Saturday, October 28, 2006

Contemplating the Cosmos: From NOVA to SETI

Have a glimpse of the episode of NOVA that I’ll be on (briefly) this Tuesday/Halloween - re: “Monsters (black holes) in Space!

Alas. It appears I’m only allowed on TV once a week! The History Channel has postponed the prime time debut of "The ArchiTECHS." I’ll announce if/when they re schedule this bold new show -- with its handsome cast (!) taking on futuristic technological challenges. Keep eyes open for the Humvee Episode... and further adventures - brainstorming problems of the 21st Century!

Okay, now hold on through a few more misc items to reach the Scary Story...

==Galactic Warnings==

The Lifeboat Foundation has been busy. See a reprint of my article Want to Live Forever? about life extension.

The same site has posted a humorous and yet thought provoking essay illustrating GALACTIC WARNING SIGNS - following the yellow triangle motif - but dealing with biggie threats like antimatter, chaotic systems, black holes, bad-memes and so on. A cool ranking of potential existential dangers and way cool for game contexts.

Veering into the past, for a humbling allegory about prediction. Some of these predictions they got right, and some they ... um ... didn't. On the other hand, there was some real wisdom in this 1950 Pop.Mechanix view of the year 2000.

Referring back a bit, to the looming return of traditional human class warfare, have a glimpse of the new world of air travel for the very rich

And, as part of the same trend, see “trickle down” at work. “Sure, Warren Buffet wears cheap suits and noshes burgers at the local diner, but other folks with mounds of moola like to spend, spend, spend. Alas, some confused millionaires need a hand in unloading their dough. Thankfully, for muddled magnates looking for that first helicopter there is a glittering orgy of luxury goods for VIPs and "the political, administrative, business and cultural elite." Yahoo Millionaire Fair. (At least they don’t put a pretentious “e” at the end.)

UCSD-alumni-science-fiction-authorsThose of you who haven’t seen the epochal evening when UCSD honored its “Sci Fi Author alumni” -- Gregory Benford, Vernor Vinge, Kim Stanley Robinson and David Brin, should have a look!

Again re the future! See some of the fantastic renderings of computer graphics images that have already been made for Greg Bear’s EON, in the latest CG Challenge. I’m jealous as heck!

Had enough? But there’s more. I have saved the best (or scary-worst) for last.

The Allen Telescope Array (ATA), a specialized radio telescope now under construction by the SETI Institute and the University of California Berkeley, will be about a hundred times faster than any previous radio search, and will simultaneously pick up all cosmic static between 0.5 and 11.2 gigahertz.

Good luck to them! I have long been a fervent supporter of the passive SETI listening program... while opposing recent efforts to start garishly TRANSMITTING from Earth to howl for attention from the cosmos.

Alas, momentum is building toward the commencement of some aggressive “Active SETI” programs aiming to deliberately shout into the cosmos at a time when we know absolutely nothing about the situation out there.

For an example of this idiocy...

Mexico's Teotihuacan, once the center of a sprawling pre-Hispanic empire, is set to become the launch pad for an attempt to communicate with extraterrestrial life. Starting on Tuesday, enthusiasts from around the world will have a chance to submit text, images, video and sounds that reflect human nature to be included in the message.

Oh, but this is the tip of the iceberg. There are sober and tenured radio astronomers who plan to do what amounts to the same stunt, or to cooperate with such efforts, without even telling their funding donors.

Are any of you saying Whaaaaa? I don’t recall this being discussed, or my opinion being solicited, when a few dozen jerks decided to start screaming into space without even consulting anybody else to see if - maybe - it might not be such a good idea?

Fortunately, grownup attention is being drawn to this rash trend. A recent editorial in NATURE presented a capsule summary of the problem that I have recently spent considerable time on. More than I'd like. The Nature issue is still closed, but the openminded Seti League (not to be confused with the Institute) has posted a pdf of the essay.

Want to learn more? All right then, in order to give you the creeps on Halloween, I crafted a summary of how a few dozen arrogant science neocultists seem determined to scream into outer space: “Yoo Hoo!” on our behalf... just like the cliched naive-stereotype in some cheap horror movie, without having even a sliver of evidence to support their blithe (if unsupported) assumption - clutched religiously - that the universe is automatically benign.

If you share my suspicion that this is a really, really dumb idea, or simply want to learn more, see collected articles on SETI --with a lot of relevant background material, or see my article: Shall We Shout to the Cosmos?

An added note: we dissenters tried hard to do this sub rosa and in dignified quiet, offering mediation. We have been stonewalled by the insular and narrow community that (alas) some parts of SETI have rapidly become. Deadlines for mediation have now passed. Science journalists have grown aware (see that Nature editorial) that the debate is NOT over whether or not to shout into the cosmos...

...but whether the scientific community - and the public - will even be allowed to know that this is being done! Or whether we’ll be allowed to discuss it in the open, like citizens who have some voice in our own destiny.

For follow-up: See more on the SETI vs METI controversy:


Steve Wilson said...

I think it would be prudent to wait until we hear from another species before we advertise ourselves.

Even then, it would probably be a good idea to wait a while to make sure the signals we detect don't get abruptly terminated.

Andrew Smith said...

While the political lamp is out:

Six-word sci-fi stories

(Including many from our eponymous blogger)

Computer, did we bring batteries? Computer?
- Eileen Gunn

I’m your future, child. Don’t cry.
- Stephen Baxter

Bang postponed. Not Big enough. Reboot.
- David Brin

Fun stuff!

P.T. Galt said...

Hmmm, I don't see "Active SETI" as scary. You have a point that, in principle, the rest of us ought to be consulted before sending a "Heeeeeloooooo, anybody there?" to the cosmos.

But in "gritty reality" this isn't any different than somebody using a Ouija board without asking anyone's permission. Who knows, maybe they'll accidentally awaken The Thing That Should Not Be, and the best any of us can hope for is to be eaten last. But really, what are the odds? Would the 'threat' warrant forbidding the use of Ouija boards, or even complaining about their use?

So, maybe 500 or 1,000 or 10,000 years from now some Evil Interstellar Empire receives the message and decides to come a-conquering. Apart from some sort of "warp drive" or other superluminal transport, it would take them more than (another) 500, 1,000, or 10,000 years to reach us, and that's assuming they decide to send their armada right away instead of just gobbling up the resources of the uninhabited system next door.

If they have superluminal transport, we will be able to develop it too. Which means: by the time any "Active SETI" radio transmission crawls out from Earth at light speed far enough to cover sufficient area to have a reasonable chance of being discovered by a hostile alien empire...we'll already be there, in our own FTL spaceships. If not, it's probably because we've done ourselves in or gone back to building pyramids and castles.

Furthermore, we expect to be able to use wide-baseline interferometry between arrays of space-based telescopes to detect Earth-sized planets with oxygen atmospheres within a decade or so.

An interstellar empire with FTL transport would, by definition, be far in advance of us, and would need better sensors than we have to make FTL navigation practical. Consider how far sensing and satellite reconnaissance has progressed in the last few decades, and imagine the capabilities that a society even 100 years ahead of us would have.

Which means: if there's anybody out there hunting Earth-like life-bearing planets, they already know we're here, or at least they can find out at any time, long before an "Active SETI" message could reach them.

Of the two, passive SETI is more dangerous. Why? Because success at passive SETI means the aliens are already here, even if only in the form of radio waves. If FTL transport is physically impossible and/or impractical (e.g. creating Einstein-Rosen bridges turns out to take more energy than a solar system can produce, or they're inherently unstable, etc.), what is the most effective and resource-efficient method of interstellar invasion and conquest?

Uploading yourself into the form of an uber-adaptable computer virus (starting with transmissions of prime number sequences and the like) and beaming yourself into space, hoping that some naive little society is foolish enough to point their puny radio-telescope ears at the heavens to await your arrival.

Then, as your code establishes a "handshake" with their systems (and the foolish creatures themselves will be doing all they can to find a way to decrypt and download your message), you 'unzip' your evil mind, quietly take over their Internet, and wait for them to make the nanoassembler breakthrough so you can turn their solar system into computronium, making room for more of your intelligent-cybermeme kind.

Perhaps you can even offer to 'help' your victims along: "We of the Galactic Federation have come to you with the solution to your problems of poverty, war, and disease..." Bwahahahahahahaaa!!!

However, what's scariest to me is the fact that the interstellar societies aren't here, i.e. Fermi's Paradox. One could make a pretty good case from the Fermi Paradox (in combination with current events) that advanced technological civilization is inherently self-limiting, either because they destroy themselves, or just upload into better versions of Second Life and never bother to explore space.

BTW, do you have any plans to write a sequel to "Lungfish?" Also, you still owe us a rant on religion... :)

Anonymous said...

Personally, I'm all for silencing our current radio transmissions if possible and make ourselves as quiet as mice in a cat-infested house. We've already seen that the world we live on isn't exactly benign (what with supervolcanoes, asteroid impacts, newer and newer diseases, and the weather). We need to get off this globe if we, as a species, are going to survive.

We don't need competition in our own solar system for the resources we need to take those needed steps into the cosm around us. I don't care if they're benign or malignant.

Naivity is more dangerous than paranoia. The thing about paranoids is this: sometimes they're right, and when they're right they end up being prepared.

We as a species are violent, uncivilized, and dangerous. Before we start waving to everyone else and saying "look at us!" we need to fix our own failings first. Then, once we've thought things through and dealt with the garbage of our own psyches, we can call outward.

Personally, do you want to have visitors when you're unshaven (face or legs, depending on your gender) and unwashed, wearing just a bathrobe? Currently that's mankind. Let's get "dressed up" before we tell the universe we'd like guests.

Rob H., Tangents

Stefan Jones said...

At one point, Dr.DB intended to turn "Lungfish" into a novel! Still could be!

* * *

Book recommendation:

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle

It's a graphic novel, done in a very spare style, about the author's extended business trip to the "hermit kingdom." Delisle was there supervising a crew of animators working on an episode of a French cartoon.

The regime's adaptations to foreign businessmen tramping about appear pained and crude. Huge, fancy hotels have been built, but only a few floors are lit. Delisle is expected to have his guide with him at all times, but manages to get away now and then, discovering nothing beyond shabby mediocrity.

The author does a great job of showing how isolated the citizens (subjects?) are. Mandatory trips to propaganda sites reveal sad, transparent boasting and almost sociopathic vanity.

There are some funny bits. Delisle brings along a copy of "1984," and gives it to his translator.

Shortly after 9/11, some conservative commentators predicted an "end of irony" and an age of heartfelt patriotic teamwork. I suspect the actual result of this combination would be something like the DRPK; a society ruled by naive jingoism and fear, without CITOKATE, and especially the most pungent form of criticism . . . mockery.

Even if the Kim dynasty falls without recourse to a war, it's going to be ugly and painful transition.

Steve said...

Wow! A 'Lungfish' novel would be *fantastic*! Here's hoping it happens :-)

Beach Bum said...

Holy Doomsday Batman,
And to think I just finished reading Saberhagen's book Berserker Prime. Now to read that there may be a reason to keep quiet around possible galactic neighbors. Great, all I need now is to read some report that there really is a virus that will reanimate the dead because I read Max Brook's World War Z before that.

Ben Tilly said...

Hey, if we're going to speculate, let's speculate that we're all doomed anyways (with overwhelming odds). It is just a question of figuring out how we're going to kill ourselves...

DemetriosX said...

As a UCSD alumnus I really ought to find the time to watch that video. After all, I met two of those speakers during my time there. During my freshman orientation, this really hairy grad student came by and listened to a bunch of us talking for a while. Then he asked if we liked science fiction and pitched his brand new book to us: Sundiver. Then my freshman writing instructor went a grew up to be KSR. When was Vinge at UCSD? I thought he was at SDSU.

I wanted to comment on David's remarks about the new private air travel for the very rich, but couldn't find the time. I find the whole argument rather weak, because 75 years ago the exact same argument could have been made, replacing private air travel with air travel and coach class flight with train travel. It's also easy to forget that as recently as 20 years ago air travel was still largely limited to the upper and upper-middle classes. If you wanted to fly your family back east for Thanksgiving or Christmas, you had to save like mad and few could afford to do it more than once every five years or so. The kleptoaristos may think they're separating themselves from the unwashed masses, but they are probably just driving a paradigm change.

Doris said...

The signal will be pretty thin after dozens of light-years, but if our galactic neighbors have good receivers and enhancement software, they may have already seen us -- as in "I Love Lucy" and "Star Trek."

Tony Fisk said...

I don't think the risk that we've twitched the whiskers of a slumbering berserker in a nearby Oort cloud is that high. Anybody out there would have to be listening awfully hard to hear us.

(Interesting idea though: FTL travel reveals the true charnel nature of the cosmos, and that those beamed halloos have to be intercepted before they encounter some thing and give the game away.)

David seems more concerned about the irresponsible and non-consultative manner in which this 'twitching' is going on.

Anonymous said...

Is anyone here aware that there have already been one or two "active SETI" broadcasts (aside from incidental radio leakage, of which there's been a damn lot)?

Not to mention, some of our space probes are on hyperbolic trajectories with pictures of cartoon humans and a diagram of the solar system embossed on their sides. Of course, the artifact and its trajectory alone suffice to say "we're here", and it's easy to guess which planet; as you get close, it's the one that's making that awful racket in the meter band. And it won't get anywhere too soon.

This link:

by the way doesn't work. Well, maybe it does, but apparently only if you have a credit card and some extra spending cash.

(Rant alert)
"Bait and switch" links to pages asking for money ought to be considered impolite on the 'net; they should be avoided, or at minimum labeled, say with ($) at the end of the link text; ones that just want to get and confirm your email address so that they can spam you should be labeled with (R) likewise.

And the first place someone needs to be beaten upside the head on this issue is Google. Half their links these days show summary excerpts that are not on the "insert a coin to continue" page that you get when you follow the link.

Apparently the Google bot is allowed in free of charge at some sites, but humans aren't.

Google links to pages behind walls of any kind should be in a separate box at right, below the "sponsored links", and marked $ and R variously; only the links that go, for humans, directly without hoop jumping to the content the bot indexed should appear at left. This can be arranged by having Google visit pages from time to time disguised as IE or Firefox, to determine if the page is actually directly accessible to a human or not. And, perhaps, in the meantime people can use a browser that supports user-agent spoofing to go to these sites disguised as the Google bot!

If the evil sites that lock content behind walls look for a google-related network address rather than the user-agent header to let the Google bot in, though, there's not much you can do to work around it, but Google can use the cloak or whatever to test for accessibility and separate out the links that are behind walls even then.

Or, of course, Google can just purge such links from its index. A site that locks content away behind walls, but still wants it indexed by search engines, is trying to have their cake and eat it too.

Doug S. said...

Longed for him. Got him. Shit.
- Margaret Atwood

Wow, that's a great six-word story.

Tony Fisk said...

I think Hemingway's original was quite a zinger!

Not in the same league, but...

"Why am I here?"

David Brin said...

People have various criteria. I wondered why Wired chose that one story of mine from among the many I sent in. (Notice the "____ postponed..." riff I had going?)

Then I realized. The one that they chose had an ACTUAL STORY ARC. Three events happen in a definite (and dramatic) beginning, a middle and an end. Only one other story in the bunch did that. Jim Kelly's wry piece about a mop.

His was choice. Probably will endure longer in memory. Still, mine had tristesse. Can't you envision space? Violence? Sadness? Ah well.

Anybody posting comments on the HC site?

Come to think of it, anyone want to weigh in at:

Anybody know anybody at the AAAS?

Anonymous said...

Just to add to the list of people wanting a 'Lungfish' novel - me too please.

The resounding silence does make one wonder if there is something nasty out there.

One slightly paranoid thought is that a hostile entitity may not even want our solar system at all - but do want to quash any potential for future competition other intelligent lifeforms may pose. The first we would know about it would be when our orbit gets intersected by a mass travelling at relativistic speed or some other unpleasantness.

Rob Perkins said...

I've been under the impression this whole time that the Uplift novels kindasorta were lungfish stories.

Blake Stacey said...

For sheer fun, my favourite resolution of the Fermi Paradox might be that of Greg Egan, in Quarantine.

(Yellow Spoiler Alert!)

We have not found extraterrestrial civilizations, because in observing, we kill them. Life other than human requires uncollapsed quantum wavefunctions, and because we collapse the wavefunctions with which we interact, the glance of a human is lethal.

Of course, alien life eventually takes measures to protect itself.

Someday, when I feel like working up a thesis, I think I'll do a compare-and-contrast job on Quarantine and Kiln People. In appropriately dense literary jargon, of course.

Lenny Zimmermann said...

I'm with P.T. Galt on this one. The thought that some folks might be doing Active SETI work just doesn't bother me. I'm willing to acknowledge that there might be a threat there, but statistically it seems to me that the possible benefit is just as insignificant... statistically speaking. And when all is said and done we, as a species or as individuals, never really seem to be very capable of advancing without taking a few risks.

Curling up into a ball trying to avoid bullies doesn't work to well so if some folks want to make some noise... well I just can't get worked up about it. I can't even get worked up about anyone doing this without letting me know, and especially not about consulting me, about it. Down that road lies totalitarianism and I think I'd rather live and let live now then live under a totalitarian regime while trying to avoid certain death or even some other intergalactic totalitarian regime (which at least if we have known freedom then we can always have the hope of regaining it.)

I'm just nutty that way, though.

Anonymous said...

More hard to explain incompetence in Iraq. Only 3% of weapons given to Iraq had any paper trail recorded:
"There are standard regulations for registering military weaponry in that way, governed by the Department of Defense small-arms serialization program. The inspector general’s report said that when asked why so many weapons went to Iraq with no record of serial numbers, American military officials in Baghdad replied that they did not believe the regulations applied to them. ... Everything about this war was done not just wrong but so wrong that you have to wonder whether they wanted to fail. Ugh."

jeb said...

Dr. Brin,

This is off-topic--more appropriate to the previous post--but I thought you might be particularly interested since it's in your backyard:

Hackable Voting Machines on 'Sleepovers' in San Diego County

David Brin said...

What I do not understand is why the Dems haven't made the scandalous voting machine situation part of a Top Ten List (instead of a Contract) of things to deal with asap.

In California at least all computerized/touchscreen machines still must print a paper ballot that (1) you can check by eye and (2) get retained after scanning for random precinct audits and possible protest counts later. (You can guess that "sleepover" precincts may be targeted thus.)

If I lived in Ohio, where there is no paper trail - where the GOP led government is totally corrupt, where exit polls were suspiciously banned, and where Diebold is based - I would simply assume that there is no correlation whatsoever between what people touch on their screens and the final tally.

Votes may be fairly counted in purely blue or purely red states. But if they are only marginally red? Forget about it.

Again, folks! Drop by


And happy halloween. Let's hope our REAL spooks (in counter-intelligence) start doing their jobs at last and deal with our worst monsters... by applying plenty of sunlight!

monkyboy said...

The quietest but most important victory the Democrats are on track to win next week is control of a majority of state governments...

Including the Governorship of Ohio.

jeb said...

Dr. Brin,

My understanding is that the 'voter-verified paper trail' on the machines in question is extremely difficult for the voter to verify. I'm fairly certain that it's not a piece of paper that the voter is able to peruse at will and sign before leaving the polling place. Rather, the paper is viewable only through a small window on the machine and stays in the machine. Plus, it is not at all clear to me that there is much that can be done if the voter sees a problem on the paper record. Anecdotal evidence from poll-worker training sessions (in the article linked above) suggests that there is little in the way of pre-set procedures for such circumstances.

Why haven't the Democrats made this an issue? Obviously, I have no inside information, but I suspect that this is related to the major subject of the original post: Risk Assessment. People have a very hard time dealing with issues of risk in the absence of data about the likelihood of a problem.

In the active-SETI case, we are faced with a question of potentially infinite downside but at a probability that is completely unkown.

In the electronic-voting case, the downside is very, very big (not infinite), but again the probability of a problem is unclear--especially to people who have other things on their minds.

I think that when people have little or no information about the likelihood of an event, they assume--by default--that its likelihood is very low.

Evolutionarily speaking, this is perhaps not surprising. There are good reasons why organisms are not well-adapted to dealing with very rare circumstances. So in the absence of information to the contrary, we assume (or our genes do, if you'll pardon the anthropomorphization) that nothing bad is going to happen. Alas, the dinosaurs got wiped out anyhow.

Humans, however, have the ability to conceive of dangers that have not presented themselves before. If we use our brains, we can even come up with ways to avoid those dangers.

If the cost of doing so is low enough, then our presumption of a low probability of disaster shouldn't stop us.

Is active-SETI likely to be dangerous? I neither know nor care. Is it possible that active-SETI could lead to complete disaster? Of course it is. If the potential damage is infinite, then it doesn't matter how low the probability is. "Minimize the maximum damage" is a careful, frankly conservative strategy--and one that always lets you change your mind later, if better information arises.

The potential damage from electronic-voting scams may not be infinite, but then we also have plenty of reason to believe that the probability is well above zero. But you have to really stop and think about it to realize that the potential danger outweighs the cost of fixing it--and besides, all this electronic voting was supposed to be the fix!

David Brin said...

jeb you could not be more wrong. Unless they have changed machines again, the ones we use in California involve the voter marking a physical ballot - big and verifiable - then sliding that ballot into an optical scanner reader that also holds/retains all of the ballots for later possible recount. Either with a different scanner or by hand.

I really don’t know what more you could want, but its a darn sight better than any process in the “pink” states that the GOP controls. Nothing could better prove that the Dems mean well and the Gops have it totally in for democracy.

When it comes to risk from blaring/shouting at thecosmos, may I ask if you have bothered to read the articles and resources I posted? People tend to be vociferously opinionated on this issue, inversely proportional to the amount they know. And since nobody knows much of anything, the level of dogma is extreme, ESPECIALLY among the scientists closest to the problem! In fact, I am among the very few involved in SETI who has sought to expand the range of theories on the table, instead of culling away those I personally dislike,

I oppose shouting at the cosmos, in part, because it is a sure sign of being an impatient and deeply stupid species.

Given that past human “first contacts” went poorly... and first contacts between other Earthly species most-often result in extinction of one or the other... it seems perfectly reasonable to sit and listen quietly for a generation or two, gathering facts about the jungle before skipping through it screaming “yoohoo!”

Doris said...

We need not assume that we are broadcasting (or narrowbeaming) to a particular planet. The nearest star is about 4 light-years away. The nearest starship or alien space station could be light-hours away. We could get visitors -- experienced, capable, spacefaring visitors -- much sooner than we think.

praxcelis said...

I have to think that worrying about active SETI is moot. We've been emitting patterned radio noise for quite some time now, and I don't see this being any more or less foolish. Yes, it is the equivalent of standing up with a shout and a wave, but we haven't exactly been picking our way stealthily through the brush up to this point either.

I think if there is some sort of trigger event that pegs us as a threat, it would be (to continue stretching the veldt metaphor) when we emerge from our cave--that is, when we send ourselves in corpus or via some sort of downloaded sentience--beyond the boundaries of our solar system. (Of course, that may have happened now that Voyager has crossed the termination shock. Hmmm...) Until we do, we're much like the baby rodents still just poking our noses out of our cozy hole--the lions will wait until we're out in the open before pouncing.

Oh, off topic, I found another Digg article you might find amusing, this one about some philosopher-scientist positing that we are all living in a simulation. I pointed out this was ground you already covered in "Stones of Significance" and linked back to your site.

Is Life All Just A Dream?

Robert said...

Re: Active SETI

Dialog takes two participants, someone has to talk first. Prudence suggest that we be careful, but the distances involved mean turn around times in the decades at the very least.

I say go for it. Call out to the cosmos, see who's there, say hello, be friendly.


Blake Stacey said...

DB wrote:

I oppose shouting at the cosmos, in part, because it is a sure sign of being an impatient and deeply stupid species.

. . . or a bold, inquisitive species seeking companionship and causes to hope. . . .

Hey, a hefty fraction of Net users can't tell a sarcastic comment from a straight-faced one without an emoticon, and we know staggeringly more about our fellow Net surfers — that is, our fellow human beings — than we know about putative extraterrestrial intelligences. Presuming to know how an alien civilization will respond when we are, in fact, almost totally ignorant is, well, presumptuous.

Perhaps that is an argument for silence.

David Brin said...

Doris, few ideas are new. Re the concept that ETIS are already nearby, see a rather sweet-if-flakey site:
That is, except for my hard-hitting defiant article:

praxcelis, Thanks for the link!

Still, please do not assume that you are well-versed in a field that (forgive me) may be more complex than you thought. Please go to the resource page I mentioned and study up, You are simply wrong and following an urban legend about “I love Lucy.” Even military radars are still “below background.”

Robert, your attitude is shared by the Russians, and it is ill-considered. In a universe where AT BEST the advanced life forms are being eerily quite (because they know something we don’t know?) it simply makes no sense for the newest kids to shout yoohoo, betting that everybody’s just nice-but-shy.

Seriously, that is the Russians’ official position. Lots of aliens out there. ALL of them “nice-but-shy.”

It may be so, but I suggest waiting and learning some more, before betting all of our posterity on a wish-filled fantasy.

Blake, you are right to psychoanalyze the urge to shout as an artifact of a weird culture, wherein most of us have been absurdly safe and insulated from Nature's harsh realities. Even if the universe is like the net, with no physical contact, I invite these pollyannas to go to the cyber-hacker bulletin boards and start waving and yelling to attract attention.

Even without physical contact, you may lose your naivete real quick.

jeb said...

Dr. Brin,

If I'm wrong about the voting machines, I'm wrong. (If you'll notice, my comment started, "My understanding is...") I was under the impression that San Diego county is now using touch-screen machines with a receipt-like attachment, but if they're using optical-scan, then that is certainly better. In fact, if the piece of paper itself is legally considered to be the ballot, then it is perhaps the best system. Even if the optical-scan machines are hacked (or just badly programmed), the ballots can still be counted. In addition to all the issues of reliability/security/etc. with touch-screen machines, in at least some states it is unclear whether the paper-trail from those machines is legally countable, since it is usually not considered to be a legal ballot.

On the SETI issue, I appear not to have been clear. I was attempting to suggest an explanation for why so many people seem to have no problem with active SETI by drawing a comparison to the electronic voting question. Essentially, I was suggesting that when people have little or no experience with the likelihood of an event, they tend to assume--consciously or unconsciously--that it's probability is so low that there's no reason to worry. My intent was to suggest that, though this is reasonable when the stakes are low, it is the wrong decision when the consequences of being wrong are so high.

Since the cost of waiting for better information before acting (in the SETI case) are zero, and the potential costs of not waiting are so high, we should wait--even if the probability of a bad outcome turns out to be very, very low.

Since the cost of fixing things (in the electronic-voting case) are really rather low, compared to the potential cost of not doing so, we should fix things--even if the probabilty of a stolen election turns out to be low.

I think people are assuming out of ignorance that the chances of a bad outcome in either case are too low to worry about. I don't think they're right to do so.

Jerry Pournelle makes essentially the reverse argument about global warming. He says that we don't know for certain what's happening, so we should do more research and only later decide whether or not to do things that might harm our economy to fix global warming if it turns out to be true. I think this is wrong, because--regardless of relative probabilities--the cost of not doing something about global warming now if it is real is potentially so high as to outweigh the danger of doing something about it that turns out to be unnecessary.

I've just realized that I should have cast this all in terms of Type I vs. Type II errors, but I've got a crying baby here, so I'm not going to change anything now.

Blake Stacey said...

DB wrote:

Blake, you are right to psychoanalyze the urge to shout as an artifact of a weird culture, wherein most of us have been absurdly safe and insulated from Nature's harsh realities.

Was that what I was talking about?

When I was typing my previous comment, I wasn't exactly aiming to psychoanalyze our "weird culture"; instead, I was trying to make a point about the difficulty of communication. Perhaps I proved my point by example. (This doesn't mean that the statement quoted above is wrong, or that I disagree, just that I suspect a missive missed its mark.) We're not very good at saying what we mean even when our correspondent is another Net-educated human. I cannot predict with high fidelity how David Brin (or anyone else here) will respond to my scribblings, although I have much more data on the readers here than I have on ETs. (I have met David Brin in person, for example, which I cannot say about aliens — although I've been close!)

It may be worthwhile to psychoanalyze our fellow Net-dwellers; it is absurd to try the same for extraterrestrials, unless Baen's Universe is paying you to do so.

David Brin said...

Heh! Cogent as always. I love the sun-struck sleep paralyzed scene at MIT. Of course MIT guys deserve it.

Jeb, I getcha now. And will report if San Diego has shifted to worse machines.

I am unsurprised by Jerry Pournelle's attitude. Like many American Conservatives, he will contort himself into logical pretzels - via 11 dimensions - in order to rationalize and avoid reckoning with the simple fact that his "side" has been hilacked or gone mad. Thus proving that he and his fellow "decent conservatives" are lesser men than the heroes of 1947.


praxcelis said...

Still, please do not assume that you are well-versed in a field that (forgive me) may be more complex than you thought. Please go to the resource page I mentioned and study up, You are simply wrong and following an urban legend about “I love Lucy.” Even military radars are still “below background.”

I have done so, and am more learned than I was previously. I freely admit that I have blindly accepted the fact that our media cacophony (or should that be cacaphony?) had already raised us above the level of background noise, cosmically speaking.

In fact, after reading the site you referenced, I commenced a second- and third-order web-crawl on the topic in order to see for myself the current state of thought in the field. It only leads to more questions...

If, in fact, the Galaxy is populated only by the most successful predators, a la David Gerrold's more lurid imaginings, then does it make sense that 100% of the prey species are consumed, thus leading to a Silence? What successful predator hunts its food supply to extinction? If the Galaxy is a higher order of jungle then what future does a prey species have other than perpetual infinite cowering, hoping never to be noticed? I'm not sure I want to accept that role.

Be that as it may, I think a jungle metaphor might be something of an oversimplification. I have been courting the idea that falls somewhere between Uniqueness and Low Rent, to use your own terminology. It may be that we are not unique, but different enough that our blue marble is simply not desirable to an aggressive colonizer. Our detection techniques are woefully inadequate, but what we've seen so far indicate that planet formation may be the norm rather than the exception, even around what we would consider unlikely and ill-suited stars. Perhaps the dominant colonizers or long-lived civilizations prefer Jovian planets, or the more energetic environments closer to the core of the Galaxy.

Agh. Too many unanswered questions, and I'm supposed to be thinking about work. I plan to continue the web-crawl and see where it leads me, but I enjoy the dialog happening here.

David Brin said...

Dang, when you go study, you do it quick and hard!

Still, ponder some more. In my paper I say "the exceptions make the rules." If even one expansive species likes Earthlike planets, it should have spread into those niches. All of them.

Since that didn't happen, there's something puzzling going on. We need to pause. Listen. learn.

David Brin said...

Something cool:

praxcelis said...

I haven't done enough research to cogently reply to that, but I wonder if a concept that you yourself introduced in the Uplift books might be in play--that of a sort of governing body which concerns itself mainly with the protection of (relatively speaking) fallow worlds. It seems to fall within your Quarantine category. If a civilization is advanced enough to leave its homeworld, is it not advanced enough to realize the implications of resource depletion, and restrain itself from expanding into every available niche? Just an initial thought, I'll try to refine it over time.

Sort of on-topic, but something I'd been thinking about recently. We tend to assume that the EM spectrum is the preferred medium of communication, but we are just beginning to explore the fine structure of the universe at a micro-scale. Might it be that there is some other medium of propagation that we haven't explored yet, such as quantum entanglement or something even more out there? The intriguing thought I had was that if we found some way to defeat distance as a barrier (as has been done on a micro-scale with entangled pairs) might we find that we're not the first to discover it, and further that it's already busy with intelligent traffic? (It started with the IETI site, and wondering how an extraterrestrial would go about interfacing with and decrypting our network protocols, and what sort of propagation medium it might be decrypted to...)

Stefan Jones said...

I'm looking forward to NOVA tonight.

Gotta remember to watch that rather than repeats of Stewart & Colbert!

* * *

Aw, jeeze . . . Pournelle's position RE global warming is the canonical conservative / industrial libertarian / Republican / free market think tank position. It hasn't budged in years.

This position is at least preferable to the cranky outliers of the greenhouse denial crowd, who claim either that i) There's no global warming, or ii) It's happening, but it's a good thing.


Well . . . the Worldchanging Book is finally out, and I wrote two whole pages of it. If we're ever put on trial as nation or species for screwing things up, I'll have my butt covered. :-)

Blake Stacey said...

DB wrote:

If even one expansive species likes Earthlike planets, it should have spread into those niches. All of them.

What about the Heart of the Comet scenario? (Since the Uplift series has already entered the discussion, we might as well go all the way.) A colonizing species spreads by hopping from one Oort Cloud to another, avoiding terrestrial planets because they're just not worth the bother. Who wants to deal with escape velocities upwards of 11 kps, not to mention having to escape the star's gravity well too? By vigorous handwaving, I could argue that natural selection would then favor organisms adapted to comet-hopping, thus making planetfall even less desirable.

And even if the odd colony decides to terraform a planet, that colony can only spread outward again by returning to the comet-hopping mode!

The exceptions do rule: the first species to colonize its local Oort Cloud sets the Galaxy on the path. . . .

But hey, we've got so many more questions than answers — all I need is a plot, a dash of character and an exploding starship, and Baen's Universe, here I come!

(Speaking of which, Charlie Stross's story set in the "Atrocity Archive" universe reminded me that a while ago, I figured out the real purpose behind the Three Laws of Robotics. Sssh!)

Blake Stacey said...

Holy CITOKATE, Batman! A thought occurs:

Can we explain why the "conservatives" of today seemingly cannot do what the liberals of 1947 did? Two suggestions spring to mind:

(a) In renouncing communism and Sovietophilia, the "Old Leftists" were acknowledging the errors made in another country. While it is not a pleasant experience, it is not quite as bitter a poison to swallow than admitting your own homeland has gone to ruin.

(b) Karl Rove's Big Tent and the clockwork of demagogy have made conservatism too centralized. What higher authority did the "heroes of 1947" have to contradict?

Just ideas for consideration.

David Brin said...

Blake you nailed it.

Now add this. Our counter-intelligence agencies were on our side and actively seeking out moles, when the enemy was the KGB. But now, with their political appointee supervisors suborned, they find it hard to focus on patterns of betrayal to benefit foreign powers.

One thing that helped the liberals of 47... seeing Stalin blatantly slaughter the trade unionists of central Europe. That REALLY pissed off the AFL CIO.

Big mistake.

METIfan said...

Please reade my short note "Searching for Extraterrestrial Idiots?" at:

Alexander Zaitsev