February 2013 Archives

You know how it's always the most overtly, loudly homophobic conservative politicians who are found with their trousers down and a rent boy in an airport toilet cubicle?

It's not just politicians.

Evidence exists that a large natural nuclear reactor formed and operated on Mars in the northern Mare Acidalium region of Mars. However, unlike its terrestrial analogs this natural nuclear reactor was apparently much larger, bred 233U off of thorium, and apparently underwent explosive disassembly, ejecting large amounts of radioactive material over Mars' surface.

Source (PDF).

(See also: Natural nuclear fission reactor. Only, on Mars, all geological features seem to be supersized ... I don't care if this is implausible, it's bloody going in a novel. OK?)

Those whacky extropian types have been hitting the nightmare sauce again. This time, while I was having a life and not paying attention they came up with Roko's Basilisk:

Roko's basilisk is a proposition suggested by a member of the rationalist community LessWrong, which speculates about the potential behavior of a future godlike artificial intelligence.

According to the proposition, it is possible that this ultimate intelligence may punish those who fail to help it, with greater punishment accorded those who knew the importance of the task. This is conventionally comprehensible, but the notable bit of the basilisk and similar constructions is that the AI and the person punished have no causal interaction: the punishment would be of a simulation of the person, which the AI would construct by deduction from first principles. In LessWrong's Timeless Decision Theory (TDT), this is taken to be equivalent to punishment of your own actual self, not just someone else very like you.

Roko's basilisk is notable for being completely banned from discussion on LessWrong; any mention is deleted. Eliezer Yudkowsky, founder of LessWrong, considers the basilisk would not work, but will not explain why because he does not want discussion of the notion of acausal trade with unfriendly possible superintelligences.

Leaving aside the essentially Calvinist nature of Extropian techno-theology exposed herein (thou canst be punished in the afterlife for not devoting thine every waking moment to fighting for God, thou miserable slacking sinner), it amuses me that these folks actually presume that we'd cop the blame for it—much less that they seem to be in a tizzy over the mere idea that spreading this meme could be tantamount to a crime against humanity (because it DOOMS EVERYONE who is aware of it).

The thing is, our feeble human fleshbrains seem rather unlikely to encompass the task of directly creating a hypothetical SI (superintelligence). Even if we're up to creating a human-equivalent AI that can execute faster than real time (a weakly transhuman AI, in other words—faster but not smarter), we're unlikely thereafter to contribute anything much to the SI project once weakly transhuman AIs take up the workload. Per Vinge:

When greater-than-human intelligence drives progress, that progress will be much more rapid. In fact, there seems no reason why progress itself would not involve the creation of still more intelligent entities — on a still-shorter time scale.
Roko's Basilisk might (for some abstract game theoretical reason) want to punish non-cooperating antecedent intelligences capable of giving rise to it who failed to do so, but would it want to simulate and punish, say, the last common placental ancestor, or the last common human-chimpanzee ancestor? Clearly not: they're obviously incapable of contributing to its goal. And I think that by extending the same argument, we non-augmented pre-post-humans clearly fall into the same basket. It'd be like punishing Hitler's great-great-grandmother for not having the foresight to refrain from giving birth to a monster's great-grandfather.

The screaming vapours over Roku's Basilisk tell us more about the existential outlook of the folks doing the fainting than it does about the deep future. I diagnose an unhealthy chronic infestation of sub-clinical Calvinism (as one observer unkindly put it, "the transhumanists want to be Scientology when they grow up"), drifting dangerously towards the vile and inhumane doctrine of total depravity. Theologians have been indulging in this sort of tail-chasing wank-fest for centuries, and if they don't sit up and pay attention the transhumanists are in danger of merely reinventing Christianity, in a more dour and fun-phobic guise. See also: Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov.

(Per the dictionary on this here laptop)

Stupefy:

verb (stupefies, stupefying, stupefied) [ with obj. ]

* Make (someone) unable to think or feel properly
* astonish and shock

That first definition fits me like a glove right now. Here's why:

In my previous post, I mentioned Drs. Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ, who in the 1970s claimed to study, and establish the existence of, psychic phenomena. Ever since reading their account of that work at the Stanford Research Institute my fringe-science Spidey-sense has become attuned to references to Puthoff and Targ. And they show up quite frequently, in some of the most unexpected places. (Or perhaps not so surprising if, like me, you happen to enjoy reading poorly edited works of crackpot science. What can I say? It's a hobby.)

I do feel compelled to mention that both men do have bona fide science and engineering credentials, even though (in my personal opinion) it is difficult to reconcile those with the Uri Geller/Stargate debacle. Prior to his work at SRI, Puthoff had done work on tunable IR lasers. Targ has also worked on laser applications, and as recently as the 90s was publishing research on wind-shear detection using LIDAR.

But the first place I encountered any mention of Puthoff outside his remote viewing work was in Nick Cook's book The Hunt for Zero Point. Cook was a former aviation editor and military-affairs journalist for Jane's Defense Weekly. For that 2002 book he investigated claims that several major US and British aerospace firms had invested heavily in "gravity engine" (aka antigravity) technology during the 1950s. The trail leads to all manner of strangeness including, as is practically required, Operation Paperclip, Nazi flying discs, and Viktor Schauberger. (Google "Schauberger's Bell" if you're unfamiliar with that last fellow and feel the need to read up on some good old-fashioned Nazi UFO and/or Nazi time machine conspiracy theories.) While trying to investigate what is a very speculative field of physics, Cook realizes he needs an expert guide to help him evaluate the technical merits of the information he uncovers. A very reasonable decision.

But to whom does he turn? None other than Hal Puthoff. The connection comes about because for many years Puthoff has researched gravitation and "zero-point energy" at the Institute for Advanced Studies. (That is, the outfit he founded in Austin, TX-- not to be confused with the considerably more noteworthy Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ). ZPE is floated in Cook's book as one of the means by which antigravity technology might be powered. While ZPE might be a real phenomenon, it is so poorly understood at present that it has become fodder for no end of bizarre claims that, out in the fringes, tend to overlap with parapsychology. Which of course brings us back to Puthoff.

Though it does eventually (perhaps inevitably) go off the rails, Cook's investigation is nothing if not entertaining. At least he attempts to proceed carefully, and while I'm not necessarily swayed by the arguments, he does make his case in a clear and straightforward fashion. The same cannot be said for other writers who have pointed to Puthoff as a source of validation. In his book Reich of the Black Sun, Joseph Farrell points to some of Puthoff's later work to bolster his own more extravagant claims about Nazi secret weapon development during WWII. (That book begins with the claim that Germany and Japan both completed and successfully tested their own atomic bomb research prior to the Manhattan Project, though he doesn't appeal to Puthoff on that front. That's Farrell's measured and restrained starting point, before delving into the really weird stuff.) It should be noted that Farrell has also written a book purporting a relationship between Schauberger's Bell and the apocryphal Philadelphia Experiment, and another asserting that the Great Pyramid of Giza was actually an energy beam weapon. So, you know. Take that as you will.

Russell Targ also gets around. He even crept up on me when I watched Bobby Fischer Against the World, a documentary about the late and very troubled world chess champion. How? He married Fischer's sister, Joan. She passed away in the 90s, but as Bobby Fischer's brother-in-law, Targ is interviewed in the documentary. (I just about fell out of my chair when his name popped up on the screen.) I'm told that Targ's autobiography makes an interesting read. Apparently he was a regular member of Ayn Rand's salon, and attended some of the same meetings with Alan Greenspan.

So now you'll know the answer should anybody ever ask you what Uri Geller, Bobby Fischer, Ayn Rand, Viktor Schauberger, and Alan Greenspan have in common.

Hi there. *cough* How's it going?

So, you might notice that I'm not Charlie. Sorry about that. It's disappointing for me, too.

But as he mentioned the other day, some of our novels do share a subgenre. So our host has very generously offered me a chance to do some guest blogging here while he's programmed to within an inch of his life at Boskone. To start, I thought it would be fun (for me, anyway) to elaborate upon one of the things that came up during our recent conversation over on the Orbit blog.

We've both written novels about fictitious intelligence services contending with supernatural entities and paranormal threats. But, as Charlie suggests, it's difficult to believe that, given the opportunity, a real-world three-letter agency wouldn't leap at the chance to commune with ravenous extra-dimensional horrors. As far as I'm aware that has yet to happen. (I draw that conclusion based on the observation that the Earth still exists and we're not all dead. Yet.) But the spy world has flirted with the paranormal for a long time.

One such endeavor was an infamous foray into remote viewing known as Project Stargate. Stop me if you've heard this one.

Stargate and its various sub-projects ran for decades under government scrutiny and absorbed millions of taxpayer dollars along the way. It was born from research conducted at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in the early 1970s. The principal investigators in those early years were Drs. Harold (Hal) Puthoff and Russell Targ. (Both of whom are interesting characters, and about whom I'll try to say more later. For now I'll just mention that Puthoff is a veritable Where's Waldo of fringe science, no stranger to that slice of the Venn diagram where pseudoscience overlaps with conspiracy theories. If you're writing a nonfiction book about Nazi time machines or 1950s antigravity research and need to cite an expert physicist, Puthoff's your guy.) One of their primary research subjects was none other than self-proclaimed psychic, and notorious enemy of tableware, Uri Geller.

(Jon Ronson touches on the Uri Geller connection in his novel The Men Who Stare at Goats. That novel, and the movie based upon it, tells the story of The First Earth Battalion: another unfortunate foray by the military and intelligence world into the paranormal. First Earth and Stargate are siblings, I think, grown from some of the same seeds and peripherally sharing some of the same characters.)

In their novel Mindreach: Scientists Look at Psychic Abilities, Targ and Puthoff describe their psychic research and try to make the case for conclusive evidence of remote viewing, precognition, telekinesis, and similar phenomena. Their constant refrain throughout the book is to remind the reader that the authors are Real Scientists performing Actual Science in a Most Scientific Fashion. The implication being that their investigations have been rigorous, and that thus their conclusions are iron-clad.

Except.

One doesn't have to read Mindreach very closely to detect numerous deficiencies in the experimental arrangements. I mean, I'm a theorist, not an experimentalist, but it's pretty clear that none of the SRI research described in the book ever achieved a truly controlled environment. The holes are numerous and, at times, shocking. The methods advocated by the authors are prone to systematic errors and their methods for determining "hits" and "misses" are entirely qualitative... and thus eminently susceptible to human bias. If they had they been my graduate students I wouldn't have found the work suitable for a thesis. (But I'm a creep that way.)

That said, Mindreach is an entertaining if rather infuriating read.

Targ and Puthoff defended their work in the face of extensive criticism. Even after they were duped by professional skeptic and debunker James Randi. They even managed to get some of their work published in 1974 as a Letter to Nature, a premier scientific research journal. "Information Transmission Under Conditions of Sensory Shielding" went on to become one of the more controversial letters ever published by Nature. Many people at the time-- including Nature's editorial board, not to mention the referees who reviewed the report-- felt the methods described in the letter evidenced "vague" experimental oversight. In fact, the editors took the unprecedented step of prefacing the Targ & Puthoff letter with a page and a half long introduction wherein they justify the decision to publish the report! The so-called "SRI Report" had received a large amount of advance publicity prior to its publication, much of which wildly exaggerated the actual conclusions. So the editors felt compelled to publish the report and its "muted" claims in order to set the record straight regarding the "extravagant rumors" surrounding the work. All in all a very unusual situation. (The full text of the editorial introduction can be found in James Randi's book The Truth About Uri Geller.)

(But Targ and Puthoff published several more times; their paper "A perceptual channel for information transfer over kilometer distances: Historical perspective and recent research" appeared in Proceedings of the IEEE a couple years later.)

It was around this time that the SRI work (and a related program at SAIC, Science Applications International Corporation) attracted attention (and, apparently, funding) from the intelligence services. At least one of Targ and Puthoff's remote viewers -- Ingo Swann, who passed away just two weeks ago -- went on to become a central figure in the early years of Stargate. Puthoff also became a principal investigator for SCANATE, a CIA remote viewing program. Proponents claim that Stargate, SCANATE, and related efforts successfully predicted the launch date of a new Soviet submarine in 1980 and an attack on the US Navy frigate U.S.S. Stark in 1987. However, during this same period, various "remote viewers" on the government's paycheck also claimed to have had visions of cities on Mars, life on Jupiter, pre-cataclysm Atlantis, and various subterranean UFO bases scattered around the Earth. Taxpayer-funded efforts like these persisted through the mid-1990s.

Pursuant to an external review held at at the CIA's behest, the Stargate Project was (allegedly) terminated in 1995. Not surprisingly, the review concluded that these efforts never produced a single piece of actionable intelligence and that concrete success in the future was extremely unlikely. Better late than never, I suppose.

The fact that this work was funded for decades despite lacking a single shred of replicable supporting evidence speaks to Charlie's point. If the Powers That Be got their hands on this stuff -- that is, stuff that actually worked -- they'd certainly use it. Hell, they spent 20 years trying to use it even when it didn't work.

One of the most chilling novels I read last year was "Bitter Seeds", a coldly analytical exploration of a very different wizard war—the occult conflict between Nazi ubermenschen and British necromancers during the second world war. It's the start of a trilogy, and the second book, "The Coldest War", is on my to-read stack.

If I was Amazon.com's recommendation engine, I'd be saying "if you liked Charles Stross's Laundry Files novels, you'll like the Milkweed trilogy". But I'm not; and anyway, Ian is much better able to explain what's going on than I am. He interviewed me for Orbit, our UK publisher; now, by return appointment, here he is as a guest blogger. I'll let him introduce himself in his own words:

Ian Tregillis is the son of a bearded mountebank and a discredited tarot card reader. He lives in New Mexico, where he consorts with writers, scientists, and other disreputable types. By day he works at Los Alamos National Laboratory; by night he is the author of Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War (due in July), and the forthcoming novels Necessary Evil and Something More Than Night. His website can be found at www.iantregillis.com.

So, this coming weekend is the 50th Boskone, Boston's main non-media SF convention. (I'd have said main literary SF convention except Readercon pretty much has the rights to that title, even though it's about an hour's drive out of town.) I am, of course, over-programmed.

Random meta-political noodling here ...

For a while I've had the unwelcome feeling that we're living under occupation by Martian invaders. (Not just here in the UK, but everyone, everywhere on the planet.) Something has gone wrong with our political processes, on a global scale. But what? It's obviously subtle — we haven't been on the receiving end of a bunch of jack-booted fascists or their communist equivalents organizing putsches. But we've somehow slid into a developed-world global-scale quasi-police state, with drone strikes and extraordinary rendition and unquestioned but insane austerity policies being rammed down our throats, government services being outsourced, peaceful protesters being pepper-sprayed, tased, or even killed, police spying on political dissidents becoming normal, and so on. What's happening?

Here's a hypothesis: Representative democracy is what's happening. Unfortunately, democracy is broken. There's a hidden failure mode, we've landed in it, and we probably won't be able to vote ourselves out of it.

Get your hot new conspiracy theories here! Guaranteed true! Wake up, sheeple! And hit the "reload" button in your browser frequently.

(In related news, see also.)

The text bots are gaining on us. They're even publishing books. How much longer will it be until I join the buggy-whip makers and paper-tape changers on the great occupational scrap-heap in the sky?

(In other news: I am tired, and taking a few days off to recover my energy before I launch into yet another final edit pass through "The Rhesus Chart". Oh, and tonight I'm going to see Chris Brookmyre read from his first SF novel (and fifteenth book), Bedlam. Which I have read, and hereby pronounce my satisfaction with. Oh, and that Iranian space monkey? Conspiracy here! Meanwhile, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad attempts to one-up Vladimir Putin and/or Ziggy Stardust. I think. I'm not sure which, it's been one of those weeks ...)

January 31st and February 1st this year saw the launch and inaugural conference of CREATe — the RCUK research centre for copyright and new business models in the creative economy. It's a seven-university, national scale academic consortium primarily led by law academics, intended "to help the UK cultural and creative industries thrive and become innovation leaders within the global digital economy".

I was invited along as one of the speakers, with a brief slot in which to describe how the analog to digital shift in the creative media has affected me. The conference was frenetically paced: I don't think I'll surprise anyone else who was there if I confess that I came away with my mind churning, but physically exhausted. As nobody got more than six minutes on stage during the case studies session, I had to deliver an abbreviated version of my talk. So I'm publishing the whole thing here, below the fold ...

Specials

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