Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Film Martyrs and Horror of the Irrational

"Martyrs" is the first horror movie I've seen that I would put within hailing distance of Hellraiser. Here's a review; I'm not linking to a trailer, but you can find them on Youtube quickly. To put it mildly, "Martyrs" is postdoctoral-level horror, and don't watch it unless you would characterize the Hellraiser films as "intriguing". (Spoiler alert.)

Why does it deserve such high regard? Because "Martyrs" has a concept which intrudes into the real world and scares us that way, rather than just splashing blood on walls. Without a concept, a horror movie is just shock - and most fall into this category - and whether you're laughing or gasping, shock quickly becomes boring.

Hellraiser doesn't just present you with monsters and torture, it presents a whole new cosmology. It argues that there's a world underneath ours and that the rules we think govern reality are not the rules at all. ("Event Horizon" does something along these lines as well.) Turn of the century strange fiction does something similar. There's a horror of the irrational, a terror at the revelation that the comforting predictability of the rules we think govern the universe is an illusion; that either we only know the rules on this one world or in this one spiritual plane and these rules are so provincial that they might as well be an illusion.

The concept in "Martyrs" examines a similar idea, one that many humans in the real world take seriously - an afterlife - and posits a question. If we take this part of religion seriously, and many (most?) of the world's great religions have at their core a recognition that through suffering we attain transcendence, then shouldn't we explore this further? The protagonist in "Martyrs" encounters a cult that captures and tortures people precisely to get them to the point where they can see this next world. When this main character is tortured beyond all imagination to this stage of "transfiguration" where she can see into the next world, the cult leader gathers the rest of the group's higher-ups. The leader asks the dying protagonist what she sees, and of course it's kept secret from the audience - and then very soon after, the leader kills herself. "Keep doubting," she says to her second-in-command just before she puts the bullet in her own brain. The ambivalent ending is fantastic. Did the leader kill herself because she realized she had just been torturing people for no reason? Or, did she finally have a direct report of how wonderful the afterlife is - and acted rationally, given that information?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Interview with Scott Burns

You know, prolific 90s death metal producer at Morrisound Studios? If you don't know, then you probably won't care about this awesome interview.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

What If We Assume We're Surrounded by a Galactic Civilization, and We're Missing It?

Overcoming Bias covers two papers on SETI; importantly, the papers distinguish between the search for artifacts (like Dyson spheres) and the search for communication. There are problems with searching for communication, among them: do we know what medium they'd use, can we understand them, and should we expect the beacons to be on all the time, or just intercept them briefly, like the WOW signal? The search for artifacts can be divided into looking for massive engineering undertakings of far away civilizations that are solar system- or galaxy-wide, and looking for them right here in the solar system where you're reading this. The latter is not a frequently considered approach, but that's why I'm excited for Dawn to finally make it to Ceres; there are specific reasons to think low-gravity bodies with water and organics would be the places to look for evidence of extrasolar technology. (But until there's a probe that lands and gets good chemistry we won't have evidence.)

Yet, we've found no clear evidence as yet. Add to that the argument that if there is any chance different than zero for any species to develop interstellar travel, the galaxy is very likely to already be full - that is to say, if space-traveling life is anywhere, it should be everywhere, because it would be vanishingly unlikely for us to be the first. And we don't see such life everywhere. At this point we can't conclude that no one is out there, but we can be more certain that no one is everywhere out there. Maybe we're looking for the wrong things, but as we look further and include more types of phenomena, the more we find nothing, the more we should assume we're alone or nearly alone as a technology using intelligence.

Hanson's concern is about the great filter. As it seems the evolution of life seems more and more likely in many places, the great silence we observe means that something is stopping all these living things from leaving their homeworlds, and by some arguments that something is more likely to be in humanity's future than our past. One candidate is that intelligence is an evolutionary dead end which causes species to wipe themselves out, which was exactly Fermi's original fear - that intelligence creates a superpredator that not only exterminates its prey but itself. An interesting bit of trivia: we are currently living through a mass extinction at least as bad as the K/T event, and maybe the worst so far on Earth, and we're causing it.

The other question to ask is this: which of the following two propositions is more likely to be true?

1) That life evolves very frequently, and intelligence relatively frequently, but only very few (or no) species make it to the point of interstellar expansion, so that we don't see a galaxy chock full of waste heat from their engineering projects (i.e. that life is anywhere but NOT everywhere);


2) That they are everywhere out there, but we still don't know what we're looking for.

It may be instructive to work backwards. Start with the assumption that we are surrounded by massive (roughly galaxy-spanning) civilizations, as the papers envision them. We've been looking right at them since the first time a human paid attention to the night sky - how could we differentiate them from background? The uncontacted people in the Amazon are surrounded by nation states, and yet for a half century they've been growing up with the sound of planes in the sky, and they haven't inferred the rest of the world.

What are the things we already see that could be evidence? Dark matter is an intriguing candidate just because we understand it so poorly. The absence of obvious life could itself be a hint, i.e. still-extant species are hiding from or destroyed by others.

This is certainly a less depressing alternative than intelligence being an evolutionarily unstable strategy, which of course has nothing to do with its being true. I increasingly suspect that life in the universe is mostly space viroids that when seeded in a large, warm medium, incidentally produce replicators like life on Earth, that is then stuck there, because either it can't travel in space, or it gets smart enough to travel in space and therefore to kill itself.

Russian Short on Flying War Machines

Normally I care more about the ideas than how they're rendered, but this is outstanding enough that it made even my blunted retinas happy. The theme is somewhere between the Terminator and Bradbury's There Will Come Soft Rains.

Крепость/Fortress from Dima Fedotof on Vimeo.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Review: Progress Toward the Singularity

This focuses on ways in which GAIs could interact with the material world, rather than GAI itself. In either domain I make no guarantee of currency; you will note that most of these links are 2-3 years old and have presumably been developed and found application since then.

1) Automated lip reading. It's not just HAL these days.

2) Remotely reading the position of people in a room based on how our bodies distort WiFi fields.

3) Smart sand.

4) Drones through your mail slot.

5) Computers that can spot microexpressions and lies better than humans, as well as microchanges generally (color and motion changes).

6) Stock trading programs doing things that we can't understand, faster than we could even if we did - termed by researchers in Nature a "new machine ecology" of software.

7) Generation of mathematical proofs that no human understands, but which can be shown mechanically must be correct. P = NP? If we can't understand it, then for human brains, NP doesn't even equal NP!

8) Reading your mind and knowing what you're looking at; they can reproduce images from movies as you're seeing them.

9) Forget chess. They can beat everybody at rock paper scissors too, because you're a lot more predictable than you know (but not than the computer knows). The best you can do is flip coins and come to a draw.

10) A fair amount of sports print journalism has been replaced by computer-written articles already.

For now, all these technologies are very much dependent on large amounts of money and attention from humans, and are in no way self-replicating. But we should expect that those places where the most utility is derived by humans are where we see powerful (read: expensive) new technology first put into place - like the stock market, and warfare. Ask Al Qaeda, who have been getting gradually exterminated by the HKs circling over Afghanistan for over a decade. (If we don't call the first truly autonomous drones HKs, that would represent a missed opportunity.)

Monday, September 22, 2014

Skynet's Ancestors: Are Groups of Humans Also Conscious?

I just re-watched Terminator 2, which is aging pretty well, not least because it used CGI as opposed to live action latex-and-juice effects in the first one that today look fairly bad. A refresher: Skynet sends a new, scarier shape-shifting terminator back in time, this time to kill John Connor as a 12 year-old instead of killing his mother as in the first one. To counter Skynet, the grown-up John Connor sends back a re-programmed terminator to protect him. It turns out that there were parts recovered from the first terminator from 1984, and a tech company has been reverse-engineering them - creating a loop where Skynet essentially catalyzes its own creation. A big part of the movie is the side-mission taken by the Connor family and their pet Austrian to destroy the lab working with the old terminator's parts, thus stopping the creation of Skynet.

Of course this plot was an excuse to get Schwarzenegger in another movie even though the terminator (well, the first terminator) was killed in the first one, and to make him a much more central character. But the most interesting thing to me isn't that, or even the paradox of a self-causing AI. Certainly the idea of fate figures prominently in the second and third movies, and many who think the Singularity concept is a coherent one also think that such an event is inevitable, given a technological civilization with enough time.

And that's why the most interesting thing to me about T2 is the police. (How many? "All of 'em, I think," says the young John Connor.) First of all, the parallelism is interesting: fine Skynet, you try to kill John Connor's mother? Well then we'll kill your mother, what do you think of that? (As a side note, because the shapeshifting Terminator made no attempt to defend Cyberdyne, either Skynet didn't think of this, or had already seen Terminator 3 and knew it didn't matter.)

1970's Colossus, which deserves to be more clearly remembered as introducing us to the idea of defense computers using the nuclear weapons under its command to sinister ends. (Although if you were Skynet, you could do better than something so obvious as a nuclear war.)

But much more fascinating than that: even though there is no fully functioning, self-perpetuating AI inside Cyberdyne systems, a more dilute but still discrete pattern has begun forming around the primitive Skynet's birthplace, a wealthy society's resources marshalled to protect the womb. And much like in our own tissues, Cyberdyne's individual T-cells (investors, police) cannot possibly appreciate the ultimate result of the developmental process they're taking part in. It's hard not to see the invisible hand of Skynet's intelligence, already embedded in the logic of the human scientific enterprise and capital accumulation and the institutions we've created to advance those processes.

To be clear, I don't get the impression that Skynet was somehow magically reaching back through time and hypnotizing LA's finest (and Cyberdyne's investors) to protect its primordial ancestors, or that this is what James Cameron was suggesting. But it's interesting to contemplate not just in light of the concept of the Singularity, but of the serious philosophical debate about the basis of consciousness, and to what kinds of entities it can apply. If you think consciousness comes from a pile of neurons being connected, then does it matter whether some of the neurons are inside separate skulls, connected by speech rather than synapses? That is to say, if you believe that one person is a conscious entity, doesn't that mean two people must form an additional conscious entity, as would any combination of humans? So things like Wyoming, and Honda Motors, and investors in the stock market, are conscious entities! As would be Cyberdyne Systems (and its associated financial and security apparatus) - and Skynet is the eventual expression of the converging currents of that particular self-organizing system.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Avowed Metalhead Now President of World's Largest Muslim Country

More here on Joko Widodo, president-elect of Indonesia.

Given his shirt, I wonder if he is "chuffed". Indeed, perhaps his father said, "Turn that dine. Turn that unemployment dine. Wot koinda policies are them." Napalm Death inside jokes have a limited audience, but such is my refined taste in humor.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Why Video Games Haven't Wiped Out Movies

Video games generally have a much better ROI than movies (actual figures here), to a point where you can't help but wonder why the entertainment industry is still making movies. (Status to studio executives? Status and financial incentives to irrationally optimistic individuals, i.e. actors? Difficulty of retraining talent?) But there are reasons that games haven't completely dominated the entertainment industry yet, and one of the more not-immediately-intuitive ones is that each individual product tries increasingly to keep players online for more hours. Assuming a finite number of game customers, that means that as games get better at holding onto a finite pool of player hours, newer games have to be much, much better to compete, or just be satisfied with ever-shrinking market shares. Many more observations here.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A Fun Game: Science Fiction Mars, or the Navajo Nation

One is a picture of Navajo Mountain, Arizona (presumably from Lake Powell; credit and the other is one of my favorite cover art pieces ever. Spot the difference.

Monday, June 30, 2014

File Under F for Fermi Paradox

"Taiwanese student in heavy water over homemade fusion reactor". If technology continues to progress, one day we'll look back on fusion as being in the same category of technology as smelting bronze. How many ill-advised school projects will there be between now and then?

Take solace in the fact that this particular technology is not self-reproducing.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Boys from Brazil? Or the Boys from Toronto?

In keeping with making bizarre connections between pop culture and academic topics, I illuminate a creeping dark conspiracy that so far as I know, only I have detected! Dear reader, lean close to your screen, for I am about to impart arcane and forbidden knowledge! If you are a fan of economists, as well as the the greatest comedy show ever Kids in the Hall (KITH) (yes, in fact it has stood up better than Python), then shame on you if this has escaped your notice!

Here's Scott Thompson about 1990:

Here's the background picture on economist Justin Wolfers's Twitter feed:

I mean come on.*

*An underappreciated fact is that this is the English translation of both QED and ipso facto.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Heavy Metal Frost on Venus

False color, real topography rendering of what
Venus "frost" might look like (NASA)

Besides being the coolest title for a paper ever, this is the explanation for the highly reflective "snow" seen on high mountains on Venus by the Magellan mission in the mid 90s. Specifically, based on spectroscopic data, the authors argue that this material is lead and bismuth sulfides precipitated from the atmosphere.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Review: Dave Mustaine and the San Diego Symphony

There are many reviews out there, and few were kind. The show was sold out for quite a while. Relative to the '99 Metallica symphony show, the crowd definitely leaned more toward regular-symphony-goer types, but that could just be because it's 15 years later and the metalati are getting old, i.e. they ARE the symphony-goers anyway. Overall I think it was better than the Metallica SF symphony show, because it was more risk-taking. In execution, maybe not so much. Most of it was just the symphony, and the parts where Dave was on stage, he was the only extra-symphonic performer, and he didn't play his own material, and he didn't dominate the sound and make the symphony superfluous like Metallica did.

Set list:
Berlioz, Roman Carnival overture

Bach, Air (with Dave)

Vivaldi, Four Seasons, Summer and Winter movements (Dave joined them for Spring, playing the first violin part)

Dvorak, New World (4 movements)


Megadeth, Symphony of Destruction (two main riffs, played by the symphony, without Dave)

Wagner, Ride of the Valkyries

Dave was fairly humble and magnanimous. He said that it was very intimidating being in front of so many accomplished musicians, and several times the pickups on his guitar cut out (which marred the performance) but he didn't seem to get upset. He was using a guitar with a wood body that looked like a violin. There were several places where his fretwork got sloppy and honestly the Pergamum version of the Summer movement on Youtube is superior. To be honest my favorite part was Dvorak!

As with the Metallica symphony show, the regular conductor was too cool to be there. I would argue that the conductor contributes the least of anyone in a symphony, so ih.

Dvorak, New World (Second Movement)

Shreddinger's Cats

1. Metal and cats. It's the internet, I shouldn't have to tell you anything else. I mean come on.

2. Extreme metal puss #1.

3. Extreme metal puss #2.

All bow before the god-king of all metal pusses.

Massive, Old Terrestrial Planets = More Likely Life

The more surface area a terrestrial planet has, the more likely it will harbor life - because it has more reaction area and volume to do it, not to mention more gravity to pull in material (especially from organics-heavy comets). And Kepler 10c is 10 billion years old too, so it's had more time to do it. Even if the recently discovered mega-Earth Kepler 10c is a toasty 5700 Kelvin, there will be others that are not.

We should be looking at large, old terrestrial planets for evidence of life.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Trolley Problems Are Now Real Problems

Cross-posted to Cognition and Evolution.

Trolley problems are moral exercises (or experiments) where participants are asked to choose between horrible choices, to see how our moral reasoning works. For instance: do you push one person onto the tracks of an out of control trolley to keep five people further away from getting run over? Or do you just not say anything if you see a single careless person wandering into the trolley's path of his own accord, to keep those five people safe? Among other interesting observations in these experiments, we are inconsistent, and people who claim vastly differing moral foundations (religious and atheists, for example) tend to choose the same answer, as long as they're otherwise from the same cultural background (e.g., they're both American). Some enterprises already exist attempting to "solve" morality, that is to be able to program it into a computer, partly motivated by a belief in the impending technological singularity.

Trolley problems are criticized as being able to give us a window into actual moral reasoning for some of the same reasons same reasons as any consequence-less self-report method. But literal trolley problems are now becoming consequential, now that we have driverless cars. Their engineers have to encode how these cars will decide who to hit, if they find themselves in a situation where they have to hit someone. If they have a choice between a helmeted and non-helmeted cyclist, shouldn't they aim for the helmeted cyclist to minimize harm?

If only things were as simple as Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Metallica, Through the Never (Movie, 2013)

It was just added on Netflix. I don't have much to say about it, except:

1) Their continuing belief that they are a live band, and this is how they win people over, is on display here, and it's wrong. The movie is mostly an excuse to get people to watch a whole live show. For people who don't already like Metallica, it's not going to do much for them. For people who do, they'd rather be at a live show.

2) F for use of maguffins. There are two of them. The first is the gasoline, which is not the best one they could have picked and then the bag is introduced too late to be useful or interesting. The main character's motivations for wandering around (and not just going back the way he came when he walks into the middle of a skirmish line between rioters and cops) are never comprehensible and indeed appear not to be considered by the script writers, but at least this is obvious early enough in the movie that you don't waste time trying to figure them out. Add this as support to point #1. Adding this secondary plot was a way to make it seem as if this wasn't just a Metallica concert movie.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Babymetal vs. John Zorn

John Zorn liked to talk about composing in "blocks" and Stockhausen, etc. Now here comes Babymetal:

Compare to a typical Zorn piece, Osaka Bondage (below, from Naked City's Grand Guignol). Zorn is more grating, but the juxtaposition of genres is actually much clearer in the Babymetal piece, which also includes a visual aspect. Note that this is not Zorn-bashing. I've seen him play New Years Eve shows at Tonic. But does it make a difference when someone is doing the same thing mostly for commercial reasons, and not talking about theory, or for that matter selling to people who care about it?) The point is made that Zorn was doing this 25 years ago, but it's interesting that it's now J-pop with the label confidence implied by an obvious budget.

Performances that seem to be deliberately written to fit into certain genres also force us to ask, what differentiates genre self-consciousness from straight parody? Are we sure that John Zorn and Babymetal's songs were not written by Key and Peele? As the world gets wealthier we're swimming in more art and each generation will be better at picking out the essential aspects of each genre, for ridicule or otherwise.

So What If We Find Evidence of Life on Mars?

A new paper in Astrobiology makes claims for possible biogenic origins of structures seen in Martian meteorites. A not unreasonable response is: so what?

If the astrobiology fairy tomorrow gave us incontrovertible evidence of (at least) previous life on Mars, there would be massive public interest and a lot of opportunities for astronomy and basic science in general to get funding; and a whole new surge in interest among young people around the world. Consequently an unqualified "so what" might be the wrong question; "so what in terms of impact to scientific knowledge" is more appropriate. We expect to find life eventually, based on our understanding of the origins of life on Earth. Finding evidence of ancient Martian cells would add more support to our picture of an ancient wet Mars. We might, just might be able to infer something about the cells themselves, but this would be very limited. So life on ancient Mars wouldn't actually be that surprising!

Finding living cells on Mars would be huge. There's definitely a non-zero possibility that cells on Mars and Earth might have the same ancestors, which would actually be kind of boring, but would tell us something about the diffusion of life. But seeing such a novel biochemistry in action, even one that is ultimately related to our own, would give us a lot more information that we could use to understand evolution, biochemistry, and complex systems.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

What Do the Patterns in Alternate Histories Say About Us?

For the most recent alternate history (a Buddhist Colony in Ptolemy's Alexandria) go here. This post is also cross-posted to my history and economics blog.

Alternative histories have tended so far to be about events in European (or Western) history, because they're written mostly by European-descended people, and mostly by English-speakers at that.

The test at Sitio Trinidad, 1845, Jornada de Muerte, Nueva Mexico. The test was witnessed by governor Manuel Armijo and president Santa Ana, both of whom lost their vision as a result. (It seems both fission and high speed cameras were developed in nineteenth century Mexico but not dark glasses, go figure.) Despite this setback, the dreaded bomba santabarbara was smuggled in wagons and assembled in Austin and San Antonio and led to the end of the decade-long revuelta tejana and ultimately, the conquest of Alto México (previously the "United States".) Sure it did.

But that's kind of obvious. So even forgetting the (so far) Western focus of what-if fiction, there are two clear patterns that betray some of our assumptions. And the first obvious pattern is: alternate histories are about violence transpiring differently. How many alternate histories involve policy decisions or inventions happening out of order? It's not usually: what if Newton and Leibniz had not developed calculus, or antibiotics had never been invented (or been invented in pre-Mongol-sack Baghdad)? No, the large majority of what we see are the effects of different outcomes of battles and wars. What if Hitler won, what if the North lost Gettysburg, what if Alexander or Jenghiz had not turned around at India and Austria. And this is depressing; because it means either that history is mostly determined by violence, or (even if it's not true) it means that we at least believe that history is mostly determined by violence.

Yes, there are a few stories about political decisions (what if the Ming had not called back the treasure fleets is a favorite) but it's really mostly about if people had killed and dominated each other in a different way.

You could also argue that what we see commercially is not an accurate reflection of our beliefs about history. It's the same answer for why in speculative fiction, dystopias far outnumber utopias. There's clear conflict and thus they're easier to write.

The second pattern, or really observation that students of history can make about this sub-genre: even with battles won or lost differently, it's very hard to find believable changes that affect the outcomes. Sun Tzu was right, the battle usually is won or lost before it begins, and even if the tide on one battlefield had turned, the currents were running one direction or another. For example, so what if Lee won at Gettysburg? A big setback for the Union to be sure, but the Confederacy was screwed from the start in terms of their population and economy. To really get big changes, you have to make major shifts long before the obvious change - the kinds of changes that would have given the South a fighting chance would have had to begin many years before the actual war. Case in point: someone once asked me what might have happened if, in the Mexican War, the Mexican factions had unified against the U.S. as an external threat, and the U.S. lost its first major foreign war and gained no territory. (Or if the U.S. had decided to actually press its 54'40" claim.) A suddenly unified and organized 1840s Mexico is (unfortunately for patriotic Mexicans) only marginally easier to imagine than the first atomic bomb being engineered a hundred years early at Los Alamos by Mexican scientists. Such a story might actually make for some really interesting Latino steampunk fiction, but might as well also include unicorns.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Friday, February 21, 2014

Leonardo DiCaprio Joins Meshuggah

Not really, but if you saw the reddit-borne video below, you might think so for a second. And now there's a petition to have Mr. DiCaprio get onstage with the boys at Bonnaroo - sign it here.

(Do note the 10-hour loop version as well.)

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Time Travelers Killing Hitler: A New Take

From the always great SMBC. Here's an argument (based on people in the future are not using it) that time travel will never exist or has no impact for those future people; here's an observation that maybe we're already living in an alternate timeline...

Musicians' Royalties Are Abysmal; Meanwhile, We Should Be Able to Download Songs. ???

Recently I noticed an article making the rounds, which decries the <$1 royalty checks being sent to bands these days. I don't have numbers but it seems the people who are upset about this and forwarding the link, are the same people who get upset when labels protect their product and sue to stop illegal downloading.

Guess what!?!?!? There's a connection!!!!

So to make sure it's clear to everyone, you can have EITHER:



PROFITS TO LABORERS (i.e., musicians)

One or the other. Make up your mind.

"Happy Halloween Ladies!"

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

"An Ethical Governor for Constraining Lethal Action in an Autonomous System"

Paper by Arkin, Ulam and Duncan at Georgia Tech, intended for use by U.S. military hardware. Three Laws of Robotics? Is this what MIRI would consider friendly AI? Where is theirs?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Liszt, Faust Symphony (starting right before the cool part), 1857

More interesting music here (new tab so you don't have to stop listening).

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Ice on Ceres; Aqueous Chemistry...?

We're increasingly certain that there is ice on Ceres. We've known for a while that Ceres was expected to be more primitive (wetter) than Vesta. I cannot wait for February 2015 when Dawn gets to Ceres.

Good news for possible interesting interstellar chemistry. When are we going to do a sample return mission?!?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A Little Fourth Grade Science Humor

BEFORE YOU CLICK ON THIS NSFW LINK DON'T SAY I DIDN'T WARN YOU. It's not quite the Large Hadron Collider, and is subtitled "the world's funniest scientific malapropism". Should it be malapriapism? Only one way to find out!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Time Travel Is Not Possible or Is Near-Impossible to Detect With Current Methods

Time travel is fun to think about, in part because the argument structures involving its effect on the world (if it were real) appear in other kinds of discussions. I'm posting this now because of the fun study that Nemiroff and Wilson did, looking for evidence of time travelers by finding evidence online of people making references to events before they occur. They did not find any such evidence; publication here.

To address the burning public interest in their project, they did an AMA on Reddit, and when asked "Did you receive federal funding for this endeavor?" they responded "Yes. We used funds left over from our study titled: 'Does Tax Payer Money Burn Any Better Than Regular Money?'" (They really did say that but went on to clarify that the real answer was no.)

Let's say time travel in the Back to the Future sense is real. Say that if you go back to the past you can change the present to which you return (no boring branching timeline stuff.) And say that if you remove something from the past, it disappears until you carry it to the present. That is: imagine you have sentimentally precious heirloom silverware. No you don't! I took it from your grandmother when she was a young hottie, and when I get out of the time machine to give it back to you today, you look blankly at me and say "Why are you giving me old forks?"

If that's how it works, shouldn't we expect commodity runs on everything? That is: you realize that gold is valuable. You go back to the pleistocene before people valued it or knew how to pull it out of the ground. You bring back a whole consortium of miners and investors with you, running around the world pulling 50% of the shiny yellow stuff out of the ground, all to the bewilderment of frightened hominids, hiding behind rocks as they watch the incomprehensible doings of these new hairless creatures. You come back to the present and - bammo! Yes the value of gold falls in half overnight, but you still have 50% of that. 25% of the total previous gold market is still nice.

No you don't! Because unless time travel dies with you and your investors, people from YOUR future will sabotage you and take it for themselves. And from their future...and their future...etc. What this means, in economic terms, is that if this kind of time travel is real, then of course it's already happened, and people furthest in the future have perfect information about everything (100% efficient markets) which means everyone has it. Or, that no one has it, because there's no stable reality. (Remember when Bill and Ted said "remember to do X in the future" and got out of a jam? Why can't their enemies say "remember to stop Bill and Ted from doing X"? And so on and so forth ad infinitum. Neither Bill and Ted being the good guys or writers not being able to think their way out of a plot problem can count for your answer.)

So we have either
a) a totally efficient market with everyone knowing the allocation and value of all items throughout time
b) a constant maelstrom of shifting reality

If it's a., the fact that we still see things with apparent value around us instead of in the Big Commodities Exchange at the End of Time (or that we're not getting invaded by people from the End of Time looking for causal high ground) means either that everything "has already happened in order" (the simple Douglas Adams model of time travel), or that time travel of this sort is not possible, or that nothing has any value in a 100% eternally efficient market. (It also means no free will, because we're basically all just watching ourselves in a movie then.) And here's where things start to track other arguments. Here we run into an argument familiar to Singularity buffs, simulation argument maniacs, and Fermi paradox jocks. And it's basically this:

X appears to be an arbitrarily powerful process not provincial to humans. We look around the universe and we do not see evidence of X dominating everything. Therefore, either X is not powerful, or we can't see it, either because it's not see-able (to us), or we don't know what to look for.

Fair enough, except it's very difficult to tell the difference between "it's not see-able (to us)" and "I'm a snake oil salesman insisting that you believe me without evidence". That's also called a PEP, a Pointless Epistemological Problem (see #3 here). Fans of politics, religion and marketing will find these sorts of claims familiar.

Returning to time travel for a moment: the fact that aliens have not used time travel (rather than measly space travel) to visit us (and beat us up!) suggests (again) some combination of: there are no intelligent aliens; we are of little interest to future galactic events because we are boring, weak, or go extinct soon; or that everyone is nice to each other forever. Boy, talk about unrealistic!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Why Die for Danzig?


This is from an anti-war pamphlet distributed by French socialists at the outset of World War II. That Signor Anzalone is not aware of this suggests a lack of erudition that, to be frank, I think we all suspected. But, ever the cut-up, we know that he has long been a source of mirth!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Asimov's Most Brilliant Prediction

I'm not the only person who pointed out that Isaac Asimov, and science fiction generally, doesn't have such a great prediction track record when you resist cherry-picking. But in my previous article on Asimov's predictions for the year 2014, I missed his 100% exactly right prediction: "I dare say that psychiatry will be far and away the most important medical specialty in 2014."

Anton Chigurh is a Realistic Psychopath

Not realistic as in setting attainable carnage-causing goals, but realistic as in he resembles real-world psychopaths. (Of course this refers to the character in Cormac McCarthy and the Coen brothers' No Country For Old Men.) That is, per Leistedt and Linkowski in the Journal of Forensic Sciences; summarized at Mind Hacks. More here on Chigurh's use of language as a tool to move around people-shaped objects, and how he seems to be about the only person in the movie with functioning frontal lobes.

Earthquake Lights More Common at Rifts (i.e. Intra-Plate Quakes)

That's the result of an analysis in Seismological Research Letters by Robert Thériault et al (Nature summary here); the Smithsonian has a video of earthquake lights in Sichuan in 2008. Rifts are defects in plates far from the edges of plates - so in other words, not where two plates are grinding alongside each other (like in California) or where one is going under another (like in Japan or the Pacific Northwest). The unexpected and massive New Madrid quake in Missouri in 1811 was a rift quake.

(Added later: a well-known skeptics' blog weighs in as well, pointing out that these theories are actually not new.)

I've written about earthquake lights here before, related to a recent quake in Peru; one theory is there is ultra low frequency ULF) EM generated by these events, and that the lights (but not the quakes) are reproduced by ULF usage elsewhere. (See the Vogel study at the link, which investigated lights on a reservation near Yakima.) That's not the theory that Theriault is advancing, which is that oxygen ion release is in the causal pathway. (What would be really interesting is an experiment showing similar ionization with ULF.) Earthquake lights have been reported before earthquakes for centuries - surprisingly, these articles don't mention the glow that one swimmer saw at Ocean Beach, San Francisco after a pre-dawn swim on a certain April morning in 1906, a few hours before the big one - but it wasn't until someone actually filmed them in Japan in the 1960s that people started taking them seriously.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Science Fiction Universes That Become Historically Incorrect Are Not Alternative History

First, let's all agree that science fiction is awesome (how many tech entrepreneurs today can't rattle off a list of their favorite novels based on the ideas within?) but the predictions are not all that astonishingly accurate. A currently circulating article of Isaac Asimov's 1964 predictions for the 2014 World's Fair has been combed its accurate predictions - but these have to be considered in light of the total denominator of all predictions he made. There are a lot of clunkers in there. (Glowing wall panels? Polarized touch-sensitive windows?) Yes, there are some good ones. But we need a science fiction version of Bonferroni correction; i.e., a broken clock is right twice a day.

People have been writing science fiction as a self-conscious genre unto itself for close to a century now, which means a lot of the basic political and technological realities of the world have changed in the meantime. Ender's Game referred to the Soviet Union dominating Europe in the novel's past; in Card's defense, he does later (after the Cold War ended) explain that actually it's the New Soviet Union. Old Isaac himself more than once in his robot novels has a scientist, in the midst of artificial intelligences and domed cities, whipping out a slide rule to do calculations. It seems an easy solution to this is that these are science fiction writers, and they're not perfect, and they don't have crystal balls. Even the climate around how certain topics could be addressed in respectable prose changed during Asimov's lifetime, i.e. sex, and he (quite honestly, I think!) justifies his characters' differing treatment of the subject within the novel has his characters address this within the story. But critics insist on inventing ways of interpreting what are clearly missed targets as having some literary meaning.

Outside of science fiction, an egregious example is the insistence by some of the literati that Shakespeare's use of anachronism was deliberate. For example, in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare's Rome has chimneys and books and toga pockets. But these things just did not exist in Caesar's Rome. And Occam's razor applies here as well: there's no meaning, no point Shakespeare is making; he wasn't even consciously trying to make his audience more comfortable. He's a sixteenth century English writer, and he made a mistake, relative to historical fact, and that's fine - because he wasn't a Near East anthropologist, and he wasn't writing historical textbooks. Maybe it's more interesting to believe he had some purpose, but only rarely do the imaginations of critics of any genre match up with the conscious designs of the art's producers. Listen to any popular musician being interviewed about the deep meanings in their lyrics and this becomes obvious and uncomfortable.

I've seen critics living in the same region of fairy-land claim that we can think of science fiction universes with an ascendant Soviet Union, or future scientists with slide rules, as alternative histories. As much of a devotee of that sub-genre as I am personally, that's foolish, and here's why. Alternative history is explicitly about the importance of specific events in history to the real, based on the implications of their having occurred differently. There's a control and an experimental condition. The intent of the author matters, because it is the basis of what the work is for. David Wingrove's Chung Kuo is about a China-dominated world of the future, but it's not explicitly in contrast to any other world we expect, even if (like 1984) it's not one most of us would want to live in. On the other hand, Harry Turtledove's Southern Victory series stands in contrast to the world the writer and authors know to be real, and the author and the text clearly know that, and she or he makes points on that basis. Turtledove knows what's actually relevant to us in 2014 and how that might have been different, and he uses the book to tell us. Wingrove doesn't know what will be relevant in 2200, so the back can't be consumed that way.

My favorite incorrect future (unintentional alternate history) that I've read recently is Better Days: Or, a Millionaire of To-Morrow by Thomas Fitch, written in late Belle Epoque San Diego (although the epoque might not have been so belle here) which anticipates world peace breaking out with the invention of weapons of mass destruction, out of fear of terrorists. (If only.) Kim Stanley Robinson has darkly opined that anyone writing today about a near-future Earth without climate change must know that they are writing alternative history. It's clear what he's saying here, but they're not writing alternative history: they're human, and they're just not able to see the whole future clearly, even when parts of it are already set in stone.

Another trick is explaining didn't-come-true science fiction written in the past as crypto-history - this is what really happened, but it's been kept from us. Again, this is an interesting way to think about the text, but it still doesn't tell us anything about the author's intentions or indeed how best to enjoy the work. This is how (for hardcore fans who cared) Star Trek explained the apparent absence of the Eugenics Wars in the real 1990s, which the original show mentioned. (You know who I haven't noticed leading legions of genetically superior followers to conquer Asia? KHAAAAAN!) It's also the basis of the narrative in All Nightmare Long, the second-best Metallica video ever. Come on, it has the Tunguska blast!

Voodoo Child, orig. Jimi Hendrix, cover on Gayageum, 2013