Friday, December 23, 2011

Panspermia (continued)

Happy 2012. And good riddance to 2011. I don't know about you, but I'm happy to see that year slip down the lightcone. I can't remember which physicist said it, but the joke is "The future is all waves, the past becomes particles". Meaning quantum mechanically, I'd just as soon 2011 had been particle-ized from the getgo.  This is not to say I look forward to 2012, but the one thing that can be said for 2012 is that it isn't 2011.

Not that the year was all terrible for me. Me, personally, I'd say I just marked time through it all. That in and of itself is kind of terrible. For others, it really was a bad, tough year.

I honestly don't know if 2011 could have been better particle-ized. Perhaps, in some other universe, in some Everett many-worlds multiverse, it all particle-ized quite well.

(But keep in mind that the true interpretation of Everett's quantum choices is not you making choices and splitting the universe up. It's not like a version of Nick the Bartender in "It's a Wonderful Life" handing out angel's wings with a cash register bell. It's not like Sheldon Leonard is flipping a coin saying "Dig Me! I'm creatin' univoises!" It may sound pedantic, but the universe is all that is, all matter, all energy, all spaces and times. It is merely a contemporary cultural conceit that we refer to multiverses. If the Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct, then all that happens when you make choice is that you get split into different versions of you. But no new universes are created. You just aren't that fucking important. Get over yourself).

Speaking of different regions of space and time beyond our apprehension, we really need to address the idea of just the one Big Bang. We, in our conceit, assume that we see is all there is. When, in fact, most cosmologists would say that the universe is much, much bigger than just the 13.7 billion light year radius of stuff around us that we see. Some say the universe is infinite in size, others put it at 150 billion light years.
What's wrong with this picture?

Don't how they come up with that number. I suspect the number is based upon cosmic microwave background data. Also on the principle of mediocrity, that conditions we enjoy are the same everywhere. Again, I consider that principle a kind conceit, making the assumption that there aren't strange and bizarre corners of the universe that play by different rules. And include in that conceit the idea that there was only the one Bang.

But it could be that our observable universe is only a recent thing, just a baby thing, just an effervescent pocket of new shit. There may be parts much, much older than we what we see. 

In a previous essay, I calculated that, just using natural processes and some astonishingly good luck, that bacteria from Earth could travel to a potential new planetary home circling our nearest star in a mere few tens of thousands of years.  31,461 years to be exact. And, assuming some astoundingly amazing luck, the whole galaxy could have been colonized with Earth life. The chances are exceedingly remote, nigh on impossible, but not quite. And that's assuming a mere 3.5 billion years of known life, with random events and trajectories through natural accident.

More purposeful travels, which is to say artificial means such von Neumann self-replicating space probes traveling at some fraction of the speed of light, containing a software blueprint of life and the means to synthesize biology upon arrival (all reasonable and doable assumptions given even our present state of primitive technologies) puts the time frame for full galactic colonization at a paltry two million years. 

In fact, all the data, and all our logic, suggest that we are not unique, we should not not be alone. Life should be every fucking where. And yet we have no evidence for it. The Fermi Paradox.

What about other places? What's the absolute best-case scenario? Well, we will use the Milky Way galaxy, as all the astronomical evidence suggests this galaxy formed early on at the beginning of the universe. So, some structures of the galaxy as old as the universe, 13.7 billion years. Other parts, like the halo of old, tired stars, the supermassive black hole at the center, and cold dark nebulae, are slightly younger, but not by much. If we grant some very fortunate circumstances, and assume (because we have no other example) that life is defined as our kind of life (carbon-based, aqueously mediated, planetary bounded), then it works out like this:
image courtesy Indiana U

Big Bang. Inflation. Expansion. Particle creation and nuclear fusion.

75% hydrogen, 24.99% helium. Trace of lithium.

First stars with this composition, hundreds of times the mass of the sun, get started some 100,000 years later, live hard, die fast, churn out metals (astronomical metals - anything heavier than hydrogen and helium).

Surrounding space is filled up with gas and dust with the ingredients for life, namely hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, sulfur for starters. If you want RNA or DNA, throw in phosphorous. If you want life that doesn't have to worry about hard radiation, throw in iron, for an iron core for an electromagnetic shield around the planet.

The first generation of stars are hazardous to life. The second generation of stars, made from the stuff spewed out by the first, might have planetary bodies around them, but do not have sufficient heavier elements for life. Third generation of stars includes our sun, start popping up around nine to 5 billion years ago. So, the earliest life goes back two to three billion years before Earth life got its start. So goes the conventional narrative.

But we are talking about best case scenario. It is possible for a star forming region to concentrate all the stuff you need for a sunlike system with earthlike planets with sufficient heavy metals as early as twelve billion years ago. So, some eight billion years before us, or twice the lifetime of life on Earth. 

And that's the best case for the observable universe. But as I said, this could be new pocket. There could be parts of our universe that vastly older, or even parts that are no longer around, or have undergone a Big Crunch, or even more horrifying a Big Runaway in which accelerating expansion rips apart everything into a cold thin soup of nothingness.

So, want a tragedy? Ninety trillion years ago, a far distant part of the universe erupted in a big bang. It developed fast, much faster than out in our neck of the woods. And in the short span of just a few million years, there was a stellar splendor. And life developed. It grew complex. Then intelligent. Then technological. And this smart capable life looked around its observable part of the universe, and recognized that it was expanding. And to this life's horror, the expansion was accelerating. So much so that soon everything would be cold thin soup. And life set about trying counter this. But life couldn't do it. There wasn't enough mass and energy available, even if they gathered all they could see together in one spot, there own Big Crunch. Not that they didn't try. But they realized that even black holes would evaporate against the coming runaway inflation.

                 How They Did It
So they tried escape. They built wormholes, while there was a still a chance. But to their despair, the mouths of these wormholes always bottomed out within more cold, more darkness, more emptiness. Finally, half insane in desperation, with the very last of their resources, they rotated their local space with their remaining wormholes, and thus constructed a time machine, so that at least they could escape to the past, back to their warm stellar age.

Instead, they leapt beyond the confines of their prison, into the larger universe, and there they found a new beginning. And though they were fruitful and multiplied, they were still mad and scarred from their harrowing past, and determined never, ever to let it happen again. And any life they found was raw materials to them, or, if lucky, cannon fodder.

They are out there. But it's best if they don't know about you.

So, shhh! Keep quiet!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Plan F

If procrastination was a virtue worthy of an aristocratic title, my family would be royalty.

Well, I'm crafting a Xmas present for my niece. She likes doors. She doesn't have any doors. So I'm making her a door.

I guess I should explain. She does have large doors. Regular life-sized doors. She doesn't have small quaint crafty doors, as in knick-knack doors, little curio doors, if there even is such a thing.

So, I told her I would make her a little door to get her collection started. You know how it goes, once someone starts a collection, people give them things, and that's how you walk into houses that have lots of metal owls, or ceramic frogs, or some kind of collection of things.

Well, the making of the door, which I figured would be a piece of cake, is taking ten times as long as I had planned. For starters, I decided to use some scrap walnut I had. It was very seasoned, meaning really dried out and done warping and bending and twisting and all the shit that wood does once you kill it. It was really nice walnut, until I cut into it with power tools. The power tools just chewed it all right up to an alarming degree. The table saw splintered the crap out of it, even when I did an initial cut across the grain with an Xacto blade to keep it from splintering. The router table chewed into it as if it were balsa wood, so much so that I was a little worried for my fingertips.

So, I was reduced to using hand tools. Which means the elaborate Plan A I had intended for it, with lots of fancy Roman ogee molding and separate panels and a kind of a Barbie Dream Palace look to it all, gave up the ghost. All that shit went right out the window. When was the last time you attempted crafting a molding with a hand planer instead of an electric router? Thought so. Me too.
King of the Wood People

So, Plan B was dropped as soon as I inventoried all the unmutilated remaining wood. I would have to scale the design down. Which meant the bronze fittings I had cast would no longer work as they were now oversized. So, off to the hardware store to purchase hinges and something that would as a door handle for the new Plan C door design.

Oops, wait! I was supposed to incorporate a small key into the mix that my sister-in-law gave me which had some childhood significance to my niece. So, on to Plan D. Quickly made a new fitting out of bronze, cast it, drilled a keyhole in it, and substituted the key and lock for the door handle.

Glued and Clamped
Then, cutting the frame for the door, it turns out the sculpture and design students had somehow fucked up the miter saw and not bothered to inform me. So, a mitered frame is out of the picture.
Now we are at Plan E, which is just a square frame, a plain door, hardware store hinges, no handle, but the key and lock act as the handle. And I have just now glued it up.

Taking a break here to write all this up while the first coat of tung oil soaks.

I will finish it with tung oil and butcher's wax tomorrow. This is the Plan F door. And it looks like a goddamn Fred Flintstone door.

-"it's a place right out of his-tor-y!"

She's getting it anyway!

Plan G would have involved a visit to Hobby Lobby, buy a doll house, trash it except for the little door, and say "Merry Fucking Christmas. Here's your goddamn present".

Thursday, December 15, 2011


I recently consumed little piece of hard holiday candy on The Fermi Paradox, Self-Replicating Probes, and the Interstellar Transportation Bandwidth.

It's a fun little paper about interstellar colonization, vonNeumann self-replicating machines, and why the heck aren't we knee deep in inquisitive and curious alien life forms? At one very brief point, the idea of panspermia is broached, in the sense of we-have-met-the-aliens-and-they-is-us solution to the Fermi Paradox, but the treatment last about as long as this sentence. And why should it? I mean, the paper itself is informed speculation, but for hard answers? Why, the standard excuse, into the foreseeable future is, Insufficient Data.

But what the heck, let's think about it a little bit. And for my object lesson, I choose the movie Starship Troopers. Now, most people would say "Oh my goodness why? That's a horrible movie. Why would you choose that for your speculative background?" And then, of course, there is the objection from the humorless little prig known as the Heinlein fan, who views the movie as an awful perversion of the book. Well, director Paul Verhoeven knew what he was doing. He presented a perfect fascist society of the future and showed that the only thing a perfect fascist society of the future was good for was killing alien Bugs. Not to mention, Verhoeven directed Showgirls, Robocop, and Total Recall, so the charge of taking things over the top is, at best, to identify yourself as a cluelessly humorless little prig. Besides, Heinlein book does serve a useful purpose. For those with a healthy and mature mental metabolism, it serves as a vaccine to Ayn Rand's wretched works.

Anyway, I'd argue that the alien Bugs in that movie provide a very good example of panspermia. I mean, we actually told in that movie that they have the ability to colonize other planets by "hurling their spore into space". To those geeks that object to this method as haphazard and inefficient, I'd suggest a scuba dive during the full moon when the coral reefs are spawning. The water is thick with eggs and sperm, which should freak most geeks out, and the chances of all that milky organic stuff turning into a new coral reef are frighteningly small.
(As an aside, a very nice visual aside at that, movie credits go out to Starship's Allen Cameron, Bruce Robert Hill, and Steve Wolff for the production design and art direction. In a wonderfully concise and clever group of visual hints, the viewer is invited to do a little creative world-building to figure out just how the Bugs can spread throughout the galaxy. First, there are the Bugs themselves who, through their exoskeletons and rigid hive society, seem queerly preadapted to life in the harsh environment of space. Second, those monstrously huge plasma bugs are shown shooting blue fire out of their butts right up into orbit to harass and destroy human starships above their home planet of Klendathu. Third, an explosion of one human starship releases warp plasma, the stuff that allows FTL travel, which is the exact same color as the bug plasma. In short, we are provided with a rationalization as to how the bugs spread through space. Bug colonies, on asteroids, propelled by big bug ass plasma at superluminal speeds. Interesting, at the very least, how this alien society does with adapted organic life, what we humans do with our technologies).

Alright, you know what? Clearly this essay is not going to be a serious attempt at discussing panspermia. I mean, your'e lucky it's only now that I snigger at the "sperm" part of it.

Sperm. Heh.

But I'll tell you what.  I'll take a brief crack at it. Starship Troopers was a movie. So, let's get "real" for a sec. Is panspermia possible without violating the laws of physics? Well, clearly if we play by the rules, the speed of light cannot be violated.  So, let's give the Bugs a moment of respite, and talk about bugs. As in bacteria.

If there is any life on Earth that might survive a voyage through space without technological assistance, it would be bacteria. Recall the brief period of excitement back in 1996, when it was believed microbial fossils were found in a piece of meteorite? It was dubbed ALH84001, a chunk of Mars that had landed in Antarctica 16 million years ago.

Let's send a bacterium from the Earth to the nearest star. Assume bacteria are well insulated within a rock from an event catastrophic enough to propel them into orbit. That's 7 mi/sec or 25,000 miles per hour minimum. That's a formidable event, itself undoubtedly an asteroid or comet impact upon the surface of the Earth.

Further assume that the bacteria are hardy enough to survive the journey by being flash frozen into cryogenic suspension, and that the rock protects them from the ravages of hard radiation (the number one space hazard for organic life). Given that some bacterial spores have been revived from a dessicated state in salt deposits after 250 million years, it's not an unreasonable assumption.

Further assume that a serendipitous series of celestial mechanical jugglery speeds up our spore enough to break free of our solar system. That's 26 mi/sec, or 93,600 mph. And now, we wait. Alpha Centauri, the nearest candidate star, is 4.3 light years away, or 25.8 trillion miles. Dividing our distance by speed gives us a travel time of ~275,600,000 hours, or 31,461 years. That's not that bad.

Figure on a latency of a few hundred thousand to million years between chances for further "voyages", and the majority of the galaxy could be colonized by bacterial life in as little as 3 to 4 billion years. Given that the life on Earth has been around some 3.9 billion years, there's a slim chance Earth life has colonized the galaxy and we will never know.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Amundsen at the South Pole

It's the centennial today, Dec. 14, 1911. And, aside from a kerosene heater or two, Amundsen did it all with Upper Paleolithic technology - with the help of a lot of prior preparation and an indispensable co-evolved species known as the dog.

Scott, perhaps better known through his tragedy, was beaten to the pole by a good five weeks. It's hard to understand how Scott considered the use of sled dogs bad sportsmanship. Somehow, the use of gasoline powered tractors and ponies was not. I suppose incompetence and poor planning made up for any unacknowledged "cheating", especially once the tractors broke down and the ponies died of exposure, and Scott was forced to use Lower Paleolithic technology, pulling the sledges by hand.

It's kind of weird to think of how things have changed and not changed over the course of one hundred years. If I look around my place and subtract all the things that were not around one hundred years ago, the place would be quite threadbare. Lamps, I guess, would be there. A telephone, seeing as I am quite possibly the last man on earth with a landline. But the TV, the VCR/DVD player, the computer, the clock radio, the electric stove, the refrigerator, not only all in the future, but many of the components still in the future. (If you wonder about the appalling sparseness of current shit, well no, I am not a Luddite. I'm a late adopter. I prefer you get the metaphorical cell-phone shaped tumor on the side of your head, and then when that kink is gotten out of that piece of technology, I'll get it).

Then again, would someone from 1911 feel at his ease in my home. Of course. Most of the stuff unfamiliar to him would still be conceptually familiar. Why, even the computer, would be understandable and predictable.  True, something of a marvel, but still something understandable.

What wouldn't be? Oh, well, I'd be a lot stinkier back then, with bad skin, bad breath and missing teeth, and probably smallpox scars. Probably a tapeworm, or if I lived south of the Mason-Dixon line, "seasoned" by malaria. I'd be threatened with diphtheria, scarlet fever, tetanus, tuberculosis, just to name a short few of the many diseases. 1911 is just at the end of the completion of many US sanitary projects, so I would just now be able to drink water that did not have someone else's shit in it.

Oh, and, I'd be ten years past the average life span and probably dying of stomach cancer (now practically non-existent).

So, that's all working out pretty well.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

"People of Earth! Attention! People of Earth! Attention!"

"What? WHAT?"

"Oh..., nothing".

When I was in, oh, I don't know, I guess 4th grade, I saw a movie called "Earth vs. The Flying Saucers". In retrospect, it's embarrassing to watch, much like admitting to watching the Space Hippie Episode on Star Trek. And the screenwriters for the movie must have been the same Aspergian group that went on to write movies like "Kronos" or  "20 Million Miles to Earth". Which is to say a collection of writers in possession of an affable and earnest super-dorkiness which guarantees reception of an Atomic Wedgie, or at least a Purple Herbie.

The Future..!
Regardless, for several months afterwards, I would draw pictures of tanks vs. flying saucers. And they pretty much looked like this over on the right. It's not a very good picture, but I chalk that up to drawing with computer mouse, which is rather like drawing with a pencil up your butt.

Now, you will notice I have only the one tank against the one flying saucer, but in the original series, there was a whole Shakespearian cosmology of dramatic encounters, with both tanks and flying saucers exploding in jagged edged fulminations, and both aliens and men set aflame! And further note that the flying saucers require radar dish emitters to broadcast their lightning beams. Not being an expert on high energy collimating weapons, I had to rely on Hollywood's expertise. Interestingly, had this picture been done by a Name Artist, like Warhol, or Picasso, it would easily be worth a cool million at Sotheby's.

How fucked up is that?

Flash forward to the year 1976, and I am asked to join in a project to help produce a text-based adventure game played on a computer. The first I know of was called Colossal Cave, and it kind of went like:
"You are standing in the middle of a forest path. To your left is a small grass hut with an elf standing in the doorway.
Club Elf.
The elf had a small key which you now possess.
Club Elf.
The elf is dead. You have a small key."
You get the idea. No, I didn't play the game.

Okay, I played it. But I gave up pretty quickly as it was fucking boring. But here was the deal, and it was kind of interesting. Attending an Intro to Astronomy class and one of the students wanted to develop a text-based adventure game that was also science educational. The professor was enthusiastically on board, and was willing to accept the student's proposal as a grade-worthy project - should he develop it. The idea was it would present game puzzles that would also be lessons in physics and astronomy. After hashing various scenarios out in class, it was decided the game would be called Moon Base, and it would be a narrative on lunar colonization. I received the assignment of justification for the moon base from the professor, after I objected to the whole plausibility of a lunar colony being established the far-off future date of 1999.

So, here's what I come up with. (And, although this justification ended my participation in the game development, I still ended up with an 'A' for the assignment. Hurray for me!). In the year 1983, astronomers discover that a two mile wide asteroid is going to impact the earth sometime in 1995. It is a carbonaceous chondrite asteroid, which is seredipitous. Carbonaceous chondrite meteorites have been found to contain both water and carbon. In fact, the average one contains up to 10% water, and unusual contain organic compounds. These are substances which are common on Earth, but rare in space, just the kind valuable materials you would like to mine up in space.

Well, also, it turns out these types of asteroids are usually loose collections of boulders, never having become hot enough to melt together to form a solid object. So, the usual dipshit military procedure of zapping one of these guys with an H-bomb is out of the question. What to do with this sucker?

...a little bit to the left... no, my left... that's it!
But hey, when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Since the space jockeys have a whole decade to plan something before Death From Above, they come up with idea of diverting the asteroid and "soft" landing it on the Moon. The deal is, they build a series of nuclear powered space tugs, go up and intercept the asteroid, use the mass of the tugs to gravitationally change its trajectory so that it impacts the Moon at a "relatively" slow speed, and you end up with a hundred mile long oval footprint of carbonaceous goodness on the surface of the Moon.

Not only does the scenario provide a good reason for a massive space effort, but it also provides a bonanza on the Moon, providing just the right materials for a successful Moon Base.

I thought it was pretty clever.

I am such a dork. 

Monday, December 12, 2011

Libertopia For Dummies

First off, I have to warn you. There will be disturbing images in this essay. You were warned.

2001: A Space Odyssey
A phone conversation with eldest bro always puts me in hypercynical mode for a few days. That, coupled with the fact that I do tend to rail against the incessant and ongoing stupidity of humanity, suggests the following is going to be a misanthropic complaint. But hopefully not so. Hopefully there will be some constructive criticism in there.

Eldest brother, talking with his son's friends, opined as how at this time, the year 2011 the hope was, when he was their age, that humanity would at least have a moon base. Granted, the movie "2001" set the bar pretty freaking high. Not only bases on the moon, but space hotels in Earth orbit, regular flights to and from Earth's surface to orbit, and,  if that weren't enough, throw in an intelligent computer to boot.

With that kind of expectation, practically anything less is a disappointment. And so, what was the big deal of the 21st century? What was the major technological accomplishment for 2001, or 2011? Google? Facebook?

Pathetic. A glorified advertising and marketing industry set up to extract personal information and sell it off to the highest bidder. There's your glorious vision.

Alright, let's be fair. There was no way we were ever going to get to where 2001 wanted to take us. Not without a few nuclear rockets blowing up in the atmosphere. Not without a sustained grand vision, something bordering on religious fervor. Not without a major kick in the ass to get us going.

Can we blame the Baby Boomers for this? Granted, they we are quite the most useless, selfish, self-absorbed, risk-averse, pampered, privileged generation EVER produced. But, you know, there is that thing mathematicians call the Principle of Least Action. All things being equal, all complex systems would rather coast along than expend effort and energy. With no gun to our heads, like the (*cough*bullshit*cough*) Greatest Generation before us, we coasted along.  And what would it have taken to get us into space? Some kind of existential threat that's for sure. Or some enormous enticement, some glittering cosmic treasure. But it didn't happen.
Fat-ass Captain from Wall-E

I tell you what did happen. We pursued happiness as far as we could, with the last 40-or-so years in overdrive. And as a result, we've been living in Libertopia for the past 400-some years.

The real deal, soon to be the 85% of America
You want the real movie about the future? Try Wall-E. Except we never go into space. Don't think so? Really now, think about it. If you are a certain demographic, you've pretty much gotten to do whatever the hell you wanted to do. You've enjoyed the maximum freedom as is possible without seriously wrecking society at large. And now, the party is over. And you have people like Ron Paul who, rather than trying to make Libertopia manifest and real, are actually trying to keep the party going just a little bit longer.

The Paragon of Animals
The Very Flower of American Masculinity

Who is this demographic? Why it's obvious, isn't it? Rednecks. Stupid white people. Dumbass, country-fuck, dipshit, cocksucking, fat, toothless, ignorantly proud, proudly ignorant asshole white guys. Do whatever they want. Get as fat and stupid as they want. Pretty much enjoy any intoxicant they want. Treat everyone else like shit, and it's been a blast. But it's over now. And probably as just as well.

Hey Ron Paul? Take a long, hard look at what you want to preserve.

This IS your Libertopia.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Demarchy, revisited

Steven Pinker claims that, historically, humanity is getting less and less violent.

I don't think I buy into that. I have to at least question both his data collection and his metrics. He weighs total casualties during periods of violence divided by total population at that time. There may be other parameters involved, I would at least hope, like making sure the casualty rate excluded death by disease, famine, and other privations. How would this metric work on historical natural disasters? Would the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, which devastated Tokyo and Yokohama and claimed around 105,000 lives, be considered more violent than the 2010 Haiti earthquake, with 300,000 lives lost only because more people were around in 2010? That's silly.

But using this metric, Pinker classifies China's An Lushan revolt and civil war with a higher violence coefficient that WWII. Is that really kosher? Well, this commenter's bullshit detector went off.

Regardless, I would have had Pinker set his group of little grad students collecting and collating data on a much more important assertion, one that I hopefully am cherry-picking by counting the obvious affirmatives and ignoring the negatives, which is that, as the Russians say: "Whether salt water or fresh, shit floats to the top". Or, more succinctly, in order to succeed, you need to be an asshole.

Is human society that fucked up? Or the laws of natural selection? That you need to be an asshole to get ahead? Well, I think Pinker and his staff need to work on this.

If true, I think I have an empirical test for a systemic utopian fix. And it goes back to the idea of demarchy. I wrote an essay on this about a year ago. And a quick re-read of this suggests, wow, I've really got to brush up on my profane deprecative skills.

Now, I am not quite ready to say the democracy doesn't work. I am willing to say that the quick fixes, the bandaids, the simplistic solutions proposed will not work.

Term limits, for example, are completely fucking stupid. What term limits will do is to select for the most virulent, vile, corrupted asshole cocksuckers for office. Easily. Since money and politics are intimately connected, inextricable, always and forever entwined and entangled, whether it is election funds or taxpayer revenues, you will always, always have people who wish to feed at the public trough at the public expense. Term limits merely sets up an environment which further encourages public servants to get theirs while they can. So, these fixes are just fucking juvenile, and should be ignored.

But! But, I think I have a systemic solution and it amounts to this observation from nature: natural selection. When you select in nature, the filter is death and the filter is permanent, but the filter is done after the facts, or rather, the performance. And that filter, at the societal level, should be voting.

Problem is, we do it all wrong. We do it ass-backwards. What we should do, under the Kurman Variation of Demarchy is to vote people OUT of office, not into it.

So, quick review, demarchy is government by lottery, just like jury duty. It's not election time, it's selection time, and you, my dear, have been chosen by lot to serve. But, the main complaint about demarchy is, what if you get some idiot chosen by lot to serve in office? No problem. That's where elections come in.

You can still have recall elections, but you also have delections. And a delection is this:

"So we got Governor Titlapper in office and he wasn't recalled for being an insufferable cabbagehead, but he still sucks in some ways. Does he suck enough for removal? Yes or no?"

If he is not delected from office, he continues to serve. Otherwise, vote the bum out, his (or her) number is tossed aside, and we re-draw from the pool.

You got to admit, government by lottery is a heck of a lot more democratic than the current system we have. And who is to say you can't find wise, competent, and qualified people who are currently collecting food stamps. Because all you have to is look at the idiot millionaires currently fucking the country up, and say, Jesus, there's got to be better people out there than these asshole cocksuckers.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Era of Peak Art

Art Basel is in the news. They've had their big show in Miami Beach, and word on the street is the art market is hot, hot, hot - as in big ol' zit of an asset bubble ready to pop hot.

Of course, I'm talking high-end art, which, honestly, you can't really consider art.

It's more commodity than art. One person who has currently helped the centuries-old long-term commoditization of the whole high end art market is Charles Saatchi. He who has done for the art market what complex derivatives did for the financial world. Saatchi, no small irony here, bemoans the current crop of collectors as "... Eurotrashy, Hedge-fundy, Hamptonites; ... trendy oligarchs and oiligarchs".

And so what? What's wrong with the idea of art as commodity? Why is it so bad that a Warhol, or a   Twombly, or a Hopper, or even a Rembrandt or a daVinci, be thrown into the same category as barrels of oil, ingots of copper, wheat, soybeans, coffee, and hog bellies? These are all things that are available to the human animal to enjoy and consume. To say that art is somehow not to be included in this cycle of acquistion, that it is to be held in higher regard is in some sense quite delusional.

And, just as, say, oil is a limited commodity, as in they ain't (yet) making any more of it, so it we should view art. There should be quotes on the proven and unproven reserves of art in this country and in the world.

Because eventually, all rank speculation aside, if you aren't producing quality artists, you'll be running out of quality art, and sooner rather than later. In fact, I suspect we will be facing, at some ppoint in the near future, the Era of Peak Art, and a consequent Art Crisis.

Now, I know for you and me, since we are just Regular Folks, that the coming shooting war pf the oligarchs might make for a small of amusement, but what of the artists? I can tell you, if history is any guide, that rather than being valued and protected, will instead be abused and appropriated, just like little baby girls in China. You'd think all that female infanticide would make potential female mates for all those mateless boys an extremely valued commodity, but no, instead it's the opposite. the illicit trade in girls is thriving. They are being abducted, enslaved, and mistreated at unprecedented rates.

And so it will be with future artists. Perhaps there will be protected reserves for them. They will tagged, radio-collared, and guarded. But they will also be poached. And, given the insanity of our species, like bush meat, futures artists will probably be hunted to near extinction just to increase the value of their art.

Interesting times ahead, for sure.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

1960s TV Really Fucked Me Up

Word on the street is the US Air Force Space Command is throwing SETI a bone - supplying monies so they can check out Kepler-22b. You know, Kepler-22b? The superearth orbiting in a G type star's "Goldilocks zone" some 600 light years from here? Uh? Superearth? A radius 2.4 times that of the Earth's? Goldilocks Zone? Orbiting the star where liquid water is possible on the surface of the planet? You are keeping up on the science news, right?

So, the idea is suddenly this is Earth's twin and there could be life there. Provided, of course, this planet has the right mass, which we can't tell.  I mean, it's fucking amazing that they can tell how big it is, from three thousand five hundred twenty-six trillion miles away. (No, really, don't let the budget "crisis" fool you, that's a big fucking number). But what they don't know is the planet's mass, because it could be, like some health-conscious German stool inspection category: watery, gassy, or solid, which is to say, rocky.

Now, if it is watery, it can't have too much water, otherwise it will undoubtedly have an ocean several hundred miles deep, and at the bottom of that ocean will be a peculiar form of pressurized ice. And that's not a good place for terrestrial life to form. Then again, if it is rocky, then with the radius being what it is, it is more likely a big super Venus, and that's no place to hang out. And if it is gassy, then it is a mini-Neptune, and again, no place you'd want to spend time at.

But, what the hell, SETI needs a new pair of shoes, and if they get to use their radio telescopes to check it out for Space Command for "space situational awareness", then why not? I can tell them right now, save them some time, that nope, nobody home. No life. Just like Mars. But hey, whatever, better to spend the money on that than tax breaks for job creators, which has done us Earthlings so much good.

And, you know, Space Command kind of reminds of Alpha Control from the old "Lost in Space" TV series. The series was just so hokey, not serious the way Star Trek was, but looking back, I suspect they had a better take on all things alien out there. Which is, if they are out there (and Where Are They?), they really don't give a shit about us. I mean, every time the Robinson's ran into a technologically superior alien race, which was always, the aliens were about as happy to see them as you are a homeless person wanting to wash your car windshield.

"No. No. No. No. Thank you. NO! Oh. Shit. Fine. Here. Here is some neutronium. Yes. You're welcome".

But honestly, that's the way it was, well, that and fuses had been invented so you didn't have sparks flying over the place whenever the power was turned on. But, hey, cut Irwin Allen some slack. I hear he was as bugfuck crazy as Mickey Rooney). And all the space alien babes have super powers and wear capes.

Anyway, Kepler-22b. Nothing there. Okay. Nothing. Except, oh, maybe the Bugs.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"Thinking Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman

I've just watched the mutual dick sucking festival between Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump and tried to keep from retching.

Newt Gingrich: nothing a little spontaneous human combustion wouldn't cure.

Although, not really wishing much harm on my fellow humans, I'd just as soon put the entire Republican clown car - including the sticky wet turd Donald Trump - onto a ice flow and shove them off into the Bering Sea. You know, an experiment,  just to see who gets eaten last, or which orca finally gets tired of playing with which bloated corpse. Nothing bizarre. Nothing grotesque. Just some good old-fashioned natural justice.

Speaking of Newt, I suspect he wouldn't get the fast-or-slow solution to the following problem, and it is mainly because Mr. Six Sigma is, despite conservative misconceptions, intellectually a fucking retard, and ethically an empty shit bag.

Ready? Think Fast! Think Slow! Problem: A bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat is $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? Answer at the end.

This is one many examples of figuring out how people think, and that's the cool thing about, not just Daniel Kahneman's papers, but Kahneman and Amos Tversky's papers. They have fun puzzles in them.

In case you haven't figured it out, this is a mini-review of Kahneman's book "Thinking Fast and Slow". I call this a mini-review because I obtained the book through the public library's new purchases reservation system, and so have had only two weeks to read it. So, I skimmed. Just as well, as probably 80% of the material I was already familiar with. As is Kahneman, for this book is primarily, a summary of not only his lifelong research, but other psychologists findings as well. As such, I would classify this book as a worthwhile introductory textbook, and leave it at that. If you are unfamiliar with this area, then I recommend reading it. If, like me, you have some familiarity with the materials, then I suggest you skim and not worry overmuch on missing the juicy stuff. The salient points will catch your eye, and you will be rewarded. 

I first came across Kahneman in an article in "The Economist" magazine, which was devoted to demolishing the Chicago School's neo-classical version of economic models. I'm also ashamed to say that I also came Kahneman and Tversky through Malcolm Gladwell's book "Blink". (The nicest thing I can say about that book is that it provided a fun bibliography to work through). Back to the Chicago School, not being an economist or a psychologist, I still, through casual observation of human beings and occasional chance readings, came to the conclusion long ago that human beings are not rationally self-interested agents. Or rather, that a rational description served poorly to describe the human animal. In a more succinct manner, identical to my critique of the works of Ayn Rand, would be put thus: "What kind of a fucking retard would buy into this bullshit?"

Kahneman devotes a large amount of the book to developing two fictional characters, the two functional personae that make up your mind: System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is, for lack of a better term, your intuitive self, your associational engine. System 2, again for lack of a better term, is your rational self, your logical computer. System 1 has been honed by millions of years of evolution to be the very clever, very spontaneous, animal mind that each and every one of us relies upon to make it through the day. System 1 is the fast thinker.  System 2 is the slow thinker. System 2 allocates attention to effortful activities such as complex computations, problems of agency, choice, judgement, and concentration. It is also extremely lazy. If System 2 can get away with not having to do work, and rely upon the mental activities of System 1, it will. This lies at the heart of practically every cognitive illusion and fallacy we operate under. Not all. We have to keep in mind that logic is stupid. That rationality is NOT the same as intelligence. But still, it requires work to be logical, and if we can get away with the minimum amount of effort, we will.

From my own personal introspections, I offer an indefensible allegory. We've all heard of the false myth that we use only ten percent of our brains. I submit that only ten percent of my brain is used to produce the conscious me, the "ego". The other ninety percent is used to produce the subconscious me, the myriad associational, emotional, instinctive, embodied processes that make up the majority of me. (In some sense, this part is an alien other, a portion that, failing to be replicated in an artificial intelligence, pretty dooms the whole project from the get-go. Then again, a realistic replication of this alien other, in an attempt to simulate human intelligence, may also doom an AI to automatic insanity).

So, in summary, I recommend the book to any reader. There's both insight for the beginner, and clarified summaries for the old hand.

Answer: Fast think: the ball costs ten cents. Slow think: if x is the amount of the ball, then x + (x + $1.00) = $1.10, then 2x = $1.10 - $1.00, then x =  five cents.

Don't feel bad if you quickly said ten cents. Even Nobel Prize winning economists and people from Harvard business school and MIT get this one wrong. That's fast thinking for you.

Better to be quick and wrong than right and dead.

Friday, December 2, 2011

OWS List?

I found this list in the comment section of a Yahoo news piece about a truly horrid looking repulsive little pudge ball named Frank "Hey Frank! You're an Idiot!" Luntz. The list is by someone named Walter, but it sounds suspiciously like something I recall being put out by the Green Party of America. I tried to do some research, which, of course, consisted of perhaps a 30 second google search. In other words, I put in zero effort to trace the source.

Regardless, there are some sound ideas in here. Others sounds like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. My occasional thoughts below in italics. After reading through and commenting, I'm seeing that most of these items are actually kind of limited horizon short-term small visions fixes. Like most legislation, so what the fuck, try 'em anyway.

1) End Corporate Personhood (Keep Human Rights OUR Rights)
2) Reverse Citizens United (Corporate Money is Not Free Speech)

1) & 2) pretty much the same goal, no? How to do this? One suggestion is a constitutional amendment to limit corporate and special interest monies in politics. I don't see this happening for a number of legal and real world reasons. Rather than restricting corporate funding, how about making it completely transparent? That seems a lot easier to do, and it's probably constitutional.
3) Prohibit All Former and Future Congressmen or Staff from being a Paid Lobbyist.(Get Out of Washington)
4) Prohibit Any Lobbyist from offering ANY Monetary Compensation, Gift or Job or any future promise of the same to Any Congressman, or Congressmen’s Family, Staff or Federal Employee Directly involved with congress. (Congress Not For Sale)

End the revolving door between the Capitol and K Street? Ain't gonna happen.  No more than prohibiting the selection of candidates for memberships on corporate board of directors. However, the selection field, like for those of the CEO field, could be broadened beyond the usual short list of asshole cocksuckers.

5) Apply All Conflict of Interest and Insider Trading Laws to Congress. (End Market Manipulation)

I believe I've read OWS objections along this line. This is completely doable and should be done right now.

6) Hold all Business Interests, Stock Bonds, and Assets in a Blind Trust During the Term of Office or at the very least, 2 Weeks Before Congress is in Session and end 30 Days After the Session. (Keep Congress Honest, Remove Temptation)

This is completely doable. Not sure what impact it would have, as a congress person could always have an "informed"  third party handle their finances to get around this.

7) Prohibited Tax Breaks for Any Companies SENDING Jobs Overseas! End All Tax Breaks for Companies That Eliminate American Jobs. (Preserve American Jobs)

Not workable. Drop this.

8) Granted Tax Breaks to Companies for BRINGING Overseas Jobs BACK to the U.S.(Repatriate American Jobs)

Unworkable, and easily abused (a proviso for permanent job transfer in there? Nah. How to verify? Unworkable.) Drop this.

9) Promote Tax cuts for small businesses and the middle-class families who rely on their entrepreneurship. (Small Business Jobs and Credit)

Something like this already exists. Simply a matter of adding enough gov't staff to implement it.

10) Closed All Existing Tax Loopholes That Allow The Wealthy and Big Corporations to Abuse the Tax Credit System. (End Loophole Abuse)

Wow. Something even Republicans can get behind. Which is why it won't happen.

11) Reinstall the separation between commercial banking and the securities business, a return to Glass–Steagall Act of 1933 Strengthen ‘The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act “ (Work to Protect Consumers)

Doable. But open to abuse (there are whole law firms dedicated to Frank-Dodd interpretation). Do ti anyway.

12) Use Antitrust Laws to Break Up “Too Big to Fail” Banks, Financial institutions and Corporations.

Me, I'd just nationalize the fuckers, but, uh, oh wait, that's real socialism isn't it?

13) Restore Equal Justus By Applying the Law to Persons “Too Big To Jail”

I think Walter meant "justice". But, nah, no need. This is already in place. It's an enforcement issue.

14) End All Oil Subsidies to Multinational Oil Companies. (No Oil Welfare)

Yeah, even though it won't make much difference... unless Walter's talking about the defense subsidy as well. In which case, ain't gonna happen. Inertia.

15) Tax Every Stock Transaction at .001% On the Total Value of the Stock to End Multi Nanosecond Computer Trading That Artificially Drive up Stock Bubbles. (Restore Stock Market Sanity)

Now, this one has been kicked around forever, and, if I am not mistaken, places like Hong Kong and Singapore - free market darlings - have this and business has suffered not one wit. Do it.
16) Tax All Bonuses and Stock Options in Lieu of Corporate Bonuses as Standard income under $10,000, Tax Bonuses at 25% under $75,000 and at 50% above $75,000 (An American Bonus)

I'd... have to look at this one more closely.

17) Prohibit Any Bank that Contracts to Handle Any Public Benefits Program from Charging Any Fee to Any Recipient of Those Programs. Banks can only Receive a Flat Negotiated Fee the Government. (End Banking Enrichment)

Can't see the harm. Do it.

18) Provide For Publicly Owned Banks (State and National) to Handle the Peoples and Taxpayers Money, To Be Accountable to the Interest of the People.

I like it, but, oh, whoa. Socialism. See 12).

19) Increase Taxes on the wealthy by Increasing the Capital Gains Tax with a flat yearly exemption for all, Increase the Upper Income Tax to 50% deduction are allowed for U.S. Jobs, Manufacturing and Capital investment within the United States. (Tax Power and Control)

There's no question that huge chunks of the debt would disappear if the parasite class was made to contribute to the health of the nation. Considering how much wealth they've hoovered up these past 30 years...

20) Rebuild Americas Infrastructure Build Roads and Bridges, Schools and Factories. (America First!)

Fuck yeah! We really are looking like a seedy rundown nation. At least board up the shitty spots with murals, like the Soviets used to do.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Is Bret Stephens Stupid?

Or does he assume everyone else is as stupid? That's one of the hallmarks of a stupid person, you know.

Whenever I need to know what stupid people are supposed to be thinking, I read the editorials at the Wall Street Journal. And then, if I want to know what incredibly stupid people are thinking, I'll read the comments from the readers of the WSJ. If these people are a representative cross-section of the business executive population, it's a wonder we don't have a stock crash every other day.

It's really quite sad how, with Murdoch buying that paper, it has just turned into the worst shitrag on the market. Take the following opinion from Bret Stephens on the Great Global Warming Fizzle. According to the WSJ, Bret Stephens received his education at the University of Chicago and the London School of Economics. Really, I didn't know they offered a degree in fluffing.

And the op/ed piece Stephens wrote is unquestionably a professional level fluff job. The question is who is he fluffing? Is this just a feel good piece for the readers? Something to take their minds off how much they suck, compared to the general population? I don't know. It sure as hell isn't supposed to be factual or persuasive or of any useful purpose in terms of a worthwhile dialog.

So I have to assume this is just Bret Stephens' print version of a holiday blowjob to his readers.

Slurp. Slurp. Says Stephens:
"Consider the case of global warming, another system of doomsaying prophecy and faith in things unseen. As with religion, it is presided over by a caste of spectacularly unattractive people pretending to an obscure form of knowledge that promises to make the seas retreat and the winds abate. As with religion, it comes with an elaborate list of virtues, vices and indulgences. As with religion, its claims are often non-falsifiable, hence the convenience of the term "climate change" when thermometers don't oblige the expected trend lines. As with religion, it is harsh toward skeptics, heretics and other "deniers." And as with religion, it is susceptible to the earthly temptations of money, power, politics, arrogance and deceit".
So, what I'm guessing is he is none too popular with the evangelical portion of the conservative tribe. You know, the Tea Party types who want us all to buy into the notion that America is a Christian nation first and foremost? To call these people "spectacularly unattractive", for starters, is an interesting form of fellatio. But is that it? Is that his only descriptive for climatologists  and those who heed their data? That's hardly a convincing argument. Not to mention that listed among those poor deluded religious types are hard-nosed realists like the US Armed Forces and insurance companies. But their opinion doesn't matter to Stephens. He keeps blathering away like the oily little shill he is:

"Yet a funny thing happened on the way to the climate apocalypse. Namely, the financial apocalypse. The U.S., Russia, Japan, Canada and the EU have all but confirmed they won't be signing on to a new Kyoto. The Chinese and Indians won't make a move unless the West does. The notion that rich (or formerly rich) countries are going to ship $100 billion every year to the Micronesias of the world is risible, especially after they've spent it all on Greece".
So, I guess because the tycoons to whom Stephens services have taken a big old shit and fallen over, and have wasted all of the working people's hard-earned monies on a scam, climate change is now no longer a problem. Exemplary reasoning there Slurpy! Smarmy Fuckface continues:

"Cap and trade is a dead letter in the U.S. Even Europe is having second thoughts about carbon-reduction targets that are decimating the continent's heavy industries and cost an estimated $67 billion a year. "Green" technologies have all proved expensive, environmentally hazardous and wildly unpopular duds."
  Cap and trade is dead. Who killed that again? Who was not going to make a money on that? And, uh, why is Europe accelerating the second phase of their carbon trade system, if it is wrecking their economy? And why is it that the world economies are now putting more monies into renewable energy than fossil fuel in new power generation? Could it be that Stephens is ignoring facts, pretending to an obscure form of knowledge that promises to make the seas retreat and the winds abate? Or is he just yawning that jaw bone as far open as he can to accept cock? Well, he's paid, well for his services, so...

Wait a minute, now, what about all those hacked climategate emails? What's the word on their impact. Oh, right, still doesn''t change the fundamental science. Still doesn't change the consensus.

And who hacked them anyway? Who's in trouble for hacking into lately? Hmm?

And despite the climate "skeptics" shrill denouncements, the evidence against them keeps piling up. Why, even a Koch-funded scientist who was supposed to debunk global wamring says it's all real.

Oops. Sorry, Stephens. Maybe you should just stick to opining about bombing Iran.

Addition: Latest NOAA report suggests we lost the battle of Arctic recovery back in 2006.

Sorry, Bret, you silly little cocksucker, but Greenland is getting green - or will be in your pampered little lifetime:

Again with the Red Eye!

Last time it happened, back in April 2010, I chalked it up to abrasive grit in the eye. This time out, I didn't notice it until someone told me I had blood in my eye. I thought they meant I was angry. No they meant blood in my eye. Now it itches. Might be pink eye this time. So, probably pink eye the last time as well.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Reagan Divergences


How We Initiated a Global Thermonuclear Armageddon Without Really Trying.

Once more, I find myself in the Best of All Possible Worlds (BOAPW) in the year 2050CE. Which means I'm 450 million light years from Earth, seated in an incredibly ergonomic buttock-caressing barstool at the bar in Sam's Pub. I'm drinking a spectacular super lager with just the right amount of hops. Not enough to be overpowering, but enough to give the beer a bite.

It's a beautiful day here in Spiral City. I know this because all the bars here are not darkened caves but open to the sky, with windows and skylights everywhere. I can see just the most achingly beautiful set of puffy clouds right above me, and the horizon holds a darkness of promise - a warm, gentle, delightful rain later this afternoon.

A quick check of the Mr. Mark's Melodies app via my nonlocally connected aqueous assistant assures me that (per the musical incantations Mark derived from his father Hugh Everett III's nearly-lost Basement Equations*), there is not a Divergence in sight for the next week. I'm worry free through next Monday. What could be better? In the BOAPW? Um, nothing.

I often am amazed at how we pulled it off. Humanity, that is. How we not only managed to survive, but became worthy of survival. How a Hobbsian race - feral, brutish, and nasty - through a miraculous serendipity, became a fairly decent and respectable species - gentle, wise, tolerant, generous, and most importantly to sparse and fragile alien life, neighborly. Still more amazing is how we spread throughout the cosmos in a mere twenty years to occupy a cubic hundred thousand billion light year volume of spacetime. A volume which, despite our teeming trillions, is still imbued with a population density barely that of a wisp of smoke. Even more amazing is how the Older Races (vast forces eons older than us) tolerate our existence, and well, honestly, even when we reach their plateau, do not view us as a threat.

Could things get any better? Again, in the BOAPW? Quite simply, no.

This past week, being the universally recognized period of thanksgiving, is just a touch ironic given the anniversaries of a huge horde of Divergences that occur.  And a disturbing majority of them are Reagan Divergences.

True, the nuclear arms race peaked in 1986, but its the years 1981 through 1985 that have more nuclear wars than the rest of the 20th century put together. Amazing. The peak of these Divergences is, not surprisingly, November 24th, 1985. You'd think it might be March 24th, 1983, the day after Reagan made his "Star Wars" speech. But no, with the Reagan administration's dismissal reinterpretation of the ABM Treaty in late October 1985, the Soviets conclude that the US is gearing up to start a nuclear war. The expected value of the contingent shit hitting the counterfactual fan jumps alarmingly several dozen times on November 24th. 

Reagan with Dr. Merkwürdigliebe
The whole harrowing slew of disasters finally tapered off soon after, when Foreign Minister Anatoly Dobrynin informed President Reagan of the Soviet Doomsday Machine (officially known as System Perimeter, and unofficially as Dead Hand). The formerly belligerent Reagan, after realizing that all of his rhetoric and actions had been interpreted as an intention on the part of the United States to start a nuclear war, settled the fuck down.

Fortunately for all of us, the old asshole did settle the fuck down, and it also helped that Gorbachev stepped onto the stage. Few recognize the value of this man, but that's the reason there's a statue to him down in the central park of Spiral City.

The Good Earth, courtesy
And in 2050CE, I don't think you can find much that is named after Reagan anymore. Not even the National Airport in Washington DC, back on good old Earth.

* Did I not explain all this? Mark Everett, son of Hugh Everett III, found a pile of papers crammed with mathematical formulae in the basement of the family home. Mark, like most of humanity, not being instinctively statistically inclined, called three of his father's friends to see if they wanted the stuff. Fortunately for all us, the four of them were able, through an interpretation of tones and rhythms, to convert Hugh's maths into musical incantations. Those incantations opened up time, space, the forces of nature, and the universe to humanity. Proper applications of such showed us all possible contingencies to every possible situation. This allowed us to avoid the majority of catastrophes which would befall humanity for a million years up and down the arrow of Time. Catastrophes which, through avoidance, become unfortunate alternate timelines now known as Divergences. They also pointed us toward the associational coherence which, now called the Convergence, possessed us all into a one-and-only-one wonderful Now known as BOAPW.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Tale of the Captain Nemo and the Leafblower


It's the "What Can We Do With Oxygen?" Show!

For your holiday cheer. Back home in Indiana last weekend, a friend of mine had some dead wood littering his yard. We cut it up to burn it in his chimnea (which, because of the way it looks, like a steam powered diving helmet, I call it Captain Nemo).

After about fifteen seconds into the process of cutting and chopping up these small limbs of pretty much rotted wood, I was completely exhausted. I reminded myself of someone I knew in my youth, who was (possibly still is) the second most laziest person on the planet. This person's classic line, when we went for a hike in Turkey Run State Park, was: "Let's not going anywhere uphill."

I am told by eldest brother that I should not feel so badly about being feeble, and that, being in our mid-50s, by frontiersman's standards of life expectancy, we would be under the ground for some time now. Still, these past 10,000 years have made wusses of us all, have they not? In more robust times, I'd have just snapped all those limbs by hand, without the use of tools.

(Also, isn't it funny how there are places like Titan and Neptune with literally trillions of years worth of natural gas to burn through, but it would take the next technological energy source to get to them? Ironic.)

The other irony I would note is that, we worry so much about fossil carbon resources, and yet, as this video shows, we care very little for our fossil oxygen resource. The only time one cares about breathing, is when he cannot draw breath.

Enough talk, on with the show. Next week, firecrackers and liquid nitrogen!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


When I was about twelve or thirteen years of age, I found a book at the public library titled "Spacetime Physics", by Edwin F. Taylor, and John Wheeler. Despite having only just mastered decimals, fractions, and ratios, I was able to follow this book on Einstein's Special Relativity.

It wasn't that I was a precocious young sprout. Rather that the text of this book was just so damn clear and accessible that even a 6th grader could follow it.

Well, after reading through the book a few times,  I realized I could compute just how much fuel the starship Enterprise needed to zoom around in space.

Well, actually, no. I didn't know about the square root of minus one yet. I also had no solid figures on what the equivalent to specific impulse a warp plasma  using a dilithium conversion of matter/antimatter explosion was.

Relativistic Kinetic Energy
So, instead, I decided, since I knew what specific impulse was from my geek eldest brother, I decided to find out just how much fuel it would take for 190,000 tons of the Enterprise to go from zero to almost the speed of light (.99c) using its impulse drive. I just found the (theoretical) numbers in other books at the library, applied No. 2 pencil to yellow tab paper, plugged in the numbers into the equation for relativistic momentum, and voila!

Imagine my disappointment, when my figures indicated a fuel tank full of liquid hydrogen approximately ten times the volume of the USS Enterprise.

Well, my sixth grade calculations were off just a bit. Really more like a fuel tank a thousand times the volume of the Enterprise. Nevertheless, I was quite disillusioned with the show.

(I think that was also the year I figured a loving personal God was also probably not in the offings as well. At least, no God worth worshiping. But that was done strictly via good old fashioned logic and scholasticism. So, two birds with one stone, basically).

But the graph for relativistic momentum provided me with a new epistemological metaphor for science and technology and truth. See? The closer you get to absolute truth, the harder it gets to get there. That particular mental model stuck with me well through high school, until I got to college.

No, I did not become a postmodern relativist butthead, thank you. I just realized that:

1) There may be no such thing as absolute truth
2) If such a thing exists, the path to it may be not so straightforward and direct
3) There's always going backwards, backtracking, dead ends, blind alleys, and wild goose chases
4) Even if you manage to struggle to the top of one mountain, there's a whole new, much bigger range on the horizon.

Now what do I think about stuff like this?

I think... I think I need a nap.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Worm and the Thing

- or - Why Buy the Cow When You Can Get the Milk For Free?

I'll just call them Victor (as in Frankenstein). Pardon the nationality mashup, since we don't know who they are, but have a pretty good idea that they are a they and that they are either Russian or Ukrainian (I'm betting Russian).

I call them Victor because they created a monster. It's theirs and they pwn it. They created more than just a monster, though. They created a whole new business model, and it is the wave of the future. And it is brilliant, because they borrowed from the best, the strategy of evolution itself.

In 1938 John Campbell wrote a science fiction novella called "Who Goes There?" Later it was adapted into two movies. The first movie by Howard Hawks, "The Thing From Another World", was considered a science fiction horror movie classic. The second movie, John Carpenter's "The Thing", conforms more to the original story. In Hawks' version, the monster is your standard humanoid monster, ala Frankenstein's monster. In Carpenter's version, it is much more alien, more like the Blob - all consuming, but with that imposter twist - and the accompanying paranoia as to whom to trust.

I've read Campbell's novella, and it scared the hell out me. I'll tell you why. One of the more delicious fears one can have is not fear of death, but fear of lack of control. The alien creature doesn't just consume you. It imitates you. It enslaves you. It mutilates your mind and will, and binds you to service it. The other factor is just the right amount of information. In a horror flick, or in a story, you need just enough information to know that something is a threat, perhaps even an existential threat, but not so much information that you are familiar with the threat. This has always been a problem in movies. How much of the monster do you show? Not enough, and it is all just boring. Too much, and the monster is just another character.

There is a defining scene in Campbell's story when the humans realize that even the tiniest piece of monster can take over an organism. And when one character realizes that their cows have not been monitored against "infection", and that they have all been drinking the milk.
"Mac, how long have the... cows been... not cows?"
 It's a great creepy moment, when he realizes, in a fit of revulsion, hysteria, and self-loathing, that he may be a Thing and not even know it.

So it is with Victor's monster. What is Victor's monster? Well, you may have heard of it. It's called the Conficker Worm. It's a computer worm that was unleashed (as far as we know) back in 2008 or so.

Well, hold on. What's a worm? The term can be traced back to John Brunner's amazingly prescient 1975 science fiction novel "The Shockwave Rider". Brunner envisioned a future world connected by a global "data-net". The data-net, in turn, is controlled by a malevolent corporate-state entity. The protagonist of the story, a hacker named Nick Haflinger, creates a computer program he calls a "tapeworm", which infiltrates the net, takes control over computers, issues orders to replicate itself in still more computers, and, ultimately subverts the data-net, and releases all the nasty crony-capitalist secret files to the public.

Brunner chose to call the program a tapeworm because the viral code consisted of a string of segments that could each reproduce itself onto another computer - another "node" in the net.

The Conficker worm does pretty much that, but without the good intentions. Once this worm infiltrated a computer (yours, perhaps) it would look for others, and continue replicating as far as it could. All of these computers would then link themselves into a "botnet". A botnet is capable of good and bad things. The good witch versions of botnets could also be called "clouds", and they are capable of tremendous data-processing feats that allow complex problems to be solved, or vast amounts of data to be shared and stored. The bad witch version of botnets can be used to launch Denial of Service attacks against websites, or unleash a storm of spam, phish for identity theft, rattle cyberlocks for open doors to steal funds, or flood networks with all sorts of scareware and fraudulent bullshit. If you have enough computers and infiltrated the right systems, you could even, conceivably, disrupt a nation's electronic grid, or banks, or telephones, air traffic, financial markets, health-care systems, or even take down the entire Internet itself.

You could do all those awful things, that is, if you are thinking like a small-time hoodlum, a small-minded one-time blackmailer, a hooligan, a vandal, a stupid barbarian. But then again, for someone smart enough to code something that stymies even the hackers that created the Internet, why would you do that? There is so much more money to be had, power to be accrued, if your botnet is big and stable and lasts for a long, long time.

And there's the brilliant business model. Rather than raise havoc, or rent out access to the botnet to two-bit spammers and scammers, crooks, thieves, and blackmailing fraudsters, you could do a number of other neat things with it. Think of Victor as "ковбой", cowboy, or better still, a cattle baron, his botnet his dairy herd, and the Internet as the Great Plains filled with grass, free for the browsing.

Well, wait, wait, wait a minute, how big of a botnet are we talking about? Well, at one point, it's estimated that Conficker enslaved around 9 million computers, creating quite possibly something approaching the biggest platform on the planet. Oh, companies came up with anti-viral software to purge it, and institutions and businesses have wiped it off of their systems, but actually, it's still around. It's estimated by this guy to average at six and a half million PCs, marshaling a formidable eighteen million CPUs, and capable of generating 28 trillion bytes per second of bandwidth.

That's quite a cloud. The next biggest cloud is Google, with a measly 8% of capacity and processing power. Conficker is not a worm. Not anymore. Conficker is a Thing. A very, very big Thing, and this Thing is never, ever going to go away.

If you wanted to get rid of this Thing, what could you do? Well, create a bigger Thing to smush it, I guess. That's about it. And some people would like to do that, because they feel that this Thing out there represents a threat to freedom of information, and free access, and all that other technocrat-utopian  crystal rainbows and marshmallow unicorns stuff that we all wish would happen.

But it won't happen. That Thing out there? It's not going away. And it's doing stuff. It's processing stuff. It's active. We don't what it's doing, but it's doing something.

Should you be scared? Nah.

If you spent all your time worrying about every existential threat that could befall you, why, you'd be paralyzed into inaction. This is just another annoyance. Or maybe not. Maybe it's just the way the future is. All I know is, unlike the movie "The Thing", this monster chose the respectable route. It lives net door, and, like the Munsters, might not be a good neighbor, but really hasn't done anything to call the cops out.

Victor may let us all know one of these days what kind of Thing he pwns. But I don't think he wants to wreck anything, not while he's making a good living off of it.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Space Opera Ain't Over 'Til the Fat Alien Sings

Not sure why, but lately, people in Russia have been actively searching for this blog's URL. Not sure what that all that is about, but to my curious Russian friends, I say "Привет!"

I'd say more, but my college Russian is really rusty, and about all I remember now is obscenities and, you know, phrases like: "The pencil is on the table" or "Your sister is very hot".

(Although I am told that my spoken Russian is impressively native-sounding. A big shout-out to my former professors at Indiana University for stressing correct pronunciation).

In the previous essay, in my response to observation on intelligence being the absence of stupidity, Barry queries: "Isn't dark the absence of light?"

A ZPE Formula
Well, you know, Barry, that all was just metaphor, not to mention anthropomorphic metaphor, but, no. No. There is no such thing as dark. If one examines what the emptiest empty is, one finds out that this state is called the Zero Point Energy state.

This can be empirically demonstrated through the Casimir effect. And in fact, a much more dramatic experiment has recently been conducted where light was created out of a vacuum. Sadly, harvesting the Zero Point Energy violates Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle, but this has not stopped bad science fiction scriptwriters or crank inventors from utilizing it.

But you know when it comes to bad science fiction, space opera is up there. I'm not ashamed to admit that I can't enough of that. And I've often considered a realistic space opera story. You know, one that obeys the laws of physics, or at least recognize the established physical limits?

Some say it can't be done. They claim such a story would be boring.

Take the speed of light limit. (Yes, I know, they claim to have broken the light barrier, but I suspect some unknown characteristic about neutrinos that is much more interesting). It eliminates the whole Horatio Hornblower in Space treatment favored by the likes of Star Trek. Difficult to keep the plot moving when it (optimistically) takes decades or centuries to move a scene or episode from one interstellar location to the next. It either calls for a new cast every episode (generation ships), or an immortal - and incredibly patient and persistent - cast of characters.

Is that it? Is that about the only road block to space opera? Well, yeah, within the context of a TV series or a Hollywood movie, yes.

Are there other limits to worry about? Well, perhaps, although it is hard to see how it would affect a story line. Some could put a damper on technological progress for us and any aliens that are out there.

That emptiest empty, that puts the kibosh on free energy.

Coldest cold? Absolute zero. You can only suck so much energy out of something. Again you run into Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle with that, but it still allows you to do cool things with Bose-Einstein condensates, and perform all sorts of optical tricks, possibly for computing (and also living into the bleakness of cold, thin soup era of the universe after the end of the all-too-brief Stellar Age). But effects on space opera? None, I think.

Densest dense? Well, neutron star dense, as far as we know, and applications effected might be for data storage. Although again QM suggests no information is lost in a black hole. In which case the ultimate servers and nodes for the Cosmic Internet are those supermassive black holes at the heart of quasars.

Smallest small? I don't know. Plan on shrinking anything? That plot device really verges more on fantasy, and anyway is of limited dramatic potential. It does put a limit on just fast data can be processed, or how closely something can be scanned. The old teleporter may not need the granular resolution of the Planck length, but that's your strict limit. (And if it turns successful matter transmission requires a scan length/time less than the smallest small, then no beaming down to planets).

Here's one that actually may be important: the hottest hot. Theoretically (depending on who you talk to), you can go all the up to 10 to the 30th degrees kelvin. That's... that's pretty hot. Although practically, you are limited to about 4 billion degrees C before you start to see virtual particle/antiparticle pair creation kick in. This again, if you are needing to transmit something over a small volume or bandwidth, like information or teleported objects, can get into trouble. (If for example, to incorporate all the information, you need a 14 petawatt laser beam confined to .001 millimeter aperture to beam your crew to the surface of a planet, then it, ooh, it gets messy and ugly).

Astrofood by Waldemar von Kozak
On an unrelated note, in keeping with the theme, a British company named Shackelton Energy plans on setting up Moon mines by 2020.  I assume they will want to use robots more extensively than they plan on doing. The idea is to mine the Moon's estimated billions of tons of buried water ice at the poles to manufacture rocket fuel. Presumably, it would be better to wait on that, and consider perhaps that the future may find a wiser use for these one-time resources? No?

Oh well, perhaps by 2020 most people will be too fat to be ferried to the Moon. Americans, at least.

Hah! Stupid, fat, lazy, dumb, stupid, fat Americans! You're fat!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

S = k ln W

Herr B's gravestone in Vienna, Austria
The title of this essay is the Boltzmann equation. It is carved upon his gravestone in the same cemetery where Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, and the Strauss family are also buried.  The form of the equation inscribed on his tomb was actually first written by Max Planck, but that's fine as the original equation written in 1872 by Herr B contains partial derivatives which are hard to carve in stone.

The terms such that where S is the entropy of a system, it can be described by the Boltzmann Constant k (1.38067 joules per degree kelvin) multiplied by natural logarithm of W, which is the number of states accessible to that system.

In plain English, the entropy of a system is determined by the number of ways that the system's components can be arranged. If we are dealing with a gas, it is the number of ways the gas particles can float around, interact, and collide with each other. It's a very, very, very, very large number of ways, so to get the numbers into a manageable form (read small numbers small enough for tiny brains to handle), you take the logarithm of it. This equation links entropy to probability. And, in a roundabout fashion I have no time to explicate, it also has something to do with thermodynamics, and the so-called 2nd Law.

Yeah, and so what? Well, this equation, along with Boltzmann's contribution of a statistical approach to the kinetic theory of gases, and still more, supplies the very broad shoulders that allow Max Planck et al to stand upon. It pointed the way for the development of Quantum Mechanics - by far the most successful set of theories ever developed.

And there's more. Once the American electrical engineer, Claude Shannon, grabbed ahold of Boltzmann's concepts, and developed his own version of Herr B's H-function and the term entropy, then the whole field of information theory opened up. (Although it should be noted that Mr. Shannon's claim that information theoretic entropy is the same as statistical entropy is in dispute in some circles).

Finally we get to the weird stuff. When Shannon investigated the informational aspects of communications,  he found that a message transmitted with optimal efficiency over a channel of limited bandwidth looks exactly like random noise. Not surprising when you think about it. A message with the largest choice of arrangements will have the highest probability of not being degraded in all arrangements. So, the more random, the more likely to get through (whatever it is, noise, interference, etc.)

Not to be confused with...
Black-body power curve
When applied to a message broadcast over the electromagnetic spectrum (i.e. using an EM transmission medium) the most information-efficient format is indistinguishable from noise or 'static' (or, if you prefer, it will resemble black-body radiation).  

Okay. And um, so...? So, uh, what do we know is all static? Shit on the TV? How about quasars? OR the cosmic microwave background? Could it be we are getting messages beamed to us all the time, and we are just too stupid to figure it out?

(Oh, as far as my contention that intelligence as such does not exist? That stupidity is a real universal force. And that, just as 'cold' is the absence of heat, so  'intelligence' is the absence of stupid, well, I do really need to go on? Like Shannon entropy, there are very few ways to do the smart thing, but a very, very, very, very large number of ways to fuck things up. QED).