Friday, June 28, 2013

Zombie Movies Are Stupid

I don't get zombie movies. At all. They are movies about running away from hostile retarded people who are hard to kill and (an important qualifier) whose retardation is infectious. Oh, that's not what they're about? Fine. Tell me where that's wrong. (So far, no one has been able to. They just get mad.)

Of course, you're free to NOT think zombie movies are stupid. Of course that means you're stupid too.

Granted, some of the kill scenes are kind of funny but even those get boring after a minute (okay, okay I admit this whole sequence still makes me laugh every time; I think it's all the screaming). What's more, I just can't suspend disbelief to the degree needed to not think these movies are stupid. For even 2 seconds. Why not?

- you don't have to be a scientist to know that viruses do not spread and take effect that fast.
- they don't somehow make matter supernatural (i.e. give super-speed or not need to breathe - yes, from World War Z - or somehow make muscles keep moving even after the nerves that control them are broken)
- how is it that with fast zombies, every aspect of their physiology is enhanced (senses, speed, strength, resistance to damage) except their brain? Maybe there should be a movie with zombies that get smarter, but more easily winded and over-sensitive. That would seriously not be any more stupid.

If movie-makers want to explain their zombies, they should just say "because Hell is full"; that's more honest.

So in keeping with the defying-all-natural-law aspect of zombies, I want to see a movie with zombies that can teleport, reverse gravity, go faster than light, go back in time, and simultaneously be themselves and be something else, or simultaneously do something and not do it. Because that's the same as other zombies we've seen on screen so far; in fact, more interesting.

As an optimist, I'll close by focusing on the one positive aspect of zombie films; thus I leave you with this compilation of heads exploding, which features a lot of zombies.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

For the Clarionites: Best Posts

Hello Clarionites! As discussed, here is a selection of posts from the last year and a half. Enjoy!

Science Fiction Reviews and Essays

#Shortcuts in World-Building
#More Reviews of Mieville's Embassytown
#Aliens and Their Strange Obsession With Intelligence
#The Law-Giving Machines
#The Dying Earth Genre As Horror of the Irrational (also featured at The Night Lands)
#What People Often Don't Like About Fantasy
#An Optimistic Turn in Science Fiction

Science Fact: Interstellar Travel, Chemistry, and the Fermi Paradox

#Cassini Measures Enceladus Chemistry
#Asteroid Mining and Detecting Others' Von Neumann Probes
#A Moore's Law Argument for Panspermia
#Mars, Antarctica, Jamestown: Environmental Constraints on Human Expansion
#Close Passes Between Stars and Cross-Contamination
#The C-Index: How Far Away Could We Hear Ourselves?
#Where to Find Von Neumann Probes - And How They Work

Favorites of Internet Philosophy: Singularities and Simulations

#A Singularity Solution: Anti-AI AIs
#Singularity Solutions
#Some Ongoing Problems of the Simulation Argument

Science Fiction and Local Interest

#Los Angeles Always Makes Me Think of The Terminator
#The 70s Science Fiction Landscape of California
#The Very Large Array and Skynet
#The Tacoma Narrows Bridge Designers

Stories Without Characters and Plots

We're told that all fiction, and especially commercial fiction, must have characters and plots. Is this really true? In the last couple years I've noticed a number of outstanding science fiction stories which are really expositions of ideas, with no pro/antagonist conflict to resolve, no clear narrative current; it's a lot like reading non-fiction, and it's often excellent. What's more, I find that imagination can fly more freely in this style of fiction because the writer can keep piling on ideas and innovations one after another, and isn't that why we're reading speculative fiction, for ideas? If you disagree and you like Borges, then you have some explaining to do. Even when he does have characters, they often function only to introduce a puzzle at the beginning of the piece, and then exeunt as the ideas take center stage. (Not everyone appreciates fictions of ideas, or they miss the boat entirely; more here in the context of criticism of Mieville's Embassytown.)

Granted, it may be good advice for aspiring writers to master the more traditional and likely easier structures of modernist, character-and-plot driven narrative fiction - but there are subgenres of science fiction which are clearly about ideas, and they suffer for their conservative insistence on crowbarring characters into the story. This is hard science fiction's cardinal sin; how many stories have you read that seems grudgingly salted with characters whose dialogue is basically to read aloud the technical manual for some interesting concept the writer is considering?

Since I greatly enjoyed Ken Liu's Hugo-nominated story, I've been devouring everything by him I can find, and his "The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species" is an excellent example of this expository style. The story delivers exactly what the title promises: a description of how various aliens write and regard books, and it's nothing short of addicting. Rarely have I been so sorry when a story ends. Liu also seems to anticipate his reader's thoughts and objections, and you feel as though you're in a dialogue with him as you read. (He's a practicing attorney; this may not be a coincidence.) Kij Johnson (whose Spar I loved) is nominated for the Hugo for Mantis Wives, which is more clearly allegorical, but getting to what that allegory places more demands on the reader.

The writer I've seen doing this most explicitly - and discussing it explicitly in inteviews - is my favorite new writer, Yoon Ha Lee; another piece linked here.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Close Passes Between Stars, and Cross-Contamination?

Stars move relative to each other, and sometimes they get close. At the moment our closest neighbor is Alpha Centauri, and it's going to get closer. Currently it's 4.3 light year, but 28,000 years from now it'll be just a hair over 3 LY. From the figure below you can see that 40,000 years from now Ross 248 is going to get a little closer than that:

The potential impact of close passes is significant to astronomers, who have already been looking at these events, past and future. Close passing stars are ominously called nemesis stars, since they could cause comet showers, extinction events, and even planetary ejection from a stellar system. It's also interesting from the standpoint of exchange of material between star systems. We know for certain this happens, because the material returned by the Stardust mission from the Wild-2 comet has a different nitrogen isotope ratio then the rest of the solar system - the comet originated from a different star. It's likely this occurred because another star captured a comet with a hyperbolic orbit after it escaped its parent star's gravity, but could this occur by "direct" capture?

You can see from the figure above that there are no close shaves in our future, assuming our surveys have detected all nearby objects* and our proper and radial motion calculations are correct. But there is one coming nearby: in 31,000 years, the Sun's neighbor Epsilon Eridani will be less than 1 LY to Luyten 726-8AB, close enough to disturb a hypothetical Oort cloud around the system, even if not the dust disk around the star; the nemesis will be closer than 1 LY for 4,6000 years. (One of the interesting things about these encounters is that they happen on a scale of thousands of years, pretty fast in comparison to most astronomical events.)

So what are the closest encounters likely to have happened to our neighbors? This paper by Deltorn and Kalas first looked for encounters with Vega, Fomalhaut, and Epsilon Eridani over the past million years, because they have asymmetric debris disks. They found that these stars respectively had 4, 6, and 3 encounters of (at closest) 1.6 LY (no word on how that frequency of encounters compares to other stars with less strange debris disks or no disk at all).

In the course of looking at Hipparcos data for 21,497 nearby stars, they did find an extremely close encounter 350,000 years ago between Alpha Fornacis (HD 20010) and HD 17848, at 0.265 LY. For reference, that's 16521 AU. The comet with the farthest aphelion known is a NEAP-discovered object C/2002_L9, with an aphelion of 14245 AU. There are surely more, so the encounter between the two stars above is surely close enough to capture and therefore exchange material.

The reason this is interesting is that if life exists elsewhere in the universe, and it can move between stellar systems, we're most likely to detect artifacts on low gravity bodies**, especially if they're self-replicating. Comets and small icy moons in our own solar system are a good place to start. Whether what we find are von Neumann probes or space algae is unimportant, and in any event likely indecipherable at first discovery. The same arguments certainly apply to any objects moving under their own power. If these objects are going to move to another system, they're more likely to do it when the two systems are close. This makes a recent finding by Forgan, Papadogiannakis, and Kitching all the more interesting: that using gravity-assist is faster than powered flight alone by two orders of magnitude for galactic exploration, and even adding power to gravity-assist doesn't appreciably speed it along. Their conclusion is that the velocities achieved in their model are still slower than they would need to be in order to say "no aliens have come to the solar system, and if they were around, they would have by now, so there aren't any." (There's more below about the first part of that statement.) This is all to say, if gravity-assist is really the way to go, then it's possible for there to be interstellar "backwaters", where you can't get there from here.

A. Powered
B. Gravity-assist

Powered and gravity-assist models of interstellar travel.
In the gravity-assist model there can be "backwaters"
that are very difficult to get to

If aliens are traveling through the galaxy by powered flight, there's less sensitivity to the distribution of stars, and no sensitivity to starting point: you can turn in any direction you want and travel straight there, and one direction is as good as another. But in a gravity-assist model, there are constrained paths from one star to another. That is, over a few thousand years, you might be able to get to one 20 LY away but you can't get to the one 3 LY away because of your starting point, and the lack of stellar companions or other bodies you might need for your slingshot.

So if it's not just distance, but also the detailed distribution of interstellar geography that matters to the spread of replicator material between star systems (either probes or "living things"), periods of anomalously close contact between stars make a difference. Previous I argued that, to increase our chances of detecting life in other stellar systems, we should look at systems with super-Earths (more gravity therefore thicker atmosphere to preserve simultaneous gas and liquid phases, and more surface area for replicator chemistry to use as reaction vessels); we should also look toward the galactic core - the stars there are older (have had more time for life to evolve) and they're distributed more densely. In addition we should focus on stars that have had close encounters like this, as spreading zones. If it's possible for life to move between systems, it's most likely to move between close systems. Pejoratively, think of it like this: promiscuous stars are the ones most likely to catch something!

So is there anything interesting about the two close-encounter stars? HD 20010 is an F-class star, fairly near at 46 LY from Earth. The system has an IR excess, which means dust. The star is 2.9 billion years old, and is just leaving the main sequence. For comparison, at the corresponding point in the solar system's history, eukaryotes were only just starting to pull ahead of bacteria, but the ancestors of flagellates and ciliates hadn't yet split, and the atmosphere was still only 3% oxygen. Trilobites were still far-future science fiction at that point. The other star HD17848 is now 165 LY from Earth; it's an A-class which also has an infrared excess and therefore dust disk.

Regarding the original three stars in this paper, it turns out Fomalhaut does have a very strange dust ring and a solar system with Earth-like planets.

At this point, strangely dusty planetary systems that have recently been perturbed by near-misses from nemesis stars are best explained by what we already know in astronomy: that there were multiple impact events and the dust is either settling or some non-miraculous process is replenishing the disk. That said, it's still worth paying special attention to "promiscuous" stellar systems for anomalous findings.

*It's risky to assume we've discovered all "nearby" objects. The second and third closest known stars to the solar system were respectively discovered less than a century ago, and this year.

**Detecting extrasolar life by detecting their signals carries far more assumptions than looking for artifacts; for e.g., that they're intelligent, that they use similar technology, that they don't mind being overheard or for some reason want to be overheard by other intelligences, and that, most dubiously, we notice and realize what we're listening to when we detect one. Material artifacts are more likely to be recognizable against background and give the added benefit of proof that transit by replicators between stars is possible.

Ken Liu's Mono No Aware Deserves the Hugo

Really, the only bad thing about this short story is the title, which might lead you to believe it's trying to garner attention with superficial exoticism. It deserves the Hugo for best short story, for which it has correctly been nominated. And for the way he just manipulated me as a reader, let me just say Ken Liu, you son of a bitch.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Stop the Lone Signal Project

Story here. There are in fact already protocols established in the event of alien contact, the most important part is that the discoverer must not unilaterally assume they can make decisions for the entire Earth. Here are some reckless, naive, selfish jerks are now sending messages (Gliese 526). This isn't the first time signals have been sent, but usually those signals aren't target at nearby star systems. Gliese 26 is 18 light years away.

If you think I'm being alarmist, then let me just quote Stephen Hawking:
[Hawking states] that intelligent alien life forms almost certainly exist — but warns that communicating with them could be "too risky."

"We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet."
Astronomer Zdenek Kopal may have put it even better when he said "Should we ever hear the space-phone ringing, for God’s sake let us not answer, but rather make ourselves as inconspicuous as possible to avoid attracting attention!" Robert Rood said, "The civilization that blurts out its existence on interstellar beacons at first opportunity might be like some early hominid descending from the trees and calling 'Here, kitty' to a sabre-toothed tiger." (More on this here.)

Imagine Native Americans building signal fires along the coast to make sure that the first Europeans knew where they were. And what resulted was a chain of events between members of the same species. It is absolutely stupid and absurd to assume the outcome could possibly be any better if we're detected and visited by aliens more advanced than ourselves. This team is either not serious about their project, or willing to endanger the whole Earth. This is a classic low probability, extremely high consequence event. Any consequence to our ecosystem from such signals being sent is going to be unimaginably worse than global warming. After all, we may have so much trouble detecting "loud" civilizations out there because they don't last long; maybe a predation factor is missing from the Drake equation.

The Lone Signal project really seems to be about charging people to put text messages in their little beamings to other stars. We're taking these risks so someone can make a few dollars from a novelty project.

Dr. Jacob Haqq-Misra and the Lone Signal team, stop this project. I would support legal action to stop you as well, and readers, if you care about the continuance of life on Earth, you should too.

China Sends Astronauts to Its Own Space Station

Three astronauts have arrived at Tiangong-1. I'm amazed at how little media attention this event has received in the West.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Vaccines and Vitamins

This is cross-posted to my atheist blog, The Lucky Atheist.

From the NY Times:
In a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1994, 29,000 Finnish men, all smokers, had been given daily vitamin E, beta carotene, both or a placebo. The study found that those who had taken beta carotene for five to eight years were more likely to die from lung cancer or heart disease.

Two years later the same journal published another study on vitamin supplements. In it, 18,000 people who were at an increased risk of lung cancer because of asbestos exposure or smoking received a combination of vitamin A and beta carotene, or a placebo. Investigators stopped the study when they found that the risk of death from lung cancer for those who took the vitamins was 46 percent higher.

Then, in 2004, a review of 14 randomized trials for the Cochrane Database found that the supplemental vitamins A, C, E and beta carotene, and a mineral, selenium, taken to prevent intestinal cancers, actually increased mortality.
That's from a NY Times article a friend sent me and asked for my opinion about. First, you should probably weight the findings of a peer-reviewed study much more heavily than the opinion of a fourth year medical student; read the article and follow up the individual studies if you're curious. It's also worth pointing out this nice summary is written by Paul Offitt, the pediatrician who co-invented the rotavirus vaccine and wrote "Autism's False Prophets" (for his efforts he receives frequent death threats from anti-vaxxers).

All that said, the findings are not so surprising. Why is that people think an animal which existed where nutrients, predation, and infectious disease were always limiting, is then freed from those constraints, and is suddenly immortal and perfect? If a car is designed to last for 100,000 miles, and you take really good care of it (more than the engineers expected) you might get 200,000 miles before a major breakdown, but you won't get a million. Less metaphorically: megadoses of fat-soluble vitamins are already known to be bad, so consuming anything in dramatically different quantities than nature has accounted for is at best, not going to do anything. In any event I'm betting the effect sizes are still pretty small. It's much more likely air pollution or a bad gene will get you than too many supplements. But more supplements won't make you live forever.

For anyone who has any protective feelings for the supplement industry and harbors any suspicions that the big bad doctors and pharmaceutical companies are attacking a poor little defenseless business - the supplement industry is a $32 BILLION dollar industry, complete with lobbyists. They're maximizing profits, period, like everyone else.

To expand on this: to my transhumanist comrades in the rationalist movement, I say your desire for long life and/or immortality is a worthy goal! But there's no hack for it, any more than using a certain kind of motor oil will make your Ford get to a billion miles. Probably not coincidentally, I find it's often programmers who don't understand the limitations of non-symbolic moving parts, unlike those in software, but very like those in cars or organs. To that end the impulse to become code via the still complete-science-fiction of uploading is understandable, though it makes some pretty big assumptions about the nature of consciousness that I don't think people are ready to literally bet their lives on.

If anyone is aware of backlash against these studies and this article I would be very interested to read it; please post in comments.

Are People Less Likely to Become Colonists Now?

As compared to a few centuries ago? Certainly. Humans in general today are less likely to strike out to a new land and become colonists. Why is this?

(This is cross-posted to my science fiction and fact blog, The Late Enlightenment.)

1. The environments that are available to us are harsher. Seasteading? The Antarctic? The Moon or Mars? Come on, do you really want to live in any of those places? Sure, Virginia may have had a bit more malaria than England but it has a) solid ground, b) it never drops below -50 C and c) it has a 21% O2 atmosphere. Consequently, it takes a more complex and developed economy to allow survival in the harsher land. And even Jamestown wasn't self-sustaining until the third ship full of people and supplies arrived. (More on Jamestown and Mars here.) And think: how big would a colony in Antarctica have to be in order to be self-sufficient, and make all the equipment they need to survive, not to mention to trade with the rest of the world? (See below for places that are much more amenable to humans than Antarctica and frontiers ripe for settlement right now, but somehow are still not filling up with colonists, in some cases despite the local government's attempt to draw them.)

2. There is a bigger skills gap between the median person and what a colonist needs to know. Even if a new island appeared above the ocean and had a nice temperate climate, few of us (especially in the developed world) would be able to take advantage of it. In Jamestown, people plowed and planted fields, hunted, chopped wood, and built small structures. That's pretty much what they were doing at home except for the building part. Even in the developing world, the gap between the skillsets required of someone living day-to-day versus what they would need to do in a terra nova is much wider than what the settlers of the New World faced, or the Polynesians that expanded across the Pacific. And the hunter-gatherers who crossed the land bridge from Siberia to North America almost certainly didn't even know they were on a new continent (and why would they have cared?)

3. We're just more comfortable. Yes, there are still people in desperate poverty, but not as many of us three centuries ago. The median human is much happier, and if they move, they have more information about which countries offer better opportunities, rather than helping to build a country from scratch.

The exceptions I alluded to above are Siberia and the Canadian interior and the Australian Outback. That's a significant chunk of the Earth's land surface. Seriously, if you think that there is no more wilderness and no more frontiers, just buy a few coats and a hunting rifle and move to the Yukon. West Australia is the size of America's Western and Pacific time zones combined and has a population of 2 million, 1.5 million of which are in one city, and at least near the coast a Mediterranean climate quite like California's, and massive mineral wealth to boot - and even with all that, the Australian government has been desperately and unsuccessfully trying to get people to settle it. In any of these places you can quite easily meet Daniel Boone's requirement of refusing to live anywhere that you can see the smoke from your neighbor's chimney. But you won't do this, despite any belly-aching you might have done along these lines. Why not? Because you have a good life already and you have no idea how to hunt, that's why.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Ghost Fleet In San Francisco Bay

Cross-posted to my outdoors blog, MDK10 Outside and Facebook too. Find me on Facebook here.

You know that ghost fleet floating in Suisun Bay (the Bay Area)? No? Why not? Images from these maritime "urban" explorers here. Via BoingBoing and Maggie Koerth-Baker, who has an amazing knack for writing/linking THE most interesting science (etc.) stories on the web, period.

Maybe what the government needs to finally do something
with these ships is a few planet bombs. Next thing you
know they're putting wave motion engines in them,
Vallejo's economy picks up, whammo. Win-win-win.

Singularity Watch: Your Movements Detected By Existing WiFi Technology

Paper here. Now HAL can see you picking your nose. And if you haven't seen this, give it a second, it's worth it:

Short Stories Set On Real Exoplanets

A picture of a planet 300 LY away.

Hey, I got your hard science fiction right here. Actually, the Kepler scientists do. It's kind of strange; if people keep writing science fiction about stars that are near Earth and the details of their solar systems don't match what we now know, isn't that fantasy now? I mean, of course it's all fantasy, and we're all Romans imagining Africans with faces in the middle of their chests (which they really did, out of ignorance + curiosity) or Spaniards believing the tales of wyverns in Patagonia - but still, now we know something about these places, and these stories are doing it right. Otherwise, this is the equivalent of writing about battles and countries in Southeast Asia or Central America that never existed. Interstellar alternative history of a sort. (Really, click there. Cool alternative histories.)