how the little green men might defeat us humans 2

•11 August 2019 • Leave a Comment

Last time, I talked about time and how we humans perceive time, and the difficulties we seem to have in dealing with periods of time longer than a single human lifespan.

And the longer the span of time, the more difficulty we have as well. We are not equipped to handle geological time scales, for instance. Perhaps this is part of the reason that it took us time to realize the truth of continental drift, for instance, and why there is resistance to believing the changes that can be wrought by natural selection.

There are other directions of speculation as well. Our view of time, our experience of time, leads us to believe that there is a local continuity, a local constancy, when extending that local constancy to a larger, longer constancy which clearly doesn’t make sense.

If today is the same as yesterday, for instance, then today will be the same as tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. (Mathematicians will recognize this as a sort of analytic continuation.)

My favorite observation along these lines involves an extension of the mathematical three body problem. The problem itself is to write down a formula for the motion of three bodies (think for instance of the Sun, the Earth and the Moon), in isolation from all others, that would allow us to predict their future positions. The problem has no such solution, and the best we can do is to make necessarily approximate numerical calculations. (And why the numerical calculations are necessarily approximate is another story and one that involves the birth of chaos theory.)

Extend this to the whole of the solar system, with not only the Sun and the planets, but all of the moons and asteroids and comets and unknown objects lurking in the Oort Cloud. All have mass and so all have an effect on each other.

And so how do we know, beyond extrapolating from the past, that the orbits of planets, and in particular the orbit of the Earth around the Sun, are stable? We suspect that they are. All of the calculations we’ve done support the hypothesis that they are, and they almost certainly will remain so for the short term, by some definition of short.

To be fair, this isn’t a real worry, but rather is just something I’m speculating on to illustrate the point.

And up to this point, we’ve only been discussing time scales that are long compared to human lifespans. We could also go the other direction and consider time scales that are short compared to ours, and I think this to some extent comes back to the same analytic continuation point I made above.

If our experience has taught us, as it has, that tomorrow will be like today in the same way that today is like yesterday, then how can things happen so quickly as to put paid to that? And we have explored this to some extent, in the occasional episode of Star Trek for instance.

Another manifestation of this is the clock speed of artificial intelligences. A near- or sub-human artificial intelligence, hopefully still some many years away, that thought much more quickly than we do, would still be a significant menace and formidable enemy.

And so, time and the speed of the passage of time might be a problem.

how the little green men might defeat us humans 1

•6 August 2019 • 1 Comment

The Arctic is burning. Greenland is melting. The Amazon rain forest is drying out and shrinking. These are three stories I’ve seen in the past couple of weeks. And I’m sure there are more, many more, I just haven’t seen.

These are are all stories about what we are doing, what we have already done, to our planet. But the environment is not what I want to write about today. This is not to say that I don’t take the global environment seriously. I do, but what we are doing is on us and is not the result of some an alien conspiracy, though there are stories there to be written.

Rather, I want to talk about time. Because I think that we humans have a bad sense of time, and it is this bad sense of time that gets in our way.

This gets back to the seven generations principle, that we should think of the consequences of our actions seven generations hence.

On the one hand, seven generations is a lot. Given current child bearing ages in the west, seven generations is getting close to 200 years. Two centuries. Two centuries ago, we did not yet have electricity and steam power was only slowly becoming widespread. Journeys that in the present day take only hours, then took weeks or months.

On the other hand, two hundred years is not much time at all. We are producing plastics and other compounds that will last far beyond two hundred years. We are acting in ways whose consequences will last far beyond two hundred years.

But we don’t have a good sense of time. We don’t have a good sense of time in the large, where by ‘in the large’ I mean time as compared to a human lifespan. And this is something that we as humans are going to have to find a way to address.

I think that one of the most important questions we have to answer is, how should we act today so that in a century or in a millennium, life is better then than it is today. This is remarkably complicated, because our ability to predict the future is very, very limited. We don’t see the future well. Perhaps this is why fortune tellers remain in business.

I don’t know how we can develop this better sense of the scale and scope of time. We are to some significant extent bound by our biology. And so this has become the challenge, our challenge, the way we defeat the little green men that might wish to use our poor sense of time, and our poor sense of the scale of time, against us.

on reading and writing

•31 July 2019 • 6 Comments

Today’s speculation will venture I think into the weeds a bit, but it’s an idea that’s been kicking around in my head for a while.

Speaking and listening are things that human beings have been doing, even before we were as human as we are today. Our cousins the Neanderthals also spoke and listened, and though this is tangential to the main direction of today’s speculation, what were the stories that Neanderthals told each other sitting around their fires at night? And wildly speculatively, do any of our oldest stories contain any echoes of stories our distant ancestors might have heard while sitting around those

Reading and writing are both much more recent. The mechanics of writing are relatively straightforward, in terms of alphabets used. But as we are all aware, written language is different than spoken language.

Written language carries much less of the tone of conversation that lives within spoken language, and none of the body language that is so important to face to face conversations. In this sense, written language is incomplete, in terms of the information it carries.

Beyond this, written language seems to follow a different set of rules than spoken language. It’s more formal, and perhaps this formality developed because of the lack of tone just noted. This is something that I’m sure someone has written on, and so this is something that I may try and explore going forward.

Reading is more interesting. I know that the mechanics of reading are a deep and fascinating area of study. For instance, despite what we seem to experience, our eyes do not move from one word to the next calmly along the page. Rather our eyes dance around.

What I find most fascinating are those visual images that demonstrate that we only need to see the top parts of letters to read, or studies that demonstrate that the order of letters in a word isn’t all that important.

These images and studies then lead us into deeper questions about how our brains make sense of the world around us, and how well we understand what our brains are doing. This last part is important if only because we need to have this understanding, so that we can defend ourselves against the tricks being waged against us.

I’m sure there is a good story about human psychology becoming an area of knowledge that we find ourselves not wishing to share with an extraterrestrial species with whom we’re in conversation, if only so that we don’t give them the keys to our inner kingdoms.

A final note on all of this, and I am aware that I have not even scratched the surface of what is a deep and fascinating area of exploration, is related to teaching. To what extent is it the case that how I retain information differs between when I listen to someone speaking and when I read something that someone has written.

So there’s a lot here for me to explore, and indeed for all of us to explore. Looking back, I can see that I am circling around some of these same ideas, and perhaps the time has come to stop circling, take a deep breath and dive in.

the 2019 reading project

•14 July 2019 • Leave a Comment

And yes, I know that I’m behind. I don’t want to get into the reasons why, but I’ve now finished the fiction (novels and short stories) of Kurt Vonnegut, the 2018 reading project, and I’ve now started on the 2019 project. The 2019 project is to read the written literature of humankind, from the beginning.

I’m not sure how far I’ll get in what remains of 2019, but we’ll see how far we get and whether to continue this project in future years or shift to something else, but I’m almost certain that this project will continue through 2020.

Like reading the Tales of 1001 Arabian Nights, this project brings with it some interesting questions. The first is the nature of translation, though here the question of translation is somewhat different from the Arabian Nights.

For this project, we start in ancient Babylon and we immediately run into problems of translation, and so I have to rely translations produced by others. I’m also aware that the list of what I need to read might well change during the course of the project, as new readings are discovered, exiting tablets are translated, and the dating of existing tablets and their translations are refined.

So one of my tasks is to become familiar not only with the existing literature (and I’m cheating a bit in taking as my starting point the Ancient Literature listing in Wikipedia) but with the ways in which that listing might change.

Beyond this, there are the questions of translation. How for instance can we detect and understand idiom in the translation of a language that no one has spoken for centuries or millennia. And how do we make sense of cultural references that refer to aspects of culture that we have lost or forgotten over time.

This issue of cultural context is interesting for another reason, namely the purposes of the stories. We currently have an expectation that stories educate but also entertain, and some times entertainment will be the more important expectation. But it isn’t clear, and I’ll need to rely on others for this, what the purposes of the stories might be, within the culture in which they were first told.

I’ll admit that what I would be interested to be able to explore are our first stories, and the stories that our cousins, the Neanderthals and the Denisovans and all of the others, told each other around their fires in the evenings, with the stars overhead and the bright moon shining.

But beyond cave paintings and occasional etchings on bone or stone, and what echoes there might be of their stories in our stories (if any still exist), we don’t have any record of these stories, and short of building a time machine to allow us to eavesdrop, I don’t see that we will.

the fractal nature of story

•30 June 2019 • Leave a Comment

Where do fractals come from, and what do they have to do with stories?  Mathematicians have developed a formal definition of fractal in terms of quantities such as Hausdorff dimension, and while this is a fine and well-tested definition, it doesn’t provide much of an origin story for a fractal.

Fractals often arise through infinite processes, either involving an iterative process (this built from a process with an input and an output, and continuing to use the output of each run as the input for the next run of the process, seeing what happens as we do this without end) or a branching process.  And it’s the branching processes I want to think about today.

The reason for this is that it ties both into the sorts of things I spend time thinking about anyway (as one of my main areas of mathematical interest involves fractals and the processes that produce them) and into something that I wrote about some time ago.

Because I see stories as branching processes.  As I go through the process of getting a story on paper, I find myself caught up in this branching of possibilities.  At each point in a story, my characters generally have the option of doing one of several, or one of many, things, and yes, sometimes things I’m not expecting them to do (even I’ve given them the choice) or occasionally even the completely unexpected.

So the writing of a story begins to look like a tree, with the narrative and the action starting from an origin point and moving in one of several possible directions, and branching at seemingly almost random points along the way.  Each trip through the tree, starting from the origin point and taking one branch here, another branch there, then gives a different story.

I don’t want to speculate at this point on alternative universe versions of writers choosing paths through some shared story tree and so producing different stories, though this would be something worth exploring at some point.

Or whether we can organize Borges’ library into a tree along these lines, so that instead of patrons roaming the shelves, looking for our life stories, we might become ants crawling along the bark of this one massive tree, wondering whether the branch we’ve taken is the branch we should have taken.

And so I go back to my own story tree, the one I started exploring some time ago, and see how far along the thinning branches I can climb and what story I will have at the end.






beware, there be spoilers: the stories of Kurt Vonnegut

•26 May 2019 • Leave a Comment

And so, some many months beyond my original time line, I am at last coming to the end of my 2018 reading project.  Earlier today, I finished the stories of Kurt Vonnegut, though I do still have his essays and non-fiction remaining on my bedside table.

I didn’t read the stories in their original published volumes, but rather I read Kurt Vonnegut Collected Stories, collected by Jerome Klinkowitz and Dan Wakefield, which has the advantages of including unpublished stories and of grouping them into rough thematic categories.

Vonnegut wrote a large number of stories, 98 by my count.  There are groups of stories that share settings and characters with each other and on occasion with his novels.  Some I’d read before, as Welcome to the Monkey House was a collection I remember reading several times.

One thing I did find very interesting is that even have read some of these stories before, and even though some of them were stories that resonated within me, I had forgotten it was Vonnegut who’d written them.  This applies to Harrison Bergeron in particular.  I suppose this is part of the power of literature, to capture an idea, and it is something that I think every author tries to do to some extent.  If you’ve read and remember the story, then you may see what I mean here, and if you haven’t or you don’t, then let me say it’s a story worth reading.

I will admit that as interesting as they are as character studies, I am less a fan of his mundane fiction, for lack of a better term, than I am of his speculative fiction.  But this I think just reflects my personal reading bias.

Vonnegut had a good feel for the sorts of questions that science will confront us with and he always had something interesting to say about them, such as his speculation in And On Your Left of the care and feeding of industrial research laboratories.

And there are some characters I will miss, like George Helmholtz, the band director, who carried with him echoes from my own past.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons so many of Vonnegut’s stories resonated, that they were ultimately connected with people we all might know or have known, and we can see a bit of ourselves captured in their stories.


beware, there be spoilers: Hocus Pocus

•10 May 2019 • Leave a Comment

Well, I have now finished the novels of Kurt Vonnegut. I had planned on reading them in chronological order, and it was only with the last two (Hocus Pocus and Timequake) that I inadvertently messed with the order of things. Alas.

Some of what I have to say about Hocus Pocus is what I’ve said about other novels. It’s good to see Kilgore Trout still inhabiting the Vonnegut-verse, even if only as the author of a story for which the narrator doesn’t know the author’s name; the way that Vonnegut weaves real people into his stories, to the extent that the curious needs to make much use of Google to sift the fictional from the real but not famous.

But mainly, what I want to say is that Vonnegut tells a lovely story. Hocus Pocus is told in the first person, with the author having written his memoir on scraps of people while imprisoned in a library, awaiting trial for rebellion.

Stories within stories, and I find it particularly interesting to be reading him while thinking about writing. I’ve had the blessed fortune this week to be able to immerse myself in writing: doing some writing myself, talking to other writers who are on this retreat as well, and generally thinking about the structure of the stories we tell each other, and the sorts of stories I want to tell.

As I’ve said on more than one occasion since the beginning of 2018, it’s interesting read through the novels of an entire author. As linked as the novels are to one another, though their characters, I don’t know whether it’s a fair thing to say that Vonnegut has been telling us one long story, but there are some strong recurring themes throughout.

Why, for instance, do we find it so difficult to be nice to one another. In the world of today, I think this is one of the fundamental questions we have to ask. Why indeed do we find it so difficult. And not only ask, but find an answer to. And that’s an answer I haven’t yet found.

One last thing: it is also amusing to share an idiosyncrasy with one of Vonnegut’s characters, as noted in the Editor’s Notes. I have let mine slip and perhaps that’s another horse to get back on.