how the little green men might defeat us humans 4

•22 September 2019 • Leave a Comment

In the first few parts of this current speculation, the theme I’ve been exploring involves ways in which the little green men might use aspects of us against us. Some of these might involve our sense of the passage of time, and in fact that we sense time as we do.

And some of these might involve how we act towards another. I didn’t follow this line of inquiry all that far, but I have read the claim that we evolved to most comfortably operate in groups of around 200, and that there is some speculation that a careful examination of the data on social media networks might well provide some evidence supporting this claim. I don’t remember where I read these claims, but I have to admit that I do like that we might be able to use social media data to test these sorts of hypotheses, and so we add this to the list of things to do at some point in the future when we have time for exploration.

How might we defend ourselves against this latter sort of exploitation of our innate social tendencies, including our seemingly innate sense of tribe. This is where I find some of the science fiction I watch and read to be hearteningly optimistic. The Federation of Star Trek has left this tribalism behind and we see, by and large, humanity operating as a coherent whole.

How do we get from our current fragmented state to this coherence? This will require of us a degree of reflection that we have not yet demonstrated. I can only hope that we find a way of engaging in this reflection without being forced into it by some disaster, whether it be by our own hands or not. Going back to an earlier speculation, will our impact on the climate bring us to this point of reflection? We are starting, but we do have some long way yet to go.

We can go in a different direction as well. We know that advertising and marketing can be remarkably effective, which we could view as a consequence of our lack of understanding of ourselves. Should we ever make contact with a sentient alien race, would it be necessary to make it illegal to teach the alien race the details of human psychology?

how the little green men might defeat us humans 3

•15 September 2019 • Leave a Comment

In the previous two posts on this theme, I’ve speculated that various aspects of how we experience and understand time might well prove to be our undoing. But there are many others. I’m not sure how deep into the list I’ll go; after all, I don’t want to give too many secrets away.

One aspect of this whole question, and yes I recognize that this is to some extent a reflection on the politics of today, is that we do not yet think of ourselves as a single species. We do not yet think of ourselves as humans first, rather than first identifying with our own particular tribe.

So why is this a weakness that the little green men might exploit? If all the little green men have to do is to divide us into tribes and turn one tribe against another, then how can we come together to face the common enemy?

This is a theme that’s been explored in different ways. There is the classic Twilight Zone episode, The Monsters are Due on Maple Street, where not much more is required beyond rumor and turning off some of the lights.

There is also a story, one of those where the idea sticks in the brain like a splinter but the author and title are long forgotten, where a human man undertakes to save humanity by serving with the aliens as an advisor, telling them how to break the human spirit by in fact persuading the aliens to undertake acts that infuriate and unite humanity. And in the end, he realizes that he must sacrifice himself and never be caught, to maintain the illusion that a traitor to humanity remains with the enemy.

I’m reading spy novels at the moment, and the ways in which we divide ourselves into our tribes features heavily, because that is the Cold War and the reverberations of the end of the Cold War that continue to echo through the politics of the day.

This is one of the reasons why I find Star Trek to be a remarkably optimistic show, and I know that I am not alone in this. In all of the seasons of Star Trek, humanity acts as a united whole. Admittedly, in that universe we almost exterminated ourselves through our internal divisions before we found our way, and these internal divisions did give us some of our most memorable characters.

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.