Saturday, July 30, 2016

Optimism... even about alien invasion?

Of course both optimism and pessimism are simplistic reflexes, unworthy of a modern mind... which is why, here at Contrary Brin, we'll poke at any over-simplifying nostrum. Today, of course, that means I must side with optimists more often, because pundits and media and ravers push the mostly-fact-free notion that we're all plummeting into hell.

One fellow who makes me look like a cynical playground-snarling pessimist - Peter Diamandis - offers up “Why the World Is Better Than You Think in 10 Powerful Charts.”  Do we have lots of problems to solve? Some of them perilous to the planet and our kids? Sure! But one of the worst of our problems is snarling cynics who refuse to look at the mountains of good news.  And conclude that problems can be solved!  Because some have been.

Another example. In Foreign Policy, J. M. Berger offers a thoughtful rumination on public-spectacle violence, starting with Roman gladiatorial matches going all the way to Islamic State public beheadings… and relates it all to science fiction tales from Rollerball to The Purge. 

Of course this has gone political, well summarized in this painfully funny cartoon, showing HClinton and DTrump using exactly the same words, in opposite directions and meanings. 

== Alien Visions ==

This blog posting sat a while, since July 4, in fact. Independence Day. Which provoked two thoughts. 

First, what if we met scary and advanced aliens? Would it even be possible to adapt quickly? The greatest historical example would be Meiji-Era Japan, which decided to end several hundred years of self-imposed isolation and suddenly begin studying the ways of dauntingly advanced western powers. Within a single generation, the Japanese had iron rolling mills and made the warships that defeated much-larger China. A couple of decades after that, they defeated one of the world powers — Russia — both on land and at sea. It took immense concentration and sacrifice… and no one knows if anything similar could happen across the potentially vastly larger technological gaps that might yawn between us of aliens.

I speak to this in my Uplift Universe, where humanity does face that problem, having to catch up rapidly to a billion year old Galactic Civilization. Sundiver goes into that dilemma in detail, and our hero contemplates both the Meiji Era Japanese and the Cherokee of Georgia, who handled the problem a little differently.

Of course some folks ask this question with an agenda: that they believe aliens have “taught” us things in the past. To drag sticks through sand or pile stones to draw signs to spacecraft. Or that star beings used psi-tech to help us build pyramids or Easter Island statues. To which I answer… feh! That conceit so insults our ancestors, who imagined that building such things might propitiate gods and save them from their grueling-primitive poverty. Hence, believing that, they innovated! Cleverness and fervor and strenuous labor chiseled and move stones! No alien intervention need be invoked. The poignant universality of this story - inventive and labor-intensive projects appealing for help from above that never, ever came -- is one of the most tear-inducing I can picture.

If aliens did demand such tasks of human tribes, then they were space-jerks, who could have helped us vastly more by opening one teensy community college. Or just by giving us glass lenses, printing, free speech and the germ theory of disease. Once we had those things, we took off on our own!

We had better not learn any UFO stories are actually true. Because if they are - even one of them — then some cosmic punks are really in for it. Go Air Force.

== Hypocrisy vs problem solving ==

Speaking of fact-based optimism. A new study predicts that the federal forecast of national health care spending under President Obama's signature health law was a big overestimate — by $2.6 trillion over a five-year period. In other words, the decline in growth of health costs in the U.S. under Obamacare has been vastly, vastly better than anyone, even optimists, predicted… and that comes after the added expense of finally getting tens of millions of kids and adults insured.

If there were sanity instead of reflex on the American right, conservatives would do one of their favorite veers… and claim credit for this!  After all, the ACA (Obamacare) was always based on the GOP’s own… damn… plan!  It was. But it’s a bit late to claim credit now.

So Dennis Hastert, once the top Republican official in America, is now in prison. Not for his top crime - treason - for deliberately conspiring to destroy politics - the art of open-adult negotiation and compromise - as a problem solving method in dealing with an onrushing future. He and other monsters wrecked US politics, leaving us weak and terminally polarized...

...but instead he is imprisoned for lying about being a child-molesting pervert and hypocrite. Like OJ Simpson doing time now for armed robbery instead of axe-murder. Okay. We'll take what justice we can get.

Oh, see the weapon used most by mass shooters.  Read the whole article.

== Fertile Ground for ISIS ==

How Kosovo Was Turned Into Fertile Ground for ISIS: "Saudi money and influence have transformed this once-tolerant Muslim society at the hem of Europe into a font of Islamic extremism and a pipeline for jihadists," writes Carlotta Gall in The New York Times. And "mosques built here with Saudi government money are blamed for spreading Wahhabism — the conservative ideology dominant in Saudi Arabia — in the 17 years since an American-led intervention wrested tiny Kosovo from Serbian oppression."

Do any of you actually swallow the Fox-News line that the Saudi R'oil House (Fox partners and investors) opposes Isis/Al-Qaeda extremism? ISIS has bought or reprinted thousands of standard Saudi textbooks to indoctrinate youth in the territories they control.  The same textbooks and many of the same teachers and texts who molded Osama Bin Laden (remember him) and the Al-Qaeda and ISIS leaderships and that petro-dollars still ship to thousands of radicalizing madrassas all over the muslim world.

Back to Kosovo: "Americans were welcomed as liberators after leading months of NATO bombing in 1999 that spawned an independent Kosovo," writes Gall. Now? "“They spent a lot of money to promote it through different programs mainly with young, vulnerable people, and they brought in a lot of Wahhabi and Salafi literature. They brought these people closer to radical political Islam, which resulted in their radicalization.”

Is it any wonder that the (partly) Saudi-controlled American right has sabotaged moves toward efficiency research and energy independence - and science, in general - for 30 years?  But that effort could only harm us - and the planet - for so long, before non-confederate scientific ingenuity came to the rescue. Sustainable energy is taking off! Plummeting in price and now competitive even with natural gas. 

We are weaning ourselves off the carbon teat. And our future is the stars -- not nostalgia for caliphate.

And finally...

It is now reported that almost 500 million social media posts are fabricated by government factotums in China every year, according to this report. You can expect these methods to be copied (possibly with hired consultants from Russia or the mystic-east) extensively during U.S. elections, especially now that the Kochs and others have found that money spent on TV ads no longer accomplishes much of anything. But a few trolls in a boiler room, spreading “never Hillary” memes among disappointed Bernites could be golden.
Vladimir Putin, more popular with Americans than either presumptive presidential nominee?  Interesting, though this lousy article does not parse the obvious – that there’s huge overlap between Putin lovers and Trump lovers.  After a decade of lavish, gushing adoration of Putin on Fox, you’d be surprised?

This list of the top 50 accomplishments of the Obama Administration is a bit iffy… some were less profound than stated.  Still, it shows efforts on behalf of middle class people.  Show me something similar for the Bushes?  Compare actual outcomes.

Oog.  I started this one out to be one of my weekend non-political ones.  Science!  Optimism! Okay okay.  I'll keep trying. Only...

...remember that one of the candidates -- just one -- said "I believe in science."


Tim H. said...

Some more optimism would be useful, so few of the .1% have a positive outlook on the United States that their pessimism is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Pappenheimer said...

I think old H G knew best - anyone sufficiently advanced to reach Earth in force from another planet or solar system would be able to harvest humans like nerfs. or whatever they herd back on Epsilon Eridani VI. So, not optimistic about alien invasion. I'n more optimistic about our homegrown issues. It'll be a race to see if we can grow out of our bad habits before we run out of room to dodge, but organized warfare on a par with WWI or II seems less and less likely and the growth of fundamentalist religion (moslem, christian, et al - are folks aware of the growth of Hindu fundamentalism?) seems to a reaction to a LOSS of power. Sorry about the rehash but when I was in college in the early 80's many of my friends sincerely doubted human civilization would last this long.
(and Wells' "microbes killed them all" was a copout, and he knew it.)

David Brin said...

I answer pessimists with (among many things) "if you had laid bets in 1985 how many species of whale would still be around in 2016, would you still have a house?"

Dig it. I can poke at optimists, too. But they are far more rare and more useful.

Unknown said...

I learned a lesson in optimism a few years back living in Seattle. Almost every day I spent there was gray, wet, rainy, and generally miserable. But about the time I got to where I thought I couldn't take another day of it the sun would break through and I would walk along the Sound and take in the view of the Olympic peninsula across it and I felt like I was in the most beautiful place on earth. Later on in life I would draw upon those memories when times were tough because I realized that is was not the view that made it beautiful it was all the gray days in between that gave me a chance to appreciate the good clear days.

donzelion said...

@Dr. Brin - "Do any of you actually swallow the Fox-News line that the Saudi R'oil House (Fox partners and investors) opposes Isis/Al-Qaeda extremism?"

We've gone over the Saudi textbook story quite a few times. I suppose we could stop the continued downloading and reprinting of those textbooks by turning off the internet for everyone or stopping all computer printers/photocopies in the region, I don't know how to keep those textbooks out of Daesh hands.

Don't even know that doing so is very important. Consider the countries of origin for the 27,000 or so "foreign fighters" who've joined Daesh in Iraq/Syria (according to Soufan Group, a fairly reliable group with some intelligence ties by most accounts, though perhaps not the most accurate picture available):
(1) Tunisia - 6400 "foreign fighters"
(2) Saudi Arabia, 2500 fighters
(3) Russia, 2400 fighters
(4) Jordan, 2300 fighters
(5) Turkey, 2100 fighters
(6) France, 1700 fighters
(7) Morocco, 1200 fighters
(8) Lebanon, 800 fighters
(9) Egypt, 750 fighters
(10) Germany, 700 fighters

I'm quite certain the "Saudi textbooks" being used by Daesh are not authorized textbooks in all 10 countries. In at least 6 of those countries, use of those texts would either be a criminal charge or result in a loss of a teaching license.

The best information on the subject of Saudi textbooks is maintained by the folks at the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom. Yes, there are problems remaining. There are lots of good people working on those problems.

And shucks, we have our own textbook problems in America every time evolution comes up in a Bible belt district. You can imagine how much trickier those problems are to resolve in underfunded, decentralized, corrupt teaching districts found in many of those countries.

donzelion said...

@Dr. Brin - a last thought on the "Fox-News line that the Saudis...oppose Isis/Al-Qaeda extremism?" -

Are you suggesting that Barack Obama is telling Fox what to say about the Saudis, and that Fox is actually obeying him this time? Or that Hillary Clinton, who maintained the same position, has been instructing Fox what to say about the Saudis? LOL...come on.

I do not need to defend Saudi Arabia to suggest that the view that this opposition comes from Fox is erroneous. It doesn't. Too many Saudis died fighting AQ - indeed, they've lost as many Saudis in this fight as we have lost soldiers fighting AQ (unless you believe Saddam Hussein and the Taliban are/were part of which case...I have my work cut out for me in terms of correcting errors).

Acacia H. said...

It depends on the type of alien invasion as to whether or not we can fight it off.

If you're talking Independence Day level invasion with a species significantly more advanced than our own? No. We won't win.

However, if you're talking a species that hollowed out dozens of asteroids, built generation ships and used heavy-duty lasers to accelerate these ships and then traveled for thousands of years to reach new worlds? Then their tech level may very well be more efficient than our own, but brute force may very well allow humanity's weapons to overwhelm defenses and actually reach an enemy mothership and kill them.

Of course in that case we won't learn much about those aliens. And the "invasion" may very well never be detected, as those aliens may not WANT our world. They'll want our asteroids and the moons of various gas giants.

Rob H.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin:

I answer pessimists with (among many things) "if you had laid bets in 1985 how many species of whale would still be around in 2016, would you still have a house?"

Dig it. I can poke at optimists, too. But they are far more rare and more useful.

My late father used to use a line which I'm sure is a quote, but I don't know the source:

"The optimist says 'This is the best of all possible worlds,' and the pessimist agrees with him."

Tim H. said...

A small point, if I make a pessimistic prediction, and things go well instead, it does not disappoint me, pleasant surprises are so rare these days.

Jumper said...

I'm developing a story - so far, for my own amusement; I haven't written a line of it - involving a series of alien worlds, one of which is about 1,000 years ahead of us in mathematics. The human protagonist is trying to at least learn some of it, and often close to total frustration at some of the most basic concepts a helpful alien is teaching him. Including embarrassing errors of today which someone should have caught.

Andy said...

I found these recent comments by Putin to some journalists extremely interesting, you may find them of interest as well. He breaks down the reasons why Russia is responding the way she is to the successful American aggression against them.

donzelion said...

Now, back to the topic at hand, an interesting one - "First, what if we met scary and advanced aliens? Would it even be possible to adapt quickly?"

Imperialistic Europeans looked elsewhere in Asia for wealth, building fortunes over centuries trading with China/India/Indonesia/South America. What did Japan offer that they couldn't get elsewhere at a better price?

Given Sol's position 30,000 light years from the galactic core - somewhat on the periphery - and given the fact that heavy elements come from supernovas, it seems likely to me that our system has a lower density of valuable mineral resources than systems closer to the center (Sol might have been born closer to the center, and then moved into our current orbit in the Milky Way - which would give us relatively more heavy minerals than neighboring systems - but that's just a theory, and other inner stars should have much higher concentrations of heavy minerals than we do so far out. So it could well be that we have more platinum asteroids than our neighboring stars, but so much less than the inner core that there's no value to extraction.

If so, I'd think an alien species looking to exploit a promising world might look elsehwere. That makes me think the more likely encounters would be various aliens who are
(1) Curious
(2) Excited about some resource we have in abundance, but don't even think all that much about (like Chinese porcelain, numerous Asian spices, or even oil in Saudi Arabia - stuff we have in abundance, but don't think all that much about - maybe they'll come here for the exquisite flavor of our krill)
(3) Factions of alien groups who encounter us as a result of interspecies interactions elsewhere (e.g., refugees fleeing a stronger species, or factions who select our system because the more valuable ones are already occupied)
(4) Raiders/nomads looking for a pitstop, or
(5) Aliens with inscrutable motives (e.g., some space religion we cannot understand, or other purpose)

All that said, even a benevolent alien species that wanted to come to Earth to farm in Antarctica might still obliterate us with some space germ or other accidental exposure.

David Brin said...

good if incomplete thoughts, donzel. But it also depends on the ease of interstellar travel. If it is hard and slow, then "all politics is local" and any Nazis seeking liebensraum will see only us, not the galactic context.

And there are maybe a hundred other possibilities that I can think of. And I've thought about it a lot.

But good thinking.

donzelion said...

A hundred other possibilities? Sounds like an article worth publishing somewhere. Or a book.

Still, I giggled slightly thinking ET might be more interested in our krill than our poetry. Or maybe it's those Reese's Pieces...

David Brin said...

A real complication. We seem to have at least 5 possibly 10 "ice-roofed" ocean worlds just in the solar system. They may exist in EVERY stellar system, not just those with "goldilocks zones."

Tony Fisk said...

I suspect that any civilisation that can field an interstellar expeditionary/trade/invasion force wouldn't find mass transmutation of the elements difficult. Raw materials won't be what attracts them.

The problem with the Kardashev scale of galactic civilisations is that it assumes an ongoing obsession with exponential economic growth, with a corresponding appetite for energy, and invasive tendencies. This suggests that nothing gets learned by ancient pan-dimensional super beings, which is a bit counter-intuitive.

Laurent Weppe said...

* "Do any of you actually swallow the Fox-News line that the Saudi R'oil House (Fox partners and investors) opposes Isis/Al-Qaeda extremism?"

Of course they do! Daesh goal is to supplant the House of Saud: it's members know that if al-Baghdadi got his way, they'd be slaughtered, their sons and daughters turned into rape-toys for the conquerors, and the their children' children enslaved: ideological similarities are irrelevant.


* "(and Wells' "microbes killed them all" was a copout, and he knew it.)"

The Martians are an allegory for the brutish invaders abusing technological superiority to conquer and plunder which dominated the world during the colonial era. And sometimes, colonizers got their asses handed to them by Malaria. The microbes conclusion wasn't a copout, it was playing the metaphor all the way.


* "Imperialistic Europeans looked elsewhere in Asia for wealth, building fortunes over centuries trading with China/India/Indonesia/South America. What did Japan offer that they couldn't get elsewhere at a better price? "

A Fuckton of silk. But to be fair, Japan modernized its silk industry at the same time it did its army: by the time invading the country for its silk had become tempting, it boasted an army large and modern enough to make the risks and costs prohibitive for something as pedestrian as ressources plundering.

David Brin said...

Laurent: * "Do any of you actually swallow the Fox-News line that the Saudi R'oil House (Fox partners and investors) opposes Isis/Al-Qaeda extremism?"

Look closer. My question is ambiguous. Sure they would oppose the leaders of ISIS and Al Qaeda, who have rashly and impudently usurped a place the R'oils had been preparing carefully and patiently for themselves. The Salafist educations that the R'oils thought had been priming loyal servants had instead inspired would be caliphs.

Erin Schram said...

Jumper said,
I'm developing a story - so far, for my own amusement; I haven't written a line of it - involving a series of alien worlds, one of which is about 1,000 years ahead of us in mathematics. The human protagonist is trying to at least learn some of it, and often close to total frustration at some of the most basic concepts a helpful alien is teaching him. Including embarrassing errors of today which someone should have caught.
Jumper dangles such speculation bait for anyone who studied the history of mathematics.

Looking back 2,000 years, we see the ancient Greeks dealing with the difference between arithmetic and geometry. They invented axiomatic geometry, making geometry as rigorous as arithmetic. But then they discover that the square root of 2, a value natural to geometry, cannot be expressed as a fraction, the best their arithmetic system could handle. Meanwhile, Hindu-Arabic numerals were invented in Inda. In 300 AD Diophantus developed the first algebraic equations, though true algebra was developed in 9th-century Persia. Decimal fractions using the decimal point, developed in Arabia in the 10th century, finally solved the ancient Greek problem of describing the square root of 2 in numbers, but required 17th-century calculus to be rigorous. Imaginary numbers grew out of algebra in the 16th century (though not fully understood until the 18th century), quaternions were a curiosity inspired by complex numbers in the 19th century, and quaterions soon inspired vector analysis.

As for embarrassing errors, the quadratic formula was known to the ancient Egyptians, but they knew only the plus solution whereas the modern formula has a plus-or-minus sign. This ancient quadratic formula was expressed in geometry, so the oversight was not obvious.

Thus, extrapolating history, the best futuristic math for a story would be to have a unified and rigorous theory with streamlined notation for problems that nowadays we can handle only a few easy cases. It would be even better to mention some field of science revolutionized by the new mathematics, the same way calculus revolutionized physics.

I myself would choose sociology, so that the characters could have the following lines:
Human: Don't you worry that we are a threat to you?
Alien: No, our sociological models predict that you will advance beyond war. We will merely have some friendly competition for resources.
Human: Can I see these models?
Alien: Sure, but to understand them, you will have to learn the math.

Cesar A. Santos said...

A great and well timed post for me as I was wondering this a few weeks ago. I even posted a question in Quora about it.

What would we do if we found an advanced, militaristic, expansionist and hostile alien civilization in our galaxy?

The answers I got varied from hiding really well and pray they don't notice us to trying to learn as much as we can about them and hope they don't have FTL.

I think it really depends on them not having noticed our civilization already or not yet interested in expanding on this part of the galaxy.

Maybe knowing that things like anti-gravity and FTL are possible and having a really good reason (not being enslaved or exterminated) would help us advance our technology really fast and also unite the species like never before?

Or would we bury our heads in the sand and wage wars against the ones that would try to surrender already to the aliens hoping to survive their wrath and become quinslings?

Jumper said...

Erin, as I recall quaternions weren't understood properly initially because of an error in logic which carried over for some time. I'd have to refresh before explaining more clearly. Something to do with confusing an icon for a vector, or similar.

Doubtful that sociology would be seriously advanced by advanced math (but who knows?) and besides, more fun to speculate on more physics breakthroughs.

I have an odd notion about a simple but significant error in computation theory, but have no idea how stupid it likely is (my suspicion, that is.) That might make a difference in advancement, were it so.

Also: as Cesar mentions, just knowing something is possible is quite an impetus to
finding that for ourselves.

David Brin said...

Cesar Santos one of the best recent novels about sark possibilities in the cosmos is the recent Hugo Winner The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin. And I deal with many such issues in Existence. An intelligent race may have values determined much earlier, according to what and how it ATE.

occm's comic said...

"if you had laid bets in 1985 how many species of whale would still be around in 2016, would you still have a house?"

That is up there with no warming sense 1998.
Dave is implying that habitat destruction and species extension hasn't been getting worse sense 1985. Using this type of cheery picked bullshit factiod to dishonestly imply that we aren't rapidly exterminating species around the world is the kind of thing that the Koch brothers would pay well for.

Cesar A. Santos said...

Thanks, David. These were already on my wishing list but now they will go to the top as this subject greatly interest me.

Jumper said...

occm's comic, I think that was an illustration of a self-preventing prophecy, not a Panglossian sentiment...

occam's comic said...

I don't think it is either a self-preventing prophecy or a panlglossian statement.

it is just hippie punching

to paraphrase "Ha, you stupid hippie, you were concerned about whales, and they are not all dead yet, so give me your house." pay no attention to the massive bleaching and probable death of the coral reefs, ocean acidification etc. etc.

matthew said...

It's looking like I was (thankfully) wrong about the convention bounce for HRC. She appears to be getting a decent bounce.

Tim Whitten said...

Good post, David, I love this kind of stuff.

Thanks to numerous SF books (definitely including Existence), plus the apparent nearness of the Singularity, I'm finding the idea of invading human-like (organic, social) aliens that are just a little bit more advanced than us (as in the space locusts in Independence Day) rather hard to swallow.

Never say never of course: but such star spanning cultures imply some incredible development in energy generation or propulsion (to achieve near-c interstellar flight the brute force way or via a shortcut) before a radical society changing tech like AI, neural interfacing, or genetic redesign of one's own life cycle (aka immortality) emerges. Based on where we are now: would anyone care to place bets as to which things humanity will unlock first? (Hint: none of the "radical" society changing ideas I've listed above break the laws of physics, and in fact all already exist in some proto-form either in ourselves, in nature or in current technology. FTL and portable cosmic level power sources on the other hand...)

Far more likely that Tony Fisk has hit the nail on the head regarding the Kardashev assumption. Super advanced civilizations may very well be all around us, but their technology is efficient, subtle, and probably not in the slightest bit detectable to human instrumentation. Why burn multi-exajoules to shove a giant starship across a few measly light years when you could send thousands of tiny intelligent probes for a microscopic fraction of the cost? And if there is a way to simulate consciousness (and why not, unless you assume some supernatural component - for which there is no objective evidence) then why send anything physical at all, once transceivers have been established at each end? Sentient beings coul d travel the stars instantaneously (from their perspective thanks to Special Relativity), their thought patterns encoded in coherent light, and ready to restart their subjective experience once they are installed on a suitable computational system on arrival. It would be easy for an individual in such a society to keep travelling, seeing new worlds and new civilizations, on and on until the heat death of the universe.

There would be little need for a culture such as that to invade a lower tech world - what would be the point? Assuming a natural resultof technological development is transcending the organic, why would you even be interested in planets like ours - except perhaps for study?

And perhaps not even then. Who among us turns off the highway to spend time studying insects on the roadside?

I'll close on a scary thought though: if you were hyper-advanced, immortal, almost invisible, but for whatever reason DID want to invade a planet like ours... what techniques might you employ? Memetics? Stirring of social division? Development of a distrust of science and rational thought? Promotion of magical thinking, wherein faith trumps fact...?

Yikes. The poor locals would never know what hit 'em, and would be ready to eat out of your glowing manipulatory appendages in a brief couple of generations.

Acacia H. said...

There may be one reason to have a larger spacecraft for interstellar travel. Quantum Entangling.

If we are able to create communication systems using Quantum Entangling that can function over multiple parsecs, and that communication remains in real-time, then we would want to have spacecraft large enough to ensure quantum entangled communication systems remain functional, while other scientific instruments needed for research also function.

There is one other thing to consider as a means of traveling the stars. Three-dimensional printing. If we are able to create 3D printers that can print an entire human, and we can encode memories into that individual... we can send a starship with printers that would print out astronauts once they reach another star. If you include a sufficient genetic library you could then have humanity colonize other stars by being built. (Alternatively, if 3D printing of humans doesn't work because of that ethereal element of a "soul" (assuming it exists) then a viable series of artificial wombs that grow multiple humans in a new star system and robot nannies to help raise these organic humans would also allow colonization of other stars.)

Ultimately, you will have starships that weigh at least tens of tons and include probes and the like to collect resources in a new star system and shielded repositories of genetic materials in order to colonize new star systems.

Which also brings about the question: what do we, as humans, do if we end up being the invaders and one of our future colony ships finds a extrasolar planetary system with intelligent life on it?

Rob H.

David Brin said...

Occm’s Comic… up yerz too. Judge me when you - across your whole life - have done as much for environmentalism or the Earth as I do annually or even monthly. Back off and simmer down guy. Take a breath. “Hippie punching” my 1960s Greenpeace activist ass.

Tom W - good points. Except that the comparison to insects by the road is faulty. (1) we do have humans who study insects very intensely. (2) SCALE is very different. At absolute max, only one species per year reaches full, tech-capable sapience in a galaxy. Hence, unlike the vast number of ant colonies on Earth, per ant scientist, each and every new sapient race would be of great interest. (3) especially is advanced races can tailor build servant entities tuned specifically for such study.

Your final thought is why I fear AI… not for Terminator or Matrix reasons but Ex Machina… manipulating our emotions.

donzelion said...

@Rob H - "what...if we end up being the invaders and one of our future colony ships finds a extrasolar planetary system with intelligent life on it?"

Science fiction so often recasts human history that I suspect we'll question our own behavior, make some errors, and then try to correct them.

In the Pacific, I'd say American experiences with Japan, Hawaii, and the Philippines illustrate the range of conduct.

(1) With Japan, we helped prompt the Meiji "Restoration" through a show of force in Tokyo. Japan became a "model student" - then a rival - then an arch-enemy - then an ally - and is now both friend and friendly competitor. The Japanese, after the horrible experience of feudal-driven WWII, created their own indigenous science fiction - which may contribute to a national identity that eschews further direct conquest.

(2) Hawaii was ultimately annexed, but the unique identity as "other" than "normal America" is now the main base of livelihood for that state. Hawaiian culture itself is an amalgam of many other Pacific cultures (including Japanese) interacting to form something novel and interesting. Guan, Micronesia, and other islands in the Pacific present variations on that theme.

(3) The Philippines were annexed, colonized, 'reprogrammed' as we wanted - 'uplifted' (but they repudiated many of our efforts) - and ultimately independent. Subjected to both kindness and barbarity simultaneously in different provinces. However, as science fiction displaced Westerns, America's treatment of Filipinos tended to focus more on partnership and less on "slaughter the savages." Remains to be seen how America will interact with them going forward (strategically, the Philippines is more important to American naval projection than even Japan - but Obama's Pacific pivot is very much a work in progress).

I suspect there are many other variations we could tap from history to create our projections about the future possibilities. But I also suspect this future will not closely resemble our historical experiences.

Alfred Differ said...

While I’ve long held to an opinion that people who argue that we could not have built this civilization without alien help insult our ancestors, I’ve lately come around to a different justification for this. Giving us glass lenses or community colleges or a decent theory of disease long ago probably wouldn’t have given us a civilization like this. I suspect any material or knowledge help would have given us a Chinese-style civilization since there is good evidence that they had many technical advances centuries before my mud-wallowing ancestors in Europe did. Paper, gunpowder, natural gas, steel… you name it.

The one thing (two actually) that seems to have made a difference proves even more the insult given to our ancestors by those who think we needed help. We DID need help, but stumbled across it ourselves. It’s not the innovations themselves that we needed. It was the historically odd behavior associated with honoring innovators combined with freeing them to engage in creative destruction. Social honor and liberty does for innovation what sex and orgasms do for procreation.

occam's comic said...

right back at you dave
Lets see
Professionally I have helped to eliminated thousands of tons of waste from industrial processes, have you?
I have given up air travel, have you?
I have never bought a new car or a new home, have you?
I eat about 1/3 as much meat as the typical American, what about you?
I did not have children of my own, but did help raise an adopted child.
I never advocated encouraging multinational companies to move production to areas that have poor environmental laws and enforcement, you have.

You recognize the environmental problems we have but are you making changes in your daily life to reduce the negative impact you are causing? or are sacrifices something for others to do?

LarryHart said...

occam's comic:

to paraphrase "Ha, you stupid hippie, you were concerned about whales, and they are not all dead yet, so give me your house." pay no attention to the massive bleaching and probable death of the coral reefs, ocean acidification etc. etc.

Really? "Give me your house"? That's how you took Dr Brin's comment?

Instead of "If you had bet all your money on whale extinction in 30 years, you wouldn't have been able to pay your mortgage"?

Alfred Differ said...

@donzelion: Any speculation regarding heavy metals in the galaxy should focus upon the galactic disks. Supernovae generate them, so the more generations of stars there are, the higher the metal density is. It works best in the galactic disk and not in the center. Therefore, I’m doubtful metals will be of high value to any immediate neighbors. They will have lots nearby they can have without a fight.

If the current silence in our neighborhood turns out to be more than selection effect, the rarest things will be minds developed from unusual perspectives. Life might be common enough, but human scale minds might not be except those manufactured by natural ones. Curiosity might take the form of a desire to answer a question like ‘What am I not considering?’ If they are traders, the most likely goods would be other minds. If they are religious zealots, we might get David’s Coss. Ugh.

Alfred Differ said...

Aw man. Time to unzip and do battle?

I married a woman who cares about most of that stuff. All I had to do was obey her when I otherwise couldn’t care less. That was enough to comply with most of Occam’s list.

Jumper said...

Rage-aholics Anonymous, The meeting is in order. Does the secretary have the minutes of the last meeting? Yes? Thank you, I move we skip the reading of the last minutes. Show of hands? Ayes by acclaim.
For those who don't know me, my name is Jumper and I am a rage-aholic.
Before I open the floor, I'd like to say how valuable this place has been to help with my rage problem. The Dr. has mentioned it so many times in a nonjudgmental manner yet gently reminding of caution in one's peregrinations that so often send us astray. Ahem.
The floor is open for new business.

Alfred Differ said...

Poor ol’ quaternions. So misunderstood. They make far more sense from the perspective of geometric algebra. 8)

I sincerely wish I had been taught Clifford’s line of thought instead of Gibbs. The cross product is an abomination that confuses so many freshman physics students. It sounds easy at first, but an equation with two of them (perturbations on rotating bodies) makes such a hash of polar and axial vectors that any software developer with an awareness of strongly typed languages would howl along with the freshmen.

Besides, follow Clifford’s line of thought just a bit further than he did (unfortunate early death due to TB) and you get the mathematics to make electromagnetic theory simply fall into your lap. Easy peasy. Just start from his bi-quaternions. A space-time model is... sitting... right... there.

I too think a mathematical advancement that supported new social theories would be revolutionizing, but there is still room for physics with geometry done in a manner better supported by intuition.

Acacia H. said...

My name is Rob H. and while I'm mostly apathetic, I do go into rages when people in little tiny cars decide to pull up on the right-hand side of my one-ton van and mostly in my blindspot to take an illegal right-hand turn when I'm turning right on side streets with high curbs (meaning I pull further out to try and not run over the curb). While I've not yet deliberately crushed one of those little tin-can cars into nothingness (which would probably lightly scratch said van), I have gotten angry enough that it's been tempting.

Oh wait. Isn't that what we're supposed to talk about in Rage-aholics meetings? ^^;;

Can I rage about the Libertarian Party candidate's idiocy concerning mandatory vaccination?

Rob H.

donzelion said...

@Alfred - was reading a bit about supernova nucleosynthesis, and just assumed that "more stars = more supernovae = more metal." Can't see anyone fighting over metals who could simply travel elsewhere to get them - but metallicity would surely be among the factors taken into account when choosing candidates to colonize.

Seems to me that if (as one model speculates), Sol initially had a much closer orbit in the Milky Way, then migrated out, we may be significantly richer than our immediate neighbors. Or poorer. Alien species MIGHT take metallicity into account as a major consideration when selecting candidate worlds for exploration (they MIGHT even see their interventions as motivated by a need to rescue species from imminent supernova wipes).

I would love to see a '99 reasons alien species might visit the earth' list. It would be good to shift the frame of reference from "they want our [planet/slavery/women/etc.]. That sort of floats back to a project Dr. Brin had floated earlier to track memes in SciFi.

donzelion said...

@Alfred - and this is a great line:
"Social honor and liberty does for innovation what sex and orgasms do for procreation."

David Brin said...

Occam you need to go hunt down your meds. What a maroon you’ve decided to become. I have affected actual legislation that changed industrial policy. I have drawn scientific and political attention to specific ecosystems and species that had been neglected. I have fought for and helped revive space missions that significantly affected the fight over climate change…

…you really want this fight? How about the tens to hundreds of thousands who had their attitudes shifted by my fiction and nonfiction?

Oh, I eat much LESS than 1/3 the average amount of meat, you slathering animal killer.

Your last point is simply a damned lie.

Oh, I am a busy member of this civilization - I travel and I speak and I drive and I try to move it forward. And you sir, badly need to find your meds.

David Brin said...

Oh and I'll appeal to authority, too. When I have keynoted a number of Earth Days and have Temple Grandin and dozens of other world-changers as collaborators or vouchers, I think it is safe to say that I am looking down and asking WTF are you doing down there to my ankle, lad? Ow! That stings a little!

Alfred Differ said...

@donzelion: They are still learning neat things about the galactic core... like this.

No Cepheid variables down there except very close to the black hole. Interesting. That means no new stars in a long time. Radio astronomers noticed a while ago, but supporting evidence trims the possibilities. Neat.

David's ET life material is from his academic side. Search the journals for him. It's not hard to find. I think he went by G.D. Brin, though. 8)

Tony Fisk said...

This exchange is a bit like that scene in 'Good Omens' where two Dukes of Hell greet the minor demon Crowley with the traditional exchange of temptations. The Dukes concentrate on individual achievements. They really don't get Crowley's offering; which is more holistic, and far reaching.

Cesar A. Santos said...

@occm's comic
A bit hard to believe you did any of these things when you can't express yourself clearly, spell words correctly or use grammar correctly. Or have a modicum of politeness.

So I believe you are a 12 years old troll who can't even understand what we are discussing here.

Alfred Differ said...

@donzelion: If only we had a great line to get the other half of the species as involved. It would appear they need a great deal more attention and effort.

but it is so worth it

LarryHart said...

@Dr Brin,

As I've said ad nauseum already, my daughter's "Hamilton" fandom is contagious, and I've been listening to nothing but the soundtrack album for days now. I'll have it memorized soon. That hasn't happened to me since "Jesus Christ, Superstar" 45 (gulp!) years ago.

So with that in mind, I hope there's not a duel in anyone's future here.

David Brin said...

Feh, like Hamilton I would shoot into the air. Fortunately, unlike Hamilton, I would only have to worry about my ankle.

Zepp Jamieson said...

My own take on humans meeting an advanced alien race took a slightly different tack. The aliens were neither hostile nor aggressive, but vastly powerful and largely indifferent. The humans, beginning colonization of a moon around a Jovian planet with some very odd properties, can't even determine if the aliens are mechanoid, carbon life forms, or what, and don't manage any direct communication. However, it's obvious that they have a method of defeating inertia, and can accelerate from a standing position to near relativistic speeds in moments, defy gravity, and change vectors instantly. They do make one communication with the humans, which amounts to, "This is our project, and we're about to make changes that will be terribly inconvenient to you, so you'll have to clear off now." As a consolation prize, they give the colonists an inertia box, along with schematics to build more, and in return, empty the data library a copy of all known human history.
Needless to say, this causes a lot of consternation and confusion amongst the humans...

Tim Whitten said...

>Except that the comparison to insects by the road is faulty. (1) we do have humans who study insects very intensely.

You are right of course, my apologies - I sacrificed clarity for flippancy. The point I was trying to make was that even entomologists don't stop to study random groups of insects in random locations. They are limited perhaps by assumption ("the ants I study in my lab are similar to any ant colony of that species"), and certainly by time and resources. But that means there could be many examples of entirely strange insects going unnoticed on Earth at the moment (in fact that's a certainty I would suggest).

>At absolute max, only one species per year reaches full, tech-capable sapience in a galaxy. Hence, unlike the vast number of ant colonies on Earth, per ant scientist, each and every new sapient race would be of great interest.

This is a fascinating thought - I'm intrigued by your assertion though. Presumably this comes from a recent assessment of the variables in the Drake Equation? And has it been corrected for the overwhelming abundance of planets we now know are out there?

But even then, I think your scale argument works against you. For a long lived advanced species capable of near light speed travel, colonizing a galaxy is the work of only a few millions of years. However our observers would have had to have been within fifty eight light years of us to be arriving NOW - assuming they detected our very first radio transmission (unlikely), and set off in our direction immediately. So yes - we might be incredibly interesting to some of them (and certainly to their automated sapience warning systems), but they may just not have been close enough to arrive yet - and we probably won't detect them when they do.

As for Robert's point about quantum entanglement linking us to our interstellar probes - the real problem with FTL anything (travel or comms) is the causality violation. It would be easy to send a message to yourself in the past in order to prevent you from sending a message to yourself in the past. His subsequent comments about 3D printing / local manufacturing of humans and other things on arrival though - absolutely. I agree 100%

But this whole discussion raises a question that I really have no idea how to answer, and would welcome your various considerations. The Prime Directive. To intervene or not to intervene. If alien intelligences are observing us, do they really have a moral obligation to help us, to teach us lenses and germ theory, or social acceptance of innovation? Or would they be bound by a principle of "don't disrupt the experimental subject - and who are we to define how a society should develop?"

Star Trek's UFP, and the Time Lords of Gallifrey, both hold non-intervention as their highest law... and yet amusingly in both fictional worlds the protagonists constantly find reasons to break that law.

I can see the value of both approaches: intervention implies the destruction of "natural culture", of the uniqueness of this or that society. This is probably a bad thing.

But intervention also seems the entirely appropriate response when you know of a less sophisticated society suffering and dying due to easily (by your standards) preventable ills. This is surely a good thing....!

duncan cairncross said...

Hi Alfred

I have been thinking about your premise that a change in the rewards structure was the thing that bootstrapped society back in the 1500,s

And I still disagree

To me it is much more about the continual increase in human knowledge and technologies reaching a take off point

As a mechanical engineer I am very conscious of all of the "things" that somebody needs to know to get things done
And of how "obvious" things are once somebody has invented them
4,000 years to invent the horse collar?
4,000 years to invent the stirrup?

The printing press enabled much more knowledge to remain available - it is much more difficult to lose a technique once it is in a printed book

The change in rewards structure did help - but the main driver was the synergies among developments in metals agriculture and transport

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin:

Feh, like Hamilton I would shoot into the air.

I'm surprised Donald Trump hasn't resorted to challenging his opposition to a duel. Or maybe more likely, being on the receiving end of such a challenge.

After listening to that Khan guy "bringing the Thunder" for the past few days, I'm starting to wish he were running for president.

Laurent Weppe said...

* "I'll close on a scary thought though: if you were hyper-advanced, immortal, almost invisible, but for whatever reason DID want to invade a planet like ours... what techniques might you employ? Memetics? Stirring of social division? Development of a distrust of science and rational thought? Promotion of magical thinking, wherein faith trumps fact...? "

You know what? Let's have fun and go all the way to the paranoid's cloud-cuckoo land:
Ahem... Isn't is suspicious that the people involved in Babylon Five, a tale about hyper-advanced, immortal, almost invisible (when they want to be) beings with glowing manipulatory appendages screwing over younger races with memetics and manufactured conflicts, are all dying young?

richard h said...

At this point most people appear to know that something is terribly, terribly wrong in the United States of America. But like the proverbial blind man describing the elephant, Americans tend to characterize the problem according to their economic status, their education and interests, and the way that the problem is impacting their peer group. So we hear that the biggest crisis facing America today is:
•Economic inequality
•Climate change
•Lack of respect for law enforcement
•Institutionalized racism
•Islamic terrorism
•The greed and recklessness of Wall Street banks
•Those damned far-right Republicans
•Those damned liberal Democrats
•Political polarization

The list could easily be lengthened, but you get the drift. Pick your devil and prepare to get really, really angry at it.

In reality, these are all symptoms of an entirely foreseeable systemic crisis. The basic outlines of that crisis were traced over 40 years ago in a book titled The Limits to Growth. Today we are hitting the limits of net energy, environmental pollution, and debt, and the experience is uncomfortable for just about everyone. The solution that’s being proposed by our political leaders? Find someone to blame.

The Republicans really do seem to get the apocalyptic tenor of the moment: their convention was all about dread, doom, and rage. But they don’t have the foggiest understanding of the actual causes and dynamics of what’s making them angry, and just about everything they propose doing will make matters worse. Call them the party of fear and fury.

The Democrats are more idealistic: if we just distribute wealth more fairly, rein in the greedy banks, and respect everyone’s differences, we can all return to the 1990s when the economy was humming and there were jobs for everyone. No, we can do even better than that, with universal health care and free college tuition. Call the Democrats the party of hope.

But here’s the real deal: a few generations ago we started using fossil fuels for energy; the result was an explosion of production and consumption, which (as a byproduct) enabled enormous and rapid increase in human population. Burning all that coal, oil, and natural gas made a few people very rich and enabled a lot more people to enjoy middle-class lifestyles. But it also polluted air, water, and soil, and released so much carbon dioxide that the planet’s climate is now going haywire. Due to large-scale industrial agriculture, topsoil is disappearing at a rate of 25 billion tons a year; at the same time, expanded population and land use is driving thousands, maybe millions of species of plants and animals to extinction.

We extracted non-renewable fossil fuels using the low-hanging fruit principle, so that just about all the affordable petroleum (which is the basis for nearly all transport) has already been found and most of has already been burned. Since we can’t afford most of the oil that’s left (either in terms of the required financial investment or the energy required to extract and refine it), the petroleum industry is in the process of going bankrupt. There are alternative energy sources, but transitioning to them will require not just building an enormous number of wind turbines and solar panels, but replacing most of the world’s energy-using infrastructure.

We have overshot human population levels that are supportable long-term. Yet we have come to rely on continual expansion of population and consumption in order to generate economic growth—which we see as the solution to all problems. Our medicine is our poison.

matthew said...

richard h - we could just as easily say that we used fossil fuels to bootstrap ourselves to the point where we can switch to less-polluting forms of energy to drive our civilization, at which point we are doing remediation and preservation work as fast as our economies will comfortably allow, all the while making advances in law, morality, and governance that will allow us to live lives full of purpose and joy.

I only disagree with one statement you made (human population levels not being supportable long term), yet I think that my statement is far closer to the truth than your paragraphs. Where you see doom and gloom, I see market pressures and improved child-rearing.

David Brin said...

Zepp cool concept. You should read Varley’s Nine Worlds series.

Tim you are thinking well, but still too parochially. I was part of the very first conference, at Los Alamos in 1985, on Interstellar Colonization, when Hart & Finney and Jones presented calculations showing that a species that colonized and reproduced then colonized more at “Polynesian Levels” would fill the galaxy in 60 million years. One successful self-replicating Von Neumann probe might do it in 3 million! (See Existence.)

Hence the weird, Great Silence is not just the 60 years we’ve been looking and listening and hearing nothing in our neighborhood. It is the utter absence (so far) of any sign that our asteroid belt has been meddled with by anyone, ever. No herded orbits or refined metals that we’ve seen (again, go to Existence). And zero sign that Earth was colonized during the 3 BILLION years it was Prime Real Estate.

You are right that entanglement is no guarantee of FTL communications. The math of entanglement experiments seems - so far - to support the glum conclusion that actual, useful (causal) communication cannot happen, even if paired states are instantly “communicated.”

The Prime Directive or Non_Interference Principle (NIP) was a science fictional attempt to move us a step forward, morally, from the earlier spirit of colonialism and patronizing White Man’s Burden. It is simplistic, but a sound basis for discussion. Would aliens follow something like it? Well, the Fermi Paradox certainly includes, among its Hundred Theories, several NIP possibilities, some of them dark! Though a compromise might be for aliens to meddle JUST enough to empower a race to avoid lethal mistakes and keep moving up, on their own.

David Brin said...

richard h: Bah… nearly all the problems you describe are either inflated by cynics and cynical media, or else solvable by decent, pragmatic people of good will, who are willing to learn from science and each other and negotiate practical solutions.
Our one problem… our ONE problem, is that “pragmatic people of good will” defines Americans, and Americans are saddled with ditzo, romantic, wholly impractical and troglodytic cousins called Confederates, who routinely and regularly spin into anti-science and anti-reason and pro-oligarchic tizzies that threaten to destroy the Great Experiment.

We have NOT overshot human population. Sure, half as many would be easier, but the technologies coming along will enable every human… even ten billion… to have a Dutch or Japanese-scale middle class life WHILE we reduce the impact and footprint of agriculture and so on. It would be blatant, were we not in a trumped-up civil war.

LH: I am amazed that no one who heard DT proclaim a wish to “punch” opponents called out “bring it, Donald!” Name the place.

Paul SB said...

Matthew and Richard H.,

I don't know how long Richard H. has been reading this blog, but I know we have been over this territory before. Much storm and does, and many pixels have been spilt, and more likely than not a majority of readers/contributors here will agree with most of both these comments. Our host has made the point on a number of occasions that we are at a historic crossroads where everything could go south, or we could innovate and invent our way to a much better future than many could even imagine (Dr. Brin likes to use Star Trek as a metaphor for the more hopeful path, though my own suspicion is that Star Trek is tepid compared to the kinds of changes that could be in store for our descendants of the next couple centuries). Every civilization in history went the way of the dodo doing the same thing our more conservative elements recommend - doing the same things we have always done, but doing them harder. Does this make anyone think of Einstein's definition of insanity?

While I am definitely not the Designated Optimist here, I would prefer to hold out some hope that we will not topple over the same precipice all our ancestral civilizations have. We have something those past civilizations did not have that gives us an advantage - we have a well-developed scientific community that is (mostly) dedicated to getting at the truth of matters and finding solutions. Our leaders don't often listen - or listen only very selectively - to this most valuable of resources. And while one side has a much, much better track record than the other, they are still pretty selective about it, being much more interested in winning victories in the Great Propaganda War that is democracy.

Between Matthew's and Richard's statements, we need to ask an important question - not which one we are more inclined to believe, but is there a truly objective way to measure the health of society and make meaningful predictions about the future that are neither "wishful thinking" nor "dreadful thinking". We could put the gloves on and pit Meadows vs. Pinker, but I suspect the result will be more a matter of each individual interpreting every blow in light of their own expectations. And in either case, neither represents the ultimate champion for either view. It is never safe to rely too heavily on any single work of literature (or anything else, for that matter). Even the most sacred of works is created in the context one one time and one place, so no matter how much we revere a written work, it will lose it's potency the further it is removed from its cultural and chronological point of origin. Better to "triangulate" from multiple sources.

occam's comic said...

Insanity - Doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.
Insane method for breaking a camel’s back – take some straw and put it on the camel’s back, then repeat.

Zepp Jamieson said...

Well, actually, I took past the concept page and actually wrote a novel. Needless to say, this is the greatest SF novel ever written, it'll make your head spin, it's gonna be huge.
Here's the link to the freebie epub is anyone is interested:

Anonymous said...

I rather liked the "Narn" aliens from the 1990s "Babylon 5" TV series. Basically only just slightly technology better then Stone age. They get conquered and enslaved by the "Centeuri" a race with interstellar space travel. In only about 3-4 generations the Narn push them from their home world and become the number 5 political and military power in the galaxy.

Jumper said...

We aren't lacking for energy, just clean energy. Sideways drilling and fracking made that clear. Too bad we shouldn't use it. Any ideas that our economy is endangered is full-bore propaganda. Find the clean energy and spread the gospel of birth control, and things, while going through a cramped and sad period of some species loss and lost opportunities, while bad, will not lead inevitably to the actual doom of humans.

And stop spraying Roundup. Damn it. America's #3 crop is suburban lawn. Ugh.

Jumper said...

Speaking of sideways drilling and fracking, the average heat increase per depth into the earth is about 6 degrees F. per 100 feet. Which means there is a lot of warmth under large northern cities which isn't being used in place of fossil fuels.

Jumper said...

Fracking for heat:

David Brin said...



Acacia H. said...

Dr. Brin: Unless of course aliens colonized one region of the Earth during the Age of the Dinosaurs... and their enemies showed up and did a Colony Drop on them, slamming the Earth with a huge asteroid that wiped out the Alien Megacity along with the dinosaurs. Only small warm-blooded animals brought by the Aliens survived... and evolved eventually into today's mammals. ;)

Rob H.

David Brin said...

RobH... even if the alien colonists confined themselves to s single mega city, I bet their accumulated refined metals and isotopes would raise suspicions today, distributed throughout the planet in the KT Iridium layer.

Note you imply satiability... ability to limit themselves to an isolated zone. That of course is what we might find in the asteroid belt! Today all we know is that MOST asteroids seem to be untouched. There could be a fair number that later we'll find, further out...

... and that happens in a certain novel...