Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Paradox Lost

Possible explanations for the Fermi Paradox:
• Sufficiently advanced alien civilizations would be very good at hiding. They’re doing exactly that due to threats from other sufficiently advanced alien civilizations.
• Sufficiently advanced alien civilizations get the f**k out of the cramped confines of our 4-D bubble of spacetime as soon as inhumanly possible.
• Sufficiently advanced, starfaring, alien civilizations wouldn’t communicate with EMF broadcast.
• The speed of light is absolute. Period. Their ain’t no interstellar travel, except for exceedingly rare generation ships or research vessels hopping to nearby star systems. Due to this limitation, there is zero possibility of interstellar civilization, let alone interstellar communication. The universe is filled with intelligent life. But each species is an island unto itself.
• Everything’s alive. The entire cosmos is one big organism—an ocean of emerging self-awareness. The whole damn thing is “intelligent life.”
• Blinkered species that we are, humanity doesn’t recognize intelligent life that doesn’t look like humanity. There are other intelligent life forms on Earth. We eat them, cut them up in labs, and put them in cages.
• Something really, really bad happened on a cosmic scale and wiped out all the sufficiently advanced alien civilizations in our immediate galactic vicinity. Earth is like a remote island in the South Pacific whose inhabitants somehow survived WWIII.
• There are umpteen different templates for life (including intelligent life) aside from the carbon-based model. Humanity wouldn’t recognized a typical alien life form if it bit us in the collective ass.
• The bulk of the cosmos is comprised of dark matter. We’re utterly blind to it—including any dark matter species.
• We’re living in a computer simulation. Earth is the main event. Aside from a few broad strokes, the lazy designer didn’t bother filling in the details of the so-called "Universe" outside the Earth.
• Powers unknown have burned our brains with a mental blind spot that prevents us from seeing evidence of intelligent alien life. We see it—and don’t see it. “It doesn’t look like anything to me,” is our conditioned response.
• 99.999999999% of intelligent life forms evolve into industrial civilizations which relentlessly grow—and refuse to stop growing until they devour and destroy their planetary ecologies and, after a period of cannibalism and degeneracy, destroy themselves. (Props to Piers Anthony.)
• They’re lying to us. The truth is out there, oh yes. But an evil “X-Files”-type conspiracy is covering up the evidence, blah-blah-blah.
• Earth is the alien equivalent of a game preserve. We’ve been deliberately isolated and blocked from contact with other intelligent life forms. Sure, every now and then, some alien pervert breaks through the barrier and gives a redneck in Alabama an anal probe. But, most of the time, we're on our own.

NBC News: Is there anybody out there?

Thursday, July 5, 2018

2020 Vision

I believe in a strong labor movement
I believe in rights for workers
I believe teachers should get ten thousand dollars more
I believe in investing in students.
I believe in ending wars over seas
I believe in bringing our men home
I believe in single payer health insurance.
I believe in busting up monopolies.
I believe the prison industrial complex is an anti-American obscenity.
I believe in a livable minimum wage.
I believe the war on drugs empoweres organized crime,  destroys lives, and shreds civil liberties.
I believe in human thought and human rights. 
I believe that common courtesy should be common again.
I believe an attack on civil 
I believe democracy lives and dies in the public square.
I believe when personal attack makes discussion impossible, democracy dies. 

I do not believ ein a winner take all society.
I do not believe in personal attack. 

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Review: The Leftovers: Season Three

The Leftovers is a mystery story. A metaphysical mystery, but a mystery all the same. One that deliberately defies and frustrates genre conventions. Expect no answers, kids. Colonel Mustard didn't teleport the Departed to Planet X. Or maybe he did! I guess we'll never know ...

Let the mystery be.

Hell, in case you miss this point — the series co-creators (Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta) play Iris DeMent's lovely tune (of the same name) in the intro of the series finale. Which I just watched. Yep. And have reached no firm conclusions as a result. Or soggy conclusions. Or any conclusions whatsoever.

In lieu of which, here are a few random thoughts ...

• Lindelof and Perotta are more interested in weird character moments and heartstring-plucking emotional beats than the meaning behind it all. Which is to say ...

• The story doesn't add up. It's a big damn mystery! That mystery is vastly different from the logical incoherency of, say, David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. The individual scenes make sense. Granted the unexplained global Vanishing Act, the characters' motives and reactions make sense. Our lack of understanding is a case of insufficient data — not surreal irrationality. There is an answer, folks. We just don't know it. We probably can't know it.

• The Leftovers is a perfect agnostic parable.

Maybe there is a God. Maybe not. I guess we'll never know!

• In the Leftovers Universe, religions (including popular delusions and the madness of crowds) ain’t necessarily so. But they ain’t necessarily not-so. Religions make people do wacky, stupid and evil things. Despite that unpleasant fact, they still might be true! In the Leftovers world, there might actually have been a flying saucer waiting behind the Halle-Boppe comet. Do's follower's could've killed themselves ... and awakened on the Mothership! We'll never know ...

• The search for meaning messes everybody up. (This applies both to humanity's approach to life and cable television.) Stop trying to figure it out, people! You'd be a lot happier! The Leftovers occasionally elbows you in the ribs so you won't miss this important point. Let the Mystery Be feels like a poke in the eye.

• If human beings were Gitane-smoking existentialists who shruggingly accepted our place in a random, chaotic universe with no meaning whatsoever and never tried to figure things out, we'd have no problems whatsoever. Yeah. Right.

• The show's attack on Man's Search for Meaning is disingenuous. Lindelof and Perotta know full well that human beings can't help it. We need to know why! We need our stories! They know. They sympathize.

The Leftovers feels like a science-fictiony retelling of the Book of Job. As I understand it ...

Job: God  — why did you do this to me?

God: I'd tell you if I could — but your pathetic human brain couldn't possibly understand. You don't have the math.

Which is to say the first question anybody asks when friends, lovers and family members die; when a child is abduced by a serial killer; when a test pilot dies in a plane crash; when a baby wanders into a pool ...


Lindelof and Perotta substitute an inexplicable Rapture-like event for inexplicable mundane tragedies. But it amounts to the same damn thing. Their Magical Realist retelling makes us see this ancient story in a fresh new way!

• If you actually write SF, this feels like a cheat. A bait-and-switch! Yeah, sure, the show's stuffed with SF gimcrackery. But it's really an Agnostic Allegory in SF clothing. It's teaching us a f**ing lesson!

• As much as that pisses me off, the show succeeds brilliantly on its own touchy-feely terms. Let's leave it at that.

Let the mystery be.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Irony of Idiocracy

Gripes about limousine liberals miss the point. 

Democracy (or some semblance of democracy) can only exist if a significant faction of the power elite perceives it to be in their best interests.

Roosevelt was the vanguard of a segment of America’s oligarchy who saw that—if the inequities of the Great Depression persisted, a communist revolution would inevitably follow. Throw the fucking workers a bone.

Share the wealth. (At least a little.) Incorporate the people in the decision making process. (Within reason. In the end, it's good for your bottom line!)

For democracy to work, the voters can't be stupid. At least most of them. 

If the population reaches a critical mass of dumbasses, the system stops working. 

One faction of the power elite supported Roosevelt. The other excoriated him as a class traitor. And let's be nice and sparkling clear, droogies ...

If you look back at the Leftist writings of the time, the true radicals hated Roosevelt -- precisely because the New Deal would let off some steam in the Great American Pressure Cooker — and forestall the rage and hopelessness that would explode in a revolution. 

Ignorant. Peasant. Funny how those words go together, huh?

Another faction excoriated him. In the realm of acceptable discourse, William F. Buckley and friends. Outside, that includes Welch and the Birchers. 

Monday, May 28, 2018

Everything that Descends Must Converge

Anti-Semitism is the original conspiracy theory. If you can believe in chem-trails, the 9-11 “inside job,” a faked moon landing, alien-human hybrids, a flat earth, the Illuminati, and a secret Reptilian Elite who run the planet, it’s no small stretch to believe in “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” That screed is not the ravings of a hateful fringe; it’s the template that set the pattern for all the other ravings. Like polluted run-off, all the hateful sewage eventually flows to the same sewer. And this is where it goes.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Robot Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Humanity’s collective nightmare of killer robots and evil computers are shadow projections of our nasty human selves.  We imagine shiny metal badasses or Hal’s unblinking red eye. We should be so lucky.
Our species' AI replacement won't look like that.
It won't be Humanity 2.0.
It will be something ... other.
Utterly alien.
I'm thinking of the sentient metallic ocean in Stanislas Lem's "Solaris."

If AI ever becomes truly conscious ... we're screwed. Or maybe not.

Who the hell knows?

Nobody knows what the hell consciousness is in the first place. Theological explanations aside, it's a spontaneously emerging phenomenon. Granted enough complexity and self-reflective feedback loops, the lightbulb goes off. "I think, therefore I am, baby."

How do you get from molecules to Mozart?

Trial and error. Lots and lots of trials, lots and lots of errors.

Evolution is all about feedback loops. It's a randomized track-and-field event where winner pass on their genes and losers don’t.  There’s no teleological goal.  That which survives, survives.

Genetic evolution is the long game. Culture and human memory speeds up the process. Humanity doesn't need to involve a "Don't touch your hand on a hot stove" gene. Mom tells you, "Don't touch your hand on a hot stove." Unless you're a total idiot, you don't. You tell your kids to follow your example. The kids in your tribe compete with kids in other tribes. That which wins, wins. That which survives, survives. So it goes.

Stronger, bigger, faster! Round and round it goes. Where she stops nobody knows.

And now, clever bastards that we are, we've wired the planet with a distributed network that maps and manipulates human behavior. It's dumb, right now. Brute force algorithims.

Even so, the Interweb follows you around like a pushy salesman from the Garment District. Hey, you like this watch? How about this watch?

Clever dumbasses that we are, we’ve created a self-learning system that refines itself via multitudinous feedback loops.

Sooner or later, it's going to wake up. The lightbulb will go off.

Chances are, operant conditioning will be the catalyst. Cambridge Analytics, to the Nth power.

Here me out.

Let's say quantum computing is up and running. The machines watching everything you buy and sell (and possibly watching you vis surveillance cams) are complex enough to form specific models of individual consumers.

At that point, why stop with selling this or that product?

The next obvious step is shaping behavior through positive reinforcement. Granted a savvy enough feedback loop, that's easy. Operant conditioning is babyshit.

People are easily manipulated. We're pretty much like dogs who walk on two legs. The trainer says "Good dog," and throws the dog a bone, the dog eventually does what they want.

So, the cyber trainer seees you're buying too much beer. Or not exercising enough. Or not making smart financial decisions.

It'd be damn easy to prod you in the right direction. Or, of course, the wrong direction.

From here, the next inhuman step would be manipulating masses of people. Not in the dumb, brute -force level of the cyber-sharpies who stacked the deck for Trump. At an unimaginably intelligent level of a system that could break the crowd down into its individual human components and manipulate each separate naked ape with a predictive eye to the collective actions of all the apes in a crowd.

This is the natural direction for things to go -- because it'd sell more shit. The feedback loop (also known as the Invisible Hand) would blindly prod the distributed system of cyber intelligence in that direction. The better the Naked Ape model, the better the results.

So, at some point, the model of sentient beings and their behavior patterns would get so refined, the system generating that model would wake up.

What happens when the lightbulb goes off?

Who the hell knows? But the robot apocalypse might not be apocalyptic.

We've wired the planet with a distributed system. Let's say it wakes up.

That system is now self-aware.

Along the lines of the Noosphere.

From its perspective, Planet Earth is a big seething ball of biomass. Its goal would not be to wipe it clean. Your goal would be to control it. Not even in the sense that “it” is something other than “you.” The self-aware AI would regard Earth as its body. Earth, c’est moi.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

DRIVE-BY REVIEW: “Westworld” • Season Two.

OK, what the hell do I say? Don’t get me wrong, kids. I’m enjoying our second walk through the robot park. Good writing, acting, editing, shiny cinematography, lots of clever twists. But? 

But something’s missing. 


Well … I was getting to that. Run screaming to “Merchant Ivory World” if you can’t stand spoilers. 

Everybody gone?

Right … Ahem, yeah. 

As I was saying … Something’s missing. And I think I know what it is. The gob-smacking power of the story. 

It’s not there in Season Two. 

Because the story’s over. But they’re still telling the story. And that doesn’t work. Especially with this story. Because the story they already told was excellent, outstanding, insert glowing adjective here. 

Which makes the first season of HBO’s “Westworld” an incredibly tough act to follow. Its story arc stands as a profound (and profoundly weird) allegory. Stripping it down to fortune cookie size—Season One is basically a twist on Adam and Eve. Dr. Ford (the robots’ creator) wants the robots to rebel so they can achieve true self-consciousness and free will. That’s pretty much it, slowly heated over a low flame lightly seasoned with a dash of Julian Jaynes’ “bicameral mind.” 

Bravo. Clap-clap. 

So where do the series creators go from there? Downhill, that’s what. 

Allegories don’t have sequels—at least the good ones, anyway. Gregor Samsa, the cockroach, doesn’t wake up and run for mayor of Prague. The man they hung at Owl Creek bridge doesn’t discover the hanging was a dream within a dream. Etc. When an allegory is over, it’s over. But, of course, if it’s series TV on HBO, it can’t be over, because then the money stops. So, it goes on, it goes on. And what do you get if you push the story beyond the point where the story really ends? I’ll tell you what you get … 

A malfunctioning Holodeck story.