explains why his knowledge of the Western U.S. of the time was more than the caricature we often see from contemporary writers on the East Coast. In his legal career he also represented Brigham Young and Wyatt Earp. He proofread Mark Twain's manuscripts and hung out with Leland Stanford. Finally and most significantly, as an orator, he was credited with keeping California in the Union. Even if you can't forgive his book's inconsistencies and failed predictions, I think he did okay.

And This Wouldn't Even Be the Singularity


From the Berkeley Robotics Department.

Economist Tyler Cowen asks "What is the political equilibrium when insect sized drone assassins are available?" All answers are unpleasant. This isn't even the Singularity, just a seemingly very likely possibility as mobile electronics continue to get smaller. They don't even have to be autonomous.

The smaller that automation gets, the more potential for disruption. We vastly underestimate the disruption from small autonomous flying robots. You'll move (or run) if you're walking somewhere and see bees. And bees are stupid and mostly want to ignore us, and can't even kill us.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Fermi Paradox Thickens: More on Colonization Times for Von Neumann Probes

In a previous post I discussed the possibilities of replicators being aided in their diffusion between star systems by close passes; I also pointed to an interesting paper by Forgan et al looking at projected travel times of interstellar probes, based on powered vs. gravity-assist travel. A new paper (on which Forgan is the senior author) looks again at this problem using a Monte Carlo simulation approach, and gets an interesting but as always frustrating answer.

First, the paper would be valuable if all it contained was the excellent review of prior work done on this NP-hard version of the traveling salesman problem. (You think planning your road trip taxes a server?) In particular, they point to a prior paper arguing that von Neumann probe expansions could be slowed or stopped by mutant probes where a predator-prey dynamic evolves in the population and the probes hunt themselves to extinction. I had previously written about self-replicating probes becoming cancerous (a statistically more likely outcome) and turning to expansion above any other mission they previously had; but this only makes the Fermi Paradox more vexing rather than solving it.

Their approach was to simulate the galaxy as having 1 star per cubic parsec (so no local "backwaters"), with self-replicating probes moving at approximately the speed of Voyager I, 1000 m/s. They then compared replicating and non-replicating probes; not surprisingly, self-replicators were much much faster, exploring 100% of a box of 100,000 stars in at most 30 million years. In the replicator condition, the number of probes is no longer the constraint, and contact can occur in (possibly massive) parallel rather than serially. Of note: the authors also include a requirement for communication of which stars have already been explored, although if we assume a robustly replicating probe, this is unnecessary. ("Robust" means that the time and ability to replicate enough probes to successfully reach the neighboring stars are small relative to travel time.)

The authors correctly note that this short time frame makes the Fermi Paradox more vexing. So the alternatives with respect to self-replicating probes are:

1. They're here and we haven't found or noticed them yet.

2. They're not here, because
2a. Replicating probes are not possible or not effective (they can't be made at all, or they mutate)
2b. intelligence capable and willing to build such probes appears more rarely than once every 30 million years in a volume of 100,000 stars (they choose not to, or they don't evolve in the first place, or they wipe themselves out before they create them)

2a seems unlikely because we already know that replicators can develop through natural selection. This leaves us with 1 and 2b. It is certain that we have only the barest knowledge of the rest of our solar system, and gravity wells are expensive to get out of. My prediction is that we'll find evidence of such probes on low gravity bodies (asteroids, comets, small moons) as we continue to explore, but that once we find something strange, it will take time for us to understand what we're looking at.

Hat tip to Ben Weaver.