Friday, January 31, 2003

I wish I had a flying car. It's a frequent fantasy of mine when stuck in traffic. There's a particular scene in "Blade Runner" that is the quintessence of my flying car dream. Harrison Ford is parked outside a decrepit hotel and a hovering police car (called a "spinner" in the production notes but never referred to as such in the film) drops into view while its driver checks on Ford's ID.

(There's a misconception among "Blade Runner" watchers that Ford's character has his own "spinner." He doesn't. He drives an old-fashioned ground-car that looks a bit like the Honda Insight hybrid crossed with a Delorian. There's even a brief discussion in a "Seinfeld" episode in which Jerry mentions Harrison Ford's "cool" flying car.) My impression from the film is that the spinners, far from being common, are toys of the postindustrial elite.

I would love to tool around Kansas City in a Moller Skycar. Supposedly these things will become reasonably affordable by 2015. (Although if I had a choice, I'd prefer a force-propelled flying saucer a la Bob Lazar...)
Chapter in progress:

Mainstream SETI avoids another unsettling possibility: that some extraterrestrial radio transmissions may not be signals at all, but templates for actual alien personae. If it's possible to place a self-replicating automated probe in another star system, it could be used as a receiver as well as an observation instrument. Neurologically inclined aliens could "upload" themselves into a computational substrate and "fax" themselves to the distant receiver at the speed of light.

Rudy Rucker deals with this basic idea in his (fiction) books "Freeware," "Realware" and "Saucer Wisdom."

Thursday, January 30, 2003

Finished Bracewell's book: a very good introduction to SETI and the so-called "Fermi Paradox" (although Fermi isn't specifically cited). Recommended -- check used-book stores.

Progress on the Mars/ETI book is coming along well.

Re. "rods": I read a couple of reports from people who supposedly saw them without the assistance of video technology. I have to wonder: Are these things an undiscovered form of life or an undisclosed technology? Stealthy, high-speed drones dispatched by some Bracewellian "autofac" located somewhere in the Solar System? Or did the witnesses see dragonflies or something...?

I'm now reading Herbie Brennan's "The Atlantis Enigma." Brennan's books aren't exactly great scholarship, but his presentation is honest and he successfully juggles a ton of ideas and factoids. Brisk yet stimulating.

Both Farshores and have picked up the "New Mars Kid in Town" story featured on the Electric Warrior site. eWarrior's Warhol-esque portrait of me is ideally suited for fifteen minutes of virtual fame.

It looks like I will be on the radio in London to discuss Mars. The host even suggested having someone from JPL on the show. Could be interesting although, given the choice, I prefer to lurk behind text when "debating" is concerned.
Reading Ronald Bracewell's "The Galactic Club: Intelligent Life in Outer Space." He suggests that advanced ET civilizations will send out a diaspora of probes to neighboring star systems to monitor potential emerging technical civilizations. Like other SETI theorists, his definition of "technical" seems to be "able to transmit radio signals into space, intentionally or inadvertantly." I have no fundamental problem with that. But the probes he envisions are hopelessly low-tech. They're little more than souped-up versions of Pioneer 10. He assumes that they will perish relatively soon because the hypothetical alien project coordinator will be tied to a strict budget (shades of NASA's "faster, better, cheaper"...) and that quantity will prevail over quality. For a relatively original thinker, Bracewell waxes disturbingly anthropomorphic.

His interesting contribution to the SETI argument is that his probes will be interactive to some degree. After one of them picks up on our radio signals, it "echoes" a reply, instigating a simple dialogue from which we can ultimately learn where the probe came from. Then, presumably, we will turn our radio dishes to the star of origin and trasmit a reply. But why limit his probes to kindergarten radio exchanges? Why not self-replicating probes built to last millions of years? Why not true thinking intelligent probes able to carry the genetic templates of its designers, "telepresence" machines capable of colonizing the space around the target planet? (Frank Tipler entertains similar ideas in "The Physics of Immortality.")


Internet buzz-words are the linguistic versions of Bruce Sterling's user-friendly touchy-feely "blobjects." Yahoo. Google. Blogger. It's hipsterized baby-talk, fun to pronounce. Ridiculous-sounding names like this are like the flimsy translucent casing around a disposable calculator, rendering ubiquitous tech into unthreatening conceptual baubles.

Wednesday, January 29, 2003

Arthur C. Clarke is famous for his maxim "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Let's take this further. A pervasive, "arbitrarily advanced civilization" (term coined by Kip Thorne) could alter the universe so radically that we would perceive its workings as physical law. Quantum mechanics seems contradictory and weird to us. Maybe it's because we've reached the threshold of our universe's resolution. Stare too closely at a television screen and you can see the individual pixels; the image dissolves into a stew of glowing points.

Maybe I was being too harsh about wannabe authors in the last post. Philip K. Dick and William Gibson's novels are peopled by oddballs and addicts of various sorts. And what of J.G. Ballard's roster of psychotics?

Still, the "Infinite Jest" thing is played. I'm tired of it. And I'm tired of science fiction being marginalized by stodgy academics.

"I'll give you television, I'll give you eyes of blue, I'll give you a man who wants to rule the world."

-- David Bowie
Do we really need more fat, pretentious novels about crackheads and junkies? This is a defining trend in "literary" publishing, as witnessed by "Trainspotting" (which I haven't read) and a procession of others by "hip" young authors. This stale obsession with rejects and outcasts is stifling, yet it continues. There's a new one coming out by some guy who thinks it's really subversive to use "fuck" in virtually every sentence during interviews. Oh, yeah, and he has a cryptic tattoo. The angst!

Don't expect innovation from the new generation of would-be Pynchons who attempt to infuse their autobiographical novels with William Burroughs' iconoclastic hipster panache. Expect literary innovation from the likes of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. "Pattern Recognition" is Gibson's first non-SF novel, and has the potential to invigorate the mainstream literary scene with some fresh ideas. We'll see.
Human experience is inherently conspiratorial. The data that my brain interprets as "reality" has already passed through an array of biological filtering mechanisms. Photons are converted into images; waves in the atmosphere are assembled into "sounds"; diffuse molecules become "smells," etc. The human body is a highly selective sensory environment -- an interface between what we choose to call our "selves" and whatever seething weirdness lurks beyond our membrane of skin. Virtual reality is the _only_ reality.

Our posthuman descendants will be able to modulate experience. I imagine them as wispy stick-figures with thatches of cilia for hands. Some of them have heads; others don't. Their mentational substrate is distributed throughout their bodies so that trauma won't endanger their identity. Like starfish, they're able to regenerate. And they're so light they can take to the air like bits of refuse in a strong breeze.

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

Peter Gersten has pointed out that my verdict on "rods" and "orbs" may be in error. I referred him to this site, which strongly suggests that the "rods" are flying insects (see previous post). (And I thought I had joined the smug skeptical elite...)

Meanwhile, I presume the State of the Union Address went as we all expected (I don't own a TV). Bizarre fact: I've never seen the infamous 9-11-01 footage of the jets colliding with the World Trade Center. I've seen truckloads of still pictures, but have yet to actually see the video. Does this make me an enemy of the state?

I was going to read Bracewell's "The Galactic Club" this evening but got sidetracked with laundry and a David Bowie CD. I've since moved on to Beth Gibbons' new album, "Out of Season."

"But last night the plans for a future war were all I saw on Channel Four."

--The Smiths, "Shoplifters of the World Unite"
Our skies are populated by two new species of mythological beings: "orbs" (which tend to show up in digital photographs but remain unseen by human eyes) and "rods" (flying insects imperfectly translated to VHS). Like the orbs, rods aren't visible to the observer; they manifest strictly through our technology.

There's something eerie and profound happening here, even though both of these phenomena are explainable. Will future instruments reveal a hidden dimension of reality? Will technology be our sole interface with new intelligences and, if so, whose technology will be used: ours or theirs?
The author at work:

There is another way an extraterrestrial civilization bent on posterity could achieve a kind of ersatz immortality. The new science of the "meme," or idea, views information itself as a form of life. Like their carbon-based genetic counterparts, memes are constantly waging war for dominance, forming alliances with other memes (when necessary) and subject to mass extinction. Our environment is inundated with memes of all kinds, all struggling to survive. Advertising concepts, political catch-phrases, outre ideas and "common knowledge" alike are composed of an ever-changing tissue of memes. Words themselves can be memes. When William S. Burroughs stated that "language is a virus," he probably didn't realize how prescient he was.

Inventions such as radio, television and the Internet have given memes a Darwinian playing field without boundaries. Web-surfers can easily find the informational grottos where rogue memes bide their time and insert themselves into new frameworks that promise longer life. You're no longer surfing the Web; the Web is surfing you, scouring your mind for new and better footholds.

Suppose the "alien ruins on Mars" meme is in danger of obsolescence. After all, it's been ground through the microcultural mill since Richard Hoagland brought it to wide attention in the mid-80s. It's in dire need of a fresh substrate.

So the "alien ruins on Mars" meme links up with the "NASA coverup" meme. This is more interesting. It's multifaceted, with room to play. Even better, it spawns _new_ memes: within a few generations we have a "NASA coverup of alien ruins on Mars built by Gray aliens who created the human race by genetic engineering" meme.
I think America's infatuation with cell-phones and Palm Pilots is symptomatic of a profound loss of identity. Supposedly these devices make life easier, and there's no question that, in the right hands, they do. But I see hordes of people meandering along sidewalks and in the aisles of stores speaking avidly into their "designer" headsets and stroking LCD screens with ergonomic styli and I'm forced to conclude that this is an _illness_. Listen to these people. They have nothing to say. They make arbitrary (and usually lengthy) "field reports" to their spouses, telling them precisely where they are, why they're there, and how long they intend to be there. Then they request the same information from the person on the other end of the connection.

This isn't interactivity. This isn't rational behavior in an information ecology. It's an exercise in applied banality, an attempt to automate existence into post-cerebral oblivion.

Maybe, given enough time, human brains will atrophy to accommodate handheld communications devices. Everyone will wander the Starbucks-infested landscape bristling with GPS gear, pedometers, cellphones (and their endless color-coordinated accessories), digital cameras, and palmtop computers (all of which, of course, are obsolete in approximately three and a half days). The brain will no longer be needed. Like the victim of William S. Burroughs' "talking asshole," their eyes will take on the dull, incognizant luster of a crab's at the end of a stalk.

Monday, January 27, 2003

This blog does not support random acts of governmentally sanctioned violence.
We visualize space probes as delicate, tiny conglomerations of solar panels, instrument packages and radio dishes. Probes like Viking and Magellen, which orbited and mapped Venus, last a matter of years before exhausting themselves and falling inert.

But a probe launched by a mature, far-sighted culture might be very different. Instead of a brittle observation platform designed to last all of three years, we might expect self-repairing (or even self-replicating) _interactive_ machines that might easily pass our criteria for "intelligence." Communicating with such an artifact -- if it chose to communicate at all -- could take bewildering forms (i.e., "theatre," as opposed to swapping lists of prime numbers). And time might be irrelevant. A suitably equipped alien probe could outlast entire civilizations, shrugging off cosmic rays and whiling its time in a show of godlike sentience.
It looks as if NASA is going to be allowed to use nukes in space. The most obvious application is, of course, crewed missions to Mars. I will be writing about this shortly, so keep an eye on the Cydonian Imperative.

I don't want to retread subject matter already on my website. That would be entirely too easy. I might even find myself cheating and cutting and pasting essays from MTVI and posting them here, simply to flesh out an otherwise conceptual exercise in hypertext. And that's really not the point. The point is that there is no point; the medium is the message. Whether this message ultimately benefits anyone, I don't know.

Fragment from what I'm _really_ writing:

We still don't know what intelligence _is_, exactly, let alone how it works in a universe governed by quantum mechanics. The physicist David Bohm argued that the barrier between our own minds and the "outside" universe was a sensory illusion, and postulated an "implicate order" that circumscribed both observer and observed in a sort of dynamic hologram.

Will I finish the Mars book by my editorial deadline (Mar. 1)? Will I lose interest in this nonlinear narrative experiment, leaving yet another empty husk tangled in the Web for posterity? Stay tuned!
Here's the semi-official invitation to come look over my virtual shoulder:

Dear person on my mailing list,

I have succumbed to the narcotic tentacles of and will likely be posting a daily mishmash of uncategorical mental rubbish to appease mystrange and obscure urges to populate the infosphere with my creative spoor.

And thanks to the Web, you can be there as it happens!

It's even better than reality-based television!


I shouldn't have used the word "plodding" in reference to Neal Stephenson's book. "Plodding" is more than likely what one does when reading something by Thomas Pynchon (despite his not inconsiderable ability). "Cryptonomicon" is a rich, hysterically funny book. Unless it takes a sudden nose-dive, I expect it to be the best book I've read in a while. On my "to-read" list at the moment are Peter Watts' "Maelstrom," Gibson's "Pattern Recognition" (the Barnes & Noble up the street is going to give me a call when it arrives, although chances are it's already arrived and they're simply waiting for the designated release date), Bruce Sterling's "Zeitgeist" (which didn't really appeal to me until I read "Tomorrow Now"), and Ken MacLeod's "Dark Light." MacLeod is singular. He brings a techno-political sensibility to bear on contemporary space opera. See my science fiction reviews for more of this sort of thing, if you're interested.
Philip K. Dick had the impression that humans were about to communicate openly with rather hideous but spiritually enlightened creatures he described as looking like praying mantises. This was in 1982. PKD might have been interested to thumb through a book on alien abduction circa 1999: many alleged witnesses describe mantis-like beings with bulbous eyes, enormous heads and spindly, insect-like limbs overseeing the ubiquitous Grays aboard (apparent) extraterrestrial vehicles. There seems to be a ring of synchronicity here. PKD's informant may not have been entirely hallucinatory or drug-induced. Reading the transcripts of his conversations, it's obvious he regarded all of this with an almost painfully heightened sense of skepticism.

Sunday, January 26, 2003

Uneventful weekend. Plodding through Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon"; yesterday, I read and reviewed "What If Our World Is Their Heaven?," a great series of interviews with Philip K. Dick. The main fountain in the large creek outside of my apartment building is working, despite the frozen surface; on my jog to the parking garage the other day, I noticed it oozing steam into the air like some sort of natural phenomenon transplanted from a nature tour.

Work on the Mars/SETI book is coming along well. I think I have something...I might post excerpts here, where potential readers are probably least likely to see them.

Last night I dreamed I was an android. Someone told me, very casually. I wasn't particularly surprised, but the revelation left me with a vague sense of existential unease. Speaking of dreams: that's one very good reason for creating a blog that I hadn't thought of moments before, when it just seemed like a Cool Thing To Do. A dynamic medium like this welcomes 30 years, we'll be carrying around personal dream recorders and thrusting them into the faces of friends saying "Watch this!" But everyone will be too engaged in their own half-forgotten Technicolor reveries to pay much attention.

(Given the opportunity, I defend Wim Wenders' "Until the End of the World," with its moody globalized milieu and Sterling-esque attachment to blobjects and gizmos. And the orchestral soundtrack is truly great.)

Dreams as addiction. Claire (pleadingly, frantic, like a child with a malfunctioning GameBoy): "Make it work!"

Why create a web log? What's the point? Speaking only for myself: to write. I have stacks of notebooks to be typed into readable form, but they're languishing. I fully intend to buy a laptop with my advance, so hopefully my collection of wirebound journals will shrivel and die.

You there. Reading this. You don't have to, you know. William Gibson's blog is almost certainly more interesting than this (yes, he has a blog now, and a pretty good website). This isn't intended for an audience, per se. Then again, that seems to be part of the cyber-chic/geek-appeal of this whole "blogging" thing: that reader and author are merged in an illicit conceptual pact, eavesdropping on otherwise uninteresting bouts of creative (?) self-indulgence.

Why "Posthuman Blues"? Jack Kerouac's "Book of Blues" contains some essentially worthless poetry...but if he'd toted a palmtop instead of a ruled notepad, his output would likely find a small but fervent niche audience. His "Book of Blues" is rich blogging material, written as one would scribble postcards to one's own clone or multidimensional counterpart.
Testing. Seriously.