Monday, April 30, 2012

A Kaleidoscopic Zoography

I had a dream the other night that everyone was named Suzy. Even me, although I think I got to be addressed by the more formal Susan. Then again, I seem to recall being called Suzy at some point, which, dream logic being what it is, suggested the general rule that everyone was called Suzy.

But that wasn't the weird part.

I try not to bring up my dreams too often, as I believe talking about them is interesting to, well, only me. Not so interesting to everyone else.

Like, for example, I have this one recurring dream where I have to deal with this retarded dwarf, about the size of a baby, and he's dressed up as the New Year's baby, with a top hat and diapers. And we are watching a movie, and the retarded dwarf baby is constantly annoying me by asking questions throughout the whole movie. He also wants to sit uncomfortably close to me.

I've been told dream elements are portions of yourself, and if so, I really don't want to know about that portion of my personality that is a retarded dwarf baby. It's just super creepy.

So anyway, Suzy, I'm having this dream where everyone is called Suzy. But the weird part is, it is 15 million years ago, I'm stuck on the African savanna, and almost every niche within the ecosystem is filled in by some kind of ape, some kind of primate. So there's no zebra or wildebeest or giraffes or gazelle or hyenas or lions or hippos or rhinos or elephants. It's all bipedal apes, although they have (through evolutionary convergence) successfully adapted to the niches, so that the elephant variant apes have trunks, and the giraffe apes have long necks, etc. Of course the really weird thing is the fur equivalent of plumage. The apes have every punker style lurid hair color you can imagine, and in every combination, stripes, spots, mohawk spikes, long feathery tails, and shit that Vegas show girls would prance around in.

And they are al doing their foraging or hunting thing, and it's like in a Tarzan movie where you have the cacophonous sound effects of the jungle, but instead of all the monkey howls and bird shrieks, and lion roars and hyena cackles, it's all "Suzy! Suzy! Suzy!"

And you know how dream logic informs you, almost like an omniscient invisible narrator supplying the background scoop sotto voce, that's it all the whale's fault.

They'd adapted to the oceans, kept their tiny cow brains for the longest times, but the toothed varieties of whale develop a taste for meat, and had gotten all social and cooperative with their hunting activities, and the next thing you know, their brains had trebled or quadrupled in size, and gotten all convoluted. And they had developed a sophisticated organic technology, all based upon sonic and ultrasonic manipulation, and had basically enthralled and ensorcelled any life form around them. And some of the whales re-evolved feet, and came ashore, and fashioned the more promising primates to do their bidding and become their slaves. These land-whales, masters of the savanna, had the primates build them wagons, and they were trundled around the entire African continent. And they humiliated the primates by insisting that they were all named Suzy.

I'm not sure what happened after that, because I woke up.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Spooky Action Into The Past

Imagine yourself as the Ruler of the Known World.

Strike that. Imagine yourself as a Chinese Emperor, which, for the longest time, was the same as being ruler of the known world. Let's say you are the Yongle Emperor, who sponsored the massive and long term Zheng He commercial sailing fleet expeditions throughout the Indian Ocean and South Pacific. You are surrounded by crimson silk, and gold brocade, and burnished wood, and polished bronze, and the dearest, deepest jade. The air is scented with the aroma of sweet sandalwood and sage. Courtesans fill your wine bowl, tasty sweetmeats are to hand... and then you are suddenly visited by rude barbarians who appear out of a roaring ball of smoke and fire.

Aside from the magical entrance, these are not your ordinary barbarians. For one thing, they are exceptionally scrawny and small. They are hairy, extremely hairy, with thick heavy brows and big yellow teeth in pock-marked prognathous faces. They've bad skin, and piercing, bloodshot, jaundiced eyes, set deeply in pale visages. They are bandy-legged, knocked-kneed, hunched over, and dressed in rags. Rags actually is hardly the word for it - more like mangy animal hides resembling chewed up spinach than proper leather.

And they stink. Oh, how they stink. Their breath, reeking from the stench of bad nutrition and worse hygiene, is nearly as bad as their body odor. Which, apparently, they're aware of, for they have doused themselves with cloying and overpowering perfumes in an attempt to disguise the taint. All this, and they can only make gibberish sounds in a sibilant and abrasive tone, which eventually starts to sound like the proper civilized tongue of the Han.

Spaniards? Portuguese? If only, but no. These barbarians are subhuman, almost as if they had spontaneously generated out of the forest undergrowth, come creeping out wholly formed from moss, mold, mildew, and other corruptions of the soil.

Well, you now have a taste of what the Emperor of Texas must have experienced when I and my party came visiting, a diplomatic overture from the mother civilization of Earth, some thirteen thousand years after the Texan colonists thought themselves abandoned.

(And the Texans lucked out. Other colonies, other ventures, were forever lost to us, transported far beyond the particle horizon of the observable universe, billions, possibly trillions, of light years away, never to be seen or heard from again).

We must have been such a loathsome sight, for, for at least the past thousand years, no one citizen of Texas remained in organic form.

True, protoplasm is still considered the durable good, but, with their large range of meta- and trans- material options - self-healing ceramics, supermetals, room-temperature superconductors, diamondoid nanomolecular processors and energy field generators, solid positronium switches and actuators, gaseous phased quantum smart engines, etc., the Texans have opted for broader choice in body plans and lifestyles. (For example, it's hard to be a sloshy meat water bag at 100g accelerations, or working within the coronal atmosphere of a star, or just your average frozen depths of empty space).

And so, there we were, standing before the truly impressive brush gray metal surface of a very large beehive shaped structure, the Emperor of Texas himself, glowing all electric blue and reeking of ozone, centered in the vast white pearlescent metal hall of the Capitol.

Our visitation was, shall we say, preemptive. For you see, that visit of the Kraken ship the month before had struck terror into the metaphorical heart of every Texan. It had set the whole Empire of Texas on red alert.

Not surprising. The Kraken ship, for all the world looking like a neon-lit county fair in full festival, popping into existence not five hundred miles above Capitol City, and without tripping any the extensively sensitive and paranoid early warning detection systems knitted in tight orbits about the planet, had sent The Fleet into a full-blown panic (or at least, as much of a panic as well-trained and drilled military organization will allow itself). The nearest dreadnought in orbit, the Calico Jack, ponderously warped up from lower orbit to intercept it, signaling on every wavelength for it to hold station and prepare to boarded. And then the Kraken ship just vanished, and no one knew how it could do that.

Well, you can predict the reaction. An alien ship appears above the Texan homeworld - in alarmingly intimate distance of the homeworld - with an obvious superiority in technology, and probably weapons, with unknown intent, and no further information. Once the Kraken told us about the existence of the Texans, once we saw the visual of a 3-million-ton Texan dreadnought, bristling with weapons, armed and armored to the teeth, we knew they would shoot at anything that moved from thenceforth onward. We had to calm them.

"We" being a group of humans who had titanium nails in our heads, and who thus had their shit together. And you may wonder why I am included in the group? Well, I have a titanium nail in my head too. Finally got my shit together.

Long story short, there we are in the Hall of the Department of Public Safety, appearing before the Emperor himself, and the first thing he (is a giant lump of machinery still a he?) says, is:

"What are your terms of surrender?"

To which my colleague, the poet Ezra Furman replied, "Why, none at all, chief! We come in peace!"

Well, and now I need to explain something here, and it has to do with delayed choice. When you deal with wormholes, you deal with both relativity and quantum mechanics. And thanks to the Basement Equations, most of the heavy math and physics lifting has been done for people who wish to scoot about the universe in this fashion. But the one thing we know now, which we didn't know then (then being when 30 million people from Texas and it surrounds were dumped 13,000 years in the past) is that this was the classic delayed choice experiment done by good ol' Prof. Zeilinger at the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information at the University of Vienna.

I won't bore you with all the details, but suffice to say, you can set up spooky action through time as well as space, and one consequence is, you can make a future decision about the outcome of an experiment long after it has been completed, measured and done, and even, no longer set up. I should point out that this is not causality violation. This is not an effect preceding a cause. It just mimics a future action influencing the past. Okay. So.

When we contacted the Empire of Texas, we had a choice as to whether contact the Texas of "now" or the one that was sent via wormhole back into the past from just the previous year. We had a choice as to which measurement outcome to choose - entangled or separable. Because the only way all those folks could end up back in the past also determined whether they would exist or not.  If entangled, then they go back in the past and we contact them. If separable, then they all go into nonexistence, and we don't visit them. Being, all of us, decent people, we couldn't see just kill off thirty million people.

It was a hard choice too, because, the existence of Empire of Texas could mean the end of humanity, the end of the Convergence.

The Kraken tried to tell us that.

Sometimes, you know, things look all dark and scary out there, but also real pretty. And sometimes all the dark and painful and scary stuff need all the happy and joyful stuff, and the other way around. And that's why being human can be a real hard job sometimes, even when a nail in your head. But we all figured, with all of spread out as thin as cigarette smoke through the whole cosmos, you need to stick together.

It's hard to say if a mountain of metal can look visibly relieved, but it sure seemed that way.

"Well, in that case, howdy partners!",  the Emperor rejoined. "Welcome to Texas!"

Friday, April 20, 2012

Outer Space

As a species, we are simultaneously stupid and smart. Smart enough to build robots we can live our dreams vicariously through. Stupid enough not to just... live our dreams.

Take the following footage. That should be us out there, not our robots. Put this sucker on full screen, watch and think about it.

Outer Space from Sander van den Berg on Vimeo.

The Third Industrial Revolution

The Economist has a fluff article out on the digitisation of manufacturing. I'm not sure why. I suppose they had some empty text space to fill.

It's charmingly naive and earnest, quite a bit out of date, and unquestionably gets the future completely wrong. It's not that the article gets any of the salient trends wrong, all of which will come to pass, it's just that they are trending, which hardly ever works. The article's money shot is summarized thusly:
"A number of remarkable technologies are converging: clever software, novel materials, more dexterous robots, new processes (notably three-dimensional printing) and a whole range of web-based services. The factory of the past was based on cranking out zillions of identical products: Ford famously said that car-buyers could have any colour they liked, as long as it was black. But the cost of producing much smaller batches of a wider variety, with each product tailored precisely to each customer’s whims, is falling. The factory of the future will focus on mass customisation—and may look more like those weavers’ cottages than Ford’s assembly line."
All of which are true. I'm convinced that we are within or near the Golden Age of the Material Sciences, which is pumping out not only once-upon-a-time-"exotic" materials like graphene and carbon fiber composites (and no doubt The Graduate's movie advice line would be , not "One Word: Plastics!", but "Carbon!"), but also the metamaterials, not to mention materials that manipulate fundamental forces and particles - converting them into quasiparticles, and perhaps allowing for world-shaking processes such as neutron manipulation.

I mean, we could be in store for not just one game-changing technology, but hundreds. Which, of course, is one thing I fault the article on: lack of imagination.

Take the 3D printer. Undoubtedly it will have an impact. After all, a 3D printer has been used to laser sinter a titanium jaw for prosthetic replacement.  There is a good possibility they will be used to print live organs for transplant. (Although I suspect cloning technology will prove to be better and cheaper).

Point being, there are some applications of 3d printing that will blow us all away, once the print-heads get down to the micro or nano scale and number in the millions, or billions per inch, and banks of them are arrayed into dozen square yard (or meter) print-maws. Print cornucopia juggernauts. Santa Claus machines.

But 3d printers being used for tailor-made retail items? Yawn. Really? Mass customization? Who'd have thought? (eye roll)

I think the most annoying portion of the article is the snide little dig at government the end:
"Governments have always been lousy at picking winners, and they are likely to become more so, as legions of entrepreneurs and tinkerers swap designs online, turn them into products at home and market them globally from a garage."
I suppose it doesn't pay to look to closely at the record of venture capitalists. It might turn out there record is at least as lousy.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Apocalypse A Little Bit At A Time

When I was in college, my mathematics professors and graduate student teaching assistants insisted on showing us "tricks" that would convert intractable nonlinear equations with no general solutions into easily solvable linear equations. Most of the tricks involved crossing out the nonlinear portions and pretending they weren't there - essentially turning curves into lines. 

I found this both aesthetically objectionable and logically dishonest. I figured this was just their way of giving up without having to say so: to turn hard messy problems into flimsy but easy cartoon ones. But surely not. Surely, they being so much smarter and well informed than I, had good reason to resort to these tricks. They understood that those inconvenient portions of equations really didn't make that much of a difference, right?

Well, the minute I had access to the clunky mainframe computers of the time, coded up a lot of these systems of nonlinear equations as recursive functions, set them to running under various initial values, and seeing wildly different results from one run to the next, I realized that this was all bullshit. That pesky little nonlinear factor? That x squared? Or that x times y? It made all the difference in the world. This was years before the whole discipline was called Chaos Theory, but obviously that was what was going on there. 

The deal with Chaos Theory, put in one sentence is that a completely deterministic process turns out to be wildly affected by just the smallest numerical change in your starting variable. You've heard of the Butterfly Effect, the idea that a butterfly flapping an errant wing in Brazil causes a hurricane in Texas? Well, that's the dumb media version. The actual interpretation is something more profound, that an equation with no surprises whatsoever, that runs like clockwork, can give you something completely different every time, with just the tiniest of nudges at the start. It's rather like finding a jewel knocked from the helmet of Satan in a battle fought with God at the dawn of time. Rerun the whole thing, and that jewel is sometimes a diamond, others a sapphire.

So, that thing called Fate? That thing called Destiny? Even in a clockwork universe, both are utter fictions. Delusional Fantasy. It shouldn't come as a surprise, given that the universe is a complex open system with many overlapping and interdependent factors. 

Invariably, a peranoscope viewer will be tempted to examine all possible outcomes of his or her own existence. I advise against it.

The most disconcerting aspect of such an investigation is not the fact that your existence makes up just a tiny (and by tiny I mean tiny, like, not even a bug smear on the windshield of life, not even a greasy little paramecium smear on said windshield) little spot of all, on average 10500, possible worlds. Given all the absurd events that could have occurred over the past 13.5 billion years, it's a wonder that you and I are here at all. And the creepiest thing isn't that so many possibilities in our lives end up being coin-flip moments, moments that we agonized over and then it turned out that epic decision made spit for a difference. And it wasn't the Hairy Eyeball Effect - the feeling that, as you view all possible worlds through the peranoscope, you in turn are being viewed, which makes you squirm self-consciously and in turn makes you feel the discomfort of phantoms as they squirm self-consciously, all of it rippling through the quantum foam, and all embarrassed by existence itself. Nor is the creepiest thing finding just how little control you have over your life, how chance and contingency make nearly 99.99999% of everything that happens. 

No the absolute creepiest thing is, that very large but finite number of universes with the Earth, and the Sun, and our galaxy, and us in them, that small cross-section of all possible worlds where we exist, our existential étendue can almost be seen, if you squint hard enough, to be visibly shrinking. 

I figure we cease to exist an average of 1.8 universes per hour. 

All of us, dreaming of the past, or living the present, or in anticipation of living in the next civilization after this one, wink out on a regular and, it seems, accelerating basis. Except for the Convergence. That ensemble of universes where we all of us continue to exist seems to be stable and linearly unchanging.

But I could be wrong.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

MY Space Invaders Movie

This past Friday evening, for reasons we really need not go into here, I had a powerful urge to get just completely plowed. I also wanted to invest the least amount of effort doing so, and thus hit up the library for some movies, ending up checking out "Battle Los Angeles" for home viewing.

And so, pre-armed with a bottle of well frozen Stolichnaya vodka and a sixpack of Boulevard Pale Ale, and initiated with a few depth charges in the system, I sat down for some dumb-but-stupid manly blow-em-up action movie shit.

And I gotta tell ya, aside from perhaps a bit too much backstory, I enjoyed Battle Los Angeles. It was no blockbuster, but it was adequately entertaining, and I'll tell you why.

First, I enjoy the actor Aaron Eckhart, who did a good turn in Thank You for Smoking. Also the tough chick Michelle Rodriguez, going all the way back to Girlfight. I also enjoyed the movie because it remained consistent throughout. There were no majorly flagrant abuses of my suspension of disbelief (including the fact that we are invaded from Outer Space - more on that in a bit). The action was well-edited, fast paced, the stunts sufficiently baroque without being over the top, and a lot of shit exploded, which, for guys, is important. We do like the warporn. It also had the appropriate appeal to noble self-sacrifice and selfless actions, which, naturally, is part of warporn.

My only objection was the beginning back stories of all the protagonists, which, no doubt the director and screenwriters feel necessary so that you can care when they die, or don't. Personally, I could have been the voice of one the Marine privates, who, once it is determined that we are under extra-terrestrial attack, should have said (but didn't), in exasperation, "Finally!"

Yeah, about that suspension of disbelief. Well, it is a space invader movie, so from the start you have to cut some slack. I mean, the only way you can away with a truly ludicrous premise is if it is a comedy. But I've always wondered how (with the exclusion of, say, War of the Worlds, where humanity was unquestionably outclassed) aliens with star-spanning technologies seem to think that we humans are a big deal. That we are a problem and a challenge that needs to be addressed. I mean, if I move into a house and find it is full of vermin, I don't shoot up the floor boards to get rid of the pests. So, why don't the aliens just hose down the atmosphere with an appropriate vermicide to get rid of us pesky apes?

Or why is it that the alien weaponry is only a decade or so ahead of ours? Why the need to engage in toe-to-toe boots-on-the-ground combat behavior with us? Is it simply a need to generate drama (admittedly, people dropping like flies, and then aliens dropping out of the sky to sweep us into bins, isn't particularly engaging theatrically, but a lot more realistic).

But it occurs to me that this type of action is similar to the masturbatory TV trope theme of Frankenstein versus The Wolfman, or some such related stoned adolescent stupidity. My understanding is the latest incarnation of this is the Reddit phenomenon of Rome Sweet Rome, wherein a modern Marine unit ends up transported back in time to ancient Rome, and an exploration is undertaken about the all-important question of just how much ass would the marines kick? (Realistically? The Marines are doomed).

Well, this is the Trapped in the Past theme, and there are two behaviors, either try to live a normal and quiet life, or Change Things For The Better. Not many choose the former, and not that surprising entertainment wise.

I can think of one fairly mature treatment by Rod Serling, a Twilight Zone episode called "The 7th is Made up of Phantoms", where a modern tank crew ends up at the Battle of Little Bighorn, and naturally is doomed.

Or the granddaddy of them all, Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" with the hilariously comical slaughter at the climax of the book, involving machine guns and electrocution, if that is your idea of funny.

So, it sure seems like, if you are a technologically advanced group facing a primitive and backward savage culture, best to just lay low and not draw too much attention to yourself. And if you are an interstellar expedition that finds yourself in Earth's Solar System, maybe just harvest what you need from the asteroids or the Moon. Those don't fight back - too much.

Oh, and my Space Invaders movie? How to explain the close similarity of combat technology?

Well, taking a page from Battle Los Angeles, where the humans finally figure out how to "kick ET's Ass" on their own brutish terms. My movie ends with LA in ruins, the aliens calling for a ceasefire with  the humans, striding up to the Marine commander, taking off their bubble space helmets, extending a hand outwards and saying:

"Good game, man! Good game! See you next year!"

Monday, April 2, 2012

"A Great Aridness": A Book Report

"A Great Aridness: Climate Change and the Future of the American Southwest" by William Debuys

I'm sure that anyone living in the proximally near or east of the Mississippi river during March of 2012, with a record breaking streak of record breaking warm temperatures, must have, even for the briefest unguarded moment, had a little thrill of fear thinking:

"Wow, what if this it? What if we went through the phase change and now this is the new normal? What if, come June, the temperatures are a steady 120F? And the month of August never gets below 140F?" Face it, even the most rabid climate change denial type had to have had experienced just the slightest frisson of foreboding. Personally, I have a dollar bet that the arctic becomes permanently ice free during the summer come 2015. I suspect I'm going to collect that dollar.

Well, I do have friends who are going through that particular cognitive dissonance known as global warming denial, despite the fact that the weather is getting weirder, the arctic ice is shrinking, the upper latitudes are warming twice as fast, and getting ready to dump a whole bunch of methane into the atmosphere, they are convinced that anyone who believes in global warming is a fool. So, I guess it is going to take a phase change to convince them otherwise. Naturally, it will be the places that least need it that will experience the worst. The American Southwest is one such place.

Now, if there is any place in the United States of America that ought to serve as an object lesson, a true lesson of history as to how you should be prepared to live, it's got to be the Southwest, with it's ruins of pueblo village such as Mesa Verde, and Chaco Canyon. So naturally, if you are to settle anyplace that is already arid, you'd possess a certain predisposition towards hardship, a ready willingness to ape the ant, to be a tough and fibrous creature that stores up for hard and bleak times. What you wouldn't be is some type of soft, sloppy spendthrift, demanding green lawns, golf courses, the sidewalk-and-gutter, two car garage lifestyle of the more luxuriantly water blessed regions back East, or up North.

But, apparently, we Americans are just as deluded as the Indians and Spaniards that came before us. Build big dams, cut big ditches, make big plans, force Nature to service us, and ignore the whole long past history of the region, which is: fire, dead trees, dust and thirst. So, it won't surprise me not a bit when 30 to 50 million people, some five to ten years down the line, suddenly find themselves with a comical slackjawed "Oh!" of an expression on their fat, stupid faces when they get gut-punched by their hubris.

And the saddest part is, an extended drought, a decades long megadrought, is not going to be the type of hardship that will bring people together. Time and again, during catastrophe, people do have a tendency to be neighborly, to be altruistic and giving, but not during a drought. People compete, people get cranky and selfish, and nothing productive gets done Some inklings of this are already seen in how the states of the region compete for water.

Arizona, it would seem, does a very good job of representing almost everything that is wrong with America. This is not to say that there are not good people living there, or good people that have lived there for several centuries - even including the Anglos, who have modified their behavior to live in the land. Tucson, it would seem, has done well in this regard, as they realize they a desert town.

So, let me modify my statement, and hone it down to the Phoenix metropolitan area, the Sun Corridor, as representative of the worst American characteristics. Take, for example, their self-righteous and mercenary spirit, proudly ignorant of their subsidized condition, ruggedly individualistic and possessed of a manic private property fetish, and all the while convinced of their innate and inherent right to privilege. Defiantly white, Protestant, English-only, anti-immigrant, anti-Latino, devoted fans of right-wing television and talk radio. Zealots, angry, unappreciative, and dementedly entitled, made all the worse by the fact that they, retiree immigrants from places like Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Little Rock, Duluth, don't seem to realize that they are the alien invaders. They may be frightened and confused by the people they deem foreign in language, looks, values, and behavior, but they just don't seem capable of realizing that these are the centuries-old inhabitants of the region.

Nor do they understand their utter dependance upon the divine grace of the federal government, who provides them with their very existence. Without the vast expenditures and engineering projects that the Bureau of Water Reclamation, their would be no sun Corridor, no Mountain Megacity, no air-conditioned paradise, and, given the long term climatic trends, will there be . They are doomed. Fucked. And probably just as well.
This is not to say the region will be abandoned entirely. People will still live there. They'll just live more realistically, and the ones that don't leave. But the ones that leave? What should we do with them? Do we really want these selfish, short-sighted, unpleasant peoples to settle among us?

I wonder, would these refugees develop some sense of empathy for the present plight of a similarly straightened peoples, just south of their border?