terça-feira, junho 18, 2019

April 1st: "Fall, or Dodge in Hell" by Neal Stephenson

Is it April 1st already? Or is this one of the worst attempts at writing serious SF!? When I was doing UNIX for a living, I fondly remember a running joke that went like this.

Unix erotica? Here are some examples of inputs and responses from the Unix C Shell:

%^How did the sex change^ operation go?
Modifier failed.
%make love
Make: Don't know how to make love. Stop.
%sleep with me
bad character
%man: why did you get a divorce?
man:: Too many arguments.
%blow: No such job.

Bottom-line: "Fall, or Dodge in Hell" is a hotchpotch like UNIX is. But it's a bad hotchpotch...Neal, Neal, were you on drugs a la Phil Dick?? I can imagine Stephenson pitching this book to some publishers and discussing it… I once pitched a dissertation in college called "Terrorism Studies". I wanted to go with "Media depictions of counter-terror operations". I was told that I couldn't spend a year just watching Steven Seagal movies. Which was a bit unfair, because "Under Siege" was not on my list… Was Stephenson doing multitasking activities as he wrote this crap of a book? Maybe watching some Chuck Norris on the side? Perhaps watching Chuck Norris fried his brain and none of the publishers noticed it after reading the galley proof? One of the worse things I've ever read, SF or not. I couldn’t make head or tails of it. My fault surely.

segunda-feira, junho 17, 2019

Lacking in SFional Meat: "Finder" by Suzanne Palmer

One of the biggest problems with SF is that from the 30s to the 70s the ideas are almost always better than the writing. The drive to fill the pulp magazines meant that an awful lot got accepted into print that would have not have been allowed in any other genre, except maybe cowboy stories. Even Detective fiction managed to keep respectability despite the crime pulp boom. Couple this with all the schlocky, cheap films like “It Conquered The World”, etc. and Saturday matinee serials like Flash Gordon, and the genre becomes one that true authors don't want to be associated with, regardless of books like Dune, etc., or fluctuate between rejection and acceptance (of selected works at least) - like Vonnegut, Pynchon, both generations of Amis. Often a good indicator of gratification versus more challenging entertainment is the attitude towards change. I like genre fiction that embraces the inevitability of transformation - not suggesting that all change should be enthusiastically welcomed for its own sake, but recognising that change will happen, and can be managed to some extent. What I don't like is fiction about restoring an old order or a natural order, as seems to be the case with a lot of fantasy (and, to be fair, probably a fair amount of space opera too). In reality there are no golden ages, there is no natural order; there is only power and negotiation and moral debate - and the future is not going to resemble the past. Should SF do more than giving us a good time This kind of question when applied to SF conjures up for me some somberly dressed parson with a cane intent on making sure your art only Serves God - or an ideologue with an AK-47 ensuring it only Serves The Party. No. There is a place for candy (or fruits), and a place for meat and potatoes (or whatever your preferred protein source). We must trust readers to balance their diets with select servings from all the food groups, not stand over them demanding political correctness in their choices. This trust must be extended to writers like Finder by Suzanne Palmer as well. If I want to write a mindless sitcom or a feel-good SF novel I should have that right. Come to think of it, the truth of that hinges on better. Not everyone agrees on what is better. Some may focus on the style of a story, the paint strokes and chiaroscuro and such. Some may focus on the substance conveyed by the style, the painted seen THROUGH the window of the painting. Different lenses are useful for different things, but no lens deserves to be celebrated if it is covered with scratches, cracks and mud. Finder is a good entertainment novel. I really don't see that entertaining doing more than that is an either or proposition. Have you never read a novel that was both entertaining and insightful or thought provoking and whatever A YouTube video of a kitten falling over is purely entertaining? In a novel of say 100K words if an author can't do more than merely entertain then I have to wonder what the point of writing it is. "Finder", in my view, seems to try to bridge the gap between grand scale wars or space operas, clashes of good vs evil, and enormous journeys of revelation, and a lot of the literary fiction today that is focused on the minutiae of daily life, beauty in microcosm, the power of a single word or action or seemingly minor deed. I repeat, surely it's not too much to ask for someone to bridge this gap - for the benefit of both genres, SF and Mundane Fiction. Palmer tries hard but she is not successful. I needed something with more meat on the novel's SFional bones...

SF = Speculative Fiction.

domingo, junho 16, 2019

Ryugu: "Delta-V" by Daniel Suarez

“We will only be able to make deep space viable for humanity when the math makes sense, and at the moment, we’re still working that problem.”

In “Delta-V” by Daniel Suarez

I'm not sure I completely understood the economic argument for mining asteroids but the way I understand it, it goes something like this...

Take platinum as an example - currently very rare on Earth. If you can bring back platinum from space and sell it on Earth at a competitive price then it could be lucrative. However the price for this sort of resource varies a lot in response to supply and demand. The act of bringing back just a little bit more platinum has the effect of drastically lowering the price until it is no longer economically feasible to do so. Except, once established, this industry should be self-sustaining. The infrastructure, raw materials and energy needed is all made "up there". A bit like the internet in one respect, the cost of physically hosting (just the web hosting part) a company like Amazon on the web is negligible. That's (one of the reasons) they are able to be so profitable. For an interstellar mining company like Catalyst, even if they are only making a tiny profit on everything they bring back, their overheads should be so small as to be effectively nil. The startup cost for them though would be (ahem) astronomical. This can be recouped though by selling rare resources at a high price at the beginning while they are still "rare".

The same is true of all minerals. They are valuable because they are rare. If I go and get a lump of Nickle the size of Texas and land it on well let’s say Texas... then the price of nickel doesn't just drop by 5 or 10 % the Price of nickel drops to 5 or 10% of its original price so now I just lost 95% of my proposed profit. Beyond that however there comes a point where i just can't sell the nickle at all because all the people who need nickle have bags full of the stuff and nothing to do with it. So massive expense to exploit a large resource leads to a complex economic outcome and so doesn't look viable as a business model.

Having said that, in ten or twenty years there will be thousands of Portuguese bouncing around on't asteroids. No doubt there will also be space police to break up strikes and then a Socialist government to shut the mines down. Washington will say that pirates are taking over space tankers, or whole asteroids with French Tricolors will be swarmed by Galactic Al Qaeda. We'll be told we still need super nukes, and the Portuguese armed forces will be depleted more than uranium. We will have a couple of space drones which we rent from Uncle Sam who will be installing good killer lasers while warning us of nasty Chinese ones. And yes, Justin Bieber will be US president and insist on singing at his own inauguration...

Mining asteroids on the fly likely will have to wait until space travel has matured a great deal from where it is now. However, that isn't the way I think it should or most likely will be done. The best way to mine an asteroid, and the safest way to do so, is to capture it first and place it in a Lagrange point between the Earth and the Moon. Then you can mine it at your leisure. Better still, if you mine it from the center out, you can use the non-valuable stuff to build a habitat within it. An asteroid 1 kilometer long by .5 kilometer wide would give a volume of ~452M cubic meters if you left a 50 meter shell. Even if you cut that in half to account for walls and floors, that's a lot of room. Capturing an asteroid would entail meeting it near its closest approach with a swarm of engines to brake and stabilize it. Once maneuvered to its parking spot, mine shafts could be sunk to the most profitable appearing interior sections to begin the process of hollowing it out for pressurized working and living spaces that would eventually connect. At some point the asteroid could be spun to create artificial gravity. To give an idea of how much room there would be, think of it this way: within a volume of 250,000,000 cubic meters, you can fit 500,000 spaces 10mX10mX5m. That's plenty of room for hydroponic farms, living space, factories, hangars, hotels, etc. Ship 3D printers up to make the parts for bigger 3D printers to make tools, equipment and other necessities on site. It occurs to me that shafts could be sunk as a cone, wide at the top, narrow at the bottom, say a meter to a millimeter, with mirrored insides to focus sunlight into heating/welding beams for industrial purposes to hold costs down...beyond the initial construction costs, you get free energy, roughly 1K Watts focused in a 1mm beam per tube. Movable mirrors could harness several tubes at once for however much was necessary. Basically, you get a super-sized space station that costs peanuts to build, one that would serve as a base, manufacturing, and launch point for Mars and other solar system expeditions, as well as a research platform (a massive telescope linked with orbital or ground-based scopes should give a nice 3D view of solar system objects), and waystation to a lunar colony. Obviously, from capture to completion you are looking at a generational project, something like 20-30 years from start to finish, perhaps quicker by half with luck and focus.

If you are a hard-SF fan you’ll love this one. It’s got everything. It’s got some shortcomings, but as I read it I went back in time to my own childhood…Not enough character development? Bah! This reminds me of what Martin Amis wrote somewhere in the 60s:

"Science Fiction's no good", they bellow 'til we're deaf. "But this looks good", "Then it's not SF!" It was ever thus. If you love SF-as-it-used-to-be read this one. You won’t regret it. Everyone is guilty of literary snobbery even if self-consciously. Try to avoid it at all costs.

Bottom-line: The cost of bringing Fe, Al, Au into space could be much higher than using the what is already off planet and processing it there. Near zero atmosphere and gravity is difficult to create on earth, but in space it is not so hard, as you can imagine.  Ultra-high-vacuum system for wafer manufacture are expensive and limit what can be made. A multi-layer chip made cheaply on planet? Forget it. "Cold welding" on Earth? On planet production of tech items will be as far from slide-rules and abacuses as compared to today. As to transportation costs, drop by parachute, the finished product in the ocean or in an unpopulated area. I do get the point that to initially build a self-sustaining space factory would be very expensive, but once one is built, the resources to build a second one are already there and a few hundred thousand factories and mineral processing facilities later...I’m not sure whether the technique Suarez was an isotope separator, based on the mass spectrograph principle. In space you have energy in abundance, and you need to produce structural components from what you find. Matter is few in space and you want to use all of it and separate elements or even their isotopes to obtain what you want. Also, the technique could be crucial to fully separate reactor waste from a molten-salt breeder reactor. This is the method to start using not just the fissible part of the heavy elements, but the fertile as well. So starting on earth in the energy development, the separator technique can be put into space to help building the first extraterrestrial living space near earth, in the Trojans or on the lunar surface. So one can experiment and build sustainability in space before further venturing into the solar system out of direct emergency help from earth. So to imports... Maybe most important - no one on Earth will finance asteroid mining or any other industry in space that doesn't quickly return a profit on Earth. Yes, NASA or some similar agency might do some small scale stuff, but the funds (and materials) to develop real industrial infrastructure in space will have to come from space. We will build the first habitats to support those industries, not the other way around. After that there's a tipping point, when population and industry are large enough, and then most space resources will be utilized in space. (That's when we can start talking about orbital cities and megastructures.) Eventually the relatively small Earth population and economy will be an unimportant part of human civilization, but the seed money will have to come from Earth, and it will have to turn a steady profit for Earth investors. Without running the numbers, I have to tentatively agree that getting ice-derived fuels and water from near-earth orbital objects would likely be cheaper than hefting it from earth in the long run - especially if we find out that some of those objects are dust-covered ice chunks that don't melt due to their thermomechanics.  Imagine bringing into Lagrange or HEO a chunk of ice containing more water than all the Apollo and Orbiter program launch exhaust combined…How would we actually use asteroid material in space? We have to smelt it and purify it, and on earth that means melting it in a big pot, inject other elements like oxygen, molybdenum, carbon, and chromium, and drain it out of the bottom (to avoid slag). And then it is forged and machined it into parts. In space we could easily run out of alloying and doping elements. How would metalworking and machining in space work, especially given that it aims to produce spacecraft, mining, and smelting machines, and fusion reactors, which all require strong, temperature resistant, lightweight alloys? Merlin 1-D rocket nozzles are made of niobium. Fusion reactors require superconductors like yttrium-barium-copper-oxide, machining requires super-hard materials like diamond, aluminum production uses consumable carbon electrodes. Hall-effect thrusters require a boron-nitride anode. Are we expected to get all this stuff from transmutation if we can't get it directly from asteroids? And even then transmuting elements produces a heterogeneous mix of isotopes that probably more difficult to separate than asteroid ore and would require other consumables like concentrated nitric acid. Suarez uses the age old technique of chemical vapor deposition (CVD) as a decisive plot device in his novel, which is not something new and it was also a nice touch, meaning Suarez did his homework. I hope you made it this far in reading this quasi-review of sorts...

NB: Ryugu = water dragon

sábado, junho 15, 2019

Fooking Physics: "The Holographic Universe" by Michael Talbot

Some say there exists only one interpretation of quantum mechanics, and that is the many-worlds interpretation. But there exists another explanation as described by Michael Talbot in his book “Holographic Universe”; here is an excerpt where he writes of Karl Pribram a neurophysiologist at Stanford:

'... Pribam realised that the objective world does not exist, at least not in the way we are accustomed to believing. What is 'out there' is a vast ocean of waves and frequencies and reality looks concrete to us only because our brains are able to take this holographic blur and convert it into sticks and stones and other familiar objects that make up our world...'

'...In other words, the smoothness of a piece of fine china and the feel of beach sand beneath our feet are really just elaborate versions of the phantom limb syndrome (when amputees 'feel' a limb long after it has been removed)..'

'According to Pribram, this does not mean there aren't china cups and grains of sand out there. It simply means that a china cup has two very different aspects to its reality. When it is filtered through the lens of our brains it manifests as a cup. But if we could get rid of our lenses, we'd experience it as an interference pattern. Which is real and which is illusion? "Both are real to me," says Pribham, "or, if you want to say, neither of them are real".

Also look up the research by Russian biophysicist Pjotr Garjajev, and his colleagues known as the phantom DNA effect. The Russian scientists irradiated DNA samples with laser light, on screen, a typical wave pattern was formed. When they removed the DNA sample, the wave pattern did not disappear, it remained. Many control experiments showed that the pattern still came from the removed sample, whose energy field apparently remained by itself.

Also see their work known as wave genetics, they found that living DNA will always react to language-modulated laser rays, and even to radio waves, if the proper frequencies are used. They succeeded in repairing chromosomes damaged by X-rays, they even captured information patterns of a particular DNA and transmitted it onto another, so reprogramming cells to another genome. They successfully transformed for example, frog embryos to salamander embryos simply by transmitting the DNA information patterns. This way the entire information was transmitted without any of the side effects involved when western researchers cut out and insert DNA.

If you fall into a black hole, nothing happens to you, by the equivalence principle you cannot know you are falling into a black hole. You carry on happy as Larry. To us outside, looking at you falling into a black hole, you slow down, your time seen by us gets slower and slower and slower and you never fall into the hole. You get stuck at the horizon. (look at the Penrose diagram, the event horizon can never be in an outside observer's past) But, eons later, you come back out by hawking radiation and say hi! I was in a black hole! We say, no you weren't; you got close then you were radiated back out. Who's right? Smeared over the surface, or inside, it's the same, it's just your point of view. As a member of the general public that is exactly how I feel now. I feel smeared! There are too many theories describing the universe and many of them seem to be correct. There is still no universal equation combining all four forces. Is the physics we know correct, or is it only sufficient approximation to satisfy our senses? Will our intelligence ever allow us to understand it or are we just fooking dumb? We do not have a vantage point to be objective on that matter. Cosmic man. But whoosh. I'm blown away that there are people who genuinely understand this Holographic and Black Hole stuff. Respect.

sexta-feira, junho 14, 2019

Moronic Field Theory: "Science and the Akashic Field: An Integral Theory of Everything" by Ervin Laszlo

Many eons ago, someone gave me a copy of a prepublication manuscript, “A New Vision of Evolution - Introduction to the Psi Field Theory” by Ervin Laszlo. In it, Laszlo applies quantum and wave mechanics, systems theory and non-equilibrium thermodynamics to Rupert Sheldrake's morphogenetic field theory, advancing a new theory of evolution as the development of a kind of universal holographic memory bank at the heart of nature, with applications in both the mutation of species and the perceptual functions of the brain.

I'm wondering if people at are familiar with Laszlo's work and how it stands in relation to current developments in the field. When I read it many years ago I thought it was crap in terms of trying to explain a new leap-forward in our understanding, and the possibility of a whole host of hitherto unimaginable new applications and new areas for research. Fortunately, it was not to be. Last thing I heard, the publishing house passed on the manuscript. The majority verdict from peer review being it was way too left-field.

Since then, Sheldrake, Laszlo, and anyone else who dares mention such non-materialistic field theories, seem to have increasingly been tarred as 'woo merchants' and pushed from the radar as they should; unfortunately they were replaced by the largely mechanistic materialism of the likes of Dawkins and the Bad Science skeptics, whose main interest seems to be measuring how many bits of material they can get to fly out of gazillion dollar particle colliders, and whipping up arguments on how many particles can dance on the head of a pin. Is this an accurate characterisation of the course of international science over the past 2 decades I'm wondering?   If so, why? How might we use Bacon's scientific method to determine the underlying causes of such phenomena and events?

It takes considerable effort to explain why such inane and physics-illiterate writings don't even really amount to sensible theories of any kind - let alone physical field theories - and reading that kind of stuff leaves a very bad taste in the mouth to boot. What really irks - apart from the unwarranted soft science background smears ;-) - is the ironic insinuation that we alI lack enthusiasm for 'thinking outside of the box' etc. and are just being peremptorily dismissive. Show me a well-informed and cogent attempt at some new idea in mathematical physics or whatever and it'll get the respect it deserves - no matter how wacky it appears prima facie. Show me someone’s moronic Morphic/Akashic/PSI/Intention 'field theory' - yet again! - And it will indeed be dismissed as pseudoscience - because that is exactly what it is.

The Akashic Field is sillier mambo-jumbo from Laszlo. Enough said.

quinta-feira, junho 13, 2019

The God of Righteousness: "A Short History of the World" by H.G. Wells

The Giordano Bruno case is interesting. He was Dominican friar. A minor authority in a minor branch of the Holy Roman Empire Church (or whatever they called it then), so no significant threat to the Pope. Until he started shooting his mouth off, claiming he understood the ways of God better than the top man, whose authority rested entirely on being the closest man to God on earth. Then he would have to be taken out, mercilessly, I would have thought.

Galileo's dad had been the keeper of the sacred music which, in those days, would have put him on the Pope's right hand. A similar kind of relationship as a tribal Witch Doctor might have with the Chief. So it's not hard to imagine that, when the Witch Doctor's son converted to Bruno's branch of the Holy Roman Religion, the Pope would be in a bit of a fix. How easy would it be for him to burn the Witch Doctor's son at the stake?

So it would be fair to say that Galileo wasn't so much one of the first guys to invent a new religion that threatened to kick the old one out. But one of the last guys in a much vilified, fringe branch of the old religion, that had infiltrated so far into the inner-circle it was about to go mainstream.

Seen in that context, Galileo was less of an original thinker and more of a young chancer, in the right time and place. He chanced that, amongst all the other heretics that had preceded him, he was the only one the Pope wouldn't dare crucify. If he took that chance, he would have his day in court and his place in the history books. History books written by the only people who could write, the scribes of the Holy Roman Empire Church. Who would most likely record that many of the ideas Galileo had gathered from the underground movement he had hung out with, belonged to him.

If the Pope had got the Bruno's branch of the Holy Roman Religion before Galileo, as the Emperor Constantine had got Christianity more than a millennium before (paving the way for re-branding the Roman Empire as the Holy Roman Empire), then Galileo would have been more likely to be charged with plagiarism or copyright theft than heresy.

So, all in all, it's fair to say that science was born from Christianity and has been largely nurtured by it ever since.

H.G. Wells took it even further in “A Short History of the World,” where he argues that the development of science was only made possible by the teachings of Jesus Christ. Christ stood against all authorities, from the Roman Empire to the Jewish Church. At the beginnings of the European Intellectual Revival in the 11th century, it was Christ's teaching of a direct relation between the conscience of the individual and the god of righteousness (not ordinary righteousness, but pure righteousness as a fundamental ideal) that gave an individual "the courage to form his own judgement upon prince or prelate or creed:

"As early as the eleventh century philosophical discussion had begun again in Europe, and there were great and growing universities at Paris, Oxford, Bologna and other centres. There, medieval 'schoolmen' took up again and thrashed out a series of questions upon the value and meaning of words that were a necessary preliminary to clear thinking in the scientific age that was to follow.


And the stir in men's minds was by no means confined now to the independent and the well-educated. The mind of the common man was awake in the world as it never had been before in all the experience of mankind. In spite of priest and persecution, Christianity seems to have carried a mental ferment wherever its teachings reached.”

In" H. G. Wells. A Short History of the World, p.231)

Filling a black space is not bad in itself, provided there is a way to test the assumptions. (In the case of our possible lions, looking down from higher ground may reveal the truth. The expanding base of tested theory provides the elevation to see further, and so some of the lions can be either seen or shown to be something else. The problem is, we still have a horizon, albeit an expanded one, and there may be more lions out there also.)

The religious problem results from creating fixed forms in the black spaces. Imagining is one thing, creating mythic tales is fine, but making of imagination a fixed a priori first cause, and then insisting that the universe conform to it is a vexing problem. Religion needs to learn from science to hold its views tentatively, to allow the narratives and beliefs to morph as human understanding and scientific evidence reveal further into the mystery. God must always be beyond comprehension, or as the German theologian Meister Eckhart ascribed to Augustine: "If I had a God I could understand, I would no longer consider him God." We need to refrain from saying what God is, and continue exploring the mystery, appreciating the complexity, beauty, and awe which we experience in reflecting upon the universe in which we exist.

That's the problem with pouring scorn on Christianity and driving it out of town. Science was born from it and nurtured by it. Throw out the bathwater of Christianity and we risk throwing out the baby of Science toot.

quarta-feira, junho 12, 2019

Abrahamic Zeitgeist: "Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos: Isaac Luria and his Kabbalistic Fellowship" by Lawrence Fine

It is interesting a singularity in (or coalescent with) space, is employed in humanity's attempts to characterize the fundamental nature of existence. The only thing that changes over the course of recorded history is the vocabulary, which reflects the prevailing zeitgeist.

Just this morning I was reading Lawrence Fine's book "Physician of the Soul, Healer of the Cosmos" (subtitled "Isaac Luria and his Kabbalistic Fellowship") and the very same imagery popped up. This is 16th century (CE) stuff yet it speaks of the singularity from which all was created. Ein-Sof, which is referred to below, may be thought of as an ineffable singularity.
Fine's translation of Luria: "When [Ein-Sof] determined to create its world and to issue forth the world of emanated entities...Ein-Sof...withdrew itself from its centermost point, at the center of its light, and this light retreated from the center to the sides, and thus there remained a free space, an empty vacuum."

Fine goes on to comment, "The perimeter of the empty space left by the act...was circular in shape, and equidistant from the centermost point..."

A simple projection of what is presumed to be the Abrahamic zeitgeist? In Samten Gyaltsen Karmay's book "The Great Perfection", a work examining the subtleties of a school of Tibetan Buddhism referred to as rDzogs chen, Karmay provides a translation of a roughly 1,300 year-old foundational text of the entire system, a text subtitled "the Central point of Space" (IOL 594, for those who wish to examine the text more closely).

The document is an epistemology that asserts mind itself, self-awareness, is the progenitor of the metaphor of the inchoate singularity. Part of Karmay's translation reads as follows:
How much does a deep non-imagination
Appear as an object of the intellect?
The experience of the profound non-imagination
Is of experience, not imagination.
However profound the words one utters,
One cannot express the point.

The difference between the presumption of the desert religions regarding the relationship of the primordial singularity to space and that of particular schools of Buddhism (as well as other non-Buddhist groups) is profound. The former group, a faith-based group, asserts the singularity abides in space, while the latter group, a group that proscribes the act of faith, asserts the singularity is coalescent with space.

An invariant singularity, one that abides in space, functions as the foundation of simple arithmetic and logic. As such it forms the basis of whatever fundamental structure is projected upon the primordially inchoate sphere. A faith-based structure, its laws are forever undermined by its inherent lack of verity.

A coalescent singularity is, by its very nature, ineffable; subject to interpretation. There are not an innumerable number of universes in this characterization, only one whose definition is unbounded.