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