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.

Good Libertarian Attacks on Rand

Cross posted to the Late Enlightenment.

Recently I ran across David Brin (a libertarian) and his writings on Ayn Rand. These should have their own special genre; one which deserves our attention. 1984 was Orwell's answer to what he saw as the developing problems with socialism, and (as an understatement) it is an important work.

Before giving you the sharper points of another writer's attacks, what is good about Rand? What do people get out of it?

- The power of capitalism to eliminate human suffering.
- The power of the individual; it's not surprising that young people establishing their own identities are the ones to whom this most appeals, and (I would argue) it's important that young people have things that reinforce their confidence in themselves and their goals and values.

The piece in question is here. The most interesting argument he makes is that (in his view) Rand is clearly influenced by Marx in terms of her teleological thinking. He misses a chance to mention her infamous standing-on-one-foot answer, which was a ripoff of Rabbi Hillel. She borrowed at least once, either (most charitably) unaware that she was doing so, or assuming that her audience would not be familiar with these sources. (Which itself says something else about her.)

A point worth disagreeing with, not just here but with other writers, is that it's not a valid criticism to say that her novels lay out a plan for bringing Rand's values to the world. Not because the world in Atlas Shrugged is a great one, but because the novels don't claim to be a blueprint for what the world should look like and the actions to take to get there, even with a 70-page monologue. (I'm unfamiliar with her having made this claim in non-fiction. If you're aware of any such claims, please point me to the evidence and I'll change my position.) Compare to Marx, who in a non-fiction manifesto, laid out a plan for the dictatorship of the proletariat, which Lenin followed fairly closely.

(Another article that Brin links to makes the argument the Atlas Shrugged is part of trilogy. Interesting non-fiction plot twist in that one.)

Other weaknesses that have always appeared to me likely because of my background: a lack of familiarity with evolution and in one case a distrust of how it could have produced an intelligent animal; a strange proclivity to imply heritable positions in her characters (all while decrying decadent monarchies elsewhere); and implicit assumptions about gender roles including disparaging comments about possibly gay characters. To the last point, defenders might say "But this was the 1950s; you can't fault someone for being a product of their times," to which an appropriate response is "But this is someone who was claiming the absolute, correct and final version of morality; if she missed something, that makes it irrelevant whether or not the ambient culture produced those blind spots." When you claim to have produced the final answers, rather than improving the process to get the answers, these are the kinds of problems you're open to. (Defenders might also say that homosexuality is morally wrong, and then the discussion devolves to a more profound level about the origins of morality. The kind of people who take this position will have a hard time showing themselves to be on the side of reason and not irrational authoritarianism here.)

A final problem that Brin mentions is the inverse state worship that afflicts objectivists and libertarians, but this is not unique to Brin's critique or to Rand. Suffice it to say the state is not the only institution ever conceived that can make humans suffer.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Crysknife Show in Oakland, August 9 2013

They're playing Oaktown 9 August 2013 at the Grand Lake Coffeehouse.

Great Piece on the "Literature of Ideas"

Here is an excellent article from World SF on "The Persistent Neoteny of Science Fiction". In it Athena Andreadis points out - even-handedly - that defenders of "literature of ideas" are often really just bad or lazy fiction writers. On this blog I have often defended stories of ideas from literary purists from elsewhere on the literary spectrum (in particular, in reviews of Mieville's Embassytown), but Andreadis's point is an excellent one. Stories that work based on their ideas can afford to de-emphasize other aspects of story-telling, or dispense with some of the elements altogether; but this claim is very different than saying that these elements should be inferior and added only with the ham-handedness that comes with reluctantly obeying a form. ("Well it's fiction. We need characters I guess.")

Her central argument: "...SF/F suffers from a peculiar affliction: persistent neoteny, aka superannuated childishness. Most SF/F reads like stuff written by and for teenagers – even works that are ostensibly directed towards full-fledged adults." And the even-handedness: "Now before the predictable shrieks of "Elitist!" erupt, let me clarify something. Adult is not a synonym for opaque, inaccessible or precious. The best SF is in many ways entirely middlebrow, as limpid and flowing as spring water while it still explores interesting ideas and radiates sense of wonder without showing off about either attribute."

Do read the whole thing, but the introduction alone is applause-worthy:
When Margaret Atwood stated that she does not write science fiction (SF) but speculative literature, many SF denizens reacted with what can only be called tantrums, even though Atwood defined what she means by SF. Her definition reflects a wide-ranging writer’s wish not to be pigeonholed and herded into tight enclosures inhabited by fundies and, granted, is narrower than is common: it includes what I call Leaden Era-style SF that sacrifices complex narratives and characters to gizmology and Big Ideas.

By defining SF in this fashion, Atwood made an important point: Big Ideas are the refuge of the lazy and untalented; works that purport to be about Big Ideas are invariably a tiny step above tracts. Now before anyone starts bruising my brain with encomia of Huxley, Asimov, Stephenson or Stross, let’s parse the meaning of “a story of ideas”. Like the anthropic principle, the term has a weak and a strong version. And as with the anthropic principle, the weak version is a tautology whereas the strong version is an article of, well, religious faith.

The weak version is a tautology for the simplest of reasons: all stories are stories of ideas. Even terminally dumb, stale Hollywood movies are stories of ideas. Over there, if the filmmakers don’t bother with decent worldbuilding, dialogue or characters, the film is called high concept (high as in tinny). Other disciplines call this approach a gimmick.

The strong version is similar to supremacist religious faiths, because it turns what discerning judgment and common sense classify as deficiencies to desirable attributes (Orwell would recognize this syndrome instantly). Can’t manage a coherent plot, convincing characters, original or believable worlds, well-turned sentences? Such cheap tricks are for heretics who read books written in pagan tongues! Acolytes of the True Faith… write Novels of Ideas!

New Carcass, Captive Bolt Pistol

Not embeddable, here it is. Mostly in the vein of less imaginative Heartwork, although the solo work at 2:13 redeems the song.