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?