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

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.